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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

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"Chimannastra" by Annie Aube.
"Chimannastra" by Annie Aube.
"Horned Women" by Annie Aube.
"Horned Women" by Annie Aube.

Two beautifully bloody days left with Annie Aube

In everyday life, blood and textiles are something you don't want to mix (and if you do, dab the spot with alcohol before putting it in the wash). In the case of the embroidery work of Annie Aube (pronounced "Oh Bee") the mix is devilishly desired.

Aube hails from the northern-most state of Alaska and keeps her hands warm with needlework, illustrating the often overlooked women of the fairy tale world. Her characters are crude, and her subject matter is brazen and shocking, but her technique is beautiful. But you've gotta run to Hotcakes Gallery immediately to see it, as her show is about to move on from the Brew City. I "sat down" with Aube to discuss her current show at Hotcakes, the reactions to her work, and her dreams of owning sheep.

J.M.: So what's your origin story? How did you get to where you are today?

A.A.: That is a big question! It could start when I was five and my father read me "The Lord of the Rings" for the first time. Since then I've been hooked on mythology. I could start when I learned how to crochet from the mother of an ex-boyfriend hoping that I would get into her good graces. My first experiences in fiber arts. About a year after I learned to crochet I was driving home from visiting a friend and all of a sudden it hit me that I needed to buy some sheep and learn how to weave.

J.M.: You actually thought, "I need to buy some sheep?" Was this a realistic goal for you, or just a fantasy that you used to get you motivated to start something new?

A.A.: Yeah, I actually thought I was going to get some sheep. It's a good thing I was poor at the time!! That was probably when it all really started. Initially I had this idea that I would have a small farm, weave scarves and other items and sell them at craft fairs. That notion didn't last long after I met Keren Lowell, my college professor, she was the one who helped me find my way to where I am today.

J.M.: You were schooled in spinning. That doesn't seem like a popular form of art. What drew you into it?

A.A.: Nostalgia. I had this romantic idea of a simple life, spinning, weaving an raising sheep, the way that people had one in the past. I liked the folk art nature of spinning. I've always loved folk art and music. So I thought that I would be the Hippie, which I always wanted to be. Spinning is not really all that simple to learn but once you know how to do it, its very meditative. I still love that idea of living a simple life, but I can't live that way because I always like to make things hard; I always over think everything.

J.M.: Your work is very representational of women in folklore, whether it be religion, mythology, or fairy tales, yet you say you also want their meanings to remain ambiguous enough for the viewer to take something home with them. What ideas have you seen them take away?

A.A.: This is a hard question. People either say they completely relate with my work or they seem to think I'm some kind of insane monster who is interested in nothing but violence (though they might be right about the violence part (smiles). I've seen people take away ideas of feminism, and though that is part of my work, it is not the main part and it's purely coincidence that they are all women at this time. I have plans to do several works of men in the future. Many people seem to be somewhat disturbed and don't seem to know what to think. I find this fascinating considering the amount of violence that they show on TV every day.

J.M.: It surprises me that the works aren't specifically feminist, because that was probably the first thing I was getting while looking at your work.

A.A.: There is a feminist bent in that I started with women because I think their place in folklore, mythology and religion are often overlooked. I also thought there was something sickeningly sweet about a series of girls in cute dresses doing violent things. The idea was also based on a dream I had of little gothic Lolitas torturing people. I keep coming up with images of male characters and I have to keep putting them away until I can start the series of guys. Though it may not be solely of men, they may just become incorporated into the work I'm already doing.

J.M.: Maybe it's my male-centric attitude, looking for yarn dudes I can relate to. Do you find men and women reacting differently to your pieces?

A.A.: Actually I don't see much of a difference in the way that men and women react toward my work. They seem to either hate it or like it. Some times they just think I'm crazy.

J.M.: You say that you concentrate more on the idea than the technique, though I would argue the stitches you create are of a strong quality. What kind of thought process goes in to choosing a character, fleshing out your idea, and formulating the composition?

A.A.: The process of choosing the character is actually a simple one. I read collections of folk tales and mythology from all over the world. As I go through I earmark all of the stories that have potential. After that I go through and pick the most obscure and violent ones. I try to stick with ones that nobody knows but occasionally stories like "Little Red Riding Hood" are just too tempting. When creating the composition I usually have the story right there so I can refer to it. Sometimes things need to be cut or added so that it makes sense. For example in the Horned Women embroidery I only include three of the witches and not all twelve. It would have been painful to embroider a women with twelve horns on her head.

