ARTIST OF THE WEEK: SARAH K BENNINGJuly 31, 2017
Sarah K Benning isn’t just an embroidery artist. As a one-woman business, she runs her own show, managing everything from the creation to the marketing and the distribution of her pieces. She talks to Urban about her inspirations, her worries and her life as an artist with a touch of softness that characterises her so well.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue embroidery as a career?
I’m not sure I can pinpoint an exact moment. I definitely never expected embroidery to become my career, though I have always known I wanted to be an artist. I started out stitching hand-embroidered greeting cards as a hobby after college. At the time, I was working as a nanny and embroidery was the perfect portable purse project to work on during their nap time — compact, nearly no mess, easy to cram back into my bag at a moment’s notice. I quickly became addicted to the process and expanded from simple cards to stitching more complex images onto fabric.
It took me about a year and a half to leave my ‘day job’ behind. It was a leap of faith to fully invest in my budding embroidery business, but I felt like I didn’t have too much to lose (I could always go back to nannying). It’s been three years since then and things are going strong. Fully committing to my work has allowed my tiny business to grow in ways I never could have imagined and created opportunities I never would have dreamed of and I am thankful every day.
Did you attend an art school or University? If so, how was that experience for you?
I did. I was super lucky and had the opportunity to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts, a specialized high school where I learned the foundations of art-making. I greatly credit my current success to these foundation skills and the work ethic I developed there.
I continued my education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I focused my courses around the Fiber and Material Studies and Arts Administration departments and graduated with my BFA in 2013. Being a professional working artist has always been my goal and, though I never pictured doing exactly what I do now, art school definitely helped me get to this point.
You are a one-woman business. How long does it take you to create a piece?
The time involved in creating one piece varies greatly depending on the size and complexity of said piece; it ranges from a few hours to weeks or even months’ worth of work. Each piece begins as a drawing directly onto my fabric before it gets painstakingly filled in with stitches. I keep lots of sketch books of ideas/thumbnails/observed studies of plants and architectural features and figures to inform my final pieces.
But there is much more than the stitching involved in preparing a piece to sell. As a one-woman business, I am responsible for every aspect of this job from the development of new work to customer service, packing, and shipping, photography, website maintenance, social media and marketing, etc. We live in such a crazy cool time. There are so many resources out there that make this multi-faceted position possible…sometimes it feels like Google’s my best friend.
How did you decide upon and refine your style?
My style has developed very intuitively over the past few years. I started out by making very simplistic hand-stitched greeting cards — pretty different from what I do now. Eventually, I found my way to stitching plants, but there were lots of stages in between. It’s so important to be open and experimental, especially when you are just setting out and to just keep making until something clicks and resonates (on a personal level — not a likes-seeking social media level, which I think can sometimes cloud the creative process and lead to less authentic work).
I started stitching simple plant pieces after my first winter living in Albany, NY, where my partner and I lived for a few years while he attended school. Our apartment was north-facing, drafty, and cold and none of my house plants survived that especially brutal first winter. As plant replacements, I started stitching little plant memorial pieces to my fallen friends. As I became more and more comfortable with the medium of thread, my images grew more complex and expanded to include interior scenes and now even mysterious female figures. Who knows how my work will shift next.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given, about art or otherwise?
If you are passionate about it, it is worth pursuing.
Why did you decide to start your “craft with conscience” series?
‘Craft With Conscience’ began in early 2016 as a weekly Instagram series dedicated to sharing the work of other creatives and as a platform to openly discuss certain aspects of ethical art making and consuming in the age of the internet and social media.
This series came out of my own frustrations related to seeing my work constantly copied stitch-for-stitch, sold without permission, and credited to other people. Rather than getting overwhelmed with unproductive negative emotions, I wanted to find a way to discuss these issues in a positive way. My solution was to share the work of artists, crafters, designers, and makers who I greatly admire for their originality and dedication. Initially, I shared work similar in materials or subject matter to my own, having heard the argument, “There are only so many ways to stitch plants, I’m not copying you…” one too many times. The truth is, no matter what the medium or subject, every artist from hobby crafter to professional painter has their own perspective and voice. It takes effort to develop one’s visual vocabulary and it can be disheartening when yours is taken and misused by other individuals and even larger companies.
