Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Big 5-0! An Interview with Bren Ahearn, Fiber Artist

Is it ever wise for two people to move a PIANO? 

Okay, so it was an Upright and not a Baby Grand but two (just two) people trying to shift that beautiful, excessively heavy instrument was not the best idea--the piano was never the same. We were young, fit (only somewhat in my case) and excited to embark on the adventure called LIFE! As with many twenty-something friendships, we lost touch for a long while (nearly 20 years) then serendipitously reconnected online. We’d discovered that we each had an intense interest in Fiber Arts (not something we had ever discussed in our early years). We lost touch again briefly (7 or 8 years) and again reconnected online but this time--in spite of the extreme 2013/2014 winter weather--we meet for lunch in the city where we first met, Philadelphia, PA.
Bren and his husband Doug were traveling for the holidays. We found a cute place for lunch not too far from their hotel. In the course of catching up, I asked Bren if I could interview him for Mixed Remnants, the sister site of Fiber Art Calls for Entry. The site developers were in the process of revamping and I had the opportunity to contribute an article or profile of an artist. Bren Ahearn was the perfect choice. Since we do not live in the same city, we decided to use Google Chat for the interview which took place in two sessions (plus follow up questions) in January and February 2014. Some of Bren’s early responses refer to events that were taking place in the fall/winter of 2013/2014.

Interview with an Artist: Bren Ahearn

by Melva Hightower, Contributor, Mixed Remnants

I read the interview with Mr. X stitch and it was quite informative. Of course the goal of this conversation is to cover new ground. What are you working on right now?

In that interview, I spoke about needlework samplers and how they were used as an educational tool for girls who were not afforded a formal education. In those samplers, I made commentary about how I've been educated to be a man within contemporary American society. I'm still making samplers but I've switched over to the topic of mortality.

For my new samplers, I have reflected back on those moments of my youth when I may not have exercised the best judgment and I am lucky to be alive. The series was sparked by online news articles about tragic stories; some people leave snarky comments and these comments make me sad. The comments are things like, "They should've known better", etc. Why do some people feel privileged to be snarky and hide behind anonymous screen names? Why aren't these people compassionate? These stories and comments also got me thinking about the times when I didn't exercise the best judgment; thus the series was born.

The new samplers explore a parallel universe in which I was not so lucky and my life came to an end when I was in my 20s. The first of these samplers involves my falling off the roof, in the 1980s, while I was sneaking to meet a secret lover. The second in the series explores my sexual history in the 1980s. In the third of the series, my dismembered body is found in a park and the question is raised why I was there at 2:00 a.m.

I'm also working on a series of stitched gym mats. These mats have a molded woven pattern on them so I decided to stitch on the mats using the woven pattern as my cloth. I am fascinated by the rendering of textile motifs on plastic objects, etc. What is it that makes humans create a molded plastic basket with a molded woven pattern? What is so comforting about these textile motifs? (Deborah Valoma of the California College of the Arts wrote an article about this concept in Fiberarts a few years ago.) I started to explore this with my Manmade series about 5 years ago. In these earlier pieces, I stitched the word "manmade" on these molded plastic objects using the molded plastic pattern as my canvas. My hope was that the manmades would address human-made vs. machine-made, sexism in language, etc.

With the new mats, I've been stitching personal ads—from Craigslist—of men looking for men to wrestle and do other things. I have used some of the same imagery of my earlier Joy of Fighting series. Additionally, I've appropriated imagery of Olympic wrestling icons—some of the icons are so beautiful. I hope to put the mats together in an installation; the mats can be seen as samplers. I'm just playing with stitching.

It is almost overwhelming. The notion of exploring your life as if it came to an end in your 20s feels a little frightening to me but I guess, that's the point. Your work is so intensely personal and rather poignant. The topic of mortality is quite a thing to tackle and to stitch, no less.

I guess I've been thinking a lot about death recently. I'll be 50 in February 2014; my father passed away when he was 55. When I came of age in the 1980s, the rhetoric at the time was that I would contract HIV and be dead of AIDS by the time I was 30. I'm grateful to still be around. Also, I think death is in the air. Just this past week, there were two school shootings.

(I’ve created a piece that addresses school shootings called Active Shooter Directions #1—I hope to do more.)

Why is violence so normalized that people just say that the shootings are horrible but nothing is done to address the underlying violence in American society? When I say violence, I mean beyond people killing each other. I mean systems that are in place that perpetuate gender and racial inequality—systems so ingrained that people don't even realize they're participating in the game.

