Embroidery: thread and needle poking and punching fabric, decorating tea towels and making ordinary pillows cheeky. While some might dismiss the medium as nothing more than a hobby, hand-stitched clothes and boots unearthed by archaeologists date the origins of embroidery back to 30,000 B.C. Artists like Alanna Stapleton take it one step further, elevating the craft into an elegant art form.
“Sewing was a big part of my childhood, learning traditional quilting and clothing construction techniques from my mom and grandmother,” Alanna says. “It wasn’t until my final year of undergraduate college [at Northern Michigan University] that I returned to using a needle and thread. It finally clicked that I could embrace this skill I had, but make it my own. […] I could draw and knew how to sew—why couldn’t I just stitch what I was drawing?”
Alanna, who describes herself as “first and foremost an illustrator,” graduated this past May with a master’s in visual studies and a concentration in illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Stitching with bold color palettes, the core themes of her work seek to explore personal narratives, the “humor found in everyday experiences,” and the role of women in society through this traditionally feminine handiwork.
“I like to speak to the history and form of embroidery samplers and story quilts,” the 25-year-old artist says. “My work often deals with the guilt of not fulfilling duties or meeting standards, and evaluating routine traditions that can come with cultural expectations, especially those set for women. Questioning tradition can be painful, so I find humor a useful entry point into the conversation. I want to always be making work about badass ladies doing cool things and living their weird and wonderful lives.”
She did just that when she participated in “Artists in the Kitchen.” The project involved 50 female artists partnering with 50 female chefs and restaurateurs from around the Twin Cities for a spring 2018 exhibition at Minneapolis’ Textile Center. Recognizing that women in the restaurant business and the arts scene face similar career barriers, the goal of the initiative was to create an “innovative partnership whereby chefs are inspiring artists to produce new artworks.”
Alanna was paired with Anne Rucker of Bogart’s Doughnut Co., and, after spending time with Anne in the Bogart’s kitchen, created an embroidery of 10 stitched panels showcasing the art of making donuts—mixing, cutting, frying, glazing, and, finally, devouring—boldly depicted in hues of scarlet, deep teal, and boysenberry.
Alanna’s needlepoints range in size from four-inch-wide circular compositions to 18-by-24-inch masterpieces, and have caught the eye of The Store at Mia, Soo Visual Arts Center, and Light Grey Art Lab. Her digital illustrations and gouache paintings also have been recognized by a variety of places, including Rookie Magazine, Gowanus Print Lab, and the Society of Illustrators in New York.
“Right now, I just have the insatiable need to keep making stuff,” she says. “It feels important, like making work is my way of not being silent about the things I see, both the funny and the decidedly unfunny. The making itself is also so cathartic—sometimes it just feels really good to be able to stab a piece of fabric 10,000 times.”
Transcending cultures, geography, and generations, embroidery has long equipped people with ways to tailor, mend, or pass the time. But Alanna Stapleton’s work goes a step further—her prominent, artful pieces keeping thousands of years of traditional embroidery relevant, one stitch at a time.
Name: Alanna Stapleton
Hometown: Portage, WI
Currently Resides: Minneapolis, MN
Medium: Hand embroidery