Come Together #2 (2016)
Fabric decoupage, machine stitched and hand embellished
17 inches x 13 inches x 7 inches
Penny Mateer lives in Pittsburgh, and quilts and embroiders from her home studio. Her background as a social worker helped to shape her “artistic voice which centres on protest art and commentry,”
What is your background in textiles?
I am not formally trained but I’ve studied with Jane Burch-Cochran, Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Elizabeth Busch, and Staci Offutt; my mentor is Tina Williams-Brewer. My first patchwork was for the theatre production Quilters at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. I began to make quilts as gifts but thought of them as purely utilitarian objects. It wasn’t until I made a quilt of the City of Pittsburgh for my father that I began to see the potential for quilt making as a way to ask questions and tell stories.
What is it about textiles that appeals to you?
I’ve loved quilts ever since I can remember; quilting is in my genes. When I was a little girl we slept under my grandmother’s quilts; not only did my grandmother quilt but my grandfather as well. I learned how to embroider from my mother in addition to basic sewing. What fascinates me about stitching is that historically women have expressed themselves through the eye of a needle and I want to continue that tradition. What I love about patchwork is manipulating pattern and colour to create visual movement; the patchwork becomes my “canvas”. My challenge is to find graphic, commercial fabric to use in unexpected ways to advance my ideas.
How do you describe your work?
My art is rooted in the feminine traditions of quilting and embroidery traditionally thought of as “women’s work.” Using fabric as my primary material, I establish an immediate connection through shared experience. Drawing from this rich history of creating functional objects intended to provide warmth and comfort, I create fiberart using time-honored methods, recycled materials or referencing tradition with mixed-media installation, as a platform to present ideas about current events.
Has your work become more political recently or has it always had a political edge?
My first foray into political commentary began with my quilt Election 2004 created in response to George W Bush’s re-election campaign. The inspiration for it was a series of posters available to download and distribute that I incorporated into the work with my commentary on the border. I used to be a social worker, and worked exclusively with People with HIV/AIDS. I advocated for individuals who often were forgotten or had no voice. So I began to realise as I transitioned out of social work to art making that I could use what I learned about advocacy and apply it to my art practice and in so doing develop my artistic voice which centres on protest art and commentary.
Can you talk us through how you create your collages such as The Show Goes on Glitches and All?
I make a newspaper collage using only photographs or advertising from each edition, Monday – Saturday, of the NY Times. I am greatly concerned about the gradual shift from handheld newspapers to the digital delivery of news and how that diminishes the impact of photojournalism. Unlike reading the news on a computer screen the act of holding a newspaper forces the reader to see an image even if just a glance. I think about how photographs inform our introduction to specific events. The title of each collage is a headline from that day that references the visual theme. I keep a list of all the photojournalist’s images I use to create the work in my sketchbook.
Since Trump was elected my collages are turning into a chronicle of his presidency. Whether or not you support Donald Trump, this is an extraordinary time in our country’s history. I post my collages daily on Instagram. Each collage reflects history in the making and becomes a public declaration and form of protest.
For exhibition I scan the collages and have them digitally printed onto fleece blankets. The large format magnifies the visual impact and the fleece gives the photos depth. At that scale the viewer is confronted with uncomfortable realities rendered on a functional object we all relate to.
A great portion of my practice is reading history, cultural critique and analysis.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
It is difficult to pick what I am most proud of. I’ve been thinking about ways to use art to help promote civic engagement. I spearhead a collective of mostly women, who work together to make yard signs to spread the word Vote! This effort grew from a very special community made fiberart installation Knit the Bridge. I was fortunate to be the co-director and work with lead artist Amanda Gross. Over 1000 people participated and yarn bombed the Andy Warhol Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh; that was a one of a kind amazing experience.
Do you have any advice for aspiring textile artists?
Listen to your inner voice and follow wherever it leads. Don’t be afraid to make art that says something and if you do, do your homework.