Thoughtless (bigotry, social commentary, and embroidery)…

Words are very strange things.

Scratch that. Words are perfectly reasonable things; people on the other hand frequently are not. Indeed, people are the strange ones.

We live in a period where what was once ephemeral is now frequently permanent. The comments we make, the bits of printed matter we produce or acquire, the digital trails we produce get recorded and remembered. On the one hand this offers remarkable access to vast catalogues of reality and experience; on the other hand it reveals just how thoughtless we can be as a species.

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For a while now I have been interested in the forms political speech takes, not the high rhetoric, but the seemingly mundane vernacular of ground-level communication: bumper stickers, yard signs, handwritten placards. While official political speech is carefully tested and sanitized, it is often in the ephemera that we find the undercurrents running through a society. For most of my life I only caught glimpses of such ephemera, but with 24-hour news coverage, online reporting, hell, even just Google image searches I can access vast databases of what once slipped into obscurity.

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It is this reality that got me really thinking about the nature of ephemera these days, especially the fact that it never disappears anymore. The Trayvon Martin targets that were sold shortly after his death are a perfect example of this: while the targets were pulled from sale, the stories surrounding it are perpetually present, and the images are indellably imprinted upon the internet.

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It was also the Trayvon Martin target that really struck a cord with me on the human front; this image screamed to me of such human crassness. It may have been intended to make some sort of commentary, but in the end it was simply a target of a teenage boy, one to be used for shooting practice. In that bit of ephemera we see a fundamental thoughtlessness, both a true lack of empathy and compassion, and a disregard for understanding the implications of one’s own actions, words, and images. The thing about thoughtlessness is that I don’t think it is ever truly just accidental; it includes a certain willful blindness to the meaning behind, beneath, and within what a person says or does. It is a bit like a Freudian slip, but worse; it betrays a buried intentionality.

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So, I’ve been collecting examples of this sort of thing for a while now, waiting to figure out what to do with them, how to speak to that underlying thoughtlessness: and that’s where embroidery comes in. Embroidery is something we think of as essentially thoughtful: we give bits of embroidery as thoughtful gifts; we consider just what we want to embroider and why. Embroidery is very rarely accidental, and it is rarely a practice entered into thoughtlessly. Embroidery is the antithesis of the type of liberty taken with ephemeral communication. Embroidery is often thought of as something to be handed down through generations; it is not the sort of thing just tossed in a dumpster after a rally or scraped off of a car bumper.

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I have some seriously strict criteria: the words have to go far beyond mere partisanship. While “My truck was built with wrenches not chopsticks” may be intended to convey a nationalist pride, it invokes a lengthy tradition of racist tropes to do so. It speaks not of dignity but of denigration. In contrasting the thoughtlessness of such statements with the tradition of embroidery, I hope these pieces ask viewers to pause and consider the underlying assumption sets behind the statements and the mindsets that allow such speech to become widespread. Because that’s the thing: each of the statements I am working with has been used, reproduced, spread, sold, and eventually entered into the wider social lexicon. They are not simply outliers, but reflect an undercurrent of thoughtless intolerance; they reveal what is perpetually just below the surface. How many times have you seen similar things on cars, on billboards, in people’s yards?

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In the end, that is what I so often aspire to do with my work, to look at what is just below the surface of things. Asbury snuck a glimpse into the closing minutes of the carnival, the period after the bright colors fade. In Defense of Handmade critiques the co-opting of handmade. Thesaurus speaks to the importance of words and stories for someone confined to bed (the collection was done in conjunction with Quilts for Kids). In these embroideries far more than just the words are at stake; they are about a mindset, and the fundamental thoughtlessness and insensitivity that allows it. They speak to a distressing capacity to dehumanize the other, and it is as such that this thoughtlessness is revealed as cruelty, as hatred.

Now I just need to figure out how I want to finish these (besides trimming the threads, of course). Do I hoop them or frame them? Do I sew them all into a larger something or make them into wee decorative pillows (each embroidery is about 5”)? If I do wee pillows what do I fill them with? I know lavender is traditional, but what is the proper fragrance for bigotry?

