Robin McCarthy interview: A zen process to embroidery
Robin McCarthy began her art career in embroidery, designing clothing for major labels as well as contributing to the Jim Henson Creature Shop. She studied art at San Diego State University and graphic design at Otis College of Art and Design.
Her fine art is best known for its combination of mixed media, including photographs, illustrations, and embroidery.
Presently, Robin calls Los Angeles home.
In this interview, Robin McCarthy talks about the history of talented artists in her family, the inevitable evolution of her work, and a special composition that once made an entire classroom erupt with laughter.
A keen eye for color
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Robin McCarthy: When I was in college, embroidering on your clothing was a common practice. I had long been making my own clothes so my interest in textiles and sewing was well established. This embroidery trend immediately appealed to me. I recall taking a pair of my bell-bottom jeans and embroidering a detailed flowering vine up both legs. This may not seem so fresh now but back then the trend was new and inventive. One thing led to another and soon I was embellishing my brother’s and boyfriend’s shirts with embroidery.
A book came out at the time called “Native Funk and Flash”, which I still have. It explored the work of artists doing all kinds of innovative crafts, many of which experimented with the art of embroidery and those images truly planted seeds of inspiration in me.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Without a doubt my early influences were my mother and both grandmothers.
My mother is a woman with tremendous creative strength. Everything she does reflects a keen eye for color, composition, and care. That includes decorating the home, cooking a fine meal, gardening, or quilt making. No matter the expertise, her results are inevitably beautiful and full of heart. She taught me to sew at 12 and I took to it straight away. With her help and great example of attention to detail, I began to make most of my own clothes.
My maternal grandmother was also a gifted artist. I have a beautiful paper doll complete with a full wardrobe she illustrated and painted with watercolors as a young woman. She was also one of the early illustrators for Walt Disney animation.
And last but not least is my paternal grandmother. Indulging my devotion to dolls, she made complete wardrobes entirely by hand with exquisite detail. These influences seemed to be well suited to my natural inclinations and eventually led me to spending many years as a clothing designer.
“You should take orders”
What was your route to becoming an artist?
For a long time my artistic side was put to more commercial practice. I was an art major in college without a clear goal of what to do with it. A casual comment to my boyfriend at the time led to designing clothes. His business nature responded to my comment about people asking where I got what I was wearing, “You should take orders.”
It seemed easy enough. Little did I know the path of a clothing designer would be so fraught with challenge.
I learned how to make patterns and began taking orders. Eventually I had my own line and opened a shop in Malibu, California, as well as sold my line to boutiques and department stores.
After doing this for many years, I recognized that my artist self was a shrunken self and no longer had any passion for the fashion industry. Quitting cold turkey, I followed with fulfilling stints working in theater costume shops and making creatures with the Jim Henson Creature Shop but I was still searching for a new direction. I decided to return to school and studied Graphic Design at the Otis College of Art and Design.
Just for fun, I enrolled in an embroidery class taught by the magnificent Susan Hill. She was one of the lead embroiderers on Judy Chicago’s famous Dinner Plate exhibition. What a wonderful, quirky, and inspirational woman. This is the liberation I had been seeking and it led me to the fine art I am making today; still involving textile and threads, my first love, but in a much more playful way.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Mixed media is the best way to describe my chosen medium. Beginning with found photographs, I manipulate the image using digital technology. Illustrations and backgrounds are added before it is transferred to fabric. At this point I add single-strand embroidery that diverts the composition to a new point of view.
A most original imagination
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
How I arrive at the end result varies from piece to piece. The challenge I always present myself with is to strive to create a piece that is both arresting and humorous. I consider myself a storyteller in a way. Sometimes it begins with a particular photograph that triggers my imagination. Other times I have a solid direction and purposefully seek out photos and illustrate images that will facilitate that story. Often it is the embroidery stage of the piece where I realize the “punch line” and what embroidered embellishments will skew the image toward that end result. Allowing the idea to evolve as I go seems to work best for me, as I tend to get further from the obvious and more towards surprise. This is not to say that I don’t have a general concept of what I will be embroidering but the possibility of it taking me in an unexpected direction is always there.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I was recently asked if Monty Python was one of my inspirations and this flattered me tremendously. The list of artists who inspire is long and always evolving. Include me in the legions that appreciate Joseph Cornell and the collage work of Hannah Hoch.
Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer, is one with a most original imagination.
Richard Saja certainly helped me see the light on the fun that can be pursued with embroidery work.
Wayne White is another very whimsical and smart artist I admire greatly.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Years ago, we were given a class assignment to take an everyday object and utilize it in something new. Over the course of this class, for some reason, each assignment I completed was larger than the previous one and it became a source of fun and joking in the class. In this case I began collecting old bras of varying sizes from friends and thrift stores. Row upon row I constructed this elaborate ball gown made out of bras. Walking into class with this enormous garment bag, twice the size of the last assignment I had submitted, was a good laugh for us all. At first glance, people thought it was some kind of Cinderella gown until they noticed it was all bras. The whole process, start to finish, was really fun.
A keener and calmer focus
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Embroidering is such a lovely, zen process and I credit it with helping me develop a keener and calmer focus. Learning the basic embroidery vocabulary gave me tools to understand subtleties that have helped me become more playful and experimental. Incorporating new stitches and the textures they can create is a continuing evolution. The way a stitch responds to light can be determined with the direction of the stitch itself. I don’t give a great deal of thought as to how my work will evolve as long I continue to grow. My style can be somewhat editorial so how it evolves will depend on the world around us.
What other resources do you use?
One of my favorite places here in Los Angeles is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It contains fascinating and offbeat collections of things most places would never feature but are truly wonderful to experience.
I follow your website. Fiber Art Now is also a wonderful publication, as is Communication Arts. Some fun things pop up on the blog of Mr. X Stitch, as well as the blogs of others artists in many disciplines. I try to keep my antennae out at all times when it comes to what might light a fire for a new idea.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
If I were stranded on a desert island it would probably be tweezers and the toaster! Other than that I would consider the absence of a cherished tool to be a challenge worth trying to embrace… but scissors would be helpful.
An emerging artist
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
As an emerging artist I can’t say I have the luxury of choosing where I show my work. That said, as I explore the many Call to Artists, a major criteria is who is curating the show; what is their background and experience in this area? Although I appreciate that a small fee is fair when submitting work to a gallery putting out a Call to Artists, I avoid galleries that seem to curate all their shows this way because I feel the impetus to actually sell and exhibit art properly is lost a bit when a steady stream of submission fees keeps rolling in.
Another approach I take is researching galleries and the work they represent. If I feel my work fits the spirit and quality of the gallery I reach out with an introduction to my work.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I am waiting to hear on inclusion in a few shows so I can’t say definitively yet. My work is featured on my website.
Learn more about Robin McCarthy by visiting: robinmccarthyartwork.com
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