I was in a wonderful exhibit, Drawing in Thread, a long time ago with artist Michael Aaron McAllister. I recently found images of the exhibit and was reminded of his work and thought he made a perfect subject for the next installment of Future Heirlooms.Â When I visited his workshop I fell in love with his VERY tiny but total gem of a studio and was compelled by the interesting subjects of his densely embroidered portraits. So here we go let’s chat with Michael.
And go see images of the show Drawing in Thread here.
Where do you live?
I live in St. Louis, MO. The Arch can be seen from my studio window. I live downtown in the Historical French District in a townhouse with a tiny backyard for the pugs.
If you had to describe your work in 3 words what would they be?
Colorful. Humorous. Ambrosial.
What is your background as an artist?
I hold two degrees in art with a concentration in ceramics. Not trained in fibers in the least. My studio is in VERY close space where I live and eat and sleep. Ceramics is many times too messy and toxic to mix with living quartersâ€¦therefore drowning myself in floss, needles and fabrics seemed the next reasonable step.
Can you give us a 4 sentence or less artist statement of your current body of work?
My current work is off in two directions. I am working on a set of 26 portrait quilts which are inspired by Dr. Seussâ€™ ABCs and a set of 15 or so portraits of HRM Queen Elizabeth II spanning her staggering and secluded life.
How does working with embroidery/stitching affect the conceptual aspect of your work? What drew you to stitiching?
My work has always been process oriented while displaying heroic feats of time-intensiveness. Ceramics shares this with embroidery. I was first drawn to embroidery by the colors. Secondly, when you start from ground zero and teach yourself how to do somethingâ€¦you are never hampered with what NOT to do and what TO do. Everything is organic and exploratory. The way I work the surface is very textural and tapestried. Encrusted, sparkling and candy-like. (above work is a self portrait with E. Dickinson)
I love his statement about not being hampered by what not to do when you are self taught, so true!
Most of your works are densely stitched portraits, How do you select your subjects and the images of them you use?
My subjects come from what I am reading at the time or a past encounter or visual interest. I have been interested in history and biography my whole life. The images I use are ones that I feel will help the view or tenor of the portrait I wish to convey. Some portraits are gushing puff pieces. Some portraits are more frank and may expose follies or short-comings. Either way each are done with love and respect for who the person is and what they mean to us and how they fit into our lexicon.
Sometimes you include text in your work can you explain how you select when and why you add it or do not add it to work?
I add text to most of my pieces to help tell the story. I also LOVE to embroider letters. Simple as that. They add a graphic quality to the work. I donâ€™t feel my work needs text, but having it there helps the portraits to become visual biographies.
What are your techniques and processes of making?
First and foremost my work is portraiture, which is embroidered. The style of this is very similar to that of tapestry. The work is very heavy, thick and poured over. Because I am self-taught many of the techniques Iâ€™ve come up with are my own. I use common techniques such as stumpwork, ribbonwork, couching, beading, pearlwork, sequinning, and trelliswork. I find the images I want to useâ€¦combine them and draw them up into a final cartoon, transfer them to my broadcloth and then commence the embroidery in a â€œcoloring bookâ€ sort of fashion, adorning and speckling the surface for hundreds of hours.
How has your work evolved since you first began working with embroidery?
Iâ€™ve been working embroidery since 1999. Oddly enough I am very pleased and lucky to say I am still able to try new things and invent new techniques with each new piece I begin. By doing this and trying new things at every juncture the work stays fresh and still thrills me to this date. I still use the same embroidery needle and the same beading needle after all these years. (WOW what brand does he have?) I have only ever used DMC Floss in each of the portraits. I use it for EVERYTHING. Quilting, piecing, binding, beading, etc.
You are currently working on an alphabet project can you tell us a bit more about the concept behind this series?
The series is inspired firstly, by Dr. Seussâ€¦but also by other great â€œalphabetsâ€ such as Edward Gorey, Graeme Base, Chris Van Alsburg, and Mike Wilksâ€™ â€œThe Ultimate Alphabetâ€. With each of these works came an inspiration and thousands of childhood hours pouring over them. My series is a way to pay respect to these authors for all the imagination and happiness they gave to me. Each letter contains a verse on a famous figure (such as â€œA is for Alcottâ€, shows Louisa May Alcott, writer of Little Women) portraits of not only Alcott but other â€œAâ€ luminaries such as Arp, Adams and Anthony. A few items expected (apple, alligator) and few NOT expected (Anacin, acanthus). Each of the quilts is about the size of a placemat and inundated, simply crowded, with images. Itâ€™s the most colorful and exciting work Iâ€™ve done to date.
What is the next direction or step for your work?
Honestlyâ€¦the new work (the portraits of HRM Queen Elizabeth II) will have very little to no text. The only text will be use to title the portrait. I will also be returning to less adornment concentrating on embroideries purity without the â€œBlingâ€ that so much of my work has had until now. The size will be the same. I do a lot of traveling during the summer and tend to â€œstitchâ€ at a moments notice (in my car, at Starbucks, waiting in line) so the small size I work on will probably not change that much.
The artist with his dogs, Millie, Sylvia & Ethel.
How do you think, if at all, being male affects your practice or the perception of your work from viewers?
Sometimes I feel being a man has helped people become aware of my work. A male embroiderer is still sort of a novelty. This I think is sort of silly. All my life I have preferred the company of women. I place myself in matriarchal situations whenever possible. Itâ€™s where I feel most comfortable. On the other hand, being a man and NOT being taught by a mother or grandmother like many women areâ€¦I can attack my embroidery freely with none of the â€œyou have to do thisâ€, and â€œthat is wrongâ€. My style, content, intent and concept are my own whether being male OR female.
Your studio appears to be crazy organized can you talk about your studio and studio practice? And how you keep it so neat!
It sort of has to be hyper-organized or I would drop dead from claustrophobia. My studio is 3â€™ by 10â€™. An enclosed balcony. It sort of mirrors my work. Tiny, detailed, orderly, scrumptious, comfy. At the end of the dayâ€¦I clean up. This takes about 2 minutes. I work all day during the weekends. During the week I get up at 4AM and finish the day in my studio when I get home from work. The pugs and my black lab tuck in, taking up my lap, ottoman and floor welcoming me home by them napping. Itâ€™s heaven. If I didnâ€™t do this each day I wouldnâ€™t be as reasonable, happy and friendly as I am.
Who are the 3 most inspiring people to you as an artist and why?
First and foremost Ella Fitzgerald for longevity, kindness, talent and being at the top of her game for seven decades.
Second, French writers Balzac, Zola and Hugo for creating STAGGERING works of literature and having foresight and the passion to never doubt themselves. Each were steadfast and resolute.
Thirdly, Alfred Hitchcock for sheer mastery and domination in his craft. Each movie he made is perfection. Each frame a classic painting. A true genius.
What do you struggle with most as an artist?
Honestly, creating work that after my death might end up in a craggy antique mall next to a garden gnome.
Also the fear of losing my needle.
What else do you spend your time doing?
Not only do I have this magnificent obsession, but my day job is one that is as equally fulfilling. I work in the Upper School Library of a private school here in St. Louis and get to spend all my time working with teens. I love all of them. They inspire me with their humor, fearlessness and compassion. Another hobby is cooking and baking which is enjoyed by the aforementioned teens. I also listen to audio books while I embroider. I tend to go through about 40 books a year (75% audio, 25%Â bound books).
Thank you Michael! So fun to be invited into the studio mind of other artists. Until next time keep your needle threaded.
Joetta Maue is a full-time artist, writer, and curator with a focus on the art of the needle. Her most recent body of work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the critical blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch.