Connecticut-based artist Alaina Varrone approaches the medium of embroidery with a folk artist’s touch with the humor and sensibilities of Monty Python. Her images of sex, death, and joy have the look and texture of unfinished Americana, a Comedy Central show laid out in graphic and macabre stitches. There’s love in her portraits, a desire to play along and be a part of it all. Part self-portraitist, Varrone is unguarded and raw, willing to let her life and beliefs be seen by the audience.
One of the greatest gifts that artists like Alaina Varrone give to the audience is the feeling of inspiration, of that tick in the back of your head, the spark, that ignites and shouts, “I totally want to try embroidery!” This isn’t because she makes it look easy or I think I could do it better, but because she’s displaying an art form you’ve seen a million times before and making you feel as if you’re seeing it for the first time. It’s excitement. Enthusiasm. It’s not stagnant folk art. It can be whatever you imagine, and getting the imagination going is a gift from the artist to the viewer.
CJ: You work in both embroidery and paints. Does one offer advantages the other one doesn’t? When you have an idea for a design, how do you choose whether to paint it or stitch it?
AV: It actually comes down to time. I paint faster than I stitch, so those pieces are therapeutic in releasing immediate feelings and ideas, and it’s satisfying to finish something in a few days. I consider my embroidered works-in-progress roommates; because they take so long to complete, the piece changes as my life changes.
Although sometimes the decision is based solely on how cool it’d look stitched. It’s still such a burgeoning art form that something stitched is still innovative compared to it just being painted.
I think you bring a unique and awesome perspective to embroidery, a classic folk art form. How did it become your favored medium?
Aw shucks, thanks! It actually became my favored medium immediately after trying it. My first time, I was just drawing Botticelli’s “Venus” on a scrap of fabric in my freshman drawing class in college (that was 2001!), but I made her plump, and it just sort of hit me that I should embroider her. I learned more techniques over the years but I’m still all about stitching nudes to this day.
The human body is so rad, how could you improve on something so perfect, right? Plus embroidery is still a challenge for me, so I stay engaged.
What’s your process like? Do you do a lot of sketching before you start a piece? Do you just go freestyle?
It starts out with an initial sketch, but I leave certain parts blank, like facial expressions and details. And I always end up changing it, so that first sketch is very rough. The pieces that are primarily satin stitches require lots of planning as I go along. Deciding what colors, tonal value, that’s all drawn onto the fabric right beforehand.
My latest works-in-progress have taken a much more blatantly autobiographical approach. I’ve literally put my body into stills from porn videos I watch. They’ve become an erotic diary of sorts.
I went through a painful break-up this year, and these are coming from a place of deep loneliness. Part fantasy, part memory. They’re my most personal pieces yet.
There’s definitely real bravery to your images. From both your work and your Tumblr, you come across as someone who is not afraid to be a open and exposed in a real personal way. Is there a fear, or do you even care, if the audience won’t look past the thought of a female artist creating sexual images?
I feel shitty even asking that question because I’m sure you get asked all the time. But really, it comes down to the audience. Is that something you even think about before starting a piece?
Yaknow I was just thinking about this the other day….I’ve been doing this for some years now, and this past year or so I’ve noticed more people doing blatantly sexual work, and I actually roll my eyes! I feel like a jerk for admitting that, but I feel like we’re past doing erotic art for shock value.
I still get stupid comments about my work because I’m a woman who does erotic art, I still get men who assume I’m easy or promiscuous because I’m open about this subject, and it doesn’t help that I’m buxom either, so some more ignorant folks just see a big titted woman stitching coitus and get a jolly from it.
I’m trying to capture moments, I’m not just stitching a vagina to be “edgy”, and I like to think my technical ability and sense of humour help to garner respect. I just keep doing what I want to do, I just trust my instincts, so far it’s worked out pretty well!
I found your stuff on Tumblr, which is turning out to be a good place to find artists doing awesome work. From there you have links to your Flickr, personal site, and Etsy store. Do you have a plan for how you market your work or is it more of a “put everything out there” type of idea?
It’s so surprising to me how so many artistic opportunities have arose from that Tumblr. Initially, I just started that blog because I was sick of my mom always on my Facebook, and I didn’t want to just reblog things so I shared what I was working on.
People kept asking me if I sold my work and last Fall I finally started an Etsy, which brought more opportunities. I just love embroidering so much, I love talking to other artists, I’ve always just shared what I do from an honest place in my heart.
