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July 24, 2004

{     Interview : Jenny Hart     }    

Jenny Hart has started a bit of a revolution. Not only has she managed to elevate the medium of embroidery from dusty domestic craft to fabulous fine art, she has also delivered a new brand of embroidery to the people, with affordable patterns that meet the tastes of today's discerning culture addicts. Her website showcases some of her finest work, and also serves as a web store for her patterns and kits. She even shares the spotlight with her customers, offering webspace for pics of their embroidered creations. With national exposure in magazines ranging from Bust and Bitch to Juxtapoz and ARTitude, as well as a recent solo show at New York's Big Cat gallery, Jenny Hart is making a name for herself- one stitch at a time.

Adam: You've managed to reclaim the art of embroidery from the realm of cheesy cliche, bringing relevance to a form that had become tired at best and trite at worst. Your designs are hip and invigorating, and Sublime Stitching seems to have filled a gap in the world of accessible art and underground pop-culture. Did you ever imagine, as you stitched your first piece, that things would end up where they have? How are you feeling about the success you've experienced thus far?
Jenny: It's been incredible, and completely unexpected. I had no idea people would respond so strongly to my work and that I would have had reached this point with it. I suspected that there was a huge market for updated craft design, but I guess I didn't really realize how huge and immediate the response would be.

Were you self-taught, or was embroidery a tradition in your family?
My mother showed me how to start, and after that I pretty much taught myself how to embroider.

I know the first piece you worked on was a portrait of your mother- how did your subject matter evolve from there?
I continued to do some family portraits, my father, my late mother-in-law, and then began accepting commissions for portraits. But from the beginning I wanted to use it for non-traditional subjects and still feel like I'm only beginning to explore the visual possibilities with it. I love nudes, long hair that I can depict in waves, but I'm really wanting to work on much larger pieces.

How long do you typically spend working on a portrait?
It depends. If I'm really excited about the piece, it will take anywhere from a week to three months to finish, working on it three hours a day. Some pieces get abandoned if I lose interest or have too many problems with them. Some are never finished, or are finished months to a year later. My portrait of Syd Barrett was completed a year after I started it. It also depends on the size, and I'm trying to clear my calendar so I can work on much larger pieces instead of the smaller portraits that I was producing to meet a fast and high demand. I'm just starting to feel I can say no, which I have to do a lot, so I can make room for the work I most want to do.

There's an interesting dynamic surrounding what you do. Considering its origins, embroidery has historically represented one of the few creative and artistic outlets available to women under the yoke of domestic servitude. As women asserted themselves- and as independence and equal rights became a reality- many "domestic" activities (embroidery among them) lost their charm, fell from practice, and came to represent oppression. I feel that you have accomplished something significant by rescuing it from banality, and I see this reclamation as a powerful moment in gender politics and practical feminism. Is this a subject you've consciously broached in any way, and what do you think about this interpretation of your work?
It's very easy to look at my work in hindsight and say it promotes this idea about femininity, but it really has nothing to do with why I started. I didn't take it up as an act of feminism, I just wanted to learn how to embroider and make beautiful things. Which isn't to say any of the ideas along those lines that people associate with my work are invalid, on the contrary I think it's a perfectly valid way to look at my work. But, it wasn't my intention.

I understand you recently had a solo gallery show at Big Cat gallery in New York. How were you received by the Manhattan crowd?
Fantastically well. I was amazed at how familiar people already were with my work. Every place I went and gave someone a card for the show, they already knew about it. I wasn't prepared for that.

Any juicy stories of your exploits in Gotham?
Juicy stories? A friend I hadn't seen in over ten years flew in from Minneapolis to surprise me at the opening. That was wonderful. (I don't know if that's juicy or not!) Spotted Bruce Gilden doing his thing on 5th Ave. I spent a lot of time in Williamsburg with my friend, photographer Philip Heying, doing too much of anything and everything. Had my aura photographed in Chinatown, co-hostessed an ACM (Austin Craft Mafia- meeting with the New York business ladies of, and A photographer from Jane magazine came to record the meeting. It was great. Three of my friends and fellow ACM members came to NYC with me which made it really special. Did I mention it was my first trip to NYC? (My dirty little secret.) Oh, there's too much to tell. I'm forgetting so many details I'm sure.

