Stephen Sollins

Stephen Sollins

Stephen Sollins has recently exhibited his “deconstructed” embroidered samplers from his Elegy Series. Sollins takes samplers and removes the stitching, counts the stitches by colour and then embroiders a modernist geometric grid over the top.

I have very mixed feelings about this practice as although a trace of the original can still be seen it effectively wipes out the original stitchers work. I find the most disconcerting line “Sollins eulogizes the anonymous craftsperson while elevating commonplace linens to fine art.”

Why do I find this treatment of textiles so disconcerting? I see samplers as historical documents. They are objects of their time with a particular cultural tradition. Since samplers were most often stitched by women, as historical documents that relate to women’s history, traditions and womens’s art practice.

What I see here is an anonymous woman’s handwork and her history being stripped bare to be replaced not with praise but with a dominant voice. That voice of course being one of ‘fine art’ as distinctly suspect term in my book.

What do others think?


  1. A lot of craft bloggers frog old sweaters, or cut up embroidered or quilted thrift store pieces, for their own use. I wonder if they have any qualms about doing that?

    I see more value in what Sollins does than in letting an embroidered sampler (or knitted scarf, or quilted bag, etc.) sit in an attic or closet or selling it at a garage sale. The original artist/crafter’s work is being memorialized in a new and exciting way when it might have otherwise been lost, forgotten, or relegated to the trash.

    Also, what happens to the experience of creation if the most important thing about a work of art/craft is the result?

    I happen to like Sollins’ work. I find his pieces aesthetically pleasing and conceptually interesting. I couldn’t care less whether or not it’s “art;” I don’t understand why it matters so much. I just enjoy looking at it.

  2. I have found the catalog of The art of The Stitch(EG)I bought at the exhibition in 2003. The deconstructed work shown there was by Julian Walker and he says he used four 19th Century samplers and one 20th century sampler.

    Extract from the catalog:-
    “For his work he is reading the sampler as a declaration of learning; a given way of knowing the world at a point in time, the work will unpick the certainties proposed and use the unpicked material to reflect a way of knowing the world in the present and in contrast with the certainties of the original child maker of the sampler”

    I still cringe when I think about it.

  3. In a sea of media glob about wars, the failure of the economy at home and abroad, etc., it is so refreshing and life enhancing to come on Inaminuteago and read some things about the higher levels of society — art, creativity, sewing, etc. — almost every day. This blog site helps return a sense of balance to the world. Thanks for doing a terrific job!!!!! Peace and blessings, Annie

  4. This is getting truly very interesting.
    If Teo’s sweaters and scarfs lost to the sea of economy were to be ripped off and combined together to make a bigger piece or maybe some smaller pieces and done anonymously, it would be one thing.
    But if someone does that and shows him the piece… Can Teo honestly tell he would not feel even a tiny pang.
    The issue here is not the sex of the artist. My son loves to embroider. Gender in any field is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

  5. OK, this is long, so get your jammies and cocoa out and make yourself comfey.

    I am a certified quilt appraiser, professional quilt judge, quilt historian, and I have done quilt and other textile restoration for many, many years. I am a fiberartist myself and I also hold regular exhibits for other fiberartists. I also have a degree in Archaeology and have worked in the field for a number of years. And as an aside, I have long collected antique and vintage linens of all types, including samplers exactly like the ones used in this controversial art. This background is being given just to create a context for my comments.

    First of all, I too don’t see a lot of value in the work the artist did visually or otherwise. I DID live in the 40’s and 50’s and I saw the way that people did this work, just as they did the paint by numbers and other crafts. Handwork that was done during that time was looked at by the people who did it and the people who viewed it as a hobby. It was an attempt to return to some sense of stability, beauty, and of the importance of home life. Women who had been working in factories and other types of work to aid the war effort were beginning to return to their homes. Everyone was tired of war and the economy was growing better. A lot of things that we did and wore were “cutesy” things, like the organza see-thru aprons and bird houses made out of plastic bottles with crocheted parts. They had no real lasting value or deep artistic merit. They weren’t intended to do that. They were just intended to make us all feel normal again.

