Embroidery, Ciphers and Secrets: A Conversation with Carrie Sieh
By Michelle A. M. Miller
Carrie Sieh is a Miami-based visual artist who creates deeply researched and labor-intensive works that explore history, technology, and psychology through textile, painting and photography. Her work is currently part of the group exhibition, A Thread of Execution, on view through December 29th at Dimensions Variable. In this exhibition, Sieh’s monumental Content Creators and Luxuriated Bodies dominates one wall of the gallery with its crocheted rendering of an Industrial Revolution-era spinning mule. Anyone who lived through the ‘80s or ‘90s will appreciate that the work is crafted entirely of shiny, black VHS tape. Spend a few minutes with this work and certain themes emerge: American history, immigration, feminism, child labor, unions, recycling, commerce, consumerism, and technological obsolescence. I imagined Sieh crocheting this piece, blanketing her lap with crinkly strange matter. Not so long ago I sat down with Sieh in her Miami studio for a chat. The following interview is from our conversation.
Michelle A. M. Miller: You earned a Masters in Library and Information Science—were you going to be a librarian?
Carrie Sieh: I was. I was pursuing art but was not making enough money to live on and was feeling like I was getting old enough that it was getting a bit old and so I went back to school, got the library degree, realizing that it was the only other thing that I was really excited about and was all set to pursue something in rare books or cataloging. It’s a field where you have to be able to move wherever the job is but my husband also has one of those jobs (he’s a professor at University of Miami and we had just moved here for his job). It didn’t make sense financially for me to move us to do an entry-level [job] so I had my foot in the door for a couple of years and then realized that if I was going to not really be doing the library thing that I would just really do art because this was actually a good place for it.
MM: So you have an incredibly useful skill set.
CS: And in part because of that I heavily research almost everything that I do.
MM: Was that an element of your work before your master’s degree?
CS: To some extent, because I’ve always had academic interests, the skills I learned getting that degree and the tools did influence the way that I work. I end up doing at least as much research and preparation as execution.
MM: We first met at Bernice Steinbaum’s Gallery for the opening of Threads of Connection and I recall a too brief conversation about how you learned embroidery from your grandmother. Would you mind retelling this bit of your personal history?
CS: The needlework and textiles--I started learning those things from my grandmother, my mom and my kindergarten teacher. My mom taught me to sew [and] I made some of my own clothes when I was in elementary school. In my early twenties my grandfather died and I went out to his funeral in Iowa and visited with my grandmother. She had been doing this embroidery that is quite unusual called hardanger embroidery—it’s this very geometric cutwork—and at that time I was particularly interested in family history and what I think of as a psychological inheritance. Embroidery seemed like a good way to visualize some of those things.
MM: You are an interdisciplinary artist, working across media. On your website you use the phrase, “cultural excavation through art.” How else would you describe your work?
CS: That ties into the personal history. I use a lot of layers in my work, and I cover up a lot of things. Things are often not the same on the back as they are on the front and I have a lot of double-sided work.
MM: You reveal some of those messy artifacts in creating the front side of the work – you don’t mask it.
CS: For me the work is not just about the surface but the process and often has to do with some kind of historical reality whether it’s broad cultural history or technological. My dad is a scientist. He’s a paleo seismologist and I grew up every summer going out to the middle of nowhere in the California desert where he would have huge excavators dig holes in the ground to look at the layers of soil and sediment. We got to go down in the pits and I remember it being lots of fun and being very interested. I was quite influenced by his work, his literally excavating to find out what happened and how it happened. I like to conceptually dig down and uncover causes and meanings and reasons. [My work has] more to do with the lived experience of people and how historical experience can be traced to our current experience.
MM: With several of your series, your titles evoke a bit of humor but also something ominous. The phrase “quietly rageful” comes to mind—I’m thinking about your work, Georg Baselitz and Little Hans Visit the Lowell Mill. Do you find humor and the abject to be useful artistic devices?
CS: It’s more a dash of humor to make it accessible because I do find with some of the work that’s just heavy, it’s hard for people to figure out. Like the Shroud for Soul Murderers. My own experience of the world is pretty intellectual and maybe bordering on cynical but it’s a hopeful cynicism—I would prefer to think of it as being realistic.
MM: Sometimes we laugh at the horror.
CS: Sometimes things are just funny. I laugh too, when you reminded me about the Georg Baselitz title. That was around the time when everyone was outraged at how he said women can’t paint—which is the pot calling the kettle black. You can’t respond to somebody like that with outrage because it doesn’t work. I don’t think making-fun works either. It’s a nudge.
MM: I want to circle back to Shroud for Soul Murderers. I understand that people can participate by anonymously providing you with a name that is linked to a tragic part of their personal history. From your website you write that it
“will record, in textile form, the names of rapists, child abusers, and spouse batterers…Because victims of sexual and domestic violence frequently experience extreme difficulty in publicly sharing their experience—let alone naming their abuser—the names recorded in Shroud for Soul Murderers will be encoded, unable to be read visually as text.”
CS: Every time it’s installed it’s in progress because it’s ongoing and I don’t have any plans to stop it.
MM: How many names and stories have you received?
CS: I’m not really counting. It’s something that I always have to be doing while I’m working on something else because it’s a lot to hold.
MM: Do you find yourself becoming overwhelmed if you are working on a particular name?
CS: I do. And there have also been times when I know that I haven’t responded to someone who has asked me to contact them—because it’s an anonymous form—that I have not responded well. It’s hard, because I’m not a therapist. I’m not trained to help them. It’s complicated because I’m in a way offering a certain kind of help and I know sometimes it has helped people.
MM: It can be cathartic for some people I imagine.
