eMbroidery – Bren Ahearn

Welcome to eMbroidery, a series of interviews with male embroiderers. This month, Bren Ahearn.

Name: Bren Ahearn (Full name: Brendan Daniel Ahearn). Apparently I was named after St. Brendan, the navigator. My middle name is after my uncle Dan, who passed away at age 33. I’m of half Irish and half Sicilian ancestry.

Location: Sacramento, California, USA. I was born in New Jersey and have also lived in Philadelphia, Chicago, Monterey (CA), Tokyo, San Francisco, Berkeley (CA) and Los Angeles.

Main embroidery medium: Base fabric: mostly Aida cloth. I have also used linen for a few samplers, and I’ve used found objects (e.g., molded plastic basket, cafeteria tray, flip flop, envelope) for my manmades. The appeal of Aida cloth to me is not only the ease with which I can stitch, but also its lowly status among some crafters — I like to irk the fabric snobs. Floss: DMC or Finca/Presencia floss for smaller pieces; 5/2 cotton for larger-scale cross stitching.

Noteworthy projects or pieces: This is a difficult question to answer because a number of my pieces take forever to create, and I’m typically sick of each piece by the time I’m finished. You and the X Stitch family have graciously posted a few images of my work on your site over the years (a few samplers, a manmade and a cage fighter image in The Cutting and Stitching Edge in 2009; a few samplers in Penny Nickels’ Needle Exchange in 2010; and a large-scale cage fighter in Bridget Franckowiak’s Showtime in 2010.) I guess this means that these pieces spoke to you, Penny and Bridget, so I’ll explain a little bit about each.

Cage Fighters: When I was in my first year of my graduate program, I was channel surfing and came across cage fighting (AKA mixed martial arts). I saw that these men were beating each other to a pulp; however, I also noticed that they were half nude and sometimes holding each other in compromising homoerotic holds. I then decided to stitch on a sewing machine what I saw. There also was a more practical side to my production of the initial small-scaled (9″X12″) series “ it was the end of my first year in school, and I needed to fill a hole on the wall for my year-end review. Little did I know that these quick gestures would strike a chord with viewers. I created larger scale versions (44″X60″) in 2009, and one of these large-scale versions is in Bridget’s post noted above. Here’s an image of a few of the large-scale fighters in a gallery setting, in order to give you an idea of the scale.

Samplers: in 2007 I had a chance to examine a collection of old samplers, and I became intrigued at how samplers were used to educate girls in the ABCs, needle arts, etc. I then thought about how I have been educated to perform my gender and started to create samplers documenting this experience. The red sampler in the Cutting (& Stitching) Edge and Needle Exchange posts above is based on a traditional ABC sampler, and the sampler documenting my marriage with Doug Brown is based on the wedding sampler format. I’ve also created a sampler documenting my gendered feminine work experience and how this experience relates to my place in society, rate of pay, etc. Last year I created Sampler 6 (which explores pussy-ness a bit more in depth than the red ABC sampler) and Sampler 7 (which explores cage fighting a bit more. The sporno quote on Sampler 7 is by Mark Simpson.) I’m working on a new sampler about the time in first grade when I learned the hard way that a boy shouldn’t possess a lunchbox with a floral pattern. In addition to exploring samplers and cage fighters, I also dabble with the theme of gays in the military. For some reason, in the USA there’s some rhetoric that having gays serve in the military will destroy morale, etc. On Navy Shirt #1 I’ve embroidered the word”Cocksucker” where the nametag would go. Tent Model #1 is a model army tent complete with pink lame lining and an image of 1990s gay porn star, Aiden Shaw. (I believe that the Sex and the City character of the same name was named after Aiden Shaw.) In these pieces I wanted to call attention to stereotypes and also the pathologization of gays by some people. I’m also dabbling with repeat pattern, and this is one repeat of a plaid fabric with flowers composed of baseballs and American footballs.

How did you come to be an embroiderer? I was primarily a weaver when I re-entered graduate school in 2007. At that time I decided to explore embroidery because I thought it would be quicker than weaving and because I thought it would allow for more avenues of exploration, from a gender studies standpoint. My husband has pointed out that it’s ironic that some of my embroidered pieces take just as long, if not longer, to complete as my weavings did. As some background to my weaving history, in 2001 or so I went to a Kente cloth show at the Oakland Museum of California and became captivated by the pattern possibilities of Ghanaian strip weavings. So, I began weaving thin strips and then sewing them together. In Shibori Strip Weaving #2, I dyed the strips using indigo and Japanese resist techniques. In the detail, you can see Hello Kitty, which emerges in later works. Strip Weaving #4 is a resist-dyed triple weave strip weaving. Triple weave is a process during which the weaver weaves three layers simultaneously. During the weaving process, the weaver can pull up different layers to the top of the fabric. (One of the other layers remains on the bottom, and the final layer remains sandwiched between the other two). After I wove the strips, I pleated the strips and then dyed them in fiber-reactive dye. The cotton threads took the dye, and the polyester threads didn’t. This piece put me over the top and made me not want to weave. It probably would’ve been easier just to piece something like this, rather than weave it.