    I believe that many of the crafts (even a large percentage of the quilts made during this period) were kits. Everyone — every man, every woman, and every child had a hobby — from scrapbooking and stamp collecting to woodburning to copper work to making kit quilts and linens. I had quite a hope chest (we all did in those days) filled with such kits — sweet embroidered pillowcases, kitchen towels with charming embroideries on them.

    As the years have gone by, I have attended thousands and thousands of garage sales and swapmeets, and I have found every good (and bad) thrift store. I think even sadder perhaps than what was done to those pieces has been how the family members who are left practically give the pieces away that were made, even as hobbies. I have purchased many of those identical samplers for a nickle or a dime, and that is perhaps a more sorrowful kind of “deconstruction,” if you will, because it is a deconstruction of living history. How many people do you know in your neighborhood who truly treasure the things their grandparents and greatgrandparents made and used? I have bought more beautiful afghans (I happen to love them and am not ashamed to say so) for under $2, and even unbelievably beautiful quilts for less than a good lunch!

    I have always brought the items home, and I have restored them to their original (or close to it) condition to the degree possible, and I have also used beautiful old orphan blocks and these embroidery kits in my art work, though I don’t cut them up or remove the work, and they are an important part of the overall design (like a sampler quilt sort of thing, or like a crazy quilt where they are incorporated into the overall piece). It is a sort of wonderful blending of the past and present, still respecting and treating the past with dignity and respect, while framing it in the present, as often happens in real life.

    I have seen a great many pieces thrown on the ground under the items in a swap meet, used as oil rags, or even worse, rescued them out of garbage cans. I believe I am giving them a new chance for life — a chance to be appreciated and enjoyed by the younger generation, and a chance to be appreciated in a new light by the older generation. I am going to be 65 this November, so I have seen a great many things that are pitiful when it comes to textiles. My consistent observations are that any linens, quilts, etc. that are unfinished or not in great shape or not clean are not treated well or appreciated.

    When I work on something or add it into a new context within a quilt, etc., I am doing it with love of the piece and wanting to give it a context to showcase it. It develops a story and becomes important, even if it never was in reality before. One quilt I had was damaged so badly I could not even restore it. I would simply have had to make another one. But I kept it very clean and took it to the quilt shows where I did appraisals, and people just loved on it because it was probably one of the only things they could come up and actually touch without getting hands slapped. And it helped the elderly remember stories about a similar piece THEY had made.

    Most importantly though, over time, the quilt developed a life of its own. It developed a story, and then stories about various aspects of how and why it was made. It captured the minds and imaginations of many folks, and every single one of them, even the non-quilting guys, enjoyed hearing its stories, albeit that they were sheer fantasy. I never pretended that they weren’t. I still remember thinking that lady who made the quilt probably was in her glory seeing how many people were truly enjoying it. It lived a very long and happy life, being honored, being treasured, and being enjoyed, which is why we make any item that we do.

    So how does this relate to the artist who used his pieces to create something different? I don’t see it as particularly artistic any more than I do a single color canvas. The pieces did belong to him and they were his to do with as he wanted. In reality, he didn’t do any worse than the people who dumped them for nothing in the first place. There are some pieces that will be found that will be recognized and appreciated as real art treasures, and there are some pieces (not just fiberarts, but about every form of art) that will always be considered just mediocre and may become “funky” collectibles, but those are fads too. They have very little to cause them to ever stand out in this life.

    But I too am a fiberartist as I noted and as a collector of textiles myself, I DO appreciate someone else’s work clearly. I have recently been “deconstructing” as it were, some of my own work. I made some journal quilts that were just mediocre as such, and even I didn’t value them that much. So I cut them up into a size that would be a fabric postcard, and I am doing different things with them to donate to a lady who is selling the fabric postcards to raise money for the American Cancer Society. So am I a bad person because I did this? Destroyed a part of history — even my OWN history? I don’t think so. I am making something I didn’t care for that much to begin with better in the end result, and something that will serve a noble purpose I think.