CS: And that’s what I want it to be but everybody is different and people deal with trauma in different ways. I want to at some point incorporate into a future installation an exhibition of artist books that I make that incorporate actual stories.
MM: You have your own cipher key for the stitches and the letters?
CS: Yes, and I’m going to be taking out a lot of what I did already because I discovered a more secure method of encryption. The more I thought about it the more I realized that this was going to be something that I was going to be doing a lot.
MM: It will be photographed.
CS: Right. People are going to try to figure it out but the anonymity of it is important to the project so I had to rethink it and add layers of encryption. I’m no expert...but it is secure. And it’s important not just for the privacy and respect of the people who give these names but also for the integrity of the piece—it addresses one of the worst responses to allegations of sexual violence which is that you’re just making it up for attention, or revenge, or whatever and nobody who deals with that subject matter will deny that that happens but [we] also know that the vast, overwhelming majority of cases are real and unreported. There is no end to the number of people who will say, “I’ve never told this to anybody.”
MM: I imagine a significant number of your respondents say that.
CS: And this can’t be for making the names public for that reason. It’s not about shaming any particular person or calling them out or finding justice. There are other people doing that. This is more about cultural shaming.
MM: Does art serve a higher purpose? Can art impact these issues or is it just your way of communicating these ideas?
CS: Yes and no to all of that. Art is many things. It’s many things to different people, it’s many things to one person and trying to claim that it is one thing or that it isn’t this or that is really just making a claim to what a person thinks is or is not good art. But it is many things: it’s a profession, it’s a way to make money. It’s awful that most artists have to have other jobs or be financially supported by somebody else in order to do something that is valuable and culturally important. The potential is there for very significant meaning and cultural power and influence. People can sometimes come to an idea or perspective through the experience of art that they might not have been able to get to just listening to somebody talk about it or reading a book because people can connect emotionally to an image.
MM: I find that it can open up conversations that would not have been had otherwise.
MM: What do you hope people see or feel when they view your work?
CS: I don’t have any expectations. I hope that people like it but I don’t expect everybody to like it.
MM: Nor do they need to get it.
CS: What I go for is something that people want to look at and find some kind of pleasure or enjoyment in looking at but that also has a lot there to talk about or figure out or discover that’s of great meaning or significance if they want to.
MM: I experienced that in researching your work – I had to look up the Lowell Mill because that historical reference was unfamiliar to me.
CS: I have a tendency to put a lot of that in the titles on purpose because putting it in the image can come across as heavy-handed and that’s not what I want to do. There is a lot in [Georg Baselitz and Little Hans Visit the Lowell Mill], and it is a commentary on [Baselitz] as a person, and as an artist, and as a man. It relates to [Textiles for Men and Machine Breakers which was a series I created] about how using something that we now think of as having to do with women—textiles—had everything to do with an enormous shift in the way men worked and related to their families and their labor—how it changed masculinity. We still feel the after-effects of that.
MM: Have you bumped up against sexism in your own practice?
CS: It’s been my experience that men—when I’m interacting with them as an artist—very often interact with me first as a woman, then as an artist. I’ve suffered through my share of mansplaining. It’s one thing to be told, “how interesting, I see something different” versus “Well, actually, this is what you are doing.” The one that stands out, was during a studio walk years ago and we got into conversation about something else I was doing in code. It was knitted and had to do with collecting secrets and visualizing them in code. So, we started talking about psychology and I said Freud and he said, “actually, you don’t know it but you’re a Jungian.” Then when I explained that actually I’m not, he insisted that I was mistaken and then reached out as if to shake my hand and instead of shaking my hand kissed it like I was a maiden in olden times.
MM: What did you do?
CS: It’s one of those moments—so shocking that someone is behaving in this way. I was speechless. In general, I find in the arts that women have to work harder to be perceived as intelligent. I pay attention to the way that men are talked to about their work and it’s often very different. In my observation, it seems to be assumed that male artists have something to say, and that they have an idea and a reason and that unless they do something to prove otherwise, it’s assumed; whereas, the reverse is assumed for us. And it’s not across the board, but there is a difference.
MM: What have you sacrificed to be an artist?
CS: It’s a complicated answer for me. I haven’t sacrificed anything to be an artist, but I have sacrificed things in order to work and that is another gendered thing. I have a daughter. I spend less time with her because I’m doing this and that creates other complications in my life. Which is not to say there are no men who also find themselves in a [similar] circumstance; but, if we can claim that there is some broad general culture in this country—it’s safe to say that it does not favor working mothers; it does assume working fathers.
MM: I find your commitment to science and research very appealing. Your work provides continuous visual delight and intellectual stimulation.
CS: It’s important to me that the image not be more important than the idea and that the idea be backed by facts. Not just my opinion.
MM: What are you working on now?
CS: I’m researching the Everglades and its present state. It’s present and past flora and fauna and the interventions that people have made. There’s the obvious, like we wouldn’t be here if somebody had not drained it out but there’s also timeliness to it because the way things are going it may not be that drained for that much longer.
MM: It feels that way. Jared Diamond writes about a society’s inability to identify and adapt to impending changes in Collapse.
CS: Yes, but there are scientific projections based on observable phenomena and facts.
MM: If one is open to observable phenomena and facts.
CS: For most people it’s hard to think about 50 years from now.
MM: Even for some people their needs are so immediate thy cannot imagine 5 years down the road.
CS: And a lot of it has to do with profit and exploitation.
MM: Immediate gains despite long-term negative consequences.
CS: And yet, for the time being and for the future when nature takes over—because we are not the first civilization to be on this planet—it is beautiful.
To learn more about Sieh’s work: