With stitch as a metaphor for building community, embroidery artist Amy Frazer hopes that her work encourages other women to take that first stitch, as well as take the steps that empower all of us to make our world a better place. Always an artist, Amy crafted with her granny and her mom, finding further encouragement in school to pursue a career in art. Through embroidery, painting and collage, Amy tells stories of reflection, tribute and inspiration.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’ve always been creative, so finding my artist’s path went back to my childhood, making things with my granny, collecting things in the neighborhood, drawing, doodling. When I did assignments in grade school, I would go for the A+++ grade, making drawings along with my words; I would make books out of them. I don’t think I really had a light bulb moment, I just knew I wanted to be an artist. A turning point though came when I was in high school. My art teacher, Ben Price, said that I might be interested in going into illustration. I think he recognized something in my work or intentions that I didn’t realize could be a path for me.
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Who or what has inspired/influenced/empowered you?
Mostly growing up in Cincinnati, I’d say my mom and my granny were really inspirations. My mom worked full time and raised 3 kids. Along with my dad, she made time to cart us around to baseball and soccer games, art shows and all the things that kids do. Our house was always open to friends to come and hang out in the backyard or basement. Knowing that I was loved and supported by friends and family has been the most empowering thing for me. I know not everyone has that growing up, so I don’t take it for granted. I try to pass it along when I can.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Art Makers: Empowered Embroidery?
Art Makers: Empowered Embroidery tells women’s stories through stitch. It is a way to honor their work and keep their messages of activism, leadership, community-building and persistence alive. This book is more than just about drawing and stitching portraits. It encourages you to find those women that inspire you from all walks of life, all races, religions, gender and sexual orientations. Connecting with people, learning their everyday stories, their tragedies and triumphs, and translating them into pictures inspires me to keep learning more and doing my work.
My goal was to do more than give people instruction on how to embroider the portraits that I made. I also want them to take their own ideas and sketches and bring those into their projects. There is a whole chapter dedicated to drawing ideas. But it’s not a tutorial on HOW to draw. It’s more about how to build ideas into stories for your embroideries. How to take what you’ve researched, your personal knowledge and experiences and layer that into your work.
So for example, Michelle Obama has an embroidered quote that says, “When they go low, we go high”. I want people to use a different quote of hers if they prefer – something that speaks to or inspires them. Or if they don’t want to embroider lettering, do some sketching and change the design completely.
I hope the projects are meditations on how we as women affect change in our communities through many small, connected steps. It’s like making a finished piece of work stich by stitch. I believe that embroidery and art bring people together; I love that stitching can be both a solitary and a communal practice.
There are a gazillion embroidery stitches and variations to choose from. How do you decide which stitch will work best in a project?
It’s true there are so many amazing embroidery stitches to choose from! My goal at some point is to make a series of tutorials showing them so people can stitch along. When choosing embroidery stitches I have 2 different methods. Sometimes I like to limit the number of stitches for a piece. I’ll choose straight stitch and French knots for example. And then I will embroider those hundreds or thousands of times. I think this can be really impactful and quite modern looking.
The second approach is to choose stitches that relay texture and feeling. A woven stitch can be really effective if you are embroidering someone wearing a flannel shirt, for example. Detached chain stitches are great for small flowers or daisies. I always sketch these things out first. In the first example of limiting my stitches, I usually just stitch freely and see what comes of it.
I love looking at vintage embroidery books or stitch guides for inspiration.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’d say I’m more of a planner. I’ll plan out what I want do draw or stitch, gather all my materials make swatch palettes, etc. Then when I’m all organized, I can be more playful and improvise. So I guess really I’m a bit of both! A lot of times my sketches are more playful and loose than my final pieces, so my goal is to try to bring that sense of play into finished pieces. It’s always a work in progress.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Ever since I started crafting with my granny when I was a kid, my studio has always been in the basement, except when I lived in NYC in a 325 square foot apartment! Even today, my studio is in our basement! It’s 600 square feet, but it’s an odd space with a big heater right in the middle. Support poles are weirdly positioned around the space. I’m so thankful for it though!