It sounds cheesy, but I see so many people on sites like Tumblr who just use it for marketing. I genuinely believe that people are sponges, and can sense when you’re too hungry to sell your Etsy wares. I don’t ever ever want to be like that!
If I imagine how long it must take you to finish one of your embroidered pieces, I’m sure I’d still guess too low. Your Etsy store is full of amazing original one off pieces – how do you decide what to price them at? They can’t be easy to part with.
It’s hard! No doubt about it. I try to keep a little distance from my Etsy pieces because I use the shop as a vehicle for playing with techniques, and stitching doodles from my sketchbook. I do those for fun, and I try to price that accordingly.
Granted some of those “fun” pieces can take a few nights to complete, I still prefer to not charge too much so that the average person who likes my art could buy something of mine that they like.
People are always telling me I’m not charging enough, but I’d rather have them out there living with folks who sincerely love them, I like knowing that something I made has made them happy. I sound like such a sappy dingus, I know!
Now my artsy-fartsy pieces, those take over a year to complete, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sell those, despite being asked many times! I can’t reproduce them for sale either…I just think they’d lose something in the reproduction. I sold one piece in a gallery show in LA recently and I cried for days. I can’t put myself through that pain again I just can’t!
I understand what you’re saying about the difficulty of pricing your work and being approached to sell your favorites, and also not wanting to market your work and coming off as desperate. There seems to a struggle between wanting art to be a career and not wanting it to become something that you don’t want. It’s a precious skill or craft, and there’s always a fear of it not being ‘special’ to you anymore. The fun gone once it becomes work.
For me, I’ve had a few art jobs that were close to what I wanted to do, but not exactly. I realized, at least for me, I want to do my work on my terms or not at all. But it seems like you’re trying to go the more fine artist route; museums, shows, and commissions. Is there an artist’s career that you admire or is there a path you’re trying to emulate, career-wise?
So far it’s a balance between doing the freelance work and commissions while still having time for making my own art, and honestly, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it up. I think eventually I’ll be more comfortable selling my fine art pieces, but right now my goal is to be in more gallery shows and get my work out there.
There’s no particular artist I have in mind for emulation, as always I’m just figuring things out as I go along.
The sense of fun is obvious in your work. Even your more explicit images are done with a sense of humor. Your style and sensibilities borrow from pop culture but it also reminds me a lot of American folk art. When did you find your current style? Did you struggle at all before you found it or do you feel as if you’re still searching for ‘your style’?
I’m so glad my humour is coming through, even the heavier stuff requires a bit of the ridiculous. I’m not comfortable when I try to do serious pieces. It just feels forced, probably because that’s not my personality. I went through some dark periods in my life and I survived and I’m happy and that’s my top priority now, finding the humour in everything.
Even the embroideries that are most personal or emotional…I like to add something that makes the viewer go, “What the fuuuuu…??” and then proceed to giggle.
As for personal style? Well…I don’t think I’ve found that yet, but I think a lot of artists struggle with that.
I can’t even tell when a piece is finished, let alone knowing when I’ve found my artistic voice hahaha…Although it’s odd, people can recognize your embroidery “handwriting”. There’s gotta be some transferring of energy there when you’re working so long on something.
I saw one of your Tumblr posts from a while back where you mentioned your mom asked you why you don’t make anything pretty. It brings up an interesting issue of creating art that those close to us might not like, or enjoy. Or even understand. It seems to be a common question of “do you make the art you want or the art others want from you?”
It might come down to each person’s idea of what pretty is, but was there a time when you made traditionally ‘pretty’ art or cave to what others wanted from you, art-wise?
There’s never been a time, actually! Even back in grade school, my teachers would try to persuade me to do more acceptable art for the school shows, but as a child I had these strong ideas of what I wanted to make, and I had the technique to back it up, so they pretty much let me do whatever I wanted.
My mother’s never disapproved of my work either. I think she just wants to be able to share it with others more. My loved ones know I’m not making things purely for shock value, there’s thought behind each one and that helps with their understanding. My dad doesn’t ask to see what I’m working on anymore, but he did go to one of my local shows recently so he’s supportive.
My brothers just think they’re funny. My family’s fun and bawdy and they’re not shocked by what I make in the least and I totally know how lucky I am.
