Where would we be without her, the incredibly fabulous and legendary Jenny Hart? I assume that all of you know who she is since she is a sponsor here at Mr. X Stitch and you would kind of have to be completely out of it to not know her. But just in case, Jenny started making embroidery cool way before it was cool to do so. Her company Sublime Stitching was the first company to create hip, cool embroidery patterns and usually wrapped them up in a super fun kits to entice folks to pick up the needle again and…
Boy did she start a phenomenon! When I decided to use embroidery in a piece of work 4 years ago I had no idea how to do it. I thought “how hard can it be?” ha, my first embroidery was hilariously awful so I marched my little graduate student butt down to the cool shop in town and purchased a Sublime Stitching kit. And through Jenny’s basic simple instructions learned how to do the split stitch and the rest is history.
I have had the privilege to speak at the same conference as Jenny a little bit over a year ago and met her. She is a fabulous, funky, confident chick that would be super cool to sling back a couple beers with. Since then we have shown in a number of exhibits together and our paths keep crossing, so it is in the lovely world of embroidery art. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to pick her brain about her work, her company, and her love of embroidery. I just wish it had been in person with that beer.
So here goes… How did you begin to embroider?
I became curious about [embroidery] when I was in college and began thinking about… adopting it as a medium for portraits and fine art in a way that I had never seen before. I did not grow up doing any needlework- as had … my mother and grandmothers. Practically speaking, I had no idea how to start. So I just mused about it for a long, long time until more and more things nudged me in that direction… what it took to break the dam was when I was devastated by the sudden death of my mother-in-law, and the simultaneous, ensuing illnesses of my father and mother. The last ten years of my life, in a very personal…way has been interwoven with a lot of tragedy. Hand embroidering… portraits, stitching for hours every day, and starting Sublime Stitching led me through [these] harrowing times. And, it still does. Embroidering and running the business is my greatest comfort. I do not really talk about this aspect of [embroidery] too much via Sublime Stitching because that was my ‘happy place’-the one thing I had in my life that I felt I had control over- that was a source of tremendous joy and positive creativity. But, at one point I was running my business and answering emails from a computer in a hospital library in Little Rock while my father was in a coma. People have no idea that their emails to me about being excited to learn embroidery or find updated patterns for the first time was incredibly sustaining to me [during this time]. So, I have always wanted to be able to extend an enormous thank you to all the people who’ve supported my business and what I do over the years, because I don’t think they have any idea how much it has meant to me and how much of an impact they’ve had on my life.
Are you self taught or formally trained?
I’m formally trained in drawing, but not embroidery. I did not grow up doing needlework or studying textiles but grew up with a lot of formal classes in drawing from childhood through college. I have a degree in French (I thought I’d teach or translate for a living) and I have done museum installation and paper archiving for five years at two university collections (KU and UT). I have additional degrees in photography and marketing that I earned from my father.
You generally work with images of iconic pop culture figures can you talk about how you select the individuals and the images that the work is based off?
I’ve always loved portraiture because it’s such a wonderful, simple basis for a work of art – It’s a great starting point and I really want to focus on the embroidery with each piece. So, I keep things simple, and made [my format] a portrait of someone important to me with an interesting face and a compelling life. [Choosing] Someone who deserves the devotion of the kind of work in hand embroidery, people I believe in. These are my favorite portraits to do.
How does pop culture inform your work?
It’s really important that Sublime Stitching responds to customer demands, because it is a commercial design company. That’s a function of it for me creatively, and practically. But, timelessness and style is more important to me than making sure things are on top of pop culture. It’s a balance. It has to be what I find personally interesting and not just ‘what people want’. But don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love pop culture and consume an embarrassing amount of trash and celebrity gossip. My artwork is really apart from those considerations, though. It’s when I do work for myself. It’s the most difficult for me to do artwork when I’m considering how it is going to be looked at or perceived or especially if there already are expectations of what I do and how I work. Which, is why I very rarely accept commissions. No one is going to suggest I do something they haven’t seen me do before and it doesn’t allow me to try something new.
How has your work evolved since you first began working with embroidery?
I keep experimenting with it, new materials, new stitches, new textures, new ways of approaching it. I find it endlessly fascinating. It’s an entirely new medium to me and has such enormous room for personal interpretation and uniqueness.
