Michelle Anais Beaulieu-Morgan is a queer embroidery artist whose graduate studies emphasize visual and material culture. She is a mother in New Haven, Connecticut, who sells her work through her online store EnPointe. In this beautiful interview she shares in her own words how art intersects with feminism and activism, tells us about her stitch-a-day project that is a personal effort to embrace the feeling of “too muchness” she’s been accused of as a queer woman and gives us more insight into the long-lasting potential of material objects as cultural symbols.
Kathryn: When and how did you learn embroidery?
Michelle: For Christmas 2014, my ex-girlfriend put a tiny “subversive cross stitch” kit in my stocking. I made the piece that January (2015), and was immediately hooked. I did a few cross stitch pieces at first, but as I started digging around on the internet looking for inspiration, I saw a lot of embroidery art pieces that I fell in love with. In February of 2015, I made my first embroidery piece (a Victorian corset piece), and I haven’t stopped since. I am self-taught; I watch videos when I want to learn new stitches, but mostly it is all trial and error. In the first few months especially, I would copy things I liked, since it was easier to teach myself a technique if I had something to follow.
Kathryn: For those who aren’t as familiar with the two crafts, how does cross stitch differ from embroidery, particularly as it applies in your work?
Michelle: Cross stitch is a series of small x’s made in an explicit pattern to create an image. Though there are exceptions, it tends to be “smoother” than embroidery, since there is less of a chance that texture is going to build up in a piece. Its digital form would be pixilation. I love cross stitch, but it requires a lot of counting and attention in ways that aren’t as mobile to me. Embroidery is usually described as “drawing with thread.” I’ve used that description myself, but I’m becoming more resistant to it, since having control of a denser physical medium like thread is a completely different phenomenon than working with ink or pencil. I don’t really use cross stitch in my pieces, except that an X made out of thread is technically a cross stitch, in name. I am much more drawn to the organic nature of embroidery than I am the formal processes that are necessary for cross stitch.
Kathryn: When / how did you come to take art seriously as a pursuit/ vocation?
Michelle: I was born this way! When I was a kid, I would organize neighborhood sidewalk craft / art fairs, where we could sell our stuff to our parents for fifty cents or so. All through high school I toggled between going to school for art and going for academics. I initially was set to enter Bennington College in 1997 with a dual focus on Women’s Studies and Dance; I wound up not going (very long story!), and had my son in 1999, which put an end to my interests in pursuing a studio art degree. It is really hard to be a creative person who simply has to make things in order to stave off depression, and to balance that with being able to take care of yourself financially, committing yourself to political work, finding a way to put food on the table, and also needing intellectual communities. If I could make a living doing this full-time, I would, hands down. I haven’t figured out a way to do that, yet.
Kathryn: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
Michelle: I have absolutely no issues with coming up with ideas. My biggest problem is that I have WAY more ideas than I do time to execute them. Inspiration comes in many forms; I have always loved pattern, color, and texture. As a kid I was a dancer, and if I could have lived in sequins and funky neon spandex costumes, I would have.
Here’s a good example, actually … The other day, my girlfriend had on a flannel that was dark navy blue and teal and lime green. I love those colors together, and so I told her the story of “why,” which is nothing more than a memory from many years ago of being behind a teal truck with a dark bed on it, a truck that was filled with bright cabbages. There’s nothing more to the story than that but it made an impression.
As a more general example, every time I go to the gym to take a class, I will notice trends in the colors people are wearing. I’ll see that a lot of people are wearing pink shirts or are dressed in black. I tend to get visual snapshots of colors, in other words, and hold onto them.
Kathryn: What can you tell us about the process of an embroidery piece?
Michelle: My process depends on the piece. For more abstract pieces, I just freestyle as I go. With more figurative pieces, I usually draw it out with a water-soluble fabric marker before I begin. As for my feelings and thoughts – I get obsessed when I begin a piece. I use that word deliberately. Once I start a piece, I have nearly no control over working on it until it is finished. The world could be raining down in an apocalypse around me, and I would be tunnel-visioned, hunched over a piece, completely in my own world, until it is done. It’s a bizarre paradox: I completely lose myself in the meditative nature of something as particular, tiny, and labor-heavy as embroidery, while also feeling something like a deep, anxious, compulsion to finish it. I am sure my therapist would have a lot to say about this.