    We never know what another person was thinking when they made something. We see it as art and appreciate its history and story because we understand fiberarts, and we approach it as a higher level of living. We work hard to learn new skills so we can do what we do better and better all the time.

    Some things in this life are doing to disappear because someone like this artist did something to them. Some will disappear perhaps because the textile or the dye or the mordant or the techniques, etc., etc. were destructive. And some will just disentegrate with time. Nothing lasts forever.

    So I haven’t exactly taken a stand either way. I don’t care for the work and can hardly consider it art, but for the rest, Perhaps it will seem to many the equivalent to robbing graves. Nothing has really an intrinsic value. Humankind has to see it and recognize its value. Value of a thing doesn’t just grow from nothing. So in the end result, we are probably all right in that each of us have valid feelings and deserve to air them. Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a country where we can safely state our disagreements over an issue without fearing for our lives?

    This has been a great discussion. I love Inaminuteago! Read it almost every s
    ingle day, and I don’t read too many things on the Internet! Peace and blessings, Annie

  6. I could not believe what I was reading here, about deconstruting a sampler, or any fine needle work that someone has put so much love, time and soul into.
    I have a couple of samplers that I made depicting my marriage and home life,I would be mortified if someone did that to mine, and I would certainly come back and haunt them.
    I’m hoping my family will treasure my samplers and will be handed down for my great, great, great future generations to look at.

  7. If we were to keep all these artifacts just because someone made them (and, why not? let’s also publish every book ever written; let’s build museums to accommodate every sculpture, painting and drawing ever made; let’s keep every single thread and pothook and subway add with graffity since they are all human creations), the world would be so cluttered by them that there would be no space to breathe –much less appreciate them.

    We will never agree on what is art, and we certainly won’t agree on what is a “good” piece of art. Thankfully, the test of time relieves us from the impossible task of assigning a quality tag to our creations.

    The embroideries in question obviously failed to pass that test.

    As for the modernist ideal, I am not the greatest fan myself. But judging by the millions of dollars paid for single piece by artists such as Jasper Johns, Gerard Richter, or even Damien Hisrt -who is only 40 years old- thinking of it as long gone is, at the best, wishful thinking.

  8. We see this from different viewpoints – I see these pieces as cultural artifacts – including the stuff you make – and as such they have an intrinsic value that should be appreciated – not deconstructed and re- presented in some modernist ideal which lets face it is long gone

  9. Of course, Sharonb, the originals are valued. And that precisely is why Stephen was able to buy them: because the previous owner -the person who made them or, worse, someone else- put a price, or a value, to them. And it was an intrinsic value, no less.
    Apparently,it is acceptable for anyone to put a price to those countless hours of work by someone else -an 11 year old girlpainfully stitching, for example- seventy years ago, or whenever the pieces where made. Then, let’s say $5.00 for a week’s worth of work. So, some people may see what this artist does as a sin, a crime, a violation; but I guess it is OK simply puting a price to someone else’s effort, creativity, or suffering. By all means, it is better to leave time and whatever else destroy those embroiderings rather than -oh, heavens!- giving them some use; a much better use indeed.

    Also, I find very pressumptuous to refer to these pieces as the creative work of women -which it seems to be a consensus here, and one of the most bothering thorns to some of the writers above. I am a man, and I stitch and knit clothing (no, I am not gay, if you care to venture). And I’ll tell you something: if you try to convince me that the “creative” value that those scarves and sweaters I’ve done, or those embroideries for the same matter, once they were abandoned to the dissastrous sea of the economy is higher than the price Stephen paid for them, you have something else coming.

    Good night, and good luck.

  10. Teo I think you are making the assumption that the originals are not valued therefore its OK to deconstruct them – also its not clothing that is decontructed but embroiderd pieces worked by unknown women – and since many see embroidery as a form of creative expression including myself it is a violation of someone else’s creative work.

  11. These are really, really great pieces. Stephen gets these pieces of embroidered clothing and gives them a new meaning. Instead of a piece of fabric condemned to be deboured by moths, dust, and cofee stains, we have another piece of fine art. Cheers, Stephen!

  12. But when you alter a book, it is a mass-produced object. If someone wants to read it in its original form, they can easily do so.

