Badass Cross Stitch: Activism through Stitching with Shannon Downey

Posted by: Elaine Luther

I love how your cross stitch and embroidery breaks rules.  Your large scale piece that was in a show at Woman Made Gallery – the red thread connected to each face at the mouth—what does that mean?  Did you sew that on after or was that done as you embroidered each mouth?

Thank you. I love using a medium that is historically considered woman’s work and taught as a step towards preparing girls for a life of domesticity in ways that seek to subvert that paradigm.

The piece you are talking about (Tangled) was an exploration of finding hope in the intentional connections that I make with other women leaders. I work to bring attention to these people through my site Seriously Badass Women.

It is a platform to not only showcase their business successes but as a way to showcase their wholeness as people. I am often turned down by women who don’t feel they deserve to be included on the blog each voicing disbelief in their worthiness.

Tangled is commentary on these perceptions of self and other, inviting hope in spite of a messy complexity.

Tangled consists of a crude quilt comprised of the hand-embroidered faces of the women from my blog, each meant to emote a sense of incompleteness; parts and pieces but never a whole person. The faces, an unsettling mix of woman, doll, princess, heroine or villain all connected by their bright red lips, their words, their power. Separating their quilt squares are cross stitch comments from the women who have turned me down. Things like, “but I’m not badass” and “I haven’t done enough”.

You drastically cut back on your business and spend 50% of your time now stitching.  That’s amazing.  How is that going and tell us more about why you made that decision?

It’s funny. I get the exact same amount of client work done that I did before but it’s better and done in half the time. I don’t just sit staring at a computer all day thinking that I’m being productive.

Taking time to get off the devices and use my brain and hands differently has created so much space for me to go back to the computer refreshed and just get it done. I find myself solving work problems while I stitch. It’s been an amazing examination of my creative process both as a marketer and an artist.

Do you have a favorite piece that is kind of an underdog, or doesn’t get as much love as it deserves?  Tell us about it.

Ha! Fun question. I think the things I’m most proud of are the stitches I invented as part of the #YearOfStitch. I want to help make embroidery as accessible as possible for as many as possible. That is why I launched the #YearOfStitch last year. I taught a new embroidery stitch every week for a year on my blog. I created a custom illustration, photo tutorial and examples of various ways the stitch could be used. Half way through the year I decided I really wanted to invent a stitch or two. The first one I came up with was a new variation on a traditional stitch.  Click here to learn more.

The one I developed from scratch I named the Badass Star Stitch. Click here to learn more.

Creating something new for my stitching community felt important for me.

Why cross stitch and embroidery?  What drew you to this art form and had you done it before?

I learned to cross stitch in 5th grade but never really did much with it. I grew up with a very limited definition of what made an artist. I couldn’t really draw or paint so I was not an artist.

A few years back when I started to get really burnt out on technology and screens and devices and being connected 24/7 I found a Star Trek cross stitch pattern on etsy and immediately started stitching it. It was game on ever since.

The #YearOfStitch was born out of wanting to teach myself other embroidery stitches and really focusing on the myriad of applications. I also started weaving. I’m crazy about fiber. I get it. It gets me. We get along. Now I self identify as a fiber artist. It’s empowering.

What are the symbolic meanings to you of the fiber arts?  These are traditionally female art forms you how does that influence you (if it does) as you turn that on it’s head in a way, with your serious or subversive messages that you put into your work?

That is what I love most about fiber arts. I love its rich history as a female dominated art form. Not only that, but the community aspect of fiber arts for women; it was/is rarely done alone. The majority of the work that I do is “non-traditional” in terms of content. I feel fortunate to be able to use this medium to talk about politics and social justice freely. I feel like I owe it to the women who came before me who couldn’t.

You have lots of tutorials on your website, do you have specific goals about spreading the good word about stitching, or specific people you want to reach?

Everyone! While I used to think that one of our biggest cultural challenge in the US was work/live balance (or however you might describe how you prioritize your values around your time and energy) I now believe that a bigger challenge is emerging that requires illumination and conversation and that is around finding a digital/analog balance.

I want everyone to spend time away from social media, from computers, from devices, from TV and allow their brain some peace. Allow their hands to work differently. Allow their creativity to grow. I believe you can heal through art. Embroidery and weaving are slow, methodical and require attention and intention. When I stitch or weave I am in active meditation.

That said, stitching requires very little financial investment and it’s easy to learn how to do. It’s accessible. I want everyone to play with needles!

Anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had? 

I would love to spread the word about my End Gun Violence community craftivism project that is going on. Click here to learn more.

I’m inviting fiber artists to stitch (or knit, or crochet, or felt, or weave or whatever) guns and send them to me. I have shared a free cross stitch pattern for folks who want to use that but I’ll happily accept any fiber art guns.

Guns are the tools that are currently being used to release the hate and rage and anger and sadness and fear and frustration that is growing in our world. They are both the object and the symbol.

I am tired of prayers and thoughts and art and thinking without action. The pieces that are being created and sent to me from all over the world will be displayed but they will also be sold, with every penny going to support Project FIRE. These guns can become a symbol but also a tool to support young people injured by gun violence with their recovery.

Project FIRE (Fearless Initiative for Recovery and Empowerment) is an artist development employment program that offers healing through glass blowing to youth injured by gun violence in Chicago. Project FIRE combines glass arts education, mentoring and trauma psycho-education in order to support trauma recovery and create employment opportunities for young people who have been shot or witnessed the homicide of a loved one.

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