Kathryn: What has been impactful about the art of embroidery for you?
Michelle: The most impactful component of embroidery art for me has been the way it speaks to people across the world. I went from having just a few of my friends “liking” my pieces on Instagram, to thousands of people all over the place commenting and sharing their own projects with me. Feeling connected with people globally through a typically undervalued art form has been amazing.
Kathryn: Do you engage in any other art/ craft mediums?
Michelle: Well, I’m finishing my PhD in American Studies, and focus on visual and material culture, so I don’t have much time. Prior to returning to graduate school, I worked in mixed media, making collages and three-dimensional pieces. A huge component of those pieces were cut paper. I would make very precise images out of paper cut with an exacto knife, and I also incorporated a lot of linoleum prints into my works. My impulse has always been toward arts that really use fine motor skills. I love dancing and danced for most of my life, though never professionally. If I were financially better off, I would try ALL the crafts!
Kathryn: Tell us more about your PhD work…
Michelle: I work on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality and visual and material culture. I wrote my Master’s thesis on images of deviant women on Progressive Era illustrated postcards, which launched me into the world of material culture – how objects circulate, how people use them, how they interact with them. From there, I became especially interested in questions of materiality. For the non-specialist, materiality is a fancy way of saying how the things we use and the things they are made out of make us and help shape the way that we think about the world.
I’m finishing up my dissertation at Yale in the American Studies program, currently, and I also completed a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as part of my academic training. My dissertation is called Material Possessions: Producing Race in American Culture, 1820-1920. I look at gold, coal, and ivory as case studies, and track how these substances helped shape conversations about race and the limits of the human and natural during the nineteenth century.
More generally, I’m interested in how people who don’t have access to formal education make sense of their worlds. This very much comes out of my childhood. I’m a first generation college student. My father was a carpenter (he died when I was in college), and he understood the world through his material – wood. My studies are interested in how people use the materials they have at hand to structure their worlds.
Kathryn: How have your studies impacted your art and vice versa?
Michelle: Since I study material culture, I am really aware of how objects take on lives of their own. I also know intimately how nearly imperceptible details in the construction of an object can leave clues that future historians and scholars will plumb hundreds of years from now (if we haven’t destroyed ourselves, first), and how much our choices as makers of objects say about us and our thought processes. I think one of the best parts of studying visual and material culture and American history is having a larger context than most for situating my own work historically. 1850 seems like yesterday, to me, because I know enough about it to imagine it as a little bit closer than most people. That said, someone more famous and smart than me once said the past is a foreign country, and that is true. I can’t bring the 19th century into immediate focus. But I can place the history of embroidery and samplers and women’s domestic arts into their historical context, and feel extremely gratified that I am part of that genealogy. I can’t claim that I respect the art form of embroidery any more than any other embroidery artist, but I can say that my studies make me feel PROFOUNDLY connected to the past.
Kathryn: How does your art intersect with activism/awareness raising/ politics?
Michelle: Oh, I have a lot to say about this.
I’m queer (by which I mean lesbian, for people who are less familiar with queer politics), and have been a feminist since I was 13, when I found a used copy of Sisterhood is Powerful at the local Goodwill. I was born and raised in rural Maine, which is very much Trump country. In the early 90s, when I was a teenager, Riot Grrl was very much the thing, and I connected deeply to the punk rock feminist aesthetic of that movement and moment. I saw myself in my rural bedroom, totally closeted and alienated from the people around me, as being able to be part of something larger than the world I was confined to vis-à-vis the zines and album art that I would mail order and devour. So, I have a good sense I think of how art can reach people who most need it in corners of the world where it might not otherwise be a part of the cultural and social landscape.
But, now, we have the internet, and social media, and the idea of access has become an entirely different beast. I have a hard time figuring out where we (the collective “we”) should be putting our energies. I believe that art helps support people in need, who need to see themselves reflected bravely in images and representations. I also think we can have a tendency to be way too self-congratulatory about what our artwork does. Raising awareness is not the same thing as activism. And activism is not the same thing as organizing. I have been much more involved in organizing for various causes at some points than I am now, and I can get pretty down on myself about that. I think it is crucial that people with scads of privilege (white people, middle and upper class people, straight people, cisgendered people, etc.) do more than just make a piece of art and wipe their hands clean of more direct action.