    I think he should make his OWN samplers and deconstruct them!


  13. While I definitely would NOT like to see some of my work deconstructed and abused in this manner….I also can’t help but wonder how the authors of the many books that are being used for “Altered Books” would feel to see their creations torn apart. To me it is quite similar despite the different medium…. The off shoot of all of this is creativity being used in whatever form the “artist” sees or feels free to work within.. I don’t have a hard core answer to this, beyond I hope that the little bit of embroidery, etc. that I have done, means more in the future than to be torn apart and reconstructed (if the piece is fortunate) or thrown away. The time and effort taken is purely for the joy of creating and it would be nice to think that that feeling is transmitted thru the work.

  14. All I can say is that this bloke has too much money and doesn’t know what to do with it. Those original samplers can cost hundreds of dollars – why pay out that much for something, just to pull it apart? He’s a Wanker of the first Order.

  15. Since I ‘de-construct’ my own work so frequently I am glad it can now be classed as fine art But since he most likely picked these pieces up in charity shops their future was not assured and Sollins’ vandalism is probably not much worse than putting the embroidery under the cat’s plate as a drip mat. Does anyone know how much he is charging for these deconstructed works of art?

  16. I think Stephen should apply for a refund
    for his “arts” education. He got robbed
    if he thinks this is art.

    I am disgusted and appalled, quite possibly the reaction he and the gallery owners were looking for?

    Lynn Schoeffler

    Lynn, SoCal
  17. I just found this and thought ya’ll would like to read Stephen Sollins response to making needle crafters mad.

    “As the outrage spread in stitch-craft chat rooms, so did the misconstruction of facts. Several people accused Brian Gross (Gallery) of having assisted Sollins in deconstructing embroideries. “I hope some day you find whatever is missing in your life that requires you to do such heinous things in the name of art,” one protester wrote.

    Sollins felt compelled to reply. “I do realize that I have undone someone’s labor, and I take full responsibility for this,” he wrote to the complainants. But “the embroideries I am taking apart are not ‘original’ works. They are mass-produced items from the 1940s and ’50s in which a person follows printed or stamped directions to achieve a predetermined result. There may be some choices made by each needleworker … and I know exactly how many hours of work was involved in making each one, but these embroideries could not possibly be called ‘precious handmade pieces of our needlework history,’ ” as one respondent had said.”

    I guess it is okay to paint over someone’s paint by numbers painting too. 🙂 Ohh wait…those have become collectables!

  18. Okay…tell me what is so special about picking out threads and replacing them with squares??? And then getting in these galleries and show??? What am I doing wrong???

    His work has produced a dialog among obsevers..which I think art should do. But why do I get the feeling he is simplifying what a “woman’s handiwork” is down to shapes. I would rather him take that thread and produce a modern image on top of the sampler.

    Would we feel the same way if a woman had done this?? I don’t like what he has done either…but as far as abstract art goes, he has hit the nail on the head. Taking something used in everyday life and giving it a new voice.

    I would love to buy one of his pieces and “reconstruct” in my own art style. I wonder how he would feel about that. Giving his piece a new voice from a woman’s perspective. 🙂

    On the subject of abstract art…look at some of the “art” quilts that are being produced with just shapes, colors and abstract images. It is the same as an abstract painting hanging in a museum…but done with stitches, beads, fabric, etc… I like to think all types of artistic expression has a valid point, even tho I might not agree with it. 🙂 I just try to see the piece from all sides..even if I do want to laugh out loud and curse the “art” establishment. That is my 2 cents. 😉

  19. After reading your comment, Sharon, that you felt you might have over-reacted, I had to join in and say, I agree wholeheartedly with you all. I know how I feel when I finish something, and I know how much time I’ve put into it, and it seems to me a sacrilege that someone would tear it up and call it art. I think what I do originally is art!

  20. I find it pretentious and yet another example of the idea of men’s work=art and women’s work=craft. And that somehow “art” has more “value” than “craft”. It’s a rant I have ranted many times before but I think this is the perfect example of it in action.