How did that show arise?
They contacted me and invited me to show. I'm unsure where they first saw my work.

How many pieces did you show?

I am in awe of the collaborative piece you put together with Dame Darcy. I love her work, and your stitching was the perfect complement to her elegiac Victorian style. How did you two hook up? Any plans for further collaboration, either with Darcy or other artists?
From the beginning I've wanted to collaborate with other artists, producing embroidered and embellished versions of their work. I've collaborated with Kevin Scalzo and Jon Langford previously but I particularly wanted to do something with Dame Darcy. I simply asked her if she'd like to work with me, we talked on the phone a bit, and three days later I had an original drawing in my mailbox. She drew the central figure in black ink: a topless, seaside maiden playing a violin, and I embellished the surrounding imagery (a golden rock, added some text and wafting music, a blackbird, waves and decoration) and chose the colors. It was very much a collaboration in every sense that I wanted it to be. We're both really happy with it. I grew up reading comics and am most interested in collaborating with comic artists and illustrators. For obvious reasons, their work is really well suited to be embroidered. I'd love to do something with Charles Burns or Gilberto Hernandez. I don't even have to say Robert Crumb. His line work is perfect for embroidery. I'm a total Fantagraphics baby.

In terms of original pieces, what are you working on next?
I'm currently working on a piece for a group show at Austin's Camp Fig, curated by Josh Rios. It's a version of La Lorrona, or �the weepeng woman' who's a part of Mexican folklore. The story in a nutshell is of a ravishing beauty madly in love with a man, they have a daughter whose beauty rivals her own and she becomes jealous of the husband's loving affection for their child. She drowns the daughter and kills herself, remaining a ghost who cries out "Donde Esta Mi Hijo" (where is my child?). In my version she's a Mexican gang member with a tattooed tear and a banner on her forearm with "donda esta mi hijo". Of course, I'm not happy with the way it's turning out. I'm always dissatisfied with my work. It's much more beautiful in my imagination than what I can ever actually create.

You've received lots of press in some pretty well-known magazines, and several of your pieces have been prominently featured on the covers and interiors of these publications. How does that kind of exposure compare to the more specific and focused scrutiny of a gallery show? Where, within these two arenas, do you find yourself most comfortable?
I'm really uncomfortable at gallery shows. I kind of hate going to openings, which is terrible because it's so important to support artists. I'm not much for going out in general, and if I'm the center of attention it's a bit overwhelming and embarrassing. It is really amazing to get the kind of feedback at a show that people offer up, to have someone come up to you and say they love your work is very humbling. You don't get that from a magazine, but seeing your work in print is really powerful in another way. I'm most comfortable at home!

Your subjects range from Edith Piaf to Bill Hicks to Dolly Parton and The White Stripes- of those you haven't immortalized yet, whose portrait would you most like to stitch?
Some obvious ones, like Buddy Holly. I've long wanted to do a portrait of Rufus Wainwright, but when he had long, stringy hair. A lot of portraits I'm interested in doing now focus more on characters (like La Lorrona) or types. I also have such a fascination with rendering hair- I've done two works that focus on African-American hairstyles (Dirty Face, Crowing Glory and Mysterious Pieces). I really want to do more of those. It's so taboo for a white person to touch their hair or stare at it, but when I see the fantastic and beautifully elaborate things that men and women do with their hair, well, I wanna embroider it.

You seem to have sold most of your original work, and I was wondering if you ever miss a piece once it's gone?
So often, I'm overnighting my work to a gallery or collector the day after I've finished the piece! I rarely get to spend any time with my own work. But at the same time, I'll get tired of looking at it. It's a funny feeling to see it again after a while, after spending so much time with it. It's nice to see them with fresh eyes, but I've never been one to hang my own work in my house so much.

I was happy to see that you offer some of your pieces as framed prints, and that the Dolly design is also available in a very affordable poster format. How do you decide which pieces you're going to offer as a print or poster?
Well, that's just a CafePress shop which I may not continue. I do want to offer prints, but I need to find a better way of offering them so they are really good quality. The Dolly Parton portrait is one of the most popular works I've done, so it seemed a good choice. Many people wrote to me saying they wish they could have it (it was purchased by a collector in Chicago), so I like to find a way for people to get some version of the work.