What does it mean to you? Embroidery is a connection to embroiderers from the past. In The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker notes that in medieval times there were male and female embroiderers, but during subsequent eras embroidery became gendered feminine and the male history was erased. My use of cross stitch is very symbolic for me. The Xs can symbolize a signature, perhaps the signature of anonymous stitchers who are not mentioned in history. Perhaps the Xs can signify the erasing/changing of history by historians. Also, cross stitch is a binary system, composed of two crossing elements, and cross stitch rendering reminds me of computer imagery, which is the result of another binary system. I wasn’t thinking of this when I decided to use cross stitch, but one could say that on a more metaphorical level, the binary cross stitch system reflects the subject matter which I explore “ gender and politics. I feel that in the US many people think in neat, binary categories, e.g., male vs. female and democrat vs. republican, and that the country is very polarized. It is my hope that my artwork will get people to stop thinking in competitive binaries and to open a dialogue to begin healing. Also, in some circles in contemporary American society, embroidery by a male is a subversive act. I view is as a way to get people to think about “appropriate” gender activities, which is related to the binary notion of gender mentioned above.

Where do you like to work? Doug and I have a second bedroom which we had called the studio; however, I’ve never really embroidered in that room. I typically embroider in the living room or dining room. When I was in school, I embroidered on the train.

How do people respond to you as a male embroiderer? When I was going to school, I would get on the train at the first stop. When I was stitching on fabric, I noticed that females would sit next to me, but males tended to sit next to me only if there were no other seats open. I remember one time this guy finally sat next to me, and I was stitching the word “Cocksucker” on the Navy shirt. I chuckled to myself. I also noticed that when I was on the train stitching the manmades on hard, found objects, men approached me to ask what I was doing. Perhaps my performance had become more masculine since it wasn’t on cloth, and wasn’t as threatening to some men. Also, perhaps this activity on mass-produced objects was more in the art, rather than domestic soft craft, realm and was safer. (I won’t go into art vs. craft, commodity, etc. here.)

Who inspires you? This question is a political minefield. I’ve decided not to mention artists who inspire me because I know I’ll forget someone I should’ve mentioned. I will mention, however, a few theorists, educators and journalists who have shaped my thinking. One is Judith Butler, who writes about gender as performance “ we get rewarded by society for appropriate performance of our gender, and punished for inappropriate performance. An example of this might be the calling of a boy who isn’t hypermasculine a “sissy”. Another theorist (and artist) is Lacey Jane Roberts, who proposes that crafters should use queer activists’ strategies of reclamation, reapppropriation and dis-identification to give themselves agency. In my thesis I attempt to explain Roberts’ theory a bit. (FYI: Robert’s publication is Lacey Jane Roberts, Put your Thing Down, Flip it, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory, MA Thesis, California College of the Arts, published in Sightlines (2007): 185, 187. A different version of Robert’s article appears in Maria Elena Buszek’s new book, Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art) I’m also grateful to Julia Bryan-Wilson for her research with queer craft, and to Maria Elena Buzsek, who was one of the early crafty curators/researchers during this current wave. One of my teachers, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, taught me not to obsess so much on getting a dye color perfect. She told me that if a tie is paired with the right color shirt, it’ll look great. Also, my advisor at San Francisco State University, Vic De La Rosa, taught me to be intuitive and to believe in myself. I’m also inspired by the many bloggers, like you, who notice new exciting talent and gets the info out there. Thanks for seeing to it that we don’t work in a vacuum.

How or where did you learn you learn how to stitch or sew? I taught myself to cross stitch from Connie G. Barwick via her cross stitch postings on about.com. I learned to weave at the Barnsdall Art Center in Hollywood, CA “ I had gone to the art center to sign up for a pottery class, but I took weaving instead when the pottery class was full. My family is very textile-y. My mother quilts, my sister makes costumes for local theatre productions, and my brother makes the costumes for the puppets he also makes. So, this random choice was a natural one too.

Are your current images new ones or have you used them before? Everything’s been done before. I appropriate from all over the place “ from old samplers to Hello Kitty to American footballs and baseballs to cage fighters from TV. I also recycle these images over and over again. My newest sampler will be in a similar format to my earlier samplers, but the flowers will be my flowers with baseball centers and American football petals. I’ve also recently made a manmade that references my Scrabble playing youth. I’ve been working with some new imagery, as part of a series called “Media Studies.” So far I’ve been exploring with Playgirl magazine and gun imagery.