All that being said, now is an incredible time for working artists because of the resources the internet provides including sources of inspiration, the ability to reach a large and global audience, and access to a large and varied art community. I love sharing my work on Instagram and following other makers. It’s a wonderful way to connect with other artists, be inspired, and feel supported, but we all need to be aware of how we use these resources and what effect it may have on others.
Since the start of 2016, ‘Craft With Conscience’ has grown and evolved just like any other creative pursuit and has recently expanded to include short interviews with featured artists. I’ve asked participating artists a series of questions about their studio process, sources of inspiration, and how image-sharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest influence and affect them. You can check out their words here.
Can you describe your creative process? What motivates you and inspires you in your art?
I am inspired by both the things I have and the things I wish I had.
My embroideries, especially the larger and more complex pieces, are in the drawing stage, a collage of objects and details from my real life — actual plants, actual rugs, actual clothes, and spaces — and details from an idealised imaginary reality — the one we see all over Instagram and Pinterest: staged and unattainable.
I’ve only just started to notice and analyse this pattern emerging in my work: it is so often inspired by the lifestyle I aspire to have or at least dream about having in an abstract kind of way. As I mentioned, plants came into my work when my real-life plants started to die. Interior details like rugs and furniture entered my work while I was living in Spain and teaching English. My partner and I lived in a lovely, but small and sparsely furnished off-season vacation rental. I craved the comforts of a lived in home. Now, after two years of a more or less nomadic existence, I am settling into a home, but a very remote one in rural New Hampshire. Just this week I’ve started a series of works focused on summer games and human interactions — clearly a direct response to my own physical isolation.
My embroidery practice is always a work in progress. That’s kind of the best thing about being an artist: there are always unexplored paths and room for change + inspiration.
How did your “Pattern Programs” come about?
I started my monthly Pattern Program in March of 2016 as a way of coping with the growing demand for my work (I think I’m pretty quick, but I can only stitch so fast!). It seemed like people were interested not only in owning a finished embroidery but also making it themselves, so sharing some of my designs in the form of patterns seemed like a good step. Plus, pattern sales meant I could do things like eat and sleep and pay rent and not have to be a round-the-clock one-person sweat shop.
I didn’t know if it would work — if people really would be interested in buying patterns, but I figured worst case scenario I would have wasted a couple weeks of time getting the first design and Pattern PDF together and I would have learned something (probably a lot of things) by doing so. My fears and hesitations were unfounded though because the response to the Pattern Program launch was completely overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it this way, but March 1, 2016 was a truly life changing day, which propelled my business forward in ways I never could have predicted.
Now, more than a year later, I have released a new pattern each month (always on the 1st) and expanded my Pattern Program to include quarterly advanced patterns for those looking for more of a challenge and occasional bonus designs like my current “Find Kindness” pattern, with 100% of sales being donated to the International Refugee Assistance Program.
What has been your proudest career moment?
I still think back to my very first ‘stranger sale’ on Etsy is one of my proudest moments. It was a month or two after I opened my shop selling stitched greeting cards and though I had made some sales to supportive family and friends, the first sale to a stranger was so exciting. I could barely wrap my head around the fact that some person, somewhere out in the world came across my work and liked it so much they spent money on it. That first $6 sale made me feel like this was all possible.
Can you tell our readers about any future projects you are working on?
Right now I’m settling into a new house and getting ready to get married in September, so those personal non-embroidery things are front and center at the moment, but I have some big plans for this fall, winter, and next spring revolving around a series of workshops throughout the US, Europe, and hopefully Mexico and Chile.
I’m also working on a couple of upcoming group exhibitions at Nahcotta, which I am pretty excited about.
See more of Sarah’s work here.
Follow her latest creations on her Instagram.