We were sad to hear of the passing of Tod Hensley, a manbroiderer whose work was filled with drama and energy. We had the pleasure of interviewing him in April 2011 and share the interview with you again here. You can also read more from Tod in an interview with Penny Nickels on her DonkeyWolf blog. He will be missed.
Name: Tod Hensley
Location: Brooklyn, New York City
Main embroidery medium: Embroidery floss = regular, metallic, transparent.
How did you come to be an embroiderer?
I was working on small collages and decided to use thread as a way of joining (by stitching) unfinished parts and pieces that I didn’t think were finished. It was like I was ‘suturing’ parts of something together like a doctor puts together broken skin. Joining the different parts worked to help finish the collages, but also the stitches themselves added an aesthetical element that I liked. I quickly became more and more interested in the possibilities of what could be done by using just stitches for the entire piece. Soon I was doing that. I realized it was embroidery that I was doing. However I took the approach that I was using the thread like I was using paint. I still feel that way.
What does it mean to you?
It meant that I could return to using certain imagery that I had lost years ago, back when I was painting. It’s also limiting, which helps me finish things. Oil painting, for example, is so versatile that there are too many possibilities and I find I just experiment but get nothing finished. I also find the process of stitching calming and peace inducing.
Where do you like to work?
When I’m home I work on my floor, my apartment is very small. I bought a beautiful, handmade rag rug from a woman in Amish country. Its very comfortable to lie on (I switch between lying and sitting up), and all the colors and textures help me stay inspired. In the nicer weather I pack up my floss and hoop and head out into my neighborhood. We have a huge park that I have spent many hours embroidering in. There are also little spots all over the place – an outside bench at a coffee shop, on the curb during a street festival while a live band plays. Sometimes I trek to other neighborhoods looking for new places to sit and sew. I’m always ‘sewing and moving’, ‘sewing and moving’ on these outdoor excursions. Of course, in the winter time I pretty much stay inside.
Then there is an art/craft group I attend monthly.
How do people respond to you as a male embroiderer?
They never mention anything about me being a male. They just respond to my embroidery. I have shown my embroidery to a lot of people, most of them women, but the subject of my gender never comes up.
Who inspires you?
Basquiat was probably my biggest artist influence. There are others – other neo-expressionists, surrealists, folk artists, and other artists of all types throughout recorded history – too many to name. Let’s see, recently I’ve been inspired by Brian Wilson (the musician), Bruce Bickford & Jan Svankmajer (animators). Last month I got inspired by a woman who was singing in a Peter Greenaway film. I was inspired a week ago by watching the Peter Jackson ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, so I guess I could say I was inspired by Peter Jackson, and all the people involved in those films. I get inspired by people who make homemade videos on Youtube, or post their photos on Flickr. And I think I may even inspire myself on occasion, is that vain?
How or where did you learn how to stitch or sew?
It’s not completely clear, but sometime in my life I sort of figured out the basic ‘push the needle through the thing, then pull it back up and out’ to make a stitch. I don’t know under what circumstance I needed to know that. I remember watching my mother and grandmother use the sewing machine (an old one with a foot petal). I know my mother had a sewing basket and she used it to fix my clothes on occasion. But I was never formally taught by anyone. I do know that for me the purpose of making a stitch was strictly for joining two parts of something together – like doctors suturing patient’s skin up, or for repairing a doll or clothes. Over the years I touched up some collages by stitching them together using string dipped in paint. I am not sure where I got that idea. When I did the small collages, thread was the appropriate size so I used that. That was about 3 years ago. It was during that experience when I realized that I could actually make forms using a buildup of stitches.
Are your current images new ones or have you used them before?
Years ago I was making images similar to what I am now, but none of them are exactly the same since I invent new ones for every work. I was doing collage and film work for years and during that time those images kind of stopped manifesting, but now it seems they are coming back, but not exactly the same.
How has your life shaped or influenced your work?
I have done some works that deal directly with the way I perceive my brain functioning to have affected my life.
I think my feelings toward my life, and life in general manifest themselves into my imagery as well, but that can be said for almost all artists. One thing I am interested in which I experience almost everyday is the contrast, or duality of things – the beauty and wonder, but also the drudgery, depression, loneliness and pain that accompanies it. It doesn’t seem that there can be one without the other, and that occupies me. I’m sure there are other things, but when I dig into my brain I can only pull out a little at a time.
What are or were some of the strongest currents from your influences you had to absorb before you understood your own work?
Well, I still absorb things from all over the place.
I always tried to make images with a certain ‘primitivism’ approach, and also a ‘hit and run’ approach like Basquiat did. Everything he made looked like he had just completed it a minute ago. I liked that excitement. But I think I needed to absorb his work so I could learn that I was UN-able to do that with my own work. I tried very hard. As for now, I can’t do embroidery in a ‘hit-and run’ fashion, but I like the images I am able to make. They are cruder than what I could do with a paint brush or pen. They are more limiting, or ‘clumsier’ and I can successfully make the kind of ‘dumb painter’ imagery I studied a lot of. I always looked at many expressionists and folk artists and had to find a way to make something look ‘expressionistic’ without looking too contrived.
Mixed media artists, like Robert Rauchenberg and Anselm Kiefer (and others) were important in learning how to incorporate a variety of textures and markings into one work.
Do formal concerns, such as perspective and art history, interest you?
Yes. Over the years, and continuing even now certain formal elements create a sort of a ‘base’ that I rest upon. This is used as a starting point and a ‘ground’ that I can then move away from, for a while at least, but then I always need to return to it.
What do your choice of images mean to you?
Well, for some pieces I think the images are a way of illustrating certain feelings I have. But there are other reasons, like, when I first started embroidery I was making images that I thought of as religious, like they were representations of spirits that I pretended to believe were real. I think that was to entertain myself because at that time I wasn’t showing my work to anyone. I don’t think in that way much now. In one piece I used demon images. Demons – like Gods, ghosts, Aliens, etc. have been used for years to explain causes for things that people otherwise cannot explain. Some of the personal problems I have cannot be exactly, precisely explained, so I used the demons in the same way. I had them surrounding an image of myself, as if they were the cause of my ills. They were also a metaphor for my frustrations, unhappiness and confusion, and other bad feelings I have regarding these problems. All of that may seem a bit negative, but at the same time I make my images strong and vivid and in that way they are celebrating the joy and beauty of life. I suppose that could illustrate the ‘duality’ I was talking about above.
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?
You mean cut out to show a detail of? No. I mean, I do try to make an overall image that will be easily readable. Actually I have recently been caring less about that. As far as photographs or digital reproductions, I feel they all fail to show an accurate representation of the work. It needs to be seen in person.
Do you have any secrets in your work you will tell us?
I don’t think so. I like to be as ‘transparent’ about how/what I do as possible. I know I use certain imagery that looks symbolic, and therefore might look like there is an underlying intent only known to me, but there isn’t. I’ll be glad to explain anything I do to anybody. That’s what I try to do on my blog. Recently I have been making videos about current embroidery and I try to explain every part of what I’m doing. But I don’t think that type of explaining is very important. I actually prefer to hear what other people think of when they look at something I make. And some of the images are really just meant to be evocative.
How do you hope history treats your work?
If you mean on a large scale like popular art history, well, I don’t think about that since it I don’t think anything I do will ever be remembered or recorded on that level. On a smaller scale I don’t think it will be remembered long enough for it to be considered ‘history’.
Where can we find you and your work?
Deviant Art: http://flyinghaystacks.deviantart.com
eMbroidery was created with the support and wisdom of the magnificent Bascom Hogue.