Thread and paper
12.25 x 13.75 inches
EMILY BARLETTA’s accumulations of embroidery and crochet stitches mark the passage of time. Her recent embroideries on paper are formal abstractions that reveal a connection between organic growth and human mark-making, inviting the viewer to contemplate the relationship of the individual parts to the whole. Emily received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art (2003). She is a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient (2011) and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Crafts (2009). Recent exhibitions include Art/Sewn at the Ashville Art Museum and The Sum of the Parts at Maryland Art Place. Emily’s work is currently on view in Repetition & Ritual: New Sculpture in Fiber until May 25, 2013 at The Hudgens Center for the Arts (Deluth, Georgia). Emily lives in Brooklyn, New York.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your recent embroideries on paper are compositionally simple and conceptually complex. They are formal abstractions made from one or two repeated gestures, but the accumulation of the stitched marks doesn’t only use repetition as a compositional element. It provides an opportunity to contemplate the nature of repetition. What does repetition mean to you?
Emily Barletta: In the recent works on paper, I have been thinking about building walls, piles and mountains. The repetitious stitch is a way for me to fill up a surface and create these imaginary structures, much in the same way they would be built in real space, by adding piece to piece. A stitch, whether it is embroidered or crocheted, equals a mark. If I accumulate enough marks of any kind I can grow a structure or build a pile. It takes time to physically pull a thread through paper or to do a crochet stitch, so this mark becomes the record of the space in time when this action occurred. With my early crochet work, the same piece by piece accumulation referenced cellular structures, molds and plants growing.
OPP: Why do you choose to embroider on paper instead of fabric?
EB: Over the last 10 years I’ve tried embroidering many times on fabric only to be frustrated with the result. I always wanted the fabric to be more solid and less flimsy. It was really difficult to have a thread tension I was happy with.
Sewing on paper changes the art from being an object to being a drawing or a painting. I went through a change in my thinking where I became concerned with how people display art in their homes. I looked at the art I own and display at home and thought about the sculptural and crocheted art I was making at the time. I had a hard time imagining it in someone’s home. I was also frustrated with how every single crocheted wall piece I made created it’s own dilemma of how to hang it. I wanted my work to be simpler and possibly more accessible. I wanted to be able to visualize my art on someone’s wall, but I also wanted to create something that a person would want to live with.
OPP: How does sewing on paper change the process? Is the composition preplanned or determined intuitively as you go?
EB: I usually have a specific vision in mind when I start. Sometimes I lay a drawing on tracing paper over the real paper and poke holes through it, but the tracing paper is more of a guide than something I follow exactly. If there isn’t a drawing, then I usually fill out the paper with a base color as a guide and I pick out the colors before I start. I poke the holes as I go. I look and see where I want the stitch to be or the next several stitches and I poke the holes, sew through them and then repeat. When you sew on fabric you can just put the needle through, but if I did this with paper it would crinkle or bend, and the holes might tear. I have a strong need to keep the paper as pristine as possible.
OPP: You mentioned your early crochet work, which is more sculptural and draws connections between our bodies and the environment. Pieces like Untitled (goiter) (2008) and Untitled (spleen) (2008) and Scabs (2008) reference the body, while other pieces reference organic forms like water, barnacles and moss. Why is crochet particularly suited to exploring organic forms? Any plans to go back to it?
EB: The form of crochet stitches is organic in nature. It makes soft curves and not hard lines. Again I had a problem with the softness of the material. Also, I was frustrated with the great amount of time it took to complete a crocheted work. For me, each piece of art leads to the next, but when I spent too much time on one, I would often lose the next idea before I would get to it. So there was a lack of flow and connectedness between my thinking and my studio practice. I have some ideas for large site-specific crocheted work I would like to make some day. If the opportunity presents itself, I may go back to it, but for now I am very satisfied with the speed and possibilities of sewing on paper.
OPP: How often is making your work grueling or monotonous? How often is it a delight?EB: If the work feels grueling or monotonous, I give up and try something else. I am a firm believer that the act of making is supposed to be enjoyable. I think it is almost always a delight or, at the very least, relaxing.
OPP: I’ve heard a lot of viewers respond to embroidery work by commenting on the patience of the artist. Viewers who’ve never used these techniques can’t comprehend what the experience is like; they say they could never have done it. Do viewers comment on your patience? If so, is it a distraction from the content of your work or does it add to the content?
EB: I definitely get those comments about patience. I also get questions about how long it takes to make something. It can be distracting, but I think of the drawings as recordings of the passage of time, so it makes sense that other people would identify with that aspect of the work. However, the work doesn’t require patience because I love doing it.
Thread and paper
OPP: There is an unfortunate but enduring cultural assumption that embroidery is women's work. This idea dates back to the Victorian era when a woman's value as a wife was symbolized by her embroidery skills, despite the fact that men and women actually embroidered alongside one another in guilds in earlier eras. Embroidery is increasingly more accepted as a significant form of art, but these gendered assumptions about materials and techniques still persist. I'm curious about your personal experience. Have you ever experienced this dismissive attitude about your chosen medium? Is it changing?
EB: The fact that I sew doesn’t come from any social, political or feminist agenda. It’s just what I enjoy doing. I have experienced this dismissive attitude. Usually it is not from inside the art world but rather from people who might not understand the art world. They relate what I’m doing to something they’ve seen in a craft context or they want to try to replicate my work as a craft project. I don’t know if there has been a shift, but I do hope to see more exhibits that hang paintings next to drawings next to something sewn. I already see that happening with several contemporary artists—Louise Bourgeois, Orly Genger, Ghada Amir, Ernesto Neto, and Sheila Hicks, to name a few—who have paved the way in the contemporary art world for fiber to be seen as an acceptable medium.
OPP: Last fall, you quit your day job to make art full-time, something most of us artists fantasize about. Congratulations! What’s hard about it that you didn’t expect? What's amazing about it? Any advice for artists who want to move in that direction?
EB: When I quit I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. I’m currently in the process of trying to find a job again. But it’s been the most positive art-making experience of my life. There honestly hasn’t been anything hard about it for me. I think it’s possible that some people could have trouble with the isolation of being alone all the time, but I really like being alone. It’s great to be able to finish work more quickly and really be present in the making process from one day to the next. My general advice is to be nice and take time to personally respond to any inquiry you get about your artwork. Networking, even if over the Internet, is really important. Also, apply for grants and shows. Do the research. You should spend as much time on the business end of running your studio as you do making art.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).