The first work of embroidery artist Alaina Varrone to find an audience was highly sexual and she was quickly labeled an ‘erotic’ artist. Her pieces were widely adored and shared across the internet, but the attention her work brought wasn’t all welcome. She began being harassed across online social outlets and soon Varrone removed herself, and her work, from the world.
When Varrone returned with a new website and social media accounts she was once again harassed and once again, she disappeared.
Varrone returned with a new body of work, embroidered moments of girls on the beach, laughing. Silly and full of joy. This wasn’t her response to the harassment or a way of distancing herself from the imagery that had built her fanbase. It was far simpler than that. Where she once made sex the subject of her partly semi-autobiographical work, Varrone found the core of what she was after. The relationships. The connection between people. Camaraderie. Friendship. Sisterhood.
There is an honesty to Varrone’s voice. Her art is directly linked to her life. To witness a new piece by Varrone is to be given the privilege of seeing inside of what she holds dear. She is sharing her friends and friendships. Her connections. She is showing us life’s simplest of luxuries, the joy of laughter. Of friends. Of being.
“I still feel pigeonholed as an ‘erotic’ artist when I just try to show relationships. I never had sisters growing up so I looked to my female friends for that bond, and they’re all ridiculous and funny and strong, they’re in all of these.”
— Alaina Varrone
From watching your work grow and evolve over the years, I still discover new elements to it. There’s the obvious skill to your embroideries and the humor, but also the fantasy and intimacy. This isn’t only in your sexual work – the girls you show have a high level of friendship, a level of platonic love that is admirable in its intimacy.
It reminds me of being a teenager and first watching ‘Beavis & Butthead,’ where, yeah, they’re dumb and ridiculous but you can’t deny they loved each other. No matter how violently or crass they treated each other, they always remained friends. You tackle these same types of relationships in your work. Sisterly. Familial. Is that something you identify with?
I still feel pigeonholed as an ‘erotic’ artist when I just try to show relationships. I never had sisters growing up so I looked to my female friends for that bond, and they’re all ridiculous and funny and strong, they’re in all of these.
I love them and I love all the little moments we share, I just wanted to show that. Do something different. Plus it lets me play with hair and clothing, maybe that sounds silly. Yes, it sounds silly. It’s like grown-up paper dolls for me!
Your work has always had a strong comedic edge to it, no matter how explicitly sexual it appeared to be. Your subject matter has veered into a more obviously humorous realm – ‘Pool Girls’ reads like a character portrait from some odd BBC sitcom. You’ve evolved past the explicit depictions to come up an inspired new direction.
These pieces are brilliant portraits that, yes, are funny, but also feel very specific. I can identify them, feel who they are, without really knowing why. Your characters feel real, people I’d know. Was it a conscious effort to stop doing sexual work? Does your explicit embroidery share a common idea with your character portraits? Was it a natural evolution?
I guess it was a natural evolution, in that I can’t get laid and no longer feel like a sexual person, hahahaha. And yes, in all seriousness that is the truth. These pieces are all autobiographical in some way, and I just don’t feel sexy, so the art is no longer sexual, or even sensual. Why stitch something I know jack squat about? So I’ve been having fun creating these characters and storylines in my head, and they let me play with expressions and fashion, and show more to the human besides the erotic. There are still plenty of butts though. We’re pro-butts here at Spider’s Paw Industries.
Are their areas of your life that you keep out of your work?
Well, anything personal involving my family or friends is totally out of the question. It’s one thing for me to be candid about myself, but I’m fiercely private about my loved ones.
I also keep my political and spiritual opinions out of my work. I actually have a lot of b.s. in my personal life, but I never put it in my pieces. I consider embroidery an escape, and since the pieces take so long, I really don’t want to be processing those negative feelings for months on end. It’s just not healthy!
You always hear about artist’s losing their edge in times of happiness. Is happiness a bigger inspiration for you than drama or sadness?
My mainline is definitely set to ‘happy’ on the regular, and when I’m sad or upset I don’t even want to make art. I want to sit around bummed out, watching DVDs and eating cookies. So yes, personal happiness is more conducive to making my style of art.