Ruby Sketchley and Heidi Boucher are making a documentary called In the Parlor which explores families who are caring for their dead relatives instead of a funeral home. I think that some people in the United States are afraid to talk about death so they act as though it won't happen. How this fits into my artwork: a lot of my work deals with topics that people are uncomfortable with so I try to raise these topics in a light manner so that (maybe) it gets people thinking.

Do you think embroidery will remain your medium of choice? Do you foresee quilting, knitting, or crochet in your textile future?

I started as a weaver and I was thinking that I'd like to return to it. I recently moved back to San Francisco and rejoined my old weaving guild Loom and Shuttle. The folks at Loom and Shuttle were so encouraging to me as a young weaver and I'm eternally grateful to them for that. I think being in the company of my old weaving friends plus the arrival of a Yarn Barn-Kansas catalog with different looms in it has sparked this. My husband and I share a 480 square foot place so size is an issue. I'd like to get a super narrow loom and perhaps do some more strip weaving. There's something so fun about weaving strips and putting them together—it's kind of like putting a bunch of samplers together. For a recent show, I actually printed out my cross stitch charts in white ink on a blue background so they kind of looked like blueprints. The exhibit space had these skinny columns but I didn't have enough skinny stitched works so I decided to do prints. I'd like to explore the prints some more.

How has music influenced your work?

Funny. I never thought about that before. I played piano and French horn when I was a child. I never made the connection that music, weaving, and cross-stitch have these written charts that guide the creator along but the charts are just a base, not the ultimate authority on creation. I guess these charts tie in with my love of language.

The charts are a foundation—a place to start—a lot like life in a way. Our parents (or those who raise us from childhood) are forged with the responsibility of laying a firm foundation for our future. Ultimately, it's up to us to decide who and what we will be and how we will live our lives. Nothing is ever all positive or all negative, there is always a mix. However, it's what we glean from those things that shape us and our outlook.

That's so true. Now that I'm older, I can appreciate all the things that my mother did to shape her children. One example is that she refused to allow us to use the term yous for the plural you. At the time, I thought she was strict but now that I'm older I see what she was doing. I'm also grateful to her for encouraging our creative activities—all of my siblings have creative pursuits. 

About the positive and negative: I'm grateful for all of my experiences because they have made me what I am and have brought me here today. About bad experiences: some of my friends call them FOGs—fucking opportunities for growth.

I would like to expand on the subject of your new work. What’s going on in your mind right now?

I've been reflecting on that issue of death and I remembered that in a span of a few months last year 3 or 4 of my high school classmates passed away. Also, when I went to bed on Friday, I was excited that there was only one school shooting this week (rather than 2 school shootings and a movie theater shooting); however, when I woke up, I was dismayed to find out out that someone was killed on a college campus after an argument and there was that shooting at that mall outside of Baltimore; and, these are just the shootings reported in the media. So, this week was just as horrific as last week in terms of school shootings.

Horrific is the correct word for what is taking place in our schools and communities. How has this affected your thought process for the pieces you are that are currently in production?

It makes me sad. It appears that violence is so normalized. I can't remember if I mentioned last week the inspiration for my school shooting card when I mentioned that piece. I used to work at UC Davis and one day they had everyone go into the auditorium where they trained us on what to do if an "active shooter" were in the building. What made me sad was that there was no discussion about what causes some Americans to kill each other. They just trained us and gave us a card which I enlarged and stitched. So, in a sense, my Active Shooter Directions #1 is a sampler of sorts; it documents another step in my education process.

Your education process?

Way back when samplers were created by girls as part of their education process—they weren't allowed a formal education. By stitching samplers, some girls learned the ABCs and needlework skills. Sometimes, the samplers would even have a statement about how to be a proper woman. I tried to use my earlier samplers to comment on how I was educated to be a man in American society. I guess that the school shooting card isn't part of my education to be a man but it still is part of my education.

The pieces you create are so detailed and extremely focused. Do you envision a time when you might incorporate other media into the conversation you are conducting with your work?

It's funny, like many crafters, I have several thoughts and ideas for projects going on in my head. Oftentimes, I create something as a one-off but when I step back I realize the piece fits into a theme with some other pieces. This realization sometimes inspires me to create more work in the same vein. In terms of other media, I've had my sporty flowers patterns printed on fabric and some of that I had upholstered on a chair—that was a collaboration with my husband, Doug Brown. The sporty flowers pattern is composed of flowers with baseballs for the center and American footballs for the petals. I have done some sampling with having the sporty flowers printed on removable vinyl labels and I've stuck a few up at work. I'd like to do an installation of these.

I have made some prints of my sampler charts that look like blueprints, but I'd like to try some big-scale blueprints and wallpaper, albeit storage and money are issues.