J.M.: What does the folky, primitive anatomy bring to your overall message.

A.A.: The primitive anatomy of my characters was initially inspired by a Victorian painting I once saw of a little girl carrying flowers, her hands and face had no realistic detail, and she was just so cute. I believe that is brings a sense of innocence to the pieces which isn't actually there, probably one of the reasons people seem disturbed by them.

J.M.: That's what I was thinking. I have to say that, after so much history of violence in art, I still find your work to be a bit shocking today and I'd pin it on the simplicity of form as well as the nature of the medium.

A.A.: Not many people realize it but there is a history of violent imagery in embroidery. People always think of hearts, flowers and other pretty things, because that is what the Victorians turned embroidery into. Medieval embroidery actually had a lot of violent imagery from Bible stories and wars. An example of this violent imagery is the Beaux Tapestry which is an illustration of the Battle of Hastings. The lack of background and primitive anatomy in my art is a direct reference to medieval embroidery.

J.M.: You also have a series of religious embroideries, which, I assume, strikes home with a lot more viewers who potentially take the subject matter more seriously than fairy tales. They don't appear to hold the same violence as your other pieces, but they hold significant weight anyway. Is there a difference between your approach?

A.A.: The images are based on pictures from a book about saints from the fifties which was used to try and make girls behave. I wanted to try and take these super stoic images and compare them to Hindu gods and Buddist Bodhisattvas. I tried to do this with the colorful cloth and the way they were finished.

J.M.: Given that you are a woman, living all the way up in Alaska, doing embroidery about women, how does that affect your position in the art world?

A.A.: I would say that it makes me isolated and invisible for the most part. Invisible because as an emerging artist working in a medium which is just beginning to come into its own, makes me a risk that most gallery owners are not willing to make. The isolation of living in Alaska can be hard but thanks to the Internet and publications like Juxtapoz, I can actually see what everyone else is doing.

J.M.: You read "Juxtapoz"?

A.A.: Of course I read "Juxtapoz;" doesn't everyone?

J.M.: I guess they do get enough income to continue to publish on a monthly basis, which is no small feat these days. So is your path to visibility fairly fuzzy or are you trying for a specific art scene (like, say, marketing yourself to the highbrow vs. lowbrow crowd)?

A.A.: I don't really feel like I fit in anywhere, but if I had a choice I would rather hang out with the lowbrow crowd. I usually like their work more.

J.M.: My friend believes your work to hold similar properties of Haitian art, primarily in the heavy subject matter in conjunction with the primitive forms. What do you have to say about that?

A.A.: After having read this question I Googled Haitian art, and I have to say that I agree with your friend but Haitian art was not an influence of my current style. Medieval embroidery, stumpwork (an embroidery technique), Victorian art and Kiki Smith have to be the biggest influences on my work.

J.M.: I just Googled Kiki Smith and I can definitely see a similar irreverence towards the viewer.

A.A.: I hope I'm not too irreverent towards my viewers, but if I were to fit my art to every viewer I would never be able to get anything done. I might have gotten a hard skin growing up in an area where I've always been an outsider.

JM: So far your pieces have been relatively small. Any plans for an epic large- scale work?

A.A.: I don't know if I will ever do any epic size large-scale work. I have plans for some larger pieces and plans for illustrating whole stories on the same piece of cloth. I don't know if I have patience enough to work on the same embroidery for more than a month. We'll see. I always said I would never do embroidery or beading and look at what I'm doing now. Never say never.

J.M.: So how did you find your way down to Milwaukee?

A.A.: This spring I started to apply for exhibitions at galleries all over the United States, (gallery owner)  Mike (Brenner)  was the one who answered, and that is how I get here.

J.M.: What are your plans for the upcoming future? Galleries? New works? Building snowmen?

A.A.: I won't be building any snowmen until December. (Smiles). After my recent wedding, honeymoon and the show at Hotcakes, I'm already back to work embroidering. I don't plan on changing the style for some time. I have a small show coming up in Alaska in October, and I plan on going down to Aqua Art in Miami with Hotcakes Gallery in December. Besides that I'm pretty much just going to keep applying for shows at galleries, and hoping for the best.

Annie Aube's embroidery can be seen hanging at Hotcakes Gallery, but hurry quick, because Friday and Saturday are the last days before the new show goes up!

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