Creativity Q&A: Why thread?


My visual art practice started with embroidery in 2016 because of sobriety, but I think I was particularly drawn to threaded work because I already knew my way around needle and thread. I had learned how to sew as a kid through 4-H projects. My Great Aunt Alice, an incredible seamstress (and elementary school secretary), was my guide. Several weekends every spring, Mom would drive my sister and I out to the other side of the county and drop us off at my aunt’s small brick house. There, we’d cut out our fabric, prep our bobbins, and get to work on the sturdy sewing machine she kept tucked away in her bite-sized kitchen. 

I loved hanging out with my Great Aunt Alice—but I hated the work. Sewing is, like, mind-numbingly tedious to a pre-teen/teenager, and I just wanted to play outside! My favorite moments on those sewing sleepover weekends was when the three of us would walk the quarter-mile country lane between Alice’s house and our great grandma’s farm for a visit and a snack. (And that the one time we watched NASCAR at her house, Dale Earnhardt died. I watched the fatal crash while ripping out seams on a jumper, slack jawed and entranced. “Is NASCAR always like this?!” It’s the only car race I’ve ever watched. Weird.)

My bad attitude aside, those formative stitching experiences did teach me, at least, to be confident around needle and thread. So when I hauled my begrudging but hopeful self into a JoAnn Fabrics at age 30, after more than a decade avoiding anything of the sort, it was like finding an old, steady friend. And an old, steady friend was exactly what I needed in early sobriety (and exactly what I needed at the beginning of a visual practice as a writer who thinks she’s “bad at art”). But now it’s four years on. Why is thread still an ideal material for me? 


Embroidery art by Jackie Mantey on black and white historical photography, woman with arm tattoo
“To admire a piece of hand embroidery is to appreciate time itself.”

Thread makes me slow down and take my time. Now that I’m no longer a jangly bundle of teenage hormones, I appreciate the meditative space of sitting still to work on something for a long period of time. I can’t rush a piece of embroidery without running the risk of ripping the photograph and, thus, wasting time and resources, so it has a practicality to it. However, my appreciation for thread is philosophical and psychological too. Like the Oregon Trail Millennial that I am, I remember life before the internet and recognize that technology has our lives going at an unusually warp speed. It’s the digital wild wild west and it’s cool but also awful and it’s, ultimately, exhausting. The act of pushing a needle through another material is some throwback shit that is simultaneously novel to me. 

Working with thread is a physical experience. When I’m working on an embroidery piece, I’m using my fingertips to delicately thread a needle versus, as per 21st-century-usual, steering them toward a screen to unlock or a virtual thumbs up to give. This physicality is a complementary contrast to my writing practice. Writing is physical for one part of my body—my fingers, as I type. But embroidery of even the smallest of stitches requires many movements in one: pulling from my shoulders, a lean back of my spine, an in-breath as I push the needle in, an out-breath as I pull the thread through. And again. I enter a repetitive physical trance that centers me in my body and asks me to stay. To “stay” is an essential physical and emotional skill, and it’s one that embroidery helps me practice on a daily basis.

Thread can’t be saved on a hard drive. A half centimeter flower made of thread can take me half an hour to get right, and there are images I fuck up but keep working on in order to practice certain stitches or colorways. And, gasp, I never share these publicly. (Doing something expressive we enjoy without talking about it on social media is a cultural novelty at this point!) These practice uh-oh pieces are, I think, not unlike the delicate Buddhist sand mandalas that are purposefully swept away (to dust you shall return!) when they’re complete, an act that symbolizes the impermanence of, well, everything (RIP Dale Earnhardt). I can get lost in time while making an embroidery piece. More accurately, time becomes unnecessary, I become present in each moment and in each breath. With thread, I don’t feel that profound, full-body loss of time when I’m writing or designing something on my computer. What a gift!

