Stephen Wilson receives much of the inspiration for his conceptual, stylized, appropriated and unique detailed embroidery works from Charlotte, North Carolina’s historic area, where he maintains an impressive studio and home in the city. Charlotte emerged as a major textile center beginning in 1880, and prospered as a symbol of New South industrialization as it took advantage of the flourishing cotton farming that provided a perfect environment for spinning yarn into cloth, the so-called “white gold “of the South. Impressive brick mills with names like Ada, Alpha and Louise began to dot the local landscape as the international markets for cotton expanded. Although this past is largely forgotten now, the still-appealing physical remains of mill buildings now renovated for other uses are a constant reminder of an important historic industry, and add a delightful connected, influential spirit to Wilson’s repertoire.
Traditionally, visual artists often have been affected by the environments of which they are a part. Jim Dine’s father, for example, was a carpenter who surrounded himself with tools, which ultimately became major components in Dine’s pop art style. Dale Chihuly’s mother encouraged him to collect sea glass along the shores of Puget Sound, sparking his interest in pursuing glass blowing, and Jim Leedy, who grew up behind a brick factory, became fascinated with kilns and ceramics, a focus that continues to stay with him during his illustrious career. James Rosenquist first gained work as a billboard painter, which morphed into pop art pictures that reflected an advertising sensibility. Warhol was fascinated with movie stars in high school, and even corresponded with young starlets, which made an indelible imprint on his vision, motivation and journey toward inventing pop art.
“I started in the creative industry right after high school, making screen printed shirts and posters for local bands on the Jersey Shore,” said Stephen Wilson. “What drove me into embroidery a few years later was a fascination with the technology. One of the main reasons that I use icons and symbols in my work initially stemmed from Disney and other characters, how a simple symbol can mean so much.” With more research, Wilson applied his basic background and skill set to “comic” characters on clothing, such as Spongebob Squarepants, as computer-conceived embroidery became all the rage for its complex, innovative and speedily done motifs. Modern day expertise and equipment made it possible to plan, decorate and manufacture an elaborate cap or jacket, offering a high yield of inventory with significantly less labor. Martha Stewart came along and developed a whole new market for hand-crafted items and ideas, including crocheted tea towels, belts and pillows. Wilson found himself as one of the few American experts who already was investigating technology-based embroidery, as most production had moved overseas, and seemed to bravely bridge the gap between fashion embroidery and American Crafts with post-modernist fine art. He eventually became a “hired gun,” creating applications for Oscar de la Renta and Dior, and word started to spread in the fashion trade about an ambitious and talented craftsman who had the sensibility of an artist and the professional experience to bring home the bacon. In addition to the pretty remarkable inroads that he is making in the art world, his commercial business, managed by an impressive young staff, financially supports in part his bold experiments and courageous expeditions merging textiles that are sewn and embroidered. Often his work has evolved into an examination of art about art, with clever and inventive interpretations and commandeering of pop art imagery like what Warhol combined, but, in Wilson’s case, employing a remarkable
and impressive original element in thread as opposed to paint as a medium. Wilson mixes contemporary history with craft, and follows an inspired practice that began when Picasso appropriated and recycled newspaper in his 1913 painting, Bowl with Fruit, Violin and Wineglass. In today’s art world, to ‘appropriate’ means to imaginatively adapt, borrow or sample aspects of human-generated culture, most often from the printed page. Inherent in our appreciation and understanding of image adaption is that a brand new work materializing from a previous recognizable, popular source re-contextualizes whatever it borrows, therefore inducing a fresh piece that contains an already existing image. Claes Oldenburg seized and re-created images from commercial art and trendy society, and at one point he opened a pop-up grocery store in downtown Manhattan that as an adaptive version of permanent “shelf life,” featured artwork related to food stuffs like canned goods and desserts. Richard Prince, the ‘bad boy’ of appropriation, went so far as to simply re-photograph existing advertising icons, such as the Marlboro Man.