You've been know to espouse the idea that "Anybody can do this" and have taken that concept to the next level by offering multiple patterns and designs for sale on your website and have even given online gallery space to customer creations. I think it's beautiful that you have decided to share this with the world- most artists in such a unique medium would be hesitant to encourage others to join in, but you've made it an imperative. At what point did you realize that this was something you weren't going to keep to yourself?
I realized early on that it would be much more work to try and guard it, keep it precious and, well, be a snob about it. I didn't' want to do that, coupled with the fact that I was so surprised to learn it myself and see how much I enjoyed it and how versatile a medium it is. It didn't seem fair to not share what I'd learned with all the people who were writing me to say, "Oh, I love the way your embroidery looks, but it's so difficult. I could never do it."

There is this long-standing divide between fine art and hobby crafts and every shade in between. Which is fine, and completely legitimate, in my opinion. But, it tends to stigmatize the work if you use �low' craft mediums as a fine artist. Fine artists who work in craft mediums have to fight for a certain amount of credibility and are pretty strictly categorized. I think this is valid, but not always. There are so many different aspects of it. I was coming from a fine arts background, I'd worked in collage for years (you can see my work at, was listed in Art in America by age 21, spent hundreds of studio hours drawing. I never really worked in hobby crafts (except as a kid) because I looked down on the idea of using a pattern that I could draw myself, and better. It was when I wanted to move away from the collage work to focus on more original compositions of drawing that I began to think about applying embroidery to my work. How beautiful would a drawing look if it were embroidered? And if it weren't just some hobby pattern? And what if a fine artist broke camp and designed for hobbyists? That's what I did. I decided I was going to plant each foot firmly in both domains and not let one or the other determine the value of what I was doing as an artist or craft designer. I view them as two completely different creative endeavors. One is entirely commercial and entrepreneurial; the other is my personal work. I know artists who look at their own work and think "Oh, if I designed for hobbyists, it would cheapen my work. I guess I was fed up with that way of thinking, mainly because craft design tends to be so awful! I wanted to help out! _ (Eulgh, do I sound like an art snob?)

What influenced your decision to offer patterns with such non-traditional themes as Rockabilly, Tiki, Lounge Culture, Pin-Ups and Science Fiction? What sources, be they musical, film, photo or otherwise did you draw from when creating these designs?
Well, I love to draw. What I didn't realize at first was how difficult it would be to pare down an image to its barest essentials, to basically produce a symbol of the thing as a pattern, AND simplify it enough for someone else to stitch.

Like most artists, I keep a lot of source material around: books, vintage magazines... but a great deal of the patterns are straight up sketches that I ink over with tracing paper. I don't ink over my original sketches because I like to keep them. Instead, I lay tracing paper over the sketch and ink that.

Which of your patterns is the most popular?
Tattoo Your Towels and I Luv Veggies. After that, Cat-a-Rama is a staple and Viva Las Vegas is always running out.

What are you working on next, in terms of patterns?
I just finished a new pattern line: Mad Pad (retro embellishments like boomerang shapes), Dia De Los Muertos, Dainty Days (a fancy alphabet and days of the week), and Craftopia (images of craft and sewing supplies). All my patterns were repeat requests from customers! They email me all the time saying "how about this�and I'd love to see that� 9 times out of 10 they've suggested a theme that I'm already planning,

I've noticed that the vast majority of your customer testimonials and those items featured in your customer gallery come from female customers. Is this a "Girls Only" club, or are the fellas just a little more quiet about their needlepoint hobby?
I'm hoping they're just quiet about it. Girls club? Absolutely not! I'm trying to find a way to appeal more to the guys, although my patterns do tend to be pretty girly. I'm all for the guys joining in. A guy sitting in a corner quietly stitching with a hoop and needle. Sexy. I need to get started on the Hot Rods line.

    » Visit Sublime Stitching to get your thread on.
    » Jenny's portfolio of work may be viewed at

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