Melissa Zexter interview: Embroidered photography
Melissa Zexter creates embroidered photography. The combination of the immediate and constantly advancing medium of photography (using both traditional and contemporary digital techniques) and the meditative process of hand-stitch produces fascinating results. Melissa’s work is often figurative and deals with representations of femininity.
Melissa is regularly invited to exhibit and her work has been seen as part of shows at Kenise Barnes Fine Art, New York, Hallspace Gallery in Boston, MA, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Creiger Dane Gallery. She currently teaches at The Dalton School in New York.
We’re delighted to have the opportunity to find out more about this unique medium (embroidered photography) and the imaginative artist behind its creation.
Embroidery transforms photography
What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
I have a background in photography, but also have always loved hands-on art making techniques; drawing, painting, mosaic making. In 1999, quite by accident I began to combine sewing with my photography. I was at an artists’ residency program in the Catskill Mountains of New York where a fellow artist in residence taught me to make handmade paper. I went to the hardware store in town and discovered a sewing section where there was a large selection of threads. I bought some thread and a needle and began to sew pictures onto the handmade paper. I had never really sewn before. The sewn drawings were of anonymous figures. I also made pillows and sewed images onto them.
Soon after, I began to incorporate sewing into my larger scale photographs. The photographs were also of anonymous figures and the sewing acted as a map or grid over the figures. For me, sewing was another way to build up a surface and to build upon the content of my photographs. I loved the meditative process of sewing – it was in such contrast to the technologically more immediate art of photography. I was also interested in how thread blended in and reacted to the photographs. The combination of sewing and photography brought together two very different processes that I love. The use of embroidery is a reaction to the photographs and is a process that aids in the transformation of identity of the person or place being photographed.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in an historical house that was built in 1698; a residence of General Lafayette in Bristol, Rhode Island in the United States. My parents were antiques dealers and our house served as a warehouse for art, furniture, embroideries, rugs, etc. I see this as being an indirect influence on my appreciation of the handmade, the historic and all that is beautiful. My mother made all of our clothes, she knitted all of our sweaters, she embroidered pillows, painted murals on walls, she restored a 21-room house, and she did everything by hand. She is probably my biggest artistic influence.
Thread creates a connection
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in the USA and received a graduate degree in photography from New York University. I have no formal training in any form of textile arts. I have never stopped making work and exploring with a variety of mixed media methods incorporated with photography.
What are the techniques you use to create embroidered photography?
My chosen mediums are simply photography and thread/sewing. I take and print all of my photographs. Some of the photographs are digital prints and others are gelatin silver prints that I make in a darkroom. I take the pictures first and then decide how I am going to change them with the addition of sewing.
The thread acts as a connection between the person and myself or place that I have photographed. I always think of the photograph as something from the past and the thread as a reaction to the past and present. The thread makes the photograph more personal to me and allows me to meditate on the image. Combining the two mediums (photography and sewing) allows me to reinvent the photograph; to visually react to a person or a place.
Meaningful, beautiful art
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
In my mind, my work best fits in the category of photographic portraiture. Or at least that is what I am most interested in. Recently, there has been a surge in the use of sewing and embroidery in contemporary art. In this over saturated age of technology, there are many artists who still love to make things by hand and who can make meaningful, beautiful art using a variety of methods.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I take many of my pictures outdoors, but also do many portraits in my studio in Brooklyn, New York. Most of my sewing is done in the studio, although I often continue at home after my children are in bed. I love to work in my studio because there is a lot of light; there are big windows and quiet streets, and sometimes the smell of fish and salt water (I am located near the water). New York is a busy place; so going to my quiet studio is always a welcome relief from the noise and activity of the streets of NY. I also like to listen to music when working.
Spending time with one image
Do you use a sketchbook?
I sometimes use a sketchbook to draw out ideas of what I will sew onto my photographs. Or if taking a portrait in the studio I will plan out what I want the picture to look like.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Many artists inspire me. One person who I am inspired by is my friend and first photo teacher, Anders Goldfarb. He is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate photographers I know. He knows everything there is to know about the history of photography. Here is a link to his website which features his black and white photographs: http://www.andersgoldfarb.com/
I still love the same photographers that I loved when I was a teenager starting out in photography: Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Gary Winogrand – I also like the photographs of Alec Soth, paintings by Mickalene Thomas, El Anatsui, Daniel Gordon, Florine Stettheimer, and many, many more artists. Right now I feel there are so many photographers out there and it is too much for me to look at – it all just gets lost. At times I think there is too much to look at, too many photographs and it’s nice to just sit with one picture and spend time studying and looking at it. With my own sewing, because it is so time consuming, it forces me to stay with one photo for a long period of time.
Other inspirations include maps, the ocean, antique samplers, 19th century American silhouettes, family snapshots, puzzles, and vintage fabric design.
Portraiture and identity
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
“School Girls” is a piece that has meaning to me. For several reasons I will always have fond memories of this piece. The sewing here is one of the most intricate patterns I have sewn. The photograph was originally part of a documentary photo essay I did on Catholic school and the nuns who work there. This picture was taken in a school yard – originally in color and printed later in black and white. This piece combines two things that I love to do; taking photographs of people I don’t know in somewhat of a documentary style and sewing with fine detail.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
While studying photography and soon after I finished school my interest was in documentary photography and photojournalism. I thought that would be my career. After working at several news and photo agencies and newspapers in NY, I rethought what I wanted to do and it gradually evolved into sitting in my studio alone and sewing and exhibiting the sewn photographs. However, I still can’t decide which I prefer – sewing or exploring outdoors with my camera. I do both. The sewn photographs have been what I have shown in galleries for quite some time.
When I began combining sewing with photography, I was interested in using the figure in my work, often in an anonymous way. I am now much more interested in portraiture and identity.
I am always jumping back and forth between using black and white and color photographs. Because I love the energy and abstract quality of the patterns of the thread on the back of the photographs, I have been sewing in reverse – making what usually is unseen (on the back of the photograph) appear on the front of the photographs. This creates a more 3 dimensional illusion and the photograph becomes more tactile and alive.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Exercise your wrists! Do what you love to do!
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
Here are three monographs that have been inspirational to me:
- Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective (weaving and collage)
- Sheila Hicks “Sheila Hicks: 50 Years”
- Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain
What other resources do you use?
I have a list of blogs that I like on my blog:
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My old Rolleiflex camera and a sewing needle. Also, recently I am obsessed with orange thread – so I guess at the moment I can’t live without orange thread.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I have exhibited my work in several galleries in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts. I am always open to showing my work in new venues that have an appreciation for the type of work that I do. It is also ideal to show with a dealer who has respect for their artists and an understanding and interest in the artists’ work that they exhibit.