By Sarah Coffey
“If you’re going to discredit my ideas because I wear lipstick, then there’s a greater problem at hand.”
Like the extraordinary women she immortalizes in embroidered portraits, Jenny Hart is a gutsy girl. At the age of twenty-seven she started her own business, Sublime Stitching, an on-line gallery accompanied by a catalogue of patterns and kits for hipster crafters. Four years later, Hart has a lot to show for her efforts, including prominent gallery representation and high-profile write-ups. Bust and Nylon have described her as “saucy” and “rock n’roll.” Her illustrations and retro-style embroidery patterns have been featured in Venus and Budget Living, and her business was profiled in the Wall Street Journal.
In no sense is Jenny Hart a traditional artist, and perhaps that is why her work is so fresh. Her portraits of old-time strippers, singers, and cowboys are offset by images of modern legends like Bill Hicks, Jim Goad, and the White Stripes. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her mastery of conventional craft, the work is underscored by a sophisticated mixture of irony and sincerity that resonates with contemporary audiences and appeals to progressive publications.
The feminist implications of Hart’s needlepoint are also hard to miss, although she avoids labels that may limit the understanding of her work. “I have a difficult time saying ‘I’m an (anything)’ because of the immediate assumptions that other people, who label themselves in the same way, want to apply to you… although I very much appreciate and support third wave feminism and the embracing of femininity. Unapologetic girlishness, for lack of a better explanation, I’m all about that.”
Sweet L’il Candy Barr, 2002
hand-embroidery on cotton
9 1/2″ x 12 1/4″
Hart’s reclamation of the traditionally feminine craft of needlepoint adds depth to her iconic portraits of strippers with names like “Irma the Body” and “Sweet Lil’ Candy Barr.” She chooses subjects from “people I admire, and images I’d like to see translated into embroidery. I love nudes, I love pinups, I love to embroider long, flowing hair…it’s very much about what I would enjoy stitching.
It’s very easy to look at my work in hindsight and say ‘Yes! I use it to promote this idea about “femininity,” but it really has nothing to do with why I started. I didn’t take it up as an act of feminism, I just wanted to learn how to embroider and make beautiful things.”
Hart’s exaltation of women, from nostalgic idol Edith Piaf to modern icon Dolly Parton, stems from a heartfelt admiration for these women and the labor of their lives. In fact, it was the suffering of her mother, LeJean that brought her to embroidery. When LeJean developed breast cancer several years ago, Hart went to stay with her during the recuperation process. In the wake of LeJean’s recovery, Hart remembered a visit to the Glore Psychiatric Museum where she saw piece of needlepoint by a former patient. Looking for a creative outlet, she decided to take up embroidery as a way to manage stress. Her first project was a portrait of LeJean based on a 1952 photograph. That piece led to further portraits of her father and late mother-in-law, also a victim of breast cancer. LeJean recovered from cancer and later provided Hart with the start-up money for her business, a $1,000 loan.
The transition from regular employment to entrepreneurship wasn’t easy. “I was coming home from my day job and working on Sublime Stitching until 11 pm every night,” she recalls. “Then I’d work on it all weekend. I had the incredibly good fortune of being laid off, so that allowed me to transition more easily into making Sublime Stitching a full-time gig. After about four months, I had to voluntarily stop collecting unemployment.”
Hart’s business sensibility veers from the mainstream art market and owes much to the proliferation of on-line industry: “The internet is the cornerstone of my business. I never would have considered opening a brick-and-mortar store. 90 percent of my sales are through my website.” The downfall of internet retail, however, can be the lack of human contact and personal connection that creates repeat customers. Hart’s solution is to combine the advantages of new technologies with old-fashioned ideas about customer service: “I was determined to go against the typical modes of business: impersonal, take the money and run, trick your customer into buying something they don’t really need. Businesses seem to have adopted an attitude that they are doing you a favor by offering their services instead of worshipping the customers. I worship my customers, because they allow me to do what I love to do.”
Her unconventional approach to the business of art is further pronounced by her assimilation of fine art with craft. Just as Hart’s needlepoint portraits reference both “high” and “low” art, her company blurs the line between creativity and commerce. Hart’s sketchbook is filled with rough drawings of pin-ups, pirates, and tiki heads that can transform into gallery-ready wall-hangings or tea-towel patterns sold on-line for $3.00 a pop.
Still, she maintains a distinction between business and the creative process: “As for my embroidery work, I allow myself to do whatever I feel compelled to create, independent of what an audience might want. I need that outlet, where there are no marketing strategies involved with the creative process. The opposite is true for the craft design aspect of it. I absolutely take into account what types of patterns my customers want, how to appeal to them visually with my website, etc.”
The galleries that exhibit Hart’s work range from the outsider Yard Dog Gallery in her home of Austin, Texas to San Francisco’s forward-thinking alternative exhibition space, the Lab. “I do not consider myself to be a folk or outsider artist,” she says. “My work has ended up in venues like that because it seems to be more appreciated and better understood by that audience, which is fine with me…I do think it influences the way my work is seen, for better or worse.”
Hart was represented by Yard Dog at the 2003 Outsider Art Fair in Chicago. In the context of an outsider venue, the work had an intuitive appeal that was reminiscent not only of traditional folk art, but also of more contemporary marginalized art forms like comic books and graphic novels.
Looking at “La Chingona,” an embroidered portrait of a voluptuous female wrestler, it is easy to see the influence of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Hart rhapsodizes about her early comic influences, giving them heavy credit for the development of her aesthetic. “I’ve read lots and lots of comic books since I was a little girl, sneaking my brother’s Heavy Metals, Weirdo’s and art books… I never questioned comics as a serious art form. For as much time as I spent in classes studying drawing, my learning was very much informed by the comics I was reading: Love and Rockets, Yummy Fur, Jim, Moebius, Milo Manero, Liberatore’s Raxerox…”
The combination of conservative medium and edgy image is what gives Hart’s work its kick. “The embroidery looks old fashioned,” she explains. “The immediate notion is that only old ladies do this type of work, so the association is inescapable… Another layer of meaning comes from taken-for-granted handwork that you see elevated or used to a farther extent than one would envision it used for.”
Hart’s portraits are far from old-fashioned. Instead, they raise questions about topics as varied as memory, celebrity, and sexuality. The work mirrors the complexity of a society in which ideas about art, sex, and femininity are constantly in flux. Things that may appear cute or kitschy are often more subversive than they appear at first glance.
As Hart puts it, “Many people assume I’m a ‘little old lady’ who does this work. It’s always fun to dispel that idea.”