Home Sweet Home: Michelle Loughlin

Michelle Loughlin

Michelle Loughlin has an eye for the unremarkable. Street corners, shabby shop fronts and abandoned buildings are the source material for her recent series Urban Weavings, a collection of embroideries that celebrate “sites of communal and historical relevance” in Jersey City, New Jersey. Since the mid-nineties Loughlin has watched the demolition of many buildings in her local community. She explains that the rising property prices of New York City over the past decade have pushed neighbouring Jersey City towards a previously unknown gentrification. Some of the changes, she concedes, are positive. For example, in the summer of 2008 the developments of Pacific Court and Woodward Terrace received the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency’s first Green Building Award. Both areas bring together low, and middle-income housing and have included a number of green initiatives such as incorporation of recycled materials acquired from existing buildings. But elsewhere much of this change has arrived at a cost. Feeling helpless in the face of rapid redevelopment, Loughlin set about recording the bricks and mortar of her community, transferring her photographs into embroidered scenes that show the urban landscape in a decidedly different light.

Loughlin’s grandmother immigrated to America from Foggia, Italy in the 1920’s and made her living sewing American flags in the country she came to call her home. “Growing up I saw the lace that my great aunt made and knew that my patriotic grandmother had worked as a seamstress in a flag factory before my birth. That is why I am here [in America] and it reflects in my work in a lot of ways. But so too does the disappointment, like the changes I now see around me and that also comes out in my work.” Loughlin admits that it took some time for her to realise that working with textiles could be part of the vocabulary she was developing as an artist. After studying Fine Art at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, Loughlin began painting directly onto blankets in the mid-nineties just as she began to notice the changes to her local area that were pushing out many residents. Painting took back seat to textiles when she developed a reaction to toxins contained in the paints she was using. Looking for alternatives she came to realise that there was a wealth of materials her relatives had been using under her nose since childhood. “But even if that [sickness] had not happened, I still think I would be going this direction,” she explains. “My grandmother is no longer alive, and these materials remind me of who I was as a little girl. Fibre and these materials are my voice now. It is what I know.”

Loughlin cites the writings of Bauhaus designer Anni Albers and architectural historian Kenneth Frampton who “highlight the woven history of craft, architecture, knit and form” as inspiration for her recent work. “I document sites of communal or historical relevance that are in the midst of physical and/or social change. Sites of interest include demolished and abandoned buildings, areas of urban blight, re-development areas, and dumping grounds,” she explains. Loughlin digitally prints her own photographs onto cross-stitch fabric and large-scale vinyl banners to create hybrid images comprised of print and stitch. Rather than cover the fabric, she deploys her stitches sparingly using what she refers to as “non-traditional embroidery techniques” through which she “responds to the sites’ current conditions, landscape and surroundings through the use of texture, colour, line and pattern. With each stitch,” she concludes, “I vitalise and hearten the recorded landscapes.”

“House and home gives you the fibre of your being”, Loughlin explains of her interest in connecting the construction of buildings to the blocks of stitch seen in Love Wear House and Pacific Court. The latter is set against a bright expanse of cloudless blue sky with blocks of stitched colour deployed to embellish the incomplete construction site by filling half-constructed windows. Loughlin’s stitches act like a felt-tip pen, scribbling across the photographic image with long looping lines. Spewing from the bottom left of Pacific Court is a tangle of red thread: an overflowing drainpipe perhaps that spills beyond the frame of the printed photograph. Its presence suggests the presence of contamination beneath the foundation of yet another incomplete American dream. Another work in the series Home Sweet Home and its boarded windows carry much the same message in a sobering image that manages to evoke pathos rather than irony.

410 Bergen Lafayette was made in response “to a building that was sitting there for years. I would drive by and think how can I make that prettier? I wanted to make it beautiful. To fill it with colour.” Much like graffiti, there is a desire to bring colour and life back to architecture that has long lost its shine. Unremarkable details are picked out and brought to the foreground, stitched with the colours of crayon box with a swiftness and ease that a child’s spontaneity and disregard for “rules” would bring to a colouring book. Loughlin’s use of stitch is slightly irreverent, similar in its haste and spontaneity to Columbian artist Maria E. Piñeres [see Embroidery July/August 2005]. Her approach frees the stitch from the grid on which she has chosen to print her photographs and captures gesture and emotion rather than minutiae. This ease is also confirmed in her presentation style, which makes use of drawing board pins and little else. Loughlin is far from precious about her work. Instead she reminds us of a bigger picture created by the cycles of prosperity and decline that mark every urban landscape. Perhaps we will look at the world a little differently the next time we step out the door. When seen through Loughlin’s eyes, the potential is everywhere.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at the Edinburgh College of Art

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2009: 24-27)