Freshly broken. Unavoidably clever. Doggedly hopeful.
All ways I’d describe the moments in time captured in elegant stitch by Brooklyn-based artist Iviva Olenick. Iviva creates embroidered narrative artworks from the often-tortured interior lives of early 21st Century men and women as they negotiate crumbling relationships and attempt to connect with one another.
Her work is small in scale, with relatively short bursts of text embroidered and painted onto remnants of vintage textiles (which often feature elaborate lace edges), but it has the weight and depth poetry. Iviva moves from words and stories to imagery; her visual artwork comes from language.
I m particularly taken with her unusual narrative sources. She created a Twitter account (@EmbroideryPoems) and collects 140 character poems from followers. In June 2013, she staged an embroidery slam Brooklyn, bringing together poets, musicians and textile artists (including me) to live stitch found poems.
Iviva has been working with embroidered artwork for about 11 years. She credits the Whitney Museum s exhibition The Quilts of Gee s Bend, with opening the eyes of both the New York art community and her own to the potential of textile art. As she describes in her bio, all of a sudden, quilts had the same weight and presence as abstract paintings, and craft was in again.
Although I m fortunately enough to have met Iviva in person, what follows is from an interview that I conducted via email in which she elaborates on her sources, inspirations and process.
What kind of art were you producing before the Whitney exhibition? Can you describe your thought process for bringing stitches into your art practice?
Before seeing the 2002 Whitney show of the quilts of Gee’s Bend, I was experimenting with photography. I used to go to the darkroom for hours to make silver gelatin prints. The chemicals gave me horrible headaches, and I’d go home afterwards and pass out. I knew I needed to find another medium!
But it’s possible that stitching found me. In 2002, I changed jobs, and shortly after the new job started, ended a long-term relationship. I felt completely uprooted, and began making small, decorative stitched drawings on paper and on fabric, perhaps as catharsis. Some of my first stitched pieces were embroidered swirlies stitched onto Chinese ancestor paper. I was using tiny skeins of thread from sewing kits from the 99-cent store. I had no plan for what I was doing, and certainly no ambition towards making “art.” It was more exploratory than anything else.
What were your first stitched pieces like?
Shortly after the breakup, I stitched on some items of clothing my ex-boyfriend had hated, including a pair of high-waisted underwear. It felt freeing to reclaim these rejected items as my own through stitch. One piece later became something I exhibited with my gallery, Muriel Guepin Gallery. I did have to re-work it from the original decorative elements, however.
In terms of the source material for your artwork, you’ve used social media, you’ve collected confessions from attendees of the DUMBO Arts Festival and you’ve stitched found poems from the “embroidery slam.” What are some other sources of your narrative embroidery artwork?
Source material comes from many places. Quite honestly, a lot of it is stream of consciousness as I navigate daily stresses and the deeper complex interstices of dating and intimacy. I do borrow from conversations with friends, and phrases I overhear as I’m walking and running through Brooklyn and NYC.
The small pieces of antique textiles serve as a contrast with the very contemporary narratives you stitch upon them. But they are also perfect, tiny bases for these complicated fragments of poetry, conversation and confession. How important is the selection of the vintage fabric to your work? How did you come to use it?
I first started using lace-edged and vintage remnants mostly because friends, colleagues and fellow artists gave them to me. I have at times bought some myself, but 90% of my vintage fabrics are from friends. A wonderful friend and fellow artist, Andrew Thornton, used to mail me boxes of fabrics he would get from estate sales. Friends I’ve met through Muriel Guepin Gallery, like the painter Paula Overbay, have also passed on pieces, as has Muriel herself.
I am aware when looking at and touching these fabrics of their inherent history. There is emotional content to the stains and tears in the form of the memories they represent of the people who used them. Even though I don’t know what these stories/histories are, I like to think that I honor them by adding my own anecdotal remnants in the form of stitched poems and love notes.
Finally, can you tell us anything about you’re working on now or about upcoming ideas that you will be exploring?
New ideas I’m exploring are really an extension of my ongoing Were I So Besotted series. I have been adding watercolor to a lot of my work, underneath the stitching. I like the softness of the watercolor versus the linear quality of the embroidery. The contrast between the two gives the work a bit of an ethereal quality, and I believe that there is an ethereal nature to the way we form connections in this age of Internet dating and texting versus talking. [For example] “What I Can Glean from Facebook.”
For more about Iviva s work, and to keep up to date with upcoming exhibitions (including one this fall at the Muriel Guepin Gallery) see Iviva s website and blog. And follow her on Twitter at @EmbroideryPoems.
Please join me in using social media as a way to share our narratives, inspiration and work with artists of Iviva s skill, vision and compassion.
Olisa Corcoran is a stitch artist and blogger living in Durham, NC. She speaks fluent Nuyorican and always keeps her dial turned to 11.