Child's Play: Maggy Hiltner

When Maggy Rozycki Hiltner hears the rather unoriginal response to her work, “I could do that!” she beams. “I want to say yes, that’s the point. That’s what I find exciting about textiles, the accessibility is really important to me.” In truth, not many could do what Hiltner can with stitch. Each thread contributes a world of meaning to her narrative embroideries, from the miniature camouflaged flames that blend into the background but suggest a darker side to her stories, to the large looping stitches that secure pieces of embroidery she has saved from tea towels bought in second hand shops and yard sales.

Like many of us, Hiltner was introduced to sewing as child, making doll’s clothes and the like for her own enjoyment. But textiles were not something that reappeared again in her life until after she had completed a degree in sculpture and no longer had ready access to a sculpture studio. Hiltner then found herself drawn back to textiles, initially stitching directly onto old fabrics. Eventually she gave herself permission to cut pieces from these salvaged works and combine them on a new backing, a step that broadened her options tremendously. “Now I live six inches away from the cloth,” she explains of her quirky narratives. Each thread, as she puts it, commands a “different voice” that contributes to narratives that tend to reveal themselves slowly, giving away more with each viewing. “To me it’s like drawing, or better yet etching,” she explains. “By the time I sew, I feel like I really mean each mark.”

In the summer of 2005, Hiltner moved to the northern state of Montana with her husband, David, and their young daughter to found the Red Lodge Clay Center, a ceramic residency and gallery. It is largely children’s primers collected since the move that have inspired the children that populate Hiltner’s work most recent work. “Dick and Jane are so non-specific,” she explains. “They are every child and that is why I use them. But really they are also autobiographical, in my mind every piece is some embarrassing personal tale I’ve experienced.” Across her larger works in particular there is a sense of progression that establishes narrative content in a way similar to that of a cartoon or animation. Works such as “A Controlled Burn Is Rarely So”, “Apple Day” or “I Want What You Have” capture moments, which even as adults, we hope no one else noticed: irrational fears, self-doubt, greed, physical awkwardness. “Adolescent anxiety is a recurring theme in my work,” she confirms. “But I’m also looking for the human part in art. There is so much at the moment that is so slick, but not human.” Rather than speak to a young audience, these works are in fact as much about the darker sides to all of us that do not dissipate with age. “I see myself – I think most people tend to do this – in the stories,” Hiltner confirms. “But at the same time the things they are depicting are so wrong. Where is the child crying, or the person having a bad day?” By reworking unrealistic scenes of harmony, Hiltner imbues her work with caricatures of real life, still far from real, but far closer than the original tales.

Hiltner is part of a growing group of thirty-somethings who are interested in using traditional craft techniques such as embroidery, but enjoy adding a more rigorous conceptual content to their work. “A lot of imagery from the 50s,” she notes, “is now being used by a younger generation of artists who are quite brazen in their approach.” Rather than avoid conspicuously labelled women’s work as some of the prior generations of feminists have done, she sees her generation embracing something akin to a third wave of feminism. These individuals are willing, even proud, to return to many of the traditions their mothers walked away from, but there is a thirst to reconfigure the original content of these traditions through the introduction of social commentary.

A large part of this interest has been fostered by exhibitions such as the recent “The Subversive Stitch” at the Reynolds Gallery in California and the upcoming “New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily” at the Contemporary Craft Museum in Portland, Oregon, both of which included works by Hiltner. But she also notes that many of her ilk trained in the Fine Arts and have come to accept that introducing their work to new galleries and curators is an inescapable requirement of making and exhibiting. It is a requirement that can be as time consuming as the work itself, but a necessary one. What Hiltner and her generation aspire to is something new for embroidery: space on the walls of Fine Art galleries and dialogue with the conceptual debates raised by contemporary art, all while maintaining an ongoing admiration and respect for the tremendous and varied expression to be found in a single stitch.

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2006: 16-19)

homepage image: Maggie Rozycki Hiltner "A Controlled Burn is Rarely So" (2003)
image above: Maggie Rozycki Hiltner "Boys and Girls Poke" (2006)