“It is particularly pleasing for me to see that the language and imagery associated with embroidery is suddenly to be found everywhere in modern life. Words traditionally associated with needlework now permeate digital and scientific language—we talk of email threads, strands of DNA, the web, the new, and now, most satisfying of them all, string theory. An embroiderer will identify immediately with the idea that the universe and its contents are made up of sub-atomic loops and threads. // To admire a piece of hand embroidery is to appreciate time itself—your fingertips can almost touch the hours, days, and weeks embedded in every stitch. I urge the readers of this book to relish the relaxing pace that the medium requires. This pace and the attention to detail needed can be the perfect antidote to the distractions of modern life. The projects presented here will introduce you to core embroidery techniques—nurturing a focus, patience and precision that I hope will be as rewarding to you as the finished pieces themselves.”
Embroidery: A Maker’s Guide

Thread has a universality and timelessness to it that makes it a symbolically valuable material. Another artist once described my inclination to start embroidering as a method for entertaining myself in early sobriety as a symbol of doing the work of recovery—I was “bringing light to the darkness, one tiny needle punch at a time.” I love this analogy, and I’m not alone in using thread to heal and to, quite literally, unite. Thread has been a lifeline for the working class for centuries and every culture and generation has found a way to subvert both its utilitarian one-dimensionality and its aristocratic exclusivity (i.e., embroidered embellishments were once reserved for only the primped and powdered aristocrats) and transform the act of stitching by hand into an art form, a storytelling medium, and a connective lifeline between members of a spoken or unspoken community. It makes sense to me that the AIDS Memorial Quilt was a quilt, for example—that needle and thread were the materials they chose for something so representative of both sides of the coin, the joy and celebration of an individual life, a single stitch, a single breath, the sadness and anger tied to the injustice of not “clothing” these brothers and sisters, etc.

Thread is a demarcation of an expedition, each stitch a breadcrumb on the path. The stitches are small, but their size is disproportionate to their meaning. They hold so much in their strands.


Shop stylish wall clocks with geometric art pattern on macro.baby at Society6

Stylish wall clocks for your hip home office


My wristwatch broke a few days ago, the hands frozen in a random high V. I’m inappropriately bummed about it! It took me a while to find a watch I liked, and this one—a mesh banded and metal mixed babe, silver and gold—goes with everything, looks classy af, and has basically become my sartorial security blanket. 

She was even New Year’s Eve party appropriate. 🙁

A 32nd birthday gift for myself, the watch has factored into my daily routine for the past two and a half years. I put it on each morning and take it off each night… like, well, clockwork. Now it is a phantom accessory. I keep catching myself staring at my naked left wrist after absentmindedly pulling it up to check the time.

I’ve decided to take the watch to a repair shop rather than simply buying a new one. The former has proven an infinitely more complicated choice than the latter. (But really not complicated at all, dear reader. I’m just comparing the work involved in finding, reviewing, and connecting with a reputable repair shop versus, you know, clicking around Macys.com for a few hours. Hours I can no longer track with my darling watch! <cue first-world wounded howl>)

Beyond the feeling of style and consistency a wristwatch offers me, I love my arm candy because it helps me pick up my phone less. And no need to light up my computer screen to check the time and risk dicking around online for 15 minutes before I come to and realize I’m late for a meeting. Just as a for example.

So now, as I find a place to fix my cheap but cherished timepiece and wait for her to be returned to me in tick-tock shape (ha), I’m considering a purchase of a wall clock to achieve a similar kind of stylish analog present-mindedness effect. Here are nine I’m choosing between from my macro.baby shop on Society6 as I hand off my Skagen to the nice clock man with the glass eye and await my beloved’s return.


Cool wall clocks

// by macro.baby on Society6

See in shop: 1 // 2 // 3 // 4 // 5 // 6 // 7 // 8 // 9


The story behind Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers


A bunch of poets I follow on Twitter liked this Tweet today, so it magically showed up on my timeline, and it’s perfect:

“I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.”

Georgia O’Keefe is famous for her flower paintings that look like, ahem, hoohas. That’s a reductionist distillation of her work, but it’s genpop-accurate because, whatever, we can only maintain so much info in our brains so it’s easier to identify her contributions to the art historical cannon by the most “memorable” thing about her work.

OK, Georgia!