I’ve got a space for my computer work, a small table where I can sew and sketch, another standing table for painting and collage work, an area we use as a shipping station for orders and a small space for my bike where I can spin with Zwift online. I love being able to work from anywhere with most of my projects, especially when we are able to travel again safely. I love taking my embroidery anywhere I go. IT’s so portable and a great conversation starter.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Definitely my sketchbooks and post its or notecards to keep track of random ideas. I find that I get ideas randomly throughout the day. If I capture them on the spot I can revisit them later. Otherwise they fly away!
I keep an unusual tool in my embroidery kit. It is a head lamp that I’ve used for hiking and camping in the dark. It’s great for focusing the light onto my projects when I need more light! Pro tip;)
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I keep several sketchbooks going and have them stashed in different places in my studio, my tote bag, bedside table. I’ve been using Strathmore 400 and 500 series notebooks for watercolor, mixed media and collage lately because the pages are fairly substantial and can handle wet media and layering. Having a sketchbook handy just allows me to capture ideas when they hit me.
I love to brainstorm ideas, making lists and mind mapping to explore concepts. Sketching and drawing helps broaden my range of skills and helps me go beyond the initial idea, developing it deeper, making connections.
Recently I started a new hobby, naturally dyed fabrics, and I’ve started a notebook dedicated to this project. I like to draw the plants I’m using and keep a record of the process and steps of each dye project. It’s part science and part art, with a little bit of plant magic mixed in.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It really depends on what type of work on making or writing. If I’m writing or doing something that I really need to concentrate on I’ll put a Spotify playlist on like Binaural Beats or Natural Beats. Something without words where I can just go into my creative cave.
If I’m stitching or painting something that has been planned out or I’m just playing, I’ll put on a mix of music. (Waxahatchee, The Mountain Goats, 80’s hip hop, Phoebe Bridgers, movie or show soundtracks are great.)
If I’m working on an illustration or embroidery that is very planned out and I’m executing it, I’ll listen to podcasts or books on tape. Favorite podcasts are the Morgan Harper Nichols Show, Ted Radio Hour, Democracy Now, Fresh Air by NPR, How I Built This with Guy Raz, Windowsill Chats with Margo Tantau, Stitch Please, Creative Pep Talk, Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, Super Soul with Oprah Winfrey, the list goes on and on!
While working on Empowered Embroidery, I listened to a few Audible.com books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, Rising Strong by Brené Brown, In the Shadow of the Valley by Bobi Conn, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Becoming by Michelle Obama.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
When I’m working on multiple projects, I like to nerd out and get organized with spreadsheets, calendars for deadlines, color charts, and I keep each project in a different box or folder. I read a while ago in Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, that she starts every project with a box. She then writes the project name on the box and fills it with inspiration she finds along the way. She says, ”The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.“ And your box can be virtual too, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical box.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I think over the years as my creativity has evolved, I’ve started to go deeper into processes or crafts that I’m interested in and ENJOY instead of bouncing around from craft to craft. Currently I’m focused on embroidery, painting and collage and am working on launching a new brand this year to sell products like embroidery kits, bandanas and greeting cards to start with. My suggestion to people is just try different things, techniques, paints, threads until you find what you like and what clicks for you.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.“ I believe that is absolutely true! And I believe it is a skill you can learn. You can learn ways to jumpstart your creativity through workshops, and there are some great books out there to follow along with. 30 day or 100 day prompts are great to get started. You pick a subject matter, such as flowers in my neighborhood, to go deep with for the time duration. You can also narrow down the materials you are using such as gouache on watercolor paper. Having these parameters lets you focus on making the work, and I think that type of focus can push your creativity forward.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability? How do you deal with creativity blocks?
Lately I’ve been overcoming creative blocks by starting small daily habits. For example, I want to expand my collection of greeting cards to sell wholesale and retail through my sister business Keller Design Co. So I’m getting up earlier each morning to sketch and brainstorm. In order to do this and help it to be more effective, I prepare everything the night before – my coffee is ready to brew, my coffee cup is out, I have a template for my cards and prompts ready as well as my drawing tools. So when I get up early, I’m all ready to go. Also, when I’m feeling a creative block, I’ll clean up my studio. Its fun when I find random drawings or test embroideries I’ve forgotten that start to spark new ideas, and before I know it my creative block is being broken down.
Interview posted April 2021
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