What is the next direction or step for your work?
Oh, I would do portraits forever. I still actually hand embroider nearly every day. [But] I love to draw the most and have recently been drawing a lot of embroidery stitches instead. After doing my book, and drawing so many diagrams, I became interested in drawing embroidery and trying to recreate the look of stitching [through this]- almost like an embroidery trompe l’oeil. I recently had a solo show of new work (drawings) at Domy Books in Austin called ‘Study Hall Drawings'(details below.)
Describe your studio and studio practice.
Running a business and working in embroidery at the same time has always made having a comfortable space [to make] a challenge as they are so different. I use to embroider while travelling but it drew more attention to me than I was comfortable with so now I keep a corner at home where I can stitch it out. I like to to have my corner where I can stitch, and that’s how I work.
In addition to being an embroidery artist you also own the business Sublime Stitching, can you talk about how your business developed?
Well, it’s still developing. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever worked at in my life. When you have to seek out resources and are trying to give birth to a personal vision (I feel like I’ve been in labor for ten years) it’s a staggering amount of work and personal commitment and, it’s very, very difficult to find people to share that passion with you. When I began, not many people around me thought what I was doing was going to be successful. It was seen as a cute idea, or a side-project, but I was completely serious about it, in the same way as I was passionate about embroidering. I don’t really now how to tell the story of how it’s all developed- it’s been a loooong story! I have to say though, I am the most optimistic about where it is right now, more than ever before. It’s gone through a lot of changes in the last year, but they are growing pains that are for the best. Starting up a business and getting to a point where you earn your living at it is daunting, and it really takes one thing: you can’t give up. That’s the ‘secret’.
Did you start your business or your embroidered art work first?
My artwork came first. I began embroidering for the first time in the summer of 2000. I’d had the idea of designing updated patterns for embroidery years earlier, but it was just ‘one of those ideas’ that I didn’t think I’d ever actually do. It wasn’t until I started experimenting with embroidery for my artwork that I returned to the idea of also doing a design business. I really felt strongly that I wanted to do both, since so many artists shy away from associating their work with commercial art, but I felt that this was exactly why there was such a divide between art and craft and, why updated design resources were so lacking. I knew it would be much easier for me as a fine artist to point at my embroidery and say ‘this is art, not crafting’if I stayed away from the crafting world, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to involved myself with each aspect of it and really have that conversation with what was art, and what is craft. I became obsessively addicted with embroidering from my very first stitches. I felt my whole body relax and my blood pressure lower! I also was fascinated with learning a new medium and something so mysterious and foreign to me was now becoming revealed. I embroidered for 3-4 hours every day for five years, which is how I produced so many of my embroidered portraits and artwork.
Can you talk about the challenges that come with balancing an artistic studio practice and owning a small business in the same field.
Earning a living and answering the overwhelming demands of running a business always seem to come first. Now that I’ve moved Sublime Stitching out of my house, I have a much greater separation (physically) from work work and when I am home I feel more free to focus on my artwork.
Where do you live? Does this affect your work?
I live in Austin, Texas. I have lived here since 1999. I would say that the creative community and sense of home I’ve felt in Austin has made what I do possible. I think the general feeling I have for Texas and its own influences has entered into my work in some way. What else do you spend your time doing?
I pretty much eat, sleep, breathe and dream Sublime Stitching. If I have time to myself, embroidering on personal projects is still my favorite thing to do. But, when I’m not embroidering or working on Sublime Stitching… puttering around my house, doing laundry, reading, putting plants in the ground and hoping against hope that they live, sitting outside on one of Austin’s sunny patios with a friend having a beer- are my favorite things to do. Not having a schedule for a couple of days where I can have un-constructed free time is the greatest luxury I can imagine.
Where can we see your work? links, websites, galleries, shops, etc.
JennyHart.net or Sublime Stitching. I recently had a solo show of drawings at Domy Books in Austin called “Study Hall Drawings“
Thanks to Jenny for sharing and we look forward to more awesome things to come.
Until Next Time Keep Stitching!
All images are generously borrowed from Jenny’s sites and are copyrighted by Jenny Hart/Sublime Stitching.
Joetta Maue is a full time artist primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributing to the online journal Hello Craft. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, two cats, a goldfish and awesome baby boy, Tesla.