For a time, Robert Rauschenberg stitched together silk panels into large format configurations of printed photographic objects that the artist would connect with colored thread. As early as 1969, Alan Shields began showing his sewn and embroidered textile-like watercolors at the celebrated Paula Cooper gallery in SoHo, which conjured up a tribal, non-western, hand-made aesthetic that landed him on the cover of ARTFORUM magazine in 1973. Shields, an early pioneer of sewn surfaces, grew up in Kansas learning to sew from his mother and two sisters, and in due course, he was drawing three-dimensional “paintings” with the family sewing machine, and later was linked with the pattern and decoration movement that influenced scores of young artists. I, too, had a great curiosity about sewing as an artistic extension, when in junior high I wanted to attend the home economics classes instead of woodshop. However, my request wasn’t acceptable, so I was left to carve ash trays with rest of the boys. I did learn to sew anyway, buying an industrial sewing machine that I would use to “draw” on telephone book pages, and ended up sewing my bride’s wedding dress out of 160 vintage handkerchiefs from my own collection!
There is a great heritage of artists who incorporated transformative embroidery and sewing ingenuity into their palette of art supplies, and it remains in the current contemporary art scene, but Liza Lou, who was represented by the mighty L&M Arts in Los Angeles, mixes beadwork with sewing and explores repetition, accrual, pattern and the slow, built-up process of embellished material over time that also is apparent in Wilson’s energetic constructions.
In the last few years, Stephen Wilson has taken advantage of his serendipitous route to the art world by following his natural instincts to form a distinctive and significantly modified arrangement. He employs a unique medium that facilitates his message, whether it be an appropriation of a WW II poster, Warholian subject matter, or hearts and flowers, as well as a recent “Luxury Series,” among others, which depicts the instant and emotional recognition elicited by a luxury brand. Wilson has taken a clever step by adorning the beautiful printed cardboard boxes produced by firms such as Chanel, Hermés, Valentino and Gucci (thin boxes that few customers throw away), and using them as a limited edition “canvas” that evolves into an artwork through the application of custom machine-stitched designs, sewn embroidery, assemblage and collage. Luxury brands are an attractive incentive to Wilson, who also has used a variety of cloth, including silk, wool, and materials by Marc
Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana. The unification of his influences—contemporary art, pop art, street art and graffiti—also mix together convention, modern discovery and interpretation. In fact, the way Wilson literally sews together pictures and perceptions is a delightful metaphor for the unique process that the artist has developed over a twenty-year period of experience, which has brought him fame and fortune as a recognized industry leader, both in the fashion and home embroidery worlds. This unusual background for a determined artist matured into sophisticated and often simply amazing constructions that contain literally millions of embroidery stitches and take hundreds of hours to create.
Wilson’s reputation as a fine artist is increasing day by day, particularly with recent exhibitions in private galleries and American art fairs in Miami and Manhattan, and a recent acquisition by the Coral Springs Museum of Art, which is planning a major survey exhibition for the artist in 2019. As is the custom with many artists, Wilson also has explored numerous avenues of expression, including relief work, abstraction and disorder, as well an homage to the pop artists he admires, including Warhol, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons. Wilson’s interpretations of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe are among his favorites, and currently are his most collectable pieces, which is no surprise. Each of the Marilyn works is first digitized in order to manipulate millions of “hand-drawn” stitches on a discriminating selection of elegant and engaging fabrics, which has dazzling results. The unusual borders in this series are made up of brick-like two inch squares that are emblazoned with iconic Warhol visuals, including Campbell Soup cans, Brillo boxes, dollar signs and Mickey Mouse, as well as lips, cows, and even a Warhol “fright wig.”
His recent embellished works on paper are among the most handsomely finished new works that utilize photographs taken by the artist, as well as stitched designs that integrate recognizable iconic imagery, from graffiti and butterflies to collaborations of skulls and trademarks with respected artists such as Robert Mars, that also relates directly back to Warhol, who teamed with Jean-Michel Basquiat for a memorable series of works.
Wilson continues to create wondrous fabric-based compositions that have evolved into recognizable signature artworks that are celebrated and critically admired. His current show at New Gallery of Modern Art in Charlotte is a true testament to an artist laboring with traditional materials in non-traditional applications that present a daily challenge of patience, inventiveness and an inquisitive, trained eye. The end result of this evolution of knowledge and creativity that literally is stitched
—Bruce Helander is an artist who writes on art. He is a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment of Art and a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Art Economist and was the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs of the Rhode Island School of Design. His work is represented in over fifty museum collections, including the Whitney, Guggenheim and Metropolitan. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, and recently wrote critical essays for books on Hunt Slonem (“Bunnies”) and Dale Chihuly (“Collections”).