Perhaps, though, with the following passage of her own writing, we can see beyond Georgia’s ~flower vaginas~, and remember why she picked flowers as a focus of some of her paintings in the first place. Because they’re freaking beautiful.

Georgia decided to zoom into the blooms and paint a magnified perspective of flowers after being drawn to a tiny flower in a still life painting by Henri Fantin-Latour.

Here’s what she wrote:

“A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower—the idea of flowers. Still, in a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they’ll be surprised into taking time to look at it. I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

That the busy New Yorkers didn’t see flowers, necessarily, and instead mostly saw vaginas (or at least the art history did) is totally predictable and, like, what are we gonna to do? Georgia’s voluptuous flowers have caused celebration for the fornication-fueled folds of the most tender of lady parts, and so be it. Hell yeah. Let us toast the vaginas! Long live the labia! But also, as we cheer, may her idea of magnifying flowers as a means to share with the world what a pause to stop and look at the lilies can do for one’s, well, soul, hold meaning for us as well.

What can you take time to appreciate more closely this weekend? Might I suggest Ram’s Head with Hollyhock? Or your nearest adult, consenting vagina?


Roundup of Ruth Asawa stamps from the USPS

Ruth Asawa’s creative time management advice


Y’all. Ruth Asawa had six kids. Did you know that?

What an impressive human. To raise even one offspring and have an internationally successful and personally meaningful art practice seems like a near impossible achievement. Actually, having an internationally successful art practice AND/OR personally meaningful art practice child-free seems like a nearly impossible achievement.

Here she is with four of six. FOUR OF SIX.

I learned this fact about Ruth in ^this video promoting new USPS stamps featuring her work, intricate wire sculptures that explore how “the relation between outside and inside was interdependent, integral.”

How very relevant in a pandemic that has us all stuck inside and having sweaty pastoral dreams! Also relevant: Stamps, supporting the post office, sending care packages to all the people you miss, etc.

Also, also relevant: The following quote from the USPS video about how Ruth found time to meet her practice, continually pushing her process and forms (all while being, let me just say this one last time, a mom of six, in the mid 20th century).

“Use your little bits of time. Your five minutes here, your 10 minutes there. All those moments begin to add up. … Learn how to use time when it is given to you.”


Illustration A Day Project entry, geometric illustrative graphic design

“You are the archivist of your own life”


I read something on Instagram recently that inspired me into a unique set of actions. (How often do you get to genuinely say that? Though, I guess Instagram is the platform on which you’re most likely to read something sincerely inspiring, but I digress.)

The sentence was a mere one of many in a long caption accompanying a photo posted by a friend of mine. It was essentially in defense of a series of selfies she had been sharing on her feed, and it said this: “You are the archivist of your own life.”

She didn’t come up with this phrasing herself, she admitted. She had heard it from someone else and had been inspired by it, who heard it from someone else who had been inspired by it, and now I—inspired by it—share it with you, like a high-tech, transcendent version of the kids’ telephone game.

You are the archivist of your own life.

Wow, truly…

Perhaps it’s the word archivist that this trail of friends and I found most endearing. That word brings a sense of gravitas, a sense of humanistic purpose, to the act of saving, storing, and recording who you have been throughout the years and who you are now. A hoarder? Nay. An archivist.

I’ve never been reliable at keeping things. I’ve thrown many keepsake-ish items out in fits of productivity (holiday cards, my baby teeth, Little Dude’s collar he refused to wear) only to be sad about it later and console myself with excuses along the lines of Who needs that stuff anyway? To dust we shall return, et al. (Though, tbh, sometimes these purges have been a long time coming, I just need to work on being more thoughtful/ less reactive in emotionally cued-up moments of #getshitdone. Per usual.)

I consider this further proof of why the term archivist must hold special power. If you told me to simply take and save pictures of myself, I’d scoff and keep scrolling. But after I read my friend’s Instagram caption, something surprising happened.

I made a to-do list of how to organize my writing, artwork, and notebooks. Emotional mementos and professional trophies may slip right through my roller coasting, mood swinging fingers, but I can maintain a steely disposition to the deed of saving my creative work.

