*Featured photo: Cardinal Silver gelatin print, thread 20×24”. Copyright Melissa Zexter
Melissa Zexter works with hand embroidery on the photographs she takes. Her work combines a modern and reproducible technique with traditional manual practice. Her research explores the three-dimensional aspect of photography, investigating questions of memory and identity. Through her embroidery, Zexter creates unique photographs that can no longer be replicated, thus commenting on the extreme proliferation of images in contemporary society.
Born in Rhode Island, Melissa Zexter lives in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from New York University. She has exhibited internationally and in private galleries and institutional venues, including Muriel Guepin Gallery NY, Triennale di Milano, Fuller Craft Museum (MA), Robert Mann Gallery NY and Bronx Museum of the Arts. Her work has been published and reviewed in numerous publications, including AfterImage, ELEPHANT, Juxtapoz, The New York Times, The Boston Herald, The New Yorker, Art New England, BUST and New York Magazine.
In this interview for ArteMorbida, she tells us about her work and research.
How did the thread come into your art?
I have been combining the two mediums of photography and thread for over 20 years.
As I expanded the possibilities of photography, I incorporated a variety of mixed media techniques with photography. During an artist residency in upstate New York, (in 1999), I began making paper and sewing figurative narratives directly into the paper. The natural progression led me to embroider onto my photographs that featured images of figures. I always loved hands on techniques in addition to the immediacy of photography. As I created these early works, hand sewing allowed me to draw with a needle and thread, to create curved lines and to create an intimacy between the object, the viewer, and myself.
Observing your works, I noticed that the feminine – in all its forms – is one of the most recurring themes. It’s correct?
The subjects of many of my embroidered photographs are of women and girls. There are a lot of women in my life. I choose to photograph them for my works. I relate more to women’s experiences and a female sensibility. I also photograph many other subjects including landscapes, cityscapes, and details from everyday life. I also invite people to be photographed if I feel that their face or demeanour will engage meaningfully with my embroidery. Sometimes I take pictures without a plan on how I will transform them with the addition of sewing. My first goal is to make a strong photo that can stand alone without the thread (whether it’s a portrait of a male or a female). Once I print my photos, I visualize an image or pattern that could work with the specific picture. The imagined sewing pattern always grows and changes once I get started . The challenge is always in working towards the unknown.
How are your work born? Is the embroidery intervention inspired by the content or does it follow the formal lines of the photo? And does it have a conceptual value or is it a technical choice in order to give greater three-dimensionality to the image only?
Once satisfied with the original photograph, I commence to personalizing it with embroidery. The addition of thread acts as a tool of physical connection to the photograph, bringing the sitter to life, and hand embroidery offers me the opportunity to alter time. My sewing decisions from pattern to color of thread are instinctual reactions to the image. For instance, many of my patterns that I embroidered for the “Maps and Memories” series are abstract reproductions of personal souvenirs (maps, dress pattern, etc).
I typically study the photograph and visualizes a color that matches the mood of the subject. Sometimes specific colors stir a memory reminding me of a person or it may be a color that reflects my mood at the time. Many of my more recent works such as Girl by a Radiator, Veil, and Fox Fur employ looser, abstract stitching which encourages further reflection upon the combination of the two mediums. Of late, I find myself being more interested in making three-dimensional art. When I layer the sewing or use a looser sewing method it often adds a more multi layered effect to the photograph. I have always been someone who sees in detail. So theembroidery was a logical step for me in my art making process.
How has your work and research evolved and how has it changed over time?
Inititially, I created photographs of figures whose identity couldn’t be recognized. I sometimes photographed them intentially out of focus or veiled. I also painted onto some of the pictures with very detailed colorful patterns overlayed by embroidery. In my later series, I omitted the paint and focused on creating color and texture solely through the use of thread, layering colors and a variety of sewing techniques. I have also altered my photographs by removing part of the emulsion and sewing into the altered photograph. Now, I like to be specific with my portraits, nothing is veiled any more. The identity of the sitter is revealed.
Is there also this idea of ‘memory’ in your practice and in your artistic research?
Because of the materials I use and some of the imagery that I incorporate there are references to the past, present, and future. I am very interested in the relationship between photography and memory. The embroidery on my photography is a way to add an intimacy of touch to the photographs. I am also interested in the combination of heart/ mind/ machine/hand – a machine (the camera) records the image- it is made permanent, but it is the hand and the thread that transforms the photograph. The addition of embroidery brings the photograph that was taken in the past back into the present.
I am also interested in extending the time it takes to make a photograph—a swift process that involves taking a picture and printing it- into a lengthy and challenging act. Hand sewing alters time and allows me to react to a moment – the photograph- and alter and adjust the memory.
Photographs are definitely a catalyst for rememberance. I believe that photography and embroidery have – in a different way – a common link to the concept of ‘memory’: the first delivers the present moment to the future, the second draws on practices of the past. Photographs can enable a visual recall of a past event, person or place through their representation of what/ who is captured within the image. Photographs have an impact on our conception of remembrance.
Who are the people who most inspired or influenced your art?
I love analog photography and the many photographers that I discovered early on in my photographic education are still some of my favorites.
I have many sources of inspiration. Maps, Indian miniature paintings, the ocean, antique samplers, 19th century American silhouettes, family snapshots, puzzles, vintage fabric design, Art Deco design, Diane Arbus, E.J. Belocq, Brassai, Lisette Model, Florine Stettenheimer, Man Ray, and so many more.
Also, I grew up in a historical house in Rhode Isltand hat was built in 1698. My parents were antiques dealers and our house served as a warehouse for paintings, furniture, embroideries, rugs, etc. I see this as being an indirect influence to my appreciation of the handmade, the historic and all that is beautiful.
What is (and why) the work (or series of works) that you consider your masterpiece, the one that best represents you?
I do like my earliest series of embroidered portraits which I call Maps and Memories as they reflect on a time when I discovered materials that I really loved to work with. I hadn’t really sewn much before, so it was exciting to experiment with altering my images with thread and to create a
physical braille for the fingers by way of the tactile surface. Many of the techniques that I had experimented with earlier on sort of came to work together (painting, photography, mosaic making, knitting, etc.)
I don’t really have a masterpiece or just one image that represents me. I have been using this technique for more than two decades now andI relate the photographs to different years of my life. The portraits of my friends, family, or strangers do take me back to times that represented where I was. For a very long time I have been enamoured with how photographs can subtly be altered. I enjoy personalising an otherwise ambiguous photograph, with sewn details of personal significance.
One of my favorite pieces is my photograph of a woman with a cardinal. It reminds me of my father. I wished I hadn’t sold it, so I made another one with a bluebird but it didn’t have the same meaning to me.
In your opinion, what is the meaning and sense of ‘making art’ today and what role does art and the artist play in contemporary society?
Making art for me is a way to map my existance and get through each day. I love the meditative process of sewing. For me, making art can be a way to discover the unknown. My art is meaningful to myself and serves as a way to reeavulate current personal situations as well as my relationshop to the photographic object itself. The art really only has true meaning to myself. Perhaps it has some meaning to others, but I don’t really worry about that when I’m making things.
Who is the artist Melissa Zexter today and what does she plan or dream for the future?
For the past 4 months I have been recovering from brain surgery, so I am looking at the world in a slightly different way than I used to! This artist dreams of a peaceful future filled with love, sunshine, happiness, kindness, swimming pools, chocolates, and art making. A world devoid of greed, war, and most definitely pandemics. I’m curious to see if some of that will happen.
I also love to add text to my altered photos, so that is what I am planning to do more of in the future. I’d also like to collaborate with a writer/writers to make a book combining text with altered photographs.