Piaf 2002, hand-embroidery on cotton, 18" x 20"
Mistress of the Stitch
By Sarah Coffey
If youre going to discredit my ideas because I
wear lipstick, then theres 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 nroll. 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 Harts needlepoint are also
hard to miss, although she avoids labels that may limit the
understanding of her work. I have a difficult time saying
Im 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, Im all about that.
Sweet L'il Candy Barr, 2002
hand-embroidery on cotton
9 1/2" x 12 1/4"
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
Id like to see translated into embroidery. I love nudes,
I love pinups, I love to embroider long, flowing hair
very much about what I would enjoy stitching.
Its 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 didnt
take it up as an act of feminism, I just wanted to learn how
to embroider and make beautiful things.
Harts 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 LeJeans 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
wasnt easy. I was coming home from my day job
and working on Sublime Stitching until 11 pm every night,
she recalls. Then Id 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.
Harts 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. Harts
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 dont 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 Harts needlepoint portraits reference both high
and low art, her company blurs the line between
creativity and commerce. Harts 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
The galleries that exhibit Harts work range from the
outsider Yard Dog Gallery in her home of Austin, Texas to
San Franciscos 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
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.
La Chingona, 2003
hand-embroidery on cotton panel
10" x 12"
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.
Ive read lots and lots of comic books since I
was a little girl, sneaking my brothers Heavy Metals,
Weirdos 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, Liberatores Raxerox
The combination of conservative medium and edgy image is what
gives Harts 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
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.
Harts 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 Im a little
old lady who does this work. Its always fun to
dispel that idea.
For more information about Jenny Hart visit her website at
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