Melissa Zexter: From conception to creation
American textile artist Melissa Zexter combines her love of the technical aspects of photography with the more meditative process of embroidery. The results are unique, hand-crafted photographic objects that examine issues of identity, memory, personal experience and technology.
Melissa began adding embroidery to her photographs after attending an artist’s residency in New York. With no access to printed photographs there, she began sewing simple images onto hand-made paper and, later, continued to do this onto her own photographs. She revels in the contrast between the two media – and also their synergy – with the embroidery adding a three-dimensional quality to the content of the photographs.
Growing up with antique dealer parents in Rhode Island, surrounded by art, furniture, embroideries and rugs, Melissa values these influences on her appreciation of the handmade, the historic and all that is beautiful.
She now lives in Brooklyn, New York and has exhibited throughout the United States, and in Italy. She has been published in such publications as The New York Times, After Image and BUST and her red stitching majored in H&M clothing’s 2017 advertising campaign.
In this interview, which is part of our From conception to creation series, Melissa discusses her embroidered portrait of Cori Bush, a progressive people’s representative who is currently running for US Congress. The piece was produced for the exhibition ‘In Her Hands’ which was shown at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York from 14 June until 17 August 2018.
Name of piece: Cori Bush
Year of piece: 2018
Size of piece: 22 x 17 inches
Materials used: Archival pigment print, thread
Techniques/methods used: Photography, Stitching, Collage
“Women’s work” – through positive, political portraiture
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Melissa Zexter: In May 2018, I was invited by American curators, Orly Cogan and Julie Peppito, to make a piece specifically for a group exhibition of fifteen artists called “In Her Hands” at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York City. The exhibition focused on female artists who combine craft materials with portraits of progressive female political candidates who were running for the 2018 election in the United States.
The portraits included in the exhibition highlighted female candidates who were working in a positive way to better their communities and their country. The show examined how female artists reinterpret the methods and materials associated with “women’s work” to empower progressive female candidates. In this time of #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #timesup, there is a rise in artists around the world who make positive and powerful political and creative work.
What research did you do before you started to make?
I was invited to make a portrait of candidate Cori Bush, the US Congress candidate from Missouri, USA. Cori Bush was chosen because of her activism with the Black Lives Matter movement and marching in Ferguson, Missouri to protest against the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. A notable quote from Ms Bush is “I am the people. ”
Prior to the exhibition, I didn’t know much about this candidate. Through research, I discovered that she is a community activist, a pastor, a registered nurse, a single mother and a fighter.
Photoshop, collage and sewing
Was there any other preparatory work?
This portrait is unlike other embroidered photographs portraits that I have done in the past. For many years I have been combining the technologically immediate medium of photography with the more labour intensive and meditative process of embroidery.
The subject matter of the majority of my work is portraits and some landscape imagery.
I always take all of the photographs that I sew into. However, because of time constraints on this commissioned piece, I had to use appropriated images, which I altered through Photoshop, collage, and sewing. I invented a creative way to transform the photos so that they became my own, and incorporated my unique style of sewing on photographs.
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?
I began by finding digital images of Cori Bush – both portraits and candid shots – many of which she provided to me directly. I then used Adobe Photoshop to alter and layer the images and added text on top of the portrait.
The text included collaged signs that related to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, as well as Ms Bush’s well-known quote “I am the people”. I portrayed this quote through both words and imagery.
To add to the layered effect, I incorporated smaller photographs that I cut up and collaged.
For the thread, I chose a simple pallet of metallic silver, gold, and red so that it would blend with the colours in the photograph. The colour gold represents success and silver is associated with truth. The rows of overlapping stitches were incorporated to create transparency over parts of the photograph.
What equipment did you use in the creation of the piece and how was it used?
Manipulation with embroidery
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage
The portrait, which was made on a tight deadline, evolved during the process.
The last pieces to be added were smaller sewn collaged photographs with text sewn over them and sewn words. I have not combined text with sewn patterns into a photograph in recent years and it is a technique that I will use again with future projects. I like the layering of images as it creates a more three-dimensional effect.
Through the manipulation of the image’s surface with embroidery, the photograph becomes unique, a no-longer reproducible object. Similar to other embroidered portraits that I have made previously, this piece manipulates the generic qualities of the photographic print.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
The piece was on view at the Robert Mann Gallery in the Chelsea arts district in Manhattan from June 14th- August 17th 2018. The show included artists and candidates of different races, backgrounds and stages in their careers.
I would love for this groundbreaking exhibition to be a travelling exhibition, but there are no plans for that as of now.
Do you feel ready to try stitching onto paper? We’d love to learn about your experience – please let us know in the comments below