Health Care, 2012. Embroidery and acrylic on fabric. 36 1/2" x 35"
JEN GRAHAM's hand-embroidered portraits of American presidents and divisive, media "loudmouths" ask us to slow down and consider the information we receive and how we receive it. In Trajectory Patterns, Jen offers us an embodied way to comprehend gun violence by quantifying the numbers of victims of mass shootings during 2016 in a tangible fabric timeline. And her mash-ups of Civil War imagery culled from the Library of Congress Archive with contemporary text remind us to bring knowledge of American History to our understanding of current events. Jen earned her BA in Art at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Truckee Meadows Community College (2015) and McNamara Gallery (2012), both in Reno, Nevada. Her work was recently included in the group exhibition Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2016. The show will travel to Las Vegas and be on view from March 17-May 14, 2017 at 920 Commerce Street. Jen’s project At War With Ourselves will be on view at the Carson City Legislative Building in Nevada from March 20- April 7, 2017. Jen currently resides in Reno, Nevada.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your most recent work Trajectory Patterns
is a textile timeline of mass shootings in the U.S. in 2016. Can you
talk about the value of visualizing the data that represents violence in
Jen Graham: Gun violence has become something that we mostly overlook or accept as a part of American life. When confronted with a visual depiction of the sheer volume of mass shootings that have taken place, the scale and atrocity of the statistics are undeniable and have more of a lasting impact than reading a number or a headline.
I chose to represent each mass shooting individually, while still focusing on depicting the immense quantity of the shootings as they accumulated. Each panel represents one mass shooting. One inch of length in the panel represents one person who was shot in that incident (not including the shooter). For each panel, I hand embroidered a label with the street address of the location of the mass shooting the panel represented, intentionally omitting the city and state from the address. The street address alone feels more personal and familiar, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of ambiguity as to where exactly each shooting took place. They could have happened anywhere, and they do happen everywhere.
As mass shootings occurred and I added them to the piece, the previous panels would need to be pushed back to make room for the new ones, just as these tragedies get pushed back in our minds or in the news to make room for new tragedies. The pile that amassed at the back of the piece was particularly haunting to me. I felt it quietly mirrored the number of human bodies that were piling up as the year went on.
Trajectory Patterns, 2016. Embroidery and fabric. 24"w x 167"h.
OPP: How has making this piece affected you?
JG: Creating this piece has been emotionally draining for me. I struggled to keep up with the amount of work that was needed to represent each shooting as they occurred, and I was overwhelmed with the sadness of it all. I only just completed the piece last week, which now measures 167 feet in length, representing 385 mass shootings that took place last year in the United States.
Because Tilting the Basin was on view for three months last August through October, I had decided to continue to add panels to Trajectory Patterns as mass shootings took place while it was on display. I added to the piece outside of visitor hours, but if someone visited the exhibit multiple times, they would have noticed the growth of the piece.
OPP: When did you first start working with embroidery, the dominant medium in your practice?
JG: I began to experiment with embroidery around 2009, and at the time I wasn’t aware of much contemporary work being created in the medium, which freed me to develop my own style outside of influence from other contemporary artists. At the time I wasn’t interested in learning the formal techniques of the medium. I just jumped right in and tried to figure out what I wanted this new hand-sewn work to look like.
Margaret Sanger (detail), 2013. Embroidery and fabric. 29" x 22"
OPP: Your embroidered drawings are visually simple, made
primarily of outline stitches. Nothing is filled in. Can you speak about
this formal choice as it relates to your content?
JG: Embroidery is incredibly time-consuming, and the end result is usually quite ornate. My intention was to find a way to embrace this medium while abandoning the ‘precious’ quality it often exudes. This led me to the more straightforward style that I began using in my initial embroidery series My Presidents. I created portraits of every past president of the United States that are less formal than we are used to seeing. Using only straight stitches and chain stitches helped steer the portraits away from the tradition of regal oil paintings and marble sculptures.
With the series At War With Ourselves, I was primarily using imagery from the Civil War, many of which were photographs of Union and Confederate soldiers I found in the Library of Congress Archives. Some of these photographs were hand-tinted, a technique that has always intrigued me. Hand-tinted photographs represent the photographic medium’s early struggle to be accepted as an art form or even as realistic depictions of the world. The addition of color was intended to bring the image to life, though it often arguably had the opposite effect. With this series I began incorporating a similar hand-tint to some of the embroidered elements in my work.
I have recently begun to utilize more decorative, complex stitches into my work, but I will likely continue working with primarily straight stitches and chain stitches. I like the humble quality this type of stitching brings to my work. Everything is little un-refined, not quite perfect, a little frayed. There is never a question that this work may have been produced by machine. My hand is always evident.
Wealth and Privilege (Jay Gould), 2011. Embroidery and acrylic on fabric. 22" x 14."
OPP: You mentioned At War with Ourselves, which draws
together images and text from the Civil War Era. But this work isn’t
about the Civil War. It’s about American politics now. Why is this
imagery from the 1800s relevant today?