I’ve tried to do those heavy emotional pieces and they feel so false to my natural disposition, and finally I just said fuck it and started making art that meant something to me. I think coming to terms with the idea that art didn’t have to be LOADED to be valid really freed me from those terrible dry periods I kept having. All that pressure to have my art mean something, what does that even mean anyway? I definitely feel like my art reflects my personality now, and coming up with new pieces has become so much easier.
Your earlier pieces were featured heavily on your Tumblr, and that spun out into all different directions – ‘likes’ and ‘reblogs’ all over the place, which is how I found your work. Since then the ‘Spiders Paw’ Tumblr page has gone, then returned, and left again. Your artist Facebook page has gone through a similar fate – you started it then deleted it, just for it to return again. Well, as of right now.
You seem to have a difficult relationship with social media. You use it incredibly well and garnered a lot of attention, but then you abandoned it, to return sporadically. There seems to be a conflict between you as a person and you as an artist – or, for you, is it one and the same? Alaina Varrone ‘artist’ is no different than Alaina the ‘person’?
Ugh, I know, I’m the worst at networking. I struggle with the idea of being a brand because I realize the necessity of being present and involved in all the technological platforms, but it’s so darn intimidating!
Basically any site where there’s a ‘follower count’ sends me for the hills. I always feel this need to be polite and ‘follow back’ but then sites like Tumblr and Instagram feel incredibly overwhelming. Even on Facebook there will be folks who add my personal page rather than just follow my art page, and because I’m afraid of offending people I lose my privacy as a person.
I don’t know how to navigate all this, and there’s a big part of me that resents the need to have an account for the million different networking sites that are out there now, but then in a clear moment I’ll realize that I need to schmooze more and give it a try (again), then I start to feel like I have nothing interesting to post and really compare myself to other popular artists and then I leave (again) hahaha. I have a strong self destructive streak, I’m sure other creatives suck at this stuff too!
The characters in your recent pieces feel like people I know. People I’ve seen. Drunk girls at the beach. Kids goofing off at the pool. You’ve captured this slightly ignored section of society in these embroidery pieces that take weeks to stitch, which shows dedication to your subject.
As much humor as there are in the scenes you depict there’s also a sort of reverence, a respect, for the subjects. Like your paintings, there’s a folk art quality to it — capturing the everyday modern life in a classic medium. What attracts you these moments? Is there a line you’re aware of between humor with heart and just pure joke?
There’s a definite line, and I never want to cross into just pure joke because people have feelings, ya’know? They’re not the object, they’re the subject, and they deserve some dignity, even if they’re showing off for my optical camera. As an introvert I spend lots of time studying others, particularly groups of friends. I love seeing the power dynamics, the vulnerabilities that lie just under the surface.
I noticed the kids these days are dressing and behaving more garishly. A purposeful ugliness? Yet they’re just as insecure as the rest of us were. I like to pretend that when they’re not around their friends they go home and hug their mothers. I need to believe that these characters aren’t just playing silly all the time; they’re just figuring shit out.
You’ve added lapel pins to your store, going for $10 each. With your work being so time consuming I can see the pricing of the embroideries being a struggle, so this is a nice alternative for fans who want something, but don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to part with. How aware do you try to be about having affordable yet quality work available?
Pricing has always been a struggle, it’s always on my mind! I want the girl next door who loves my pieces to be able to own one, but then, yaknow, a single gallery piece can take over a month to complete. How do I quantify its worth in dollars? How do I stay accessible to fans while honoring the work I poured into the pieces? So yeah it’s extremely difficult.
The enamel pins are my first attempt at making my art more available to everyone, and I also occasionally post small silly embroideries for sale when I can. My next goal is to have patches made, and some gear machine embroidered with my designs. There’s been some interest in polos and hats for example, that could be hella fun. Prints have proven a huge challenge, embroidery is very difficult to photograph, so that’s out for now. But man, people love flair these days! I do too, so it’s been a trip seeing my drawings become pins!