    “elevating commonplace linens to fine art” how pretenious and arrogant.

    If he was truly an artist, why not stitch the samplers himself, instead of being a parasite and destroying the work of others. Imagine if he wanted to overpaint a da Vinci or Van Gough, the outcry would be deafening. But a tatty old bit of neeldlework, that’s not art or valuable.

    I am going to stop now.


  21. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me is interested in the deconstruction of craft and the fact that the samplers are valued by this artist in this way; the other part is incensed at the wanton destruction of a piece of craft that has innate value in its own way. I feel the need to go on about this at length so I will add a link and rant and rave in my own blog!

  22. Hmm, I’m in two minds. I come from a fine art background, rather than a textile background and I can see both sides.

    This sort of deconstruction has a long and turbulent history within contemporary art. In the 1950’s Rauchenburg created a similar controversy by systematically erasing a drawing by de Kooning.

    I think there is a place for the questions that this work asks and I was interested by the artist’s earlier work and how it relates to this latest work. I also find the faint traces of the earlier sampler fascinating because I love traces and stains. That said, I do recognise that there is a moral component to the work and I’m not sure that the artist has addressed this issue as fully as he clearly needed to.

    You might be interested in the following article where the artist responds to critics of his process by pointing out that the samplers in question were “mass-produced items from the 1940s and ’50s in which a person follows printed or stamped directions to achieve a predetermined result.”

  23. I also don’t like to see someone else’s work undone as this guy is doing.
    However, I was quite fascinated by the results of his work. Interesting to see the ratio of colours used and would have been even more interesting to see the originals as well, to see if those rations are apparent in the stitching.

    If he had come to me for advice (LOL) I would have suggested having a digital copy of the work, removing the colour, then transferring the result onto linen and then he could set to with his geometrical renditions. That way he could display the original and his versions side by side.

  24. I saw some of this work at the Art of the Stitch in the UK a few years back and it really upset me I’m afraid. I could visualise an 11 year old girl painfully stitching and sighing with relief and pleasure when she’d finished. I cannot understand why anyone would want to unpick and restitch a sampler.

  25. Pretentious, insulting, distasteful. What is original or artful about this work? He destroys the work of another, or is it more that he is attempting to establish dominance by marking? Somewhat like animals try to mark where other animals have been. We could really get into questioning why he targets the work of anonymous women.

  26. I’d really *love* to know how he can describe it as “eulogizing the anonymous craftsperson” with a straight face OR a straight answer. All the hyperbole of a usual artist statement and NO substance. I agree, don’t dignify with buying it. Unfortunately there are those out there who are quote educated unquote enough (overly so then in the context of the real world) who in their ivory towers will see it as “seminal” work and emminently collectable. Gag me with a spoon!

  27. LOL – my first emotional, non intellectual knee jerk reaction is – I hope their ghosts come back to haunt him big time!!!!!! Or that he will be equally tolerant of having one of his pieces ‘deconstructed’ by another artist in their pursuit of ‘artistic expression’!!!!

  28. I feel as you do that some of our women’s history, art and traditions are being lost, but unfortunately he has acquired these pieces and can do whatever he pleases with them. All I can ask is that we do not buy his work. I cannot see how destroying anothers work is raising it to “a fine art”.

  29. Sorry but I find this type of ” art” distasteful. It is sacrilege! What makes this “artist” feel that he can usurp another’s art? What if someone did this to his work?
    I am tired of this type of work in the name of art. We had an artist here in Ontario Canada, who felt he could paint a blank canvas strictly all green or red and name it thus, and receive Canada Council grants for doing so. It is time this type of pseudo artist was stopped. They make a mockery of art and have no conscience in desecrating someone else’s work or of ” mocking” the system that feeds them. Sorry but I feel very strongly about this and agree with Sharon’s sentiments entirely. Léonie

  30. Sollins’ site was mentioned on the QuiltArt list awhile back. As then, seeing it now I find it pretentious….he may have enjoyed the doing of it, but it says absolutely nothing to me of any value, and can even be interpreted as insulting to the person who did the original sampler work. I give it a thumbs down.

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