Jenny Hart is familiar to anyone on the alt craft scene as the powerhouse behind Sublime Stitching. She has singlehandedly made embroidery culturally relevant again through her patterns, kits, and exquisite portraits. We caught up with her to talk about her work.
Many people are familiar with your business side, but I want to talk to you a bit about your artwork. I just saw your new piece, Oh Unicorn, and it really blew me away. Had you been thinking about using human hair for a while before this piece came about?
I do actually spend a lot of time thinking about my work before I find the time to execute it. Embroidering with human hair was one of those ideas I'd had on my list for a while. It was really important to me that it be human hair, and not synthetic from a wig. I searched wig stores until I found one that had human hair extensions. As I was working on the piece, I discovered my own hair was long enough to work with. The hair in the piece is actually my own. Only a single strand would pass through the leather at a time, so each line of stitches is a single strand of hair. If I pulled too hard, the hair would break. It felt like embroidering with air. I couldn't feel it. It was very, very delicate work. Another aspect of it is if you run your fingers over the surface, the leather is very soft and the hair is wiry.
You really seem to think about embroidery in the expanded field. You are always thinking about new materials to stitch with and on. What attracts you about stitching as opposed to other craft or art forms?
I like that embroidery serves no function. It's unlike knitting, crochet or sewing in that regard. Embroidery is pure embellishment. It's the frosting of needle arts, but it's almost always secondary to a functional object. It decorates something useful like a jacket, a tea-cozy, a pillowcase. It was really important to me to present embroidered works on their own, without serving a purposeful object. Occasionally, I like to pin the unfinished embroidered fabric directly to the wall for exhibitions. And I don't like to frame the works under glass. Even though in a gallery setting you might not be allowed to touch them, I want the invitation and that possibility to remain.
I love the idea of combining seemingly disparate materials together through embroidery. Some of it seems so simple to meŚlike the human hair and leather piece. I'll always love to do portraits, but there are still so many different ways embroidery can be executed that are rarely explored. There are such extremely limited and strong-held ideas about what embroidery can and can't be. Its value and its purpose remain largely unchanged. This is also why I no longer accept commissions. A person requesting a commission will only ask me to do more of what they've already seen me do, and I wanted to regain the time to do my own work again.
Whenever I look at your portrait work, it reminds me a lot of Karen Kilimnik's magazine drawings. Were you drawing a lot before you started using embroidery? Did you study drawing? Are you a doodler?
Yes. I'm a doodler and I love to draw. Drawing has been my first love since I was a child. I don't know why, but my greatest goal since childhood was to truly master the ability to draw. I think it's because a beautiful drawing is what moves me the most. Not just an ability to reproduce an image, or draw photo-realistically, but to be expressive and informed with line. I think drawing well means you observe well. Really understanding gesture, expression and line has been a goal since childhood, and I'm still working on it. I was extremely lucky to have parents who encouraged creative pursuits. I studied drawing independently or took lessons from childhood through studio work in college. But, I'm an art-school dropout who completed a degree in French instead. I was really unhappy in art school.
An equal part of my education was that I grew up reading independent comics and never questioned the value of comics as art. My drawing education owes as much to comics by greats like Crumb, Liberatore, Moebius, the Hernandez Bros, Herriman, Capp et al. That's why I was so drawn to embroidery, because it is illustrative. I had no sewing or needlework experience, so learning that I enjoyed the stitching part was the marriage of two things that I love.
Do you think you will be using this medium in ten years or do you think you might move into other arenas? Just curious.
I think I'll always work in embroidery in some way, but there are many other media I'd love to explore. For years I've been fantasizing about working with leather, but I don't have the time. Yet. And again, it's what I've never seen done with various media that I'm curious about.
Jenny is showing at Gallery Lombardi, in Austin, opening October 8th, 2006.