I also have been thinking about getting back into weaving, where it all began for me. I'd love to get a simple rigid heddle loom and do some strip weaving. There's something so satisfying about sewing the strips together; the individual patterned strips combine to create something more interesting.

Finally, I would like to do something with labyrinths.

You referred to yourself as a crafter. How do you classify your work? Is it art or is it craft? Or, both?

Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. I hate this question. I classify myself as a crafter in the fine art world even though the divide is lessening nowadays.

Your work is very large. Do you work on smaller pieces besides the woven strip pieces? And, labyrinths?

I'm actually working on a small sampler (about 18"H X 13"W) which is on blue fabric with white thread. I decided to see if I could go from the printed blueprints back to cloth and see if it would look like a blueprint. Also, the mats I mentioned are 24"H X 24"W. My hope was to exhibit a bunch of these together on the floor. However, due to space at a recent show, one was exhibited on the wall by itself. A number of people at the exhibit immediately knew that I had stitched Craigslist ads on the mat.

About labyrinths: when I was in school at San Francisco State University, I took a course with Professor Jim Davis in which we looked at imagery across different cultures. One of the segments was focused on labyrinths. I became intrigued by the Greek myth in which Theseus went into a labyrinth to kill the Minotaur at the center. Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread to unwind as he went into the labyrinth so he could find his way back out. My understanding is that this ball of thread was called a "clew," which is the origin of our word "clue." A somewhat more contemporary example (1970s) of this scenario took place on the Brady Bunch when the family went to Hawaii. The boys attempted to return an idol to a burial place and they left a trail of popcorn instead of thread. I haven't seen this episode since I was a child so it would be interesting to see this show with a 21st century lens. So, I've been tossing around labyrinths around for about 7 years but haven't yet done anything with it.

In a previous response you stated: What is it that makes humans create a molded plastic basket with a molded woven pattern? What is so comforting about these textile motifs? Perhaps our texture/textile relationship is formed when we enter the world and we are swathed in a warm blanket with a cotton diaper on our bottoms.

I like those thoughts. I agree. The child is not given high heeled shoes or other instruments of torture. When a baby is born, the child is typically given warm clothing or a blankie, i.e., comforting textiles.

Where and how did art begin (or re-begin) for you?

My mother always encouraged creative activities in her children and I'm so grateful to her for that. When I was in elementary school, I realized that in order to fit in I had to go into the closet with my creative activities. So, my creative activities were dormant until my late 20s or so.

Your bio states that you played a lot of Scrabble which turned into a lifelong love of language. Clearly, you've used that imagery in your work. A very special young person once asked me where words came from—at the time, I couldn't answer adequately—I believe words and language are life. Is that what you are communicating in your work?

I like what you've written—words and language are life. That is so perfect and simple. Language is how we connect with or disconnect from each other.

Storytelling appears to be a vital part of your work. Do you shape the narrative or do outside influences form the base upon which you build?

I think all of my experiences to date have shaped my narrative. Also, I appropriate imagery from all over the place. On the flip-side, sometimes I take liberty with the storytelling.

Where do you see yourself and your work in the intellectual space of contemporary art?

I guess I view my place as getting a person to stop, say "huh?" and then reflect on how the piece resonates in that person's life. I guess I also could be viewed as a micro-historian -- one who records the history of the not-famous.

Forgive me if this sounds preachy but history is made by all. Archaeologists (generally) do not search for the celebrities of a particular age. They are looking for evidence of US as humans—as we existed at that place and in that time. They try to discover who we were in an effort to know who we are.

Dark themes and provocation notwithstanding, how is your work received?

I think people either love it or hate it which is good. I'd rather a strong reaction than no reaction at all. Also, people tend to be amazed at the amount of labor that goes into the pieces. I was chatting with a reviewer a year ago or so and he said that the pieces bring up the issue of time usage and gets people to reflect on this.

Are you on a quest? Are you out to slay a monster?

That's a good question. When I first started creating, I wanted to raise awareness about the confining nature of behavioral norms and I thought samplers would be a perfect form. My earlier samplers (#1: When I refuse to fight I become a pussy and #2: When daddy dresses me in my blue uniform, I become a man) are based on more of a general feeling I had when I was growing up. Then I started to do samplers about my own real history (#3: the wedding sampler, #5: the employment sampler and #9: I guess the flowered lunchbox was the wrong accessory choice). I guess one could say that the monster I slayed was the fear of addressing my own history and putting it out there. I guess the same could be said about the new series of death samplers. I think this going inward and recording my own history is truer to the form of old-fashioned samplers.

Who are your peers in the art/craft world? Whose work do you admire?