I organized my Google docs. Backed up hundreds of documents of writing practice on a jump drive—yeah, I bought a jump drive! Two jump drives, in fact. The other I used to house highly detailed folders with all my embroidery works, broken up by series and further by date. Inventory tracked. Price lists updated. I downloaded my Facebook and Instagram photo albums (you can do that!) and backed them up on servers. I organized my printed mood boards, dated my writing and art journals, wrapped and stored books I’ve been published in. It came without ribbons, it came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! 

These little digital and physical nests of me as an artist, maker, and person could be argued to symbolize something I subconsciously feel like I’m missing, like a more literal, all-encompassing nest (read: home). However, I’ve determined, more so, this act of wanting to archive and following through on it was a tangible display of my evolving idea of self-respect: Who else will save you, if not you?

Instead of archiving things to track my growth, the act of archiving did so itself.

Embroidery art on old polaroid photos, Show Your Work Series by Jackie Mantey

Show Your Work series at Slate Arts this December!


The Show Your Work series considers the human tendency to impose our own narratives on another’s truth, as well as the layered and complicated process of rewriting the present by reconsidering the past. Each image in the Show Your Work series is a previously discarded photograph dug up at an antique store or on a found-photo resale site.

To determine what to embroider on each image, I Google-searched a question sparked by the original photograph, selected the most intriguing image that showed up in the Google results, and then embroidered that web-found image onto the original photograph. 

The framing methodology of double-sided glass frames encourages viewers to turn the frame around to see the back of each altered photograph—to see the work. The flip side of the photo can reveal the history of the photo, a pentimento of its years as a multi-purpose object, and hint at the many hands that have touched it. See the messy embroidery backside not often shown by artists and crafters, find the Googled question in my handwriting, and read any prior markings by previous owners of the photograph (including years, names, notes, and/or antique store sales information). 

In a time that’s all about content generation, what do we do with the “content” that’s already here? This work also engages contemporary culture’s historically profound ability to divine answers almost immediately, as well as the tension and confusion that results from our very mortal inability to find the answers we are most often in search of. 

This presumptuous layering work was partly inspired by photographer Cindy Sherman’s famous 1981 photograph “Untitled #93,” which, though technically not titled, she calls “The Black Sheets.” Sherman is purposefully ambiguous, leaving the viewer to make their own assumptions about the image—often vastly different from her own intent when staging the portrait. She says, “I think of that character as having just woken up from a night out on the town and she’s just gone to bed like five minutes before and the sun is waking her up and she’s got the worst hangover and she’s about to pull the sheets over her head or something and go to sleep. And other people look at that [photograph] and think she’s a rape victim.” Why do we see what we see? How does our perspective get it wrong? What does it get it right? Is there a space in between these extremes and, if so, how do we hold that space for ourselves and others?


Show Your Work





















Art you should know: Chicago Reader’s Father’s Day series


Happy Father’s Day weekend to all the dads out there! I suggest checking out Chicago Reader newspaper’s feature of W.D. Floyd photographs of fathers from the south and west sides of Chicago. The series focuses on African American fathers, who society often holds an inaccurate view of. You can read the whole story and see the series at Chicago Reader here.

“Within our society there is an underlying belief that fatherhood is a role Black males struggle to fill. But every day I see Black men engaging in acts of care. Most are not making a political statement but fulfilling their basic human instinct. According to a 2013 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black men are more involved with their children than other demographics.”

Photographer W.D. Floyd

Art you should know: Robert Frank’s The Americans


Capturing America’s inconsistencies and contrasts is practically a pastime now for the average artist. We owe a tip of our baseball hats, emblazoned in racist symbology, to those who developed this aesthetic with such originality that their historical influence is practically cliché. I’m thinking the hard-nosed, coked in empathy narratives of Dorothea Lange; the searingly lonely dream-scaping of Edward Hopper (#1 all-time fave). An artist who deserves to be part of this lineup of artists that the gen pop rattles off when considering Great American Artists Who America-ed America is Robert Frank.

