April 9, 2009

Interview with Penny Nickels

In her own words, Penny Nickels is 'long winded'. But I don't think we mind? Isn't it great to get to know the embroiderers and what inspires them? I definitely think so! Once you have read the interesting things she has to say, I encourage you to check out her blog as well. She has a shop too (some things NSFW, though).

Who or what inspires you?
When I'm in the conception stage of a project, I try to stay away from looking at other peoples work so that I don't end up overly influenced by them, or worse, subconsciously ripping them off. Mostly I look at traditional regional costumes and textile designs. I have a ka-billion picture books showcasing folk art, clothing, and fiber arts. I look for interesting color combinations and stitches. Right now my favorite books are Kyrgyzstan by Claudia Antipina, which made me jealous that I don't have any history of traditional costumes, and Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns by Sheila Paine. It has a whole chapter on the witchy magic of embroidery. Like how to protect yourself with certain stitches, and how if a man catches you embroidering, you can tangle him up in your thread. Right now I'm into Moroccan Tile design for inspiration. I'm starting an embroidered quilt based on those geometric designs.

How long have you been stitiching? What got you started?
I've been embroidering and hand spinning for about four years, knitting for ten, and weaving on and off since I was twelveish. I was a printmaker for about fifteen years. I worked in mezzotint, aquatint, and relief.

Unfortunately, playing with gouges obsessively really strained my hands and I had to put it aside. In printmaking, particularity in relief printing, you only have a few stops between black and white. So it's like white, light grey, dark grey, black, and it's mostly defined by hatching and implied lines. Because I worked that way for so long, I'm always breaking down any image I think of into those parameters, and I found that it translated really well into the mechanics of embroidery. Most of my embroidery series started out as relief prints.

Do you have a favourite stitch? Why?
I have a love hate relationship with french knots. They remind me of stippling or the marks you get with a mezzotint rocker. I always end up using hundreds of them, and they start to exhaust me.

Tell us about your subject matter...
Wowza. I'm trying to organize my brain for this one.
Okay, every house I lived in growing up had a dedicated library, and really extensive collection of books. The first book I remember my father reading me was The Odyssey. So most of my pieces definitely have a mythic/story telling element to them. I feel like they're more like thinly veiled illustrations. I also think the thing that defines Humans as Humans as opposed to Deer or Dolphins or Grasshoppers is our ability to tell stories. That's why advertising is effective, it's why we like scandals and love songs and archetypes, because they appeal to our storytelling instincts, and I think that's ultimately that's what all forms of art serves to do. It provides the illustration to the story that the artist, dancer, musician, or even cave painter is trying to relay.

I'm also fascinated with the modern concept of celebrity. I think it's funny that we think Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are famous when we compare them to characters like Medusa or people like William Tell or Ivan the Terrible. The former are truly famous because their stories have persisted in our minds. That's where the idea for my series of commemorative stamps sprung from. I wanted to explore characters and stories that resonate with us, despite being antiquated. And obviously, following the thread of a story, spinning a tale.... you get the idea. :)
Stamp design also appeals to my printmaking background. I feature a lot of them on pillows and quilts, because I like the idea of turning fine art into something practical.

What perceptions of embroidery do you encounter?
I think that a lot of people who don't embroider think it's kitschy or quaint, or at worst, a fad. These are people to be avoided and pitied. On the other hand, people I've encountered who have an appreciation for craftsmanship, a critical eye, or are creative themselves tend be enthusiastic and interested in the process and product.

Why is embroidery worth spending time on?
I think that embroidery demands diligence and patience, and requires the artist to be open to exploring new ideas, whether it's unfamiliar stitches or fabric, or seeing the beauty in vintage and traditional patterns. To that end it's an amazing door opener for encouraging people to try their hand at other things that they may have thought was too intimidating or time consuming to try before.

Are there any other embroiderers in the group pool that you have noticed?
BadBird is amazing. I just want to walk into her works and spend some time getting to know her characters. She's an amazing storyteller.

I feel the same way about Porterness. There's kind of a smooth simplicity to her work that draws me in, while being throughly unique. Looking at her work feels like a waking dream.

I've been stalking Bascom Hogue on Flickr for awhile too. His red work feels crisp and confrontational in it's starkness, and absolutely elegant.

And I've got to give a shout out to my husband, Johnny Murder! He has Tourette's syndrome and a black sense of humor which oozes out of his stitches and makes you sick to your stomach. He gets extra gold stars for being able to wield a needle despite his ticks and twitches, and for grabbing up all the guys and starting the Manbroidery group.


  1. Amazing! I've been itching to read this interview for a long time!

  2. Hooray for Penny Nickels! She is an inspiration!
    -Johnny Murder

  3. Excellent interview and such wonderful answers. I love to read the thoughts of people who I can tell by reading love embroidery as much as I do. Thanks for the interview and for allowing us to see Penny's wonderful work!

  4. Great to learn more about Penny! I hope there will be more interviews with other wonderful embroidery artists as well!

  5. wow this is some amazing stuff. What a great interview.

  6. Penny Nickels is so awesome and inspiring. I drool over her Flickr pages constantly and I love that she creates edgy and thought provoking projects. This interview just makes me love her all the more :)