Tricky question that is a political minefield! There are so many textile artists whose work I admire but I cannot list them all here.

One artist whose work I admire and who is not associated with the textile field is Kara Walker. In some of her work she makes these beautiful cutout silhouettes of these horrible scenes from American history such as lynchings. I love that she's using this beautiful form associated with the leisure class to talk about things some people don't want to talk about such as the impact of slavery on society and stereotypes that African−Americans are hyper−sexualized.

You've collaborated with your husband Doug. Do you have plans for future collaborations with Doug or others?

Doug and I recently moved back to San Francisco so getting our apartment in order has been our chief collaboration. We're doing a pink and blue theme. The walls are light blue, the couch is pink-magenta, and our chair with the sporty flowers print is in the living room. Doug also painted the kitchen floor a rich blue with a white painted wood grain (kind of like a blueprint). I recently got an Adler worktable for my stitching work and I wanted to get bubble gum pink legs. Thankfully, Doug reminded me that sometimes there can be too much pink. I'm grateful to him for his discerning eye. In terms of non-apartment projects, we've discussed 3D fabrication but nothing has come of it yet.

I'm also collaborating with Jesse Kahn ( We each stitch on a piece and send it back and forth. Two of these pieces are in Amy Cancelmo's Strange Bedfellows traveling exhibition. This collaborative process has been good for me because it's released me from the rigid control of cross stitch.

What's happening with Manmade Workshop?

Manmade Workshop is on hiatus until we finish our our apartment.

Where is your work generally exhibited? Do you have any upcoming shows?

I see my work as being better suited for not-for-profit spaces or galleries at educational institutions. Working with these spaces means that I can make whatever I feel like making and not be as concerned about the commercial aspect. I feel that this fits in with my mission of getting people to talk about issues. That's not to say that commercial spaces don't deal with issues. A few years ago I was affiliated with Evolve the Gallery in Sacramento ( and they have always had cutting-edge shows.

I have a few shows coming up:

  • Five samplers will be in a show entitled "Manly Men, Girly Girls…" at the Northern Illinois University Art Museum in Dekalb, IL, USA from August 26 - November 15, 2014. (
  • Three pieces will be on display at the "Politically Charged" show at the Blue Line gallery in Roseville, CA, USA from September 6 – October 11, 2014. (
  • Two collaborative pieces with Jesse Kahn will be on display in the traveling exhibition of "Strange Bedfellows" at Florida international University's Miami Beach Urban Studios, Miami, FL, USA from September 5 – October 16, 2014. (
  • My first death sampler will appear in "Needle's Eye: Contemporary Art" at the Kode Bergen in Bergen, Norway from October 10, 2014 – January 25, 2015. The show will then travel to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway, February 21, 2015 - May 16, 2015. ( and
  • Closer to home, I may have a few pieces in a show at the University California, San Francisco, where I work. As of this writing, I have not yet found out if my pieces were accepted.

Over the years, I have realized that if a piece of mine is rejected from a show that does not necessarily mean that the curator dislikes my work. I have had curators tell me that my work wasn't suited for a particular show but they could see my work in another show that was upcoming. So my unsolicited advice about submissions is: don't lose hope. Of course, every once in a while I sometimes just feel like giving it all up and becoming a polyglot since I love languages.

Have you sold your work?

I've sold a few pieces. Some my collectors work for arts organizations, such as Phoenix Art Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission. I do, however, have a day job. Fortunately, I am in the position that I do not have to make a living doing my art so I can make whatever I want.

Do you have plans to teach?

I have taught workshops on and off but I realize that I just prefer to make things and to give talks.

Has this dive into the topic of mortality changed your habits or behaviors?

I cannot tell if it is due to the recent switch to my current subject area or due to the fact that I am getting older, but I do find myself being more cautious. For example, when I recently moved to San Francisco, I decided to not ride my bike around town because I feel it is too dangerous. Another example, some friends were visiting and were not able to use their hot air balloon trip tickets because of the weather. They offered the tickets to us but we refused. I said to my husband, "I did not survive the 80s to die in a hot air balloon."

How do you want to be remembered?

I'd like to be remembered as someone who was kind and who got people to think.

All images of Bren's work were used with the permission of the artist.  All images are the property of Bren Ahearn.

View Bren's website:
View Bren's Flickr site:

Contributor: Melva Hightower loves the variety of materials and textures found in fibers. Although she has not shown any work in recent years, she has vowed to reconstruct her life so she can complete the pieces she has already started and the ones roaming about in her head. She has, however, been working on a personal project: a striped single crochet (yes, you read that right--single crochet) blanket for her bed. Let’s hope she finishes it before winter sets in.