by Hili PerlsonSep 24, 2023
There is something intimate and special about the experience of viewing Michelle Kingdom's intricate embroidery art. While we are permitted to observe the narratives unfolding inside these pieces, we are simultaneously aware all along that the characters inhabiting those worlds exist in self-contained universes. Perhaps, this inference is not so surprising given that Kingdom describes her initial foray into embroidery as a “private passion”.
Based in Burbank, California, Kingdom's interest in embroidery began when she was in college while studying drawing and painting around 1990. “The art world was dominated by work that was highly conceptual, ironic and pretentiously clever. It mostly left me cold and I never thought art was a viable career path,” she recalls of her views at the time. While dabbling in various fibre mediums such as weaving and dying, she also began creating what she describes as “odd, tiny stories in thread”; however, she did not show them to anyone, thinking no one would be interested.
It was only after her daughter was born in 2002 that she began pursuing embroidery with a renewed sense of purpose. “Now, armed with decades of personal history and baggage, the medium seemed more relevant to me than ever,” she says, adding that when she began to gradually share her work on social media, she was happily surprised to see so many responding to her work. Encouraged by a few close friends, she eventually decided to exhibit her work in 2014 and has been widely showing since then.
Women artists working with embroidery nowadays are exploring and harnessing its feminist potential, reframing the historical idea of embroidery being considered as a mere feminine domestic art. What is Kingdom's approach vis-a-vis her embroidery art and feminism? “Embroidery has made strides in the art world but it was routinely marginalised when I first started stitching. Needlework was particularly stigmatised as a medium for grandmothers or colonial school girls, (considered to be) small in scale, fussy, nostalgic, feminine, and irrelevant,” she recalls. However, it was these very qualities which made Kingdom gravitate towards embroidery. “It was a raw, tactile and otherworldly way to explore an inner life. It was also connecting me to a long tradition of female stories quietly embedded in thread,” she says.
However, Kingdom also emphasises that her choice to pursue embroidery is not interlinked to her being a feminist or “a desire to resuscitate it from the grips of some disparaged past”, as she puts it. “Embroidery genuinely resonates with my sensibilities. The work I create is based on my own female experience and I often gravitate to the role of women both as the creator and subject,” she elaborates, adding that her work is all about a uniquely female voice, viewpoint and reality.
A strong sense of sisterhood emerges from this work, Tighter and Tighter, the idea of feminine bonding and women being a common motif literally and figuratively threading through Kingdom's works. Kingdom says that the meaning of the portrayal of groups of female characters is used to represent several things other than just sisterhood and community. “It almost always rests upon the double-edged sword of a collective mindset,” she mentions, commenting that themes of anonymity, loss of individuality, bullying and even coercion is also explored and implied through such imagery.
In an introduction to her work, Kingdom says that “while the work acknowledges the lustre and lineage inherent in needlework, I use thread as a sketching tool in order to simultaneously honour and undermine this tradition”. What does she mean by the idea of honouring and undermining tradition? “I have a deep love and respect for historical textiles and grew up in a family of women who sewed regularly. The fluency and language of needle and thread as a valid art form was never in question to me,” she says. Yet, how she chooses to challenge tradition is in her use of subject matter and technique. “Embroidery can be overwhelmingly beautiful, sometimes to the point of distraction,” she says. Her work therefore seeks to achieve a balance between the decorative and conceptual to breathe individuality and relevance into the medium.
Another interesting way that Kingdom departs from a traditional approach to embroidery is what she describes as viewing it through the lens of drawing, mentioning that she thinks, plans and executes as a draughtsman. “Much of my work is dense, composed of intuitive lines that attempt to evoke movement. While I occasionally do utilise proper stitches, I try to move away from its sometimes-static nature,” she describes her conceptual reworking of the medium. Kingdom mentions that the embroidery's unique aesthetic presents a challenge when conforming to the concept of the work. “Portraying representational images has limitations in stitch, which is inherently rigid and straight with a predetermined palette,” she says, enlarging to say that the effect is then strangely beautiful and fragile, “echoing my nebulous vision of the interior”. One can certainly sense that effect in the otherworldly atmosphere permeating her work.
In this work, referencing Anne Frank's poignant quote from The Diary of Anne Frank, Kingdom says that it was one of the first pieces she stitched after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. She mentions that “it marked a decidedly political turn and outward influence upon my typically intimate, interior body of work”. What compelled this transition towards making her work more political? “The rise of Trump and the far right in 2016 ushered in a dark, cruel, toxic era in American politics. It has affected every facet of life here,” she says. While she is not interested in creating overtly political work, politics' pervasive influence now informs much of her content and direction. “My work relies heavily on symbolism and allegory, and each narrative tries to infuse authentic layers that grapple with our divisive political reality,” she states.
Literary snippets, memories, personal mythologies, and art historical references inform the imagery of her work. That the personal is political perhaps manifests in that sense. “All of my work is rooted in personal experience, and earlier embroideries were especially so,” Kingdom points out when specifically asked about the reference to personal mythologies. “We all have our “origin stories” that are filtered through our own psyche, shaped by family dynamics, then forged by outside influences. For me, art is ultimately a way to process, understand and try to come to terms with an ever-shifting reality”. While each embroidery exists on its own, Kingdom says that she essentially views them as “single vignettes from a larger life story,” conjuring up the idea of chapters in a memoir.
In the end, Michelle describes her work as one that “explores psychological landscapes, illuminating thoughts left unspoken”. “I am interested in exploring identity through the lens of self-perception and relationships and how it shapes our reality,” she says, emphasising that her work is ultimately about the human experience. “How we live our lives, the stories we tell ourselves, the history we choose to pass on, and the silences we leave behind”. In the end, her hope is that if the work personally resonates with her, it will have meaning for others too. And as with the generations of women embroidery artists before her, she embroiders yet another additional chapter to the ever-expanding tale.