I’ve been learning how to cut out photos in Photoshop and decided to use a cutout of my embroidered pizza-party-boy patriot as a starting point. The exhibition prompt: “Express creative activism and promote democratic participation in the lead-up to Election Day and beyond.” ✌️🖕✊
All the artworks in the exhibition (on view online and in the windows of Hubbell Street Galleries at California College of the Arts) have been made into free, downloadable posters that you can print out and share to encourage others to get involved in their communities.
I took a playful angle with my entries, but there’s some really striking work up there, including a participatory Google maps photo project that pins found, littered masks—American Values by artist Amy Tavern.
Go to creativecitizens.cca.edu to see all the stellar work and download your favorites. Then go vote and/or eat pizza while you wash your face mask.
Weeee! Today’s the day! My shop went live today at noon, and I hope you take a chance to poke around. Up now: original hand-stitched embroidery art, collage notebooks, and limited-edition prints of some of my favorite pieces.
I started building the website in April after it became apparent that any art and craft fairs for the spring and summer would probably be canceled because of the pandemic. Little did I know that art and craft fairs for the rest of the year would indeed be canceled too, and my opportunities to share, show, and sell my work at Chicago galleries and storefronts would also be gone with 2020’s germ-infested wind.
A friend of mine recently told me she had heard on a podcast that the best way to mentally get through the pandemic-imposed isolation so many of us are participating in is to do things that accomplish two objectives: novelty and progress. So, for example, cooking new meals (novelty) every Friday from one cookbook (progress). Building this shop has helped me achieve both of those things. The shop is new and, as I plugged away on it with the new spare time on my hands, I slowly progressed the thing from a blank page subdomain into a working shop.
I loved it. The time-consuming, trial-and-error process of building a website reminds me of the meditative work it takes to thread hundreds of stitches into a photograph. This kind of work is endlessly therapeutic for me. I did the design, the building, the inventorying, the anything-and-everything associated with the site all by myself on purpose. I wanted to own the whole thing so if something went wrong, I had the knowledge of how to fix it—or at least where to start looking for the problem. If that’s not a healthy psychological attempt to give myself a sense of control in 2020, I don’t know what is.
I had to develop my inventorying process, shipping workflow, and branding experience. I used Asana to manage my to-do list, because each step in the development challenged me with new questions big and small. Do I need a Cookies alert? How do I weigh packages? What does the UX look like after someone makes a purchase? Who is cPanel? Why the hell won’t my site load? ~et cetera~ (Shoutout to all my YouTube and Creative Live teachers!)
This, the year of our lord baby Beyonce, has been a doozy. Having a digital space to call my own, structure and design at my own pace, and turn to as an expression of creative optimism for the future, has been, well, essential. A new study released in September by Harvard’s School of Public Health found that an optimistic outlook may be a healthier one: “In a population of relatively young and healthy U.S. Army active-duty soldiers, we found that those who tested highest for optimism at the start of the study had a 22% lower risk of developing hypertension during three-and-a-half years of follow-up than those who scored the lowest.”
I’m certainly not soldier-level stressed, but the study’s findings aren’t surprising to me. Building out the shop has been an exercise in escape as well as positivity. It helped me escape into something productive and it pushed me to consider what my future creative practice would look like. Why build a shop if I don’t believe the future will be good? Why work toward something to share in the future if I don’t believe there will be one? Why share my art if I didn’t believe it was going to continue? The shop has been a lighthouse for me in a dark storm cloud year.
Pushing my practice
The other important benefit I discovered while building this shop is that it has helped put boundaries around my current visual art practice and consider how all of my work fits together under one big umbrella that is me.
I think of clearly defined boundaries/constraints in creative practice similar to bowling with bumper lanes on. It helps.
As I worked on laying out the pages, I had to think about how the shop would connect to this site, which then brought up questions of my content on here. I think of jackiemantey.com as an archive of my creative life, as well as a space to jam on current works-in-progress, but what does that look like when I now have a secondary site I want to drive people to, and how do I shape the experience so that it isn’t burdensome for me or the people who visit my sites?
Other questions this work answered: How do I maximize my time working on my many projects, and how do I do it with intention? Am I an embroiderer or an illustrator or a photographer or a writer? All of the above? I think I’m all of the above, but thinking through all of this forced me to outline a hierarchy of these practices and shape an idea of how I envision them all coming together and growing in my next visual project. This work will be pivotal to my decision-making about what I work on next. It gave me guide rails and helped me define what I want to do with myself and my creativity. That, my friends, comes as a relief to a narcoleptic overachiever with a million and one ideas. It gives me something to refer to when I need to say no to myself and get down tothe doing.
How did I go about all of that behind-the-scenes figuring-out-of-stuff? I journaled the shit out of it! In my professional work, I write about artists, their practices as individuals, and how they have come to find and refine their voice. And, bonus, I write brand guidelines about voice, tone, personality, visual language, and more for companies with seemingly disparate, quickly moving parts. So, I decided to do all of that work I usually do for other people, for myself.
I audited my current work and thought a few years ahead of what my dream life as a maker might look like. I defined my visual language (ie., Why do I use pink so much; what does the color represent for me? Why thread? Why old and found photos? Why do I love those slash marks so much?). I wrote out what I did and, importantly, did not want my work to be for me. I wrote about why I make all of this in the first place. I thought of ideas for how the illustration, embroidery, photography, and writing could merge together long term (a direct result of this particular piece of this exploration: My homepage design, which I made in Illustrator using cut-outs of a photograph of flowers I’d taken during quarantine).
In the final stages leading up to launch, the shop also presented an opportunity to learn and experiment with other modes of making. I watched YouTube videos on how to animate photos in Photoshop, and made a few animated videos to announce the opening on my embroidery Instagram gallery. I’m excited to play with this more!
Whew, OK. There’s a lot here, and I have so much more to tell you, but this will do for now. I feel totally geeked (and, per usual, annoyingly sincere) about how focused I feel now because of putting together something as seemingly basic as a website for my work. The project unlocked a lot of understanding about who I am, why this work is important to me, whether I’m a professional or not, and how it will all evolve in the future. Like they say on the Twitter, “Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.” Now, go visit my shop.
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?
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.
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?
Slate Arts gallery in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is hosting an exhibition of my embroidery work throughout the month of September! Each Saturday at 8 p.m., join us for a **free** performance of storytelling and live lit by me and some of my favorite writers in the city. The show Gone, Country includes 20 pieces of embroidered artwork framed in repurposed barn wood, two banner collages, and a creative nonfiction book I wrote as a companion piece to the exhibit ($20). See you there!