Alaina Varrone is not your average stitcher. With her needle and hoop in hand, Varrone creates delightfully sexy embroidery with a heavy dose of humor—subverting the otherwise staid medium. We recently got to talking about her embroidery, the occult, feminism, and all things bawdy:
Fameless Quarterly: Where did your family emigrate from? (Ok I have to ask this for two reasons: 1) on your blog you once wrote that you wished interviewers would ask this and 2) a little bit ago you wrote a short post about your grandma’s dating life in a nursing home, signing it off, “Perry Girls still got it. femme fatales 4 life.” This caught me off guard because part of my family settled down in CT, in the very area where you are based. That part of my family has the last name Perry. We also have a running “Perry Girls are badass femmes” trope. Are we secretly related?!)
Alaina Varrone: My father’s family emigrated from Italy, and my mother’s side (the Perry’s) are from Portugal! (I’m curious as to whether we are related! I haven’t met too many of my extended family, that side had nine kids, I believe)!
FQ: How did you begin working with embroidery?
AV: I learned the basic embroidery stitches as a child from my mother, who is also an avid needle crafter, but I didn’t think to use those skills in my fine arts education until I ran out of paper to draw on one day in class, so I drew on some scrap fabric I found. This was in my freshman year of college, in 2001. It felt really natural and meant to be—in that cheesy dramatic way—and I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.
FQ: Your work is very much centered on pleasure and the erotic. Is there a specific aspect of human sexuality you are particularly interested in? Do you think embroidery lets you explore this in a way you couldn’t otherwise?
AV: For me, the pieces are always somewhat autobiographical, so the female characters are always the center of the work, and I never realized until it was pointed out that in the erotic pieces in particular the women are always dominant. I prefer strong females, so if they’re expressing eroticism I want them to be the subject, not just another object. In this way, I find my work resonates within the feminist community, and I think the medium of embroidery definitely lends itself to that, it adds a new dimension to the work. For me, embroidery is so exciting because it’s still so steeped in tradition, for a while I was bored with art—I felt like everything’s already been done—but subverting this medium feels joyful. It’s made art fun again, and in a corny way I feel like I’m part of this long and storied sisterhood.
FQ: Embroidery has been, and is often still thought of as, a traditionally female craft—yet you use it to delve into a topic that has been, historically, taboo for women. Do you think of your artwork as feminist work?
AV: I suppose I do think of my art as feminist work, it’s just that those ideologies are ingrained in my being, so the idea of making feminist art isn’t this deliberate, conscious decision—the pieces just are. I was raised by bawdy vibrant women who always speak their minds—all of my female friends are like this as well—and I love these women to the bone, so naturally I make characters that reflect what I know and love. The history of embroidery is very much a history of women, in the surviving pieces we see: snapshots of everyday life, family members and friends, bits of current news and important milestones—I feel like I’m just continuing the story in my own small way. I have more freedom now in terms of subject matter of course, but I do feel like I’m just doing my part to keep this almost exclusively female tradition alive.
FQ: I notice that while most of the work is done on a solid white background, a few pieces are embroidered on really lovely floral fabric. How do you choose the background fabric for your images?
AV: I’m an impulsive stitcher, so I use whatever fabric is available! The only rule is that it has to have a decent thread count for the type of needle I use. It can’t be too loose or too tight. If I need lots of yardage I’ll go to a fabric store with my favorite needle; I’m like Goldilocks in the aisles running that needle through every fabric that catches my eye! Some of the pieces are also done on vintage and antique handkerchiefs from my grandmother, but I only use those for special pieces.
FQ: What inspires the particular narratives in your work?
AV: For the series I’m currently working on, I’m inspired by photos and VHS footage of spring breaks and freakniks from the 80s and 90s—both aesthetically and behaviorally. The more esoteric pieces are inspired by my own experiences with the occult (knowledge and practices that I have accrued since childhood) applied to emotional situations and people I’m dealing with during the creation of each piece. Sometimes the pieces will have actual living people from my own personal life that I’ll put into surreal situations as a thinly veiled narrative of our relationship. They’re basically elaborate diary entries.
FQ: Your work has a great sense of humor! It is really difficult to create something that is both smart and funny while engaging with the topic of sex so explicitly in an artwork. How did you arrive at your particular voice?
AV: Thank you! It’s weird, because I’ll start sketching with genuine honest emotion, and I’ll start these sad heavy pieces, but they feel so forced for me. I think because I’m a pretty ridiculous and silly person most of the time, humor is just my natural coping strategy. So I’ll have these pieces that are really quite dark in subject matter, but I’ll think it’s funny to give them pencil eraser nipples or ill-fitting jorts. I don’t know…I just can’t stay serious for too long. The story’s still there, I just can’t help lightening it up a bit.
FQ: Your work is pretty small scale. Do you plan on creating any large scale pieces?
AV: The current series I’m working on has three extra-large pieces in it, about four feet by three feet—but yes I usually work small because of the practical space issue. I’m in the middle of moving from one apartment and renovating the next one, so working small allows me to keep working during all this chaos. Also embroidery takes a very long time. Particularly the types of stitches and detail I use; so a ten square inch piece will easily take me a month to complete.
FQ: Do you have a favorite work and/or works? In the past you have said that some pieces are too important to you that you wouldn’t consider selling them.
AV: My favorite works are a few that took over a year each to complete. When you live with a piece that long, you get attached. I’m also strangely attached to the piece of the simple nude who has her hands tied to her feet stitched on plain white linen and the piece with the two pool girls in black bikinis sticking out their tongues. Some just resonate with me more than others and I can’t really explain it.
FQ: According to some random commenters on Facebook you are Illuminati–so it must be true. Tell me your secrets!
AV: Hahahaha…yes I’m the Spiritual Chair on the regional council of 13—I’m also in charge of embroidering all of the handlers’ uniforms. But if I revealed anymore, I’d have to kill you. Kidding aside, I mean yeah I was raised with occult knowledge but I’m using that term loosely; my dad was into all sorts of weird shit and taught it to me and I grew up in a heavily haunted house—I don’t see the world the same way that a lot of other people do. And yeah, sometimes I’ll use symbolism, or spirit familiars or ghosts in my work as representations for something else, but in all seriousness I’m jack squat to the upper echelon of society—my bloodline is a mess—so relax y’all, my work is not trying to program you or anything.
FQ: Favorite superhero and/or villain?
AV: She Hulk
FQ: Favorite artist at the moment?
AV: Right now I really love the photography of Wayne Lawrence.