JG: As I was doing research for the My Presidents series, I became fascinated with the years leading up to the American Civil War. I began to see so many parallels with the disputes that led to the Civil War and the arguments within contemporary politics at the time (in 2011), and I think these conflicts are even more prevalent today. I also feel that imagery from the Civil War is still very impactful and emotional in American memory.
The most prominent example of this is the continuing discussion about the offensive nature of the Confederate battle flag and what place it should serve in the American public and in history. In many ways our society has progressed, yet these same arguments and tensions are still threaded within American society today, they have just transformed and evolved.
I initially exclusively paired up contemporary text with imagery from the Civil War to draw a comparison to the two, but I quickly expanded to sometimes using 19th century text with contemporary imagery instead. By framing contemporary ideas in the context of the Civil War, I am challenging the meaning and motives of the concepts and questioning how far we have really come as a society since the Civil War.
Loudmouth (Donald Trump), 2013. Embroidery and acrylic on canvas. 27" x 20."
OPP: My Presidents (2011) has new resonance in light of
the protest rally cry “Not My President.” Can you talk about the
research that went into this series, how you settled on the banner
titles for each former president?
JG: I knew very little about the U.S. presidents before beginning the My Presidents series. The goal of this series was to change that, to indulge in the biographies and presidencies of all 43 of the past presidents of the United States, and to embrace their history as a part of my own history, whether I agree with their policies and decisions or not. I individually researched every past president, and I then re-framed their legacy with my own personal interpretation of who they were as men and as presidents by giving each a nickname.
#12 Zachary Taylor, 2010. Embroidery on canvas. 11" x 8 1/2."
OPP: Can you highlight a few of your favorites?
JG: Zachary Taylor was one president I knew nothing about
before I began this project, but his portrait is one of my favorites.
Taylor spent his career in the military, and he was admired nationally
as a war hero. But he admittedly knew nothing about politics, and he had
never even voted. He also had no regard for formal attire, military or
otherwise, and was known to dress in tattered clothes with a big floppy
hat, even as president. He was often mistaken as a farmer.
His presidency was largely absorbed by the arguments over whether California should be admitted to the union as a free state, thus he accomplished very little before dying in office. At the time he was known as “Old Rough and Ready,” but I nicknamed him “The Slovenly Celebrity” as I felt this better summed up what kind of man he was as president.
Another president known for his unsophisticated persona was Lyndon Johnson. I think he is one of the most interesting men to have served as our president. He was a career politician who was first elected to congress in 1937 when he was just 29. By the time he was sworn in as president in 1963, he was a master legislator and manipulator of Congress, which is how he succeeded to pass a heap of legislation aimed at lifting up the disenfranchised, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Though ideologically he was closely aligned with his predecessor, Kennedy, their personalities were polar opposites. Johnson was unapologetically foul-mouthed, obscene, and unrefined. I gave him the nickname “The Foul-mouthed Schmoozer.”
#36 Lyndon B. Johnson, 2010. Embroidery on canvas. 11" x 8 1/2."
OPP: Why no Barack Obama?
JG: This series does not currently include a portrait of Barack Obama, because I only included every past president, and I completed the series in 2011 while Obama was still in office. I could not accurately give him a nickname until his presidency was over. Just imagine the difference in perspective you would have of the presidency of Richard Nixon if you only looked at his first two years in office.
I considered this series to have been completed in 2011, and I did not plan to continue it. But Barack Obama was the first President who I truly felt was my president, so I am now considering adding his portrait to the series.
OPP: Any ideas for his nickname?
JG: I have put a lot of thought into this, and I am currently leaning towards the nickname "My President." My mom has always had great love and admiration for John F. Kennedy. He seemed to inspire and define her generation. He will always be her president. I think Obama is that president for me and my generation, and it would be fitting for me to end this series with Obama as "My President."
How has the recent presidential election and the first few weeks of the
Trump administration affected your practice, both in terms of potential
new projects and your ability to work?
JG: I have been deeply saddened, ashamed, and distressed by every action taken and word spoken by Donald Trump and his administration. To see our society slide so far backwards is disheartening, and it does make it difficult for me to feel motivated to make work. It’s hard not to feel completely defeated. But I just need to move past this sense of defeat, and when I do, I find a greater sense of urgency, a greater need to be making artwork right now.
I do think that the kind of work I make will need to change. The majority of my work has been focused on confronting and combating underlying issues in American society and politics, but now all of these issues are shamelessly out in the open. This is an entirely new political landscape. As I move forward, my work will likely need to be more pointed and confrontational than it has been in the past. We now have to speak louder to be heard over the incessant roar of this disgraceful administration.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014) and the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014). She created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Resist the Urge to Press Forward, a two-person show with Brent Fogt, is on view at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) until April 15th, when there will be a closing reception and artist talk. Throughout March 2017, Stacia is working on an evolving, duration installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago). You can watch Witness change via live feed.