You mentioned drawing classes – did you go to art school or just take a class or two?
I went to Maryland Institute College of Art for two years after high school, but the more fine art media professors didn’t like my work, I really only excelled in the fiber arts department. These professors want everyone to paint like Cezanne, that’s just bullshit.
I hate being told what to do as is, but when you start telling me how to make art well you can shove it. So I transferred to Columbia University and did socio-cultural anthropology with a minor in theology. I was searching for the goddess concept through history and it greatly influenced the art I was doing for pleasure. Which could be why my work resonates within the feminist community.
There’s a running theme of metal in your work, which I love. The Immortal style makeup shows up in a few of your pieces, which might make you the only metal influenced embroidery artist I can think of. Beyond the makeup visual, I think the one thing that your work shares with metal is how extreme, or over the top it is.
This is a good thing, at least in my mind. When I hear a drummer going a million miles an hour and a guitar player shredding an impossibly insane solo, no matter how scary or evil it’s supposed to be, it makes me smile. There’s something joyful about that, “Holy shit!” moment when you realize you’re watching someone accomplish something you’ve never seen or heard before, and I get that same feeling when I see you expertly stitch a pig head on a woman or a graphic sex scene. That’s my own personal interpretation of it, but for you where does metal come into your work? Is it just a visual cue? Am I just reading too much into it?
This just made my day, Chris! I really love playing with subcultures in my work, I think I gravitate towards the black metal genre the most aesthetically because they seem to take themselves SO SERIOUSLY. At least when in make-up. The black metal fans I know and love are some of the tenderest, most sensitive, and thoughtful folks I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And I love that dichotomy. This expression of another part of one’s personality…I find it so inspiring. The idea of us all as humans having an element of darkness to us, indulging in that is really attractive to me.
I really love the furry community for similar reasons. I know some furries, and I’m coming to understand this culture more and more. The way I see it, we take on animalistic aspects sometimes and not even realize it, and I think a lot of these furries see that animal spirit in them and embrace it. And sometimes that animal’s wearing a little bandana or a cowboy hat, and that just makes it ten times radder. I love it when people unabashedly adore something and just go balls deep into that culture and find community in it. And yes, even with metal there is a joy in it. I just really love seeing people be people, doin’ their thing, and I want to capture that.
What sort of goals do you have for your career in art? Is there a dream you’re working towards? Have you reached it?
I’ve never really thought that far ahead, all I know is that I want to make art for the rest of my life. All-day long. I wake up, I wanna get to stitching. When I have days off from work, I’ll often stitch all day long until I go to sleep.
It hadn’t really hit me that things have been happening until I was asked to be in this book that’s coming out in November, and I was interviewed alongside some of my absolute favorite artists. Artists I used to read about in high school whose art festooned my walls…it blows my mind, yaknow? And every day I seem to get a random email from someone who’s seen my work here and there, telling me how I’ve inspired them to try embroidery, and it’s overwhelming and I get emotional when I think about it.
Ever since I was a scrappy toddler I wanted to be an artist and to think that might actually happen, that it’s not so silly to dream of such things…I’m just really happy. I’d love to someday be in a museum, or designing for books and records and whatnot. In a studio that’s a big red barn…in the country…with fruit trees and stray cats…Okay, I’m getting a little carried away, but yeah those are my dreams. Also to never have to work a shitty job again, wow that’d be so awesome.
Wait, what’s this book you’re in?
The book’s called Material World: The Modern Craft Bible. Some big names are in it!
That’s so awesome. Congratulations! Which artists are some of your favorites?
My biggest influences are Ghada Amer, Louise Bourgeois, Paula Rego, Kiki Smith, Richard Saja, Eva Fan, Colette Calascione, medieval illuminations, any historical needlework is a major influence. I’m also influenced by books I read, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson’s imagery really jogs my own imagination.
How do your embroidery and painting fit into your everyday life? Do you have to schedule a time to do it?
Embroidery’s rad because it’s portable. I usually keep a hoop or two in my giant purse; I’m known to pull one out and start stitching at a bar when I’m out with my friends. I just sincerely love it, it’s such a blast.
I’m sure some people feel that way about Angry Birds or whatever, I’m obsessive about embroidery. And to be totally honest, I don’t have much of a social life, and I live alone, and I’m currently single, so once I’m home from work I have hours of time on my hands, so I pop in a DVD, work on some pieces.