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An Interview with Jenny Hart


I first encountered Jenny Hart's work in a magazine I picked up in San Francisco's Japantown called Little Thing. The entire magazine was in Chinese, and I couldn't read a word of it, but that turned out to be immaterial, as Jenny Hart's embroidery art is worth a thousand words.


I was immediately entranced. The issue (from what I could tell) appeared to be grandma-themed, and I was surprised and delighted to see a grandma-ish hobby like embroidery being applied in such a unique and impactful way that didn't feel old-fashioned at all. Her embroidery work included loving portraits of Iggy Pop and Dolly Parton, a carefully-sewn depiction of a beheaded St. John the Baptist emblazoned with the words "All the girls wept tears of pure joy," and a majestically simple stitching of a girl lost in thought amongst clouds. I had never seen the embroidery medium used so expertly. These works were so delicate and ephemeral, yet so declarative, softly nostalgic and optimistic-- as if they knew that nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't mean that nothing matters. To say I was hooked would be an understatement. Jenny's work even inspired my few misguided endeavors into embroidery arts, which I've been tempted to return to during quarantine (check out Sublime Stitching).


Others have, of course, also been drawn to her boldly tender embroidery--- her work is in the collections of Maya Rudolph and Tracey Ullman, she's in the Smithsonian's permanent collection, and even the Met commissioned her to design embroidery patterns. But the magic of her work lies in the fact that, despite its obvious universal appeal, it feels intensely personal, like Jenny has labored over this magnificent embroidery just for you and her, for you to share in her sadness, joy, empowerment, so you, too, can occupy this fantastical realm of stitches, so you can have this moment of trenchant happiness in the middle of a bookstore in Japantown, and if it's all dust to dust, at least we had a moment of pure beauty. "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men -- that is genius." Forgive me for quoting Emerson, but if I had to describe Jenny's work in a word, I would simply say "genius."


Who are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?

The biggest inspiration overall in my life is my father Lyle, who passed away in 2004. I learned so much about art, music, filmmaking and photography from him. He was a very unique person. I would also say that I learned how to work at being a loving, happy and expressive person from him. Because that's what his interests were and who he was. It rubbed off on me in a very big, very positive way. My 8th grade art teacher, Sarajane Boyd was also a huge influence on me. She deeply inspired, and changed, my approach to making art at a young age.


What's your favorite memory?

1987.

Using a metaphor, how would you describe your creative process?

The embroidering is like drawing in a slow motion. My overall creative process is more like...uh...a spinning top?

What was the first thing you ever embroidered?

A portrait of my mother, LeJean. 

What draws you to embroidery?

Its healing properties, its near-total aesthetic beauty. Its mind-boggling variety as an endless source of education, innovation and creation. And, everyone loves embroidery.

What's been the most transformative experience of your life?

Wow. No one has ever asked me this! I really have to think about that. There are so many. I'm going to say being in Paris in 1994-1995. That definitely transformed me. 

How does your background inform your art?

Well, I grew up looking at a lot of photography, painting, contemporary and 20th century art from the books all over the house. I mean, for as long and far back as I can remember, piles of books seemed everywhere, it was great. Books of commercial illustration, collections of cartoons, my dad was big on "Book of Lists" and quick-reference history. I honestly am never totally sure of how it informs my work. I gave me a love of beautiful drawings and an interest in a wide variety of subjects. And, that's a huge part of my work in embroidery: drawing. I guess it also depends on what I'm looking at and calling "my background". I dropped out of art school after two years and completed a degree in French instead!

What work are you most proud of?

More than any one piece of artwork, I'm proudest of my design company, Sublime Stitching. (It will be 20 years in 2021.)