Artist Heather Marie Scholl hails from Portland, Oregon, and now lives and works in New York City. Heather earned a BA in Race, Gender and Sexuality which she followed up with an MFA in Fashion and Knitwear design. Heather’s passion is finding ways to balance her artistic skills with her commitments to social justice. Needlework crafts are her specialty and her creations have been exhibited in galleries across several states.
Heather is part of the Upcycle Junction group which aims to create art and useful items from recycled materials. She recently discussed her art, Upcycle, and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your artistic talents and how did go about nurturing and evolving those talents?
Heather Marie Scholl (HMS): I wanted to be an artist from a very young age. As a kid I took a few classes – drawing, sculpture, painting and learned from my Grandmother one summer – embroidery, sewing. But it wasn’t encouraged as a pursuit and thus I never fully committed to being an artist. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC about six years ago that I found myself really committed to nurturing and evolving my talents. That is when I found myself married to embroidery as my primary medium. It was through teaching myself that much of my skill evolved, and by making new works as much as I could.
MM: You design wearables, so what makes your style unique and how has it been received?
HMS: Most of the wearables I have created were part of my fashion school experience, or pieces I have made for myself to wear. Professionally, I have worked as a sample maker specializing in hand knits in the fashion industry. The Upcycle Junction Market is really my first formal foray into selling my unique wearable creations. My thesis collection, which was shown in Lincoln Center in February 2012, was very well received. I approached the collection like art pieces, thinking through the concept, and visual impact in a way that was unique among my designer graduating class. It had a great impact on those that saw the show, writers who were present, and all those who have seen the images since. But it did not have a strong commercial appeal. With the quantity of handwork, alongside the very bold and edgy style, it was a challenge to know how to market the pieces.
MM: You also create installations, so how did you get involved with that medium and how long does it typically take to realize a single project?
HMS: I remember back in high school having ideas of installation work. It always seemed too big and unfeasible. In one sense I think it is just how my brain works, to conceptualize the whole experience of someone walking into a room with my work. My first installation was called “Sometimes It’s Hard to be a Woman,” taking inspiration from Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” to address the subtle and emotionally corrosive elements of relationship violence. It was my first real art show and was a powerful experience to create the pieces and install them in a space. It challenged me to continue thinking about how people interact with the work. I can’t really give a timeline as each piece and each installation or collection is unique. The first one perhaps took around a year. But my current project, “Whitework,” which examines white women’s roles in white supremacy I have been working on for four years and do not yet have a sense of when it will be done. The pieces are wearable and home decor items, constructed using whitework embroidery, white thread on white fabric, and a variety of other white on white techniques. Ultimately, I envision this work as a full “living room” installation, with every piece decorated. It may take me many more years to get there!
MM: You are heavily involved in social issues, so which ones speak most to you and why?
HMS: I have been particularly focused on racial justice in my art and education, I teach racial justice workshops geared toward white women. Racial justice has long been an issue of importance for me. I don’t have a clear answer as to when or how I got focused on it. But I have been greatly influenced by the unique dichotomy in my family. My mother and her family are from Arkansas and my dad and his family are from the Pacific Northwest, both white. I was aware of the unique and layered ways that race came into play in both of those cultures. And I have long felt a weight of needing to address my family and this country’s legacy of racism. My work was particularly activated after Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s killers were not indicted. After long debating how to address race in my work, that moment gave me a jump start to begin “Whitework”. I also have a body of work that is much more personal in nature (“The Self Portraits,” “Every Heart Breaks”). Through these self-portraits and memoir style pieces I address larger issues of being a queer woman and sexual assault survivor. I have long been interested in the second wave feminism idea of “personal as political” these pieces in particular embody that idea.
MM: How much do you think art helps people connect to each other?
HMS: I heard a quote from a podcast the other day that “art makes us visible to each other” (Lawrence Kushner). It was such a simple and beautiful way to summarize the impact of art. We, as artists, allow ourselves to be seen through the creation of art. Simultaneously we create the space for others to find themselves within our works. It is that mutual experience that allows for greater connection.
MM: How did you first get involved with the Upcycle Junction Market?
HMS: A friend who was already signed up to be a part of the Market, suggested I consider joining. With my fashion background I have wanted to know how to make wearable items that could be financially sustainable. Because the items are upcycled it’s removed the pressure of material costs, which has stopped me before. It felt like a great opportunity to learn and explore ideas.
MM: What are you planning to sell at the Upcycle market this May and what are you most excited about regarding the event?
HMS: I have created a line of accessories and harnesses. I have called the collection “Restraints of Unfettered Sexual Wisdom”. Through the use of discarded items each piece balances conflicting elements of color, masculinity and femininity, light and dark to create harmony. The pieces are playful and powerful. I am really excited to see how my items are received. It has been a creatively and spiritually fulfilling collection to work on and my hope is that others connect to my designs in a meaningful way.
MM: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being an artist and what projects are coming up next for you?
HMS: For me the most challenging aspect of being an artist is figuring out how to develop financial stability. My projects take large amounts of time and emotional energy, which makes maintaining my work and a “day job” challenging. I have stuck to freelancing for the flexibility, but continue to be challenged by this element. I am excited to see how the Upcycle Market Junction may change my relationship to this. I will not be tabling the first May market (though my items will be available at Jasmine Anokye’s table) as I will be in Seattle for my first art residency. While there I intend to expand my project “Every Heart Breaks”. Using the context of my breakup to speak to the wounds of my past and issues of power. I am exploring the ideas in embroidery, and expanding it into poetry, and sculpture. Allowing the work to take the form it needs. I hope to eventually piece it together into an art book.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
HMS: If you would like to find out more about my anti-racism work, I co-founded www.ConfrontWhiteWomanhood.com. I will be leading a new format of this workshop in late June/early July, “Confront White Womanhood in Self Defense.” This course will examine ideas of safety and self-defense, unpacking racialized aspects of fear while moving into an understanding of safety and community that does not rely on police and culminating in a physical self-defense training. I have also developed an embroidery and racial justice toolkit and workshop. I will be teaching my first four-week-long workshop of this in Seattle. But the toolkits are available online and can be done on your own, or gather a few friends and create your own accountability group to do the work with.