How has your life shaped or influenced your work? I think that being a man and being gay has definitely influenced my work. Since it’s not appropriate for American men to embroider, I hope that my embroidering in public makes people question the validity of gender roles. My being male has also given me content for exploration. I also feel that being gay and rejected by certain members of American society gives me freedom to comment on certain societal norms, e.g., marriage, and to raise a dialogue. For example, my wedding sampler was in a recent show at Evolve the Gallery in Sacramento, California, USA, and one of the gallerists said to me that a person who came to the show could appreciate the stitchwork, but couldn’t approve of my lifestyle. In this day and age some people still think that sodomy is sin.

Do formal concerns, such as perspective and art history, interest you? Interesting question. When I was admitted into grad school for art, I said to Doug, “I guess I have to learn how to draw now.” Well, I never learned how to draw. I have done some craft history research, as is evidenced in my samplers. As I mention above, most of my work is appropriation.

What do your choice of images mean to you? Some of my images (e.g., American footballs and baseballs) represent orthodox American masculinity, however, I’m learning that masculinity is not so cut-and-dried, and men perform their gender differently in different situations. Some of my images (e.g., cage fighters locked in a missionary position) represent the contradiction of the taboo of homosexuality among some American athletes with the homoeroticism of half-nude sweaty men exercising. Some of my images (e.g., Hello Kitty) represent pop culture, kitsch and gendered feminine imagery. Do you look at your work with an eye toward it like what can and can’t be visually quoted? In other words what you will or won’t cut out? Over the years there are a few pieces I wish I re-worked before I released them, e.g., my Tent #1 “ I just would’ve sewn a pink lamE lining and then called it a day, rather than putting all of this gay imagery in it. I actually like the model, referenced above, better than the full-sized tent, but I think that even the model shouldn’t have imagery. I’m thinking of doing a more simplified version. I’m not sure how I feel about cutting out “ I wasn’t so sure about releasing the earlier machine-stitched cagefighters because the rendering was janky, but people seemed to respond to them. Sometimes people may respond to some quick gesture that I was going to write off.

Do you have any secrets in your work you will tell us? The wedding sampler has the double wedding ring border, which is a traditional border showing two interlocked wedding rings. The two rings in the bottom right corner are both green, rather than one green and one gold, and thus appears like an 8. This is in reference to California Proposition 8, which limited marriage to a man and a woman. The date stitched on the bottom is the date that Proposition 8 was passed.

How do you hope history treats your work? I hope that people now and in the future will engage in a dialogue about the confining nature of gender behavioural norms. Where can we find you and your work? My work will is in Joetta Maue’s and Drucilla Pettibone’s current shows, and might be in Jennifer Hunold’s show, depending on her final curatorial vision. I’ve learned in my years that a curator’s denial of my piece is not statement about my work or my self worth. It’s difficult to curate cohesive shows; I don’t know how curators do it and stay sane. I will have a solo show during June 2011, at Evolve the Gallery in Sacramento, California, USA. Michelle and Brady Blakeley of Evolve are my northern California representatives. They’ve really worked with me a lot and pushed my presentation to the next level. They also talk about the practical side of the business, e.g., I need to create some more quick, low cost items in order to appeal to not-as-rich collectors who are entering the market. They’re also talking about how I should brand myself. I’m grateful to them for all they’re teaching me.

—–“

eMbroidery was created with the support and wisdom of the magnificent Bascom Hogue.

Mr X

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6 thoughts on “eMbroidery – Bren Ahearn

  • This is a fantastic interview! I’ve been following his career for a while, and it is great to hear some detailed answers about Bren’s work. I love his fearlessness in choosing his themes and images, and the scope and range of his pieces. His mix of humor, social commentary, and traditional craft methods is very powerful.

  • Thanks for the shout out Bren! I love seeing ALL your projects and am glad I could help you get started with cross stitch!
    Connie G. Barwick

  • What a fantastic and interesting interview, I really enjoyed reading it and being introduced to Bren’s work. There are some really stimulating ideas going on here – and I really admire the way that Bren explores different materials and processes whilst at the same time managing to produce work that fits within a theme and reads coherently. Excellent, I can’t wait to see more from Bren.

  • insightful q&a with an extremely observant pop culture aficionado … love the detail the article goes into.

  • Fantastic interview! I’m a transgender man (female-to-male) and I’ve recently taken up embroidery. It’s the first time since transitioning that I’ve done something so associated with femininity, so now I’m learning what it’s like to be seen as a gender-non-conforming male (with the added layer of being trans: will people think I’m “going back” to living as female?).

    I love how socially conscious Bren’s work is and I hope to incorporate my own reflections into my work (besides making pretty things, of course!)

    • That certainly a fascinating set of gender-based tensions you’ve got going on there. Being a male embroiderer is one set of challenges, but yours is way more interesting than that. Please keep me posted on your adventures! 🙂

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