At the very least I need about a dozen more. Unfortunately, there seems to be no lack of thoughtlessness.

-t

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15 Responses to Thoughtless (bigotry, social commentary, and embroidery)…

  1. 1

    This is spot on where my head is at the moment – There is a raging controversy in Australia at the moment due to the fact that people think it’s ok to make offensive and degrading comments about our Prime Minister’s genitalia and body shape because she’s a woman and question her partner’s sexuality because he’s a hairdresser. They have never made such comments about the male leaders. It’s not just words, it speaks volumes about the people who are saying them. Whether they’re supposedly talking in jest or not, to come up with such awful words tells of some hidden darkness.
    Reading all those statements you’ve embroidered made me very uncomfortable and are a poignant reminder to think about why we say the things we say.

  2. 2
    ginevra says:

    I really like the uncut threads. I started thinking of metaphores like fraying of the social fabric…
    Also the cheap, not quite finished correctly emphemera you’re referring to. Also, I thought of some of Lisa Soloman’s work. Consider leaving the threads as is?

  3. 3
    dixie says:

    Just brilliant.

  4. 4
    Esther F. says:

    Thank you for writing this post! I believe you are on to something here! Keep going, please!!!
    I like the idea of keeping the thread hanging, maybe something “stinky” inside? That might be a bit to literal though…. I will think about it!
    E

  5. 5
    Valerie says:

    I applaud you for tackling this issue – I am increasingly feeling like I just want to withdraw from the human race and all its petty hatred and greed. :(

    Your Thesaurus word fabric was a bright point in the day though! :)

  6. 6
    Peggy says:

    I agree with ginevra, I even thought to have a title motif made for a small quilt and then put a cover over it of fraying shear fabric.

  7. 7
    cauchy09 says:

    Nice job. Continuing in the zeitgeist, these resemble Scout badges. Perhaps put them on a sash? (I can’t quite make out the scale, though.)

  8. 8
    Joanne Jones says:

    What would you not put these on? A baby grow or kids clothes. There are so many slogans that go on kids clothes – forget Thing 1 & Thing 2 – how about “Retards do it Gooder’? (See here: http://www.lovethatmax.com/2012/09/t-shirts-that-slam-kids-with-special.html)

  9. 9

    My vote is for precious wee pillows as people unfortunately hold their thoughtless convictions dear. Well done Thomas.

  10. 10
    Barbara says:

    spot on. I wish you would write mote in this vein – don’t misunderstand me as I do like your quilt posts. But I really like your extremely thought provoking social commentaries. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts here.

  11. 11

    I’d leave the threads untrimmed and make a huge quilt of all the ones you can produce to make a Social Commentary Quilt. To show that at a large quilt show would be phenomenal. Perhaps each piece as the centre of a quilt block surrounded by ugly, dark fabrics so that the wording stands out?

  12. 12
    Casey says:

    I think I’m a bit more cynical here–I think a lot of thought goes into such sentiments. It’s just not the type of thought that people want to admit to when they’re called on it.

    Whatever you do with these pieces, I think they should be shown somewhere. I love your juxtaposition of thoughtless sentiments with thoughtful practice, and of embroidery–traditional and polite and pretty–with such ugly thoughts.

  13. 13
    Mary says:

    The classic quilt media comment on bigoted speech is Jean Ray Laury’s “Barefoot and Pregnant” (1987). The artist appropriates the power of an ugly statement and uses it to unmask the famous speaker as a fool. So Thomas, remembering your recent “crappy ideas/crappy stuff” posts, I challenge you to go beyond simply repeating these comments in a different medium, or venting your anger. Instead, dig deeply into yourself and say something original and real. Not everyone on the “modern quilt” playground is an artist with the ability to do this, but you are. Go for it. Take time. Speak truth.

  14. 14

    [...] elsewhere, stripped of any real link to the original context, tied to the path that will lead to the larger project and the essential [...]

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