Ellen Schinderman is a self-taught thread artist based in Hollywood, California. She doesn’t focus on the labels of being a “feminist artist” or a “fiber artist”, preferring to just be an artist, working with thread as her medium. Nevertheless, her work offers powerful messages to and about women.
Her work recontextualizes images of women, including images that may be considered pornographic. She works to remind us that women are not objects. Instead, we are thinking, feeling, amazing beings. She wants us to love who we are the way we are. Furthermore, she wants to support other women in doing the same. Those are messages she shares in her work as well as in this interview.
On Being a Thread Artist
Can you take us on a brief journey of how you came to be a working artist?
I bought a piece of 8-bit pixelation erotic art about ten years ago. I had done needlepoint as a child, and although I hadn’t stitched in 30 years the pixelation triggered the idea of needlepoint. It has that same blocky, working-the-grid feeling. Naturally, being a bit of a dirty bird, I wondered what porn would look like rendered in needlepoint. I Googled it and found nothing.
I spent a couple of years making things and throwing them in a bag in my closet. At the time, I was a writer, and this was just a gag for myself. I finally showed my work to a gallery owner I knew. The erotica was not right for his gallery. However, he invited me to make something for a tribute they were holding in honor of the Beastie Boys (who I love!) Both my pieces sold pre-show and I never looked back. I fell down a rabbit hole.
What is the core message of your work?
That society’s messages to women and girls are a bunch of crap. Women do not need to conform to bullshit societal standards. We are beautiful as we are: cis-hetero women, trans women, butch girls, bi girls, big girls, tiny women, women with no hair, women with weaves and women who have natural locks, girls who’ve had mastectomies and girls who’ve gotten their breasts enhanced.
Furthermore not only are we beautiful – we are full, smart, sexual beings, not bodies to be ogled or “mommies” or daughters or homemakers (though we may be some or all of those things at times when we want to be). We are humans entitled to every right and privilege that any man has.
YES! I love your Text Ladies series … What do you think is the power of combining text and visuals? How do you select the text you use?
￼I’m not sure what the power is, but I do love watching people realize that it’s text, and then “reading” the piece in a different way. I select my text based on what I’m dealing with, thinking about, and working on in my life. Much of what I’ve used is feminist tracts – essays from “My Secret Garden”, Schrödinger’s Rapist, lyrics by Amanda Palmer. However, as they’ve gotten more personal over time; I use my own writing more in them.
And how about with your Large Scale Cross-Stitch series … what inspired you to select the icons that you have?
Growing up in the 1970s, my mother exposed me to Old Hollywood, and I grew up idolizing glamour and camp. The women who embody that are my idols. The women who most exemplify that today, for me, are drag queens and transgender icons – hence my homages to RuPaul, Divine, and Laverne Cox.
What is the process for crafting one of the pieces in that series?
Each piece takes between 150 and 200 hours to complete and the process is just like regular cross-stitch, but it is blown out. I wanted to push scale and thought, “Well, what if I just go over more stitches?” and it worked. The openness of the stitches gives it a softer, almost watercolor compared to traditional, tight thread work.
Since I crochet, I especially love your work with doilies.
Why have you chosen doilies to combine with the female form? Where do the doilies come from?
All of my doilies are handmade, mid-century pieces. I source them online, find them at yard sales and thrift stores, or receive them as gifts. Then I choose images of women of the same era to stitch on them with thread. I like that the nudes then were not retouched. The women were real women with lumpy bits.
Doilies conjure home and hearth, woman’s work, while nudes are generally depicted in a sexual, come-hither way. By choosing nudes that are more true to most women’s bodies, I’m making the point that women have always been sexual (and naked under the layers), even when they were supposed to be quietly sublimating their feelings in their stitch work.
Working as a Woman
A very powerful statement. What challenges have you faced as a female artist working in a traditionally female medium?
I don’t know. I don’t think about it that way. Some of my favorite thread stitchers are male, and stitching has only been considered a feminine art form for just over 100 years. There was a long tradition of male military stitching. Men in jail stitch. I think focusing on being a female artist or a fiber artist limits me. I just see myself as an artist and my medium is thread.
The Influence of Place on Art
How has place influenced your work? You grew up in New York City, spent some time in San Francisco and are now located in Hollywood. Those are three very different places!
They are different but similar. They’re all liberal-art cities with diverse communities: racially, sexually, and culturally. While I’m a heterosexual female, because of where I grew up, I’ve never not known gay people. In fact, I was raised on a healthy dose of drag and camp.
I do think it’s easier to live a creative life in LA than SF or NY. It is a more affordable city with more opportunities to earn in flexible ways. It has a fantastic art scene, and the weather doesn’t hurt.
Can you tell us a bit about that LA art scene?
While pop culture surrealism has been predominant for a very long time now, I feel there’s a shift happening. People are ready for something else. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still tons of big-eyed girls and stags wearing thorny crowns, but there’s more “other” work: thread, stitch, collage, assemblage, multi-media, cardboard sculptures, street art, performance art. I think one of the things that is most exciting about the LA scene is that you never know what / who you’ll discover.
The Business of Art
￼You also work as a curator.
Can you describe that process to us a bit?
I love curating, although it’s a ton of work. I do everything – figuring out what show I want to put up, finding the right space, putting out the call, selecting the work, installing the show, and then publicizing it. Usually, I have several ideas on the back burner for shows I’d like to do, so it’s a question of finding the right place at the right time.
Once I’ve selected the artists I’m pretty hands-off, although during the submission process I may give feedback to an artist. For example, if I love an artist’s work, but what they’ve submitted doesn’t fit the show, then I may ask them if they’d like to submit another piece. Alternatively, I might send images of the past shows I’ve curated to give them some direction. I recently had a situation where an artist made something that I knew was not up to his level of talent. I was honest and said I loved the concept, but that I didn’t think it read as well as he’d like it to. He was great about it and remade it much more cleanly and, I think, successfully.
￼The only other thing I really get involved with once I’ve selected the artists is pricing. It’s so hard; many artists have a tendency to undersell their work, while some price so high as to be unsellable. I’ve had to push people to raise their prices. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had to explain that not every gallery has the same clientele, or that until they become more established, people won’t pay over a certain amount, because no one knows who they are yet.
It’s a tough business for most artists!
What advice would you offer to young women just beginning to self-define as artists?
Go! Do! Make! Listen to the teachers you like. Let them inspire you. Ignore the naysayers! Forget that it’s a boy’s club; make it a girl’s club! Create opportunities for you and others! When one rises, we all rise. Be gracious. Be honest, but kind. Keep making. Keep making. Most importantly, keep making.
More Thoughts on Art
What other artists/people currently inspire you most?
Jess de Wahls, Lori Herbst, Catherine Kaleel, Porous Walker, Henry Darger, Dorothea Tanning, Weegee, Alighiero Boetti, Charles LeDray, Laurie Lipton, Lisa Ann Auerbach, Jenny Holzer, Karen Finley, Cindy Sherman, Warhol, Duchamp, Manray and the one I’m going to discover tomorrow and the next week.
What do you most hope you are able to contribute to the world during your lifetime?
If even one person feels less uncomfortable or unhappy about their body, their sexuality, sex, and what we’re taught, because of my art, then I’ve done my job.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Love yourself. Love other women. All women: women of color, transwomen, women of other races and religions. We have to be there for each other, we need to have each other’s backs. Protect other women. Speak up. Don’t allow shame or what others might think to silence you. Raise your voice for what you believe.
I originally wrote this article in 2017. Fempotential published it.