I think about my own art in relation to this all the time. I have some pieces that are very explicitly “political,” but for the most part, it is more subdued, at least as far as surface appearances go. I think it’s harder for the general art-viewing public to “see” my queer politics and feminism in some of my works. For example, right now I’m working on a piece that feels very much like a queer feminist landscape piece of sorts, and I think the elements are all there, but I’m not sure how it reads to people who aren’t looking for that when they look at one of my pieces. As an artist, you can never control how someone else is going to interpret your work; that’s part of the point, I think. But it’s important to me and MY identity that I preface my pieces by intentionally naming them as queer and feminist. This has a lot to do with my own struggle with depression and substance abuse, and the ways art has absolutely, time and time and time again, helped me out of some pretty dark spaces. And that depression and substance abuse has everything to do with my subject position. So, even if my art is not going to change some awful political policy, which we really need organizing to combat at the practical and direct level, at the very least, it has saved my life, and I am worth being alive. Ann Cvetkovich’s book Depression: A Public Feeling has been really important to me and I strongly urge anyone who thinks about women and art and depression and our own creative processes to read it.
Kathryn: What can you share about being an artist/ mother and student at the same time … in what ways do you achieve / struggle with balance?
Michelle: 1. IS. SO. HARD.
My son is nearly 17, so it’s not quite that bad. But, I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of infancy. It’s hard to support myself and him. I want to make art full-time, but can’t. I’m definitely very much in a transition moment, currently – he’s growing up, I’m finally almost done with this PhD and I get to make some choices in the next two years about what path I really want to take.
But it’s been a rough road. I had my son when I was 20, and I have grown up with him, and I haven’t always made the best decisions for him or for me. But, I love him fiercely and he knows it, and that is the only thing that really matters in the end. I hesitate to offer any palatable, easy-to-digest tidbits on achieving balance. I live one day at a time, and aim for my day to be balanced as much as possible, but unless you’ve a dual-income, middle class household with a lot of support networks, balance isn’t usually your endpoint. Survival is.
Kathryn: Well said. What do you most hope to pass on to your son?
Michelle: I hope my son Ezra is happy. I hope that no matter what, at the end of the day, he is happy. I also raised him to be a feminist, and I am really proud of that.
Kathryn: Going back to balance, is your stitch-a-day project related to that daily balance?
Michelle: The impetus behind the stitch-a-day project was to give myself a meditative way to stitch something without having to finish it. I wanted to carve space to make a contribution to a piece of art every single day, and so far, half way through my year commitment to that, I’ve been able to do it. I have a weird relationship to the piece. On one hand, it is a visual diary of my year thus far. On the other hand, I’m too close to it to see it objectively.
I don’t especially love anything I make. We are all our own worse critics. But something extremely therapeutic has emerged out of the piece for me. I have been told since I was little that I am “too much,” and I’m very self-conscious about that. I am not extraordinarily hyper; I just have strong feelings about things, and vocalize them. It can be a lot to be a person who is “too much,” and when that is wielded like a weapon against queer women (or any woman of color, gay or straight, I think), you really have to slow down and take a lot of deep breaths and remember that your “too muchness” is what is keeping you going. It is a misogynist, racist, classist tool, internalized or otherwise, designed to keep us from reaching our full potential.
This piece, in all of its excessiveness, is about my too muchness. I love that it exceeds the boundaries of the neat or quaint or crisp and careful. And I think that is why it is so popular; besides the fun people seem to be having watching it grow. I’m floored by the range of people it seems to appeal to; Everyone from radical lefty queers to Midwestern Christian soccer moms to nanas in Russia seem to find something in it for them, and I’m so happy it seems to speak to people who have probably been either told they were too much, or were afraid to be so, in the first place.
Kathryn: Well said! Before we wrap up, let’s pay it forward. Who are some of the artists / people who inspire you?
Other artists: Caroline Chandler. Swoon. Francis Waite. Olek. Anna Valdez. John Valadez. Shooglet. Sophia Narrett. Allison Sommers. A lot of these artists bridge the mediums of fiber art and other disciplines.
Examples of other people? The people who are fighting the fight quietly and bravely and sometimes loudly and with fear but who just do it day in and day out.