Emily Barletta Interview
I am absolutely in love with the work of New York based artist Emily Barletta. Her abstract patterns sewn onto paper blur the boundaries between drawing and stitching, while her crochet works are surreal sculptural forms that almost seem like living matter; coral or moss in vibrant reds and pinks.
I wanted to get to know a bit more about the artist behind these works, and Emily was happy to answer a few of my questions.
What themes do you pursue you in your art?
There are 2 main ideas I think about. One is landscape (this applies to my obsession with mountains, piles, and walls – both as images but also as conceptual or emotional ideas.) The other is the body, but up close on a microscopic level, like blood, flesh, and guts. Macro vs micro, they are 2 opposite but also very similar ideas. Hand drawn/ imperfect grids is another visual idea I think about and often return to, sometimes I play with it as a landscape and sometimes it connects me to the hand which connects me back to the body again. I think that the hand being visible in the finished work, and the idea that things are imperfect is very important to me.
What draws you to textiles as opposed to painting/drawing etc?
I think of my sewn works as drawings and paintings, separately, they are usually one or the other. In the past I enjoyed both painting and drawing, but once I started sewing on paper, I lost my ability to enjoy these processes. Before, I was never quite satisfied completely with one medium, so there was always a sketchbook on the side for painting and drawing. Now there is nothing else, because I am putting everything into these sewn works. I love the tactility of the sewing. I like to make stitches and then run my hands across the paper and play pretend that I am making drawings for the blind (an idea I stole from Constantin Brancusi who made sculptures for the blind.)
Is all of your work abstract? What draws you to abstraction?
I have been making abstract work for about 7 years solid. I always wanted to make more representational work, but every time I try, I hate it. I continuously try at least once a year and it never works, and I never really share it on my website because it doesn’t go with anything else. I have a secret large portfolio though of works based off bird images, each year I make less and less. I love abstraction because it gives me feelings. Seeing an amazing piece of art is one of the best feelings in the world. It’s the same feeling I get from traveling, or doing a long hike.
Describe a typical day of work.
After breakfast and sometimes a trip to the dog park, I settle into my studio (the living room). I sit with my 2 rescue dogs on the couch and I sew. I try to do that thing where I drink lots of water so I have to get up often, which is an excuse to move around and stretch. Sewing is really hard on the body. I listen to music, podcasts, or I put the tv on, unless I’m trying to make a decision or start something new, if that’s the case then there are no distractions. For new ideas, I can often be found sometimes drawing, looking at photos I have recently taken, or digging through my bin of embroidery thread and looking at colors. I often sew for up to 8-10 hours if it’s a committed studio day, sometimes longer. I like working from home so I can get in an hour or two here and there when time allows. I don’t often like looking at work I’ve already finished, so I usually put finished drawings/embroideries away immediately when they’re done.
What is the longest time you’ve ever spent on a piece of work?
I think Pelt was the longest. I spent 6 months on that piece, but it was fun. I was unemployed and young, living in NYC and I took it with me to different parks, and crocheted on benches and in random coffee shops.
Who are your favourite artists at the moment?
I’m not necessarily a favorite artist sort of a person, except for Louise Bourgeois. I tend to think more about shows I’ve seen recently that were great, like the Frank Stella Retrospective at the Whitney or Doris Salcedo’s recent show at the Guggenheim. I also was very moved by the Degas show at MoMA right now – his landscaped monoprints. (Although I would not say that any of these artists are my favorite, just people who make art that gave me great ideas to think about and also it was a positive/moving experience viewing their work.)
What’s your scariest experience?
I swam with caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas. I probably wouldn’t do it again. It felt surreal and magical. The tour guides took the boat out into open water that was so clear and blue, I had never seen water like that. They lowered a cage with dead fish in it about 15 feet down into the water. Then almost immediately from every direction came their dark bodies zooming in toward the boat. They put a rope in the water and told us to get in, but keep our hands on the rope (because hands resemble fish.) Our feet were safe as we were wearing fins. And the sharks circled the dead fish below us until one of the large female sharks came up and swam through the people bumping into our sides gently, and several women started panicking and screaming and kicking me in the head.
What’s your most embarrassing moment?
There are too many to count. I blush easily and that always makes it worse. I think having it be obvious when you are embarrassed (or basically having any strong emotion) is the most embarrassing thing in the world.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
I’ve worked as a decorative painter, I really enjoyed making bad paintings for doctors offices and signing fake signatures on them. I was briefly a nanny and it was great fun to spend all day with a toddler. In my 20s I spent 5 years as an artist assistant, which at the time was very exciting. I traveled to many art museums around the country and I enjoyed getting the backstage view. Eventually it was emotionally confusing to go to amazing museums and see artwork that my hands had created, but was not mine. I’ve encountered the idea that most people see large scale sculptures and artwork and think that just 1 person made it, they don’t realize how many people and hours it actually takes to make big things. That job put me up close and personal with the NYC art world, and now I’m happy to do office work, which can be dull but it frees up my mind.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I like it when people cry. That sounds terrible but I often find people relating to the artwork and then telling me really intense personal stories about things going on in their own lives. I like bringing this out in other people, because I like it when art does this to me. Once I went to pick up my artwork from an ending show and the gallery owner wanted to know more about my life. I think she said “what happened to you?” – based on looking at my work for a month. Then she told me all about her daughter’s death, It was really sad.
Is there anything you dislike about your work?
I get stuck, and I’ve always been jealous of artists who I view as having some sort of a system or a specific style of working. Like Agnes Martin painted grids and Robert Ryman only paints in white. I know that is simplifying a much larger idea of what they were doing, but I always wish that I had just that one idea I was trying to communicate, or one thing I was fixated on, because it changes regularly. While it may appear that I am patient (because of the sewing), I think I actually have a really short attention span.
Do you listen to music/audio books/podcasts or watch anything while you work? If so, what?
I go through phases. Mostly the TV is on, but sometimes I listen to music and podcasts. I like bad shows with heavy dialog so I don’t need to look at the screen and I can binge watch them, which basically just means having a storyline playing in the background.