Actually, Frank, a photographer, was Swiss-American, and his new-citizen status gave his work a non-sentimentality surrounding American Life. In the 1950s, this translated to an incredibly unique source of truth for what was happening behind the technicolor and catchy slogans of the post-war pop culture.

I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.

Robert Frank

In 1955, Frank got a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. For the assignment, he spent two years traveling the States with his family and taking photographs of everyday life in places like Detroit, Savannah, Miami Beach, LA, Salt Lake City, Butte (Montana), and (of course) Chicago. In those two years he took more than 25,000 photographs and 83 of them became The Americans, a book of images that “changed the nature of photography. What it could say and how it could say it,” wrote art critic Sean O’Hagan nearly six decades after the book’s publication in 1958. The Americans, he says, “remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.”

Selections from The Americans was recently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “Out of the Retina, Into the Brain: The Art Library of Aaron and Barbara Levine.”

Frank’s imagery was subtle but impactful because grandiosity took a backseat to themes of boredom, toil, and blind patriotism. These are everyday Americans who live under the spell of American lore with a sort of dumbfounded despair. (It feels achingly familiar to our social media age—ie. if I’m supposed to be happy here, why am I so sad/mad?)

Frank’s compositions depicting race in America are particularly powerful. Prescient, even, considering hindsight of social photography and the incredible civil and human rights upheavals on the country’s horizon. This theme is, again, where Frank’s individual experiences and characteristics gave him a honed eye for making these observations about our country’s racial cruelty. As a Jewish man, he experienced profiling while photographing in the South. He was put in jail in Arkansas. Told he had an hour to leave town by a deep-South sheriff. This racism indelibly shaped his view of the country, which indelibly shaped everyone else’s view of it too. Moreover, he gave brutalized communities a chance to show their strengths, despite all they faced in 1950s America.

There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.

Robert Frank (in 2008)

Suggested reading:

Published: Art and writing in Crowded zine


I’m jazzed (jazz-handed?) to have embroidery artwork and creative writing in the newest issue of CROWDED zine, a quarterly multimedia zine affiliated with The Crowd Theater, featuring written and visual work of Chicago artists.

The Issue #3 release party is tonight, May 11, at 8 p.m. in The Crowd Theater near Lakeview! Admission for tonight’s show is free, and you can purchase a zine there for $6. They’ll be taking cash, card, or Venmo exchanges @CrowdedZine. If you can’t make the show but would like a copy, Venmo $8 to @CrowdedZine with your address in the description and they’ll mail you your copy!

“Connect” opening reception is Saturday!


Slate Arts + Performance proudly presents CONNECT, a new-media group exhibition featuring works by the following artists:

Joshua Eby
Robert Fowler
Erica Gressman
Joo Young Lee
X. A. Li
Sarah Leuchtner
Jackie Mantey
Sara Alexandra Pelaez
Christopher Riggs
Christopher Marc Ford
Andrew C. S.
Rui Sha

The opening reception is from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at Slate Arts in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood.


Dropping off my artwork!

Gallery statement

“Connecting requires at least two points in which a link or attachment of sorts can activate. As human beings, our livelihoods depend on how well we build and maintain connections. Relationships. Neural networks. Sound waves. Internet speed. Fibers of one’s clothing.”

Artist’s statement

I have three individual pieces in the show, a triptych entitled “Good Things And Death Come In Threes.” (Three embroidery and thread on historical imagery in 14″ x 17″ wooden and pink frames, one inch between each frame: “Red Line,” “Yellow Line,” and “Blue Line.”)

The images in “Good Things And Death Come In Threes” were sourced from the public domain of the New York Public Library’s digital archives and selected for their visual representation of tools Americans have used to send a message, themselves, or others from one place to another; interestingly, these are also tools we use to disconnect ourselves from wherever we’ve come.

The title is a nod to the folkloric connections we often make as we search for answers and try to connect our existence to something bigger than our individual selves. The finished embroidered work reminds the viewer of photography’s ability to connect us to people not of our time or place, as well as the working class inheritance of thread as a means to weave historical narrative into making a modern point. That each embroidery has similarities is a representation of how we are all connected, whether we are together or alone.