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Anna McKeown - embroidery artist, curator, comedian

Nashville, Tennessee / United States

Website | Instagram

Anna, you are an embroidery and mixed-media artist. Could you please tell us all about your journey into the art world (brief bio/history/backstory)?

I was raised in a big, loud family full of sewists and gardeners in a small town in Southern Illinois. I married my high school sweetheart in 2012 and graduated from Belmont University with a BFA in Studio Art in 2013. After graduating, I spent a few years working as an arts administrator for a Community Education arts program in Nashville, TN. During this time, I was really struggling with my emotional well being and was completely unable to make satisfying creative choices.

With the support of my husband, I made a career change and worked as a baker at a local bakery. This allowed me time to focus on improving my mental health which also improved my art and writing. I still struggled with finding my artistic voice, but for the first time in my adult life, I was creating work that I actually enjoyed.

I became the Gallery Coordinator for an educational gallery at Harpeth Hall School and during this time I also began to find a lot of joy in writing and performing comedy. I was just beginning to put myself out there when I became pregnant! I gave birth to my son in February 2020, and then something very unexpected happened - a tornado! And then something even more unexpected happened - a pandemic! I became completely isolated from the life that I was building and after 5 months in isolation with my sweet newborn, my wonderful husband, and my dear sister, I began to furiously create art. Embroidery and quilting became almost a compulsion. I would spend every moment I could stitching and writing, and I couldn’t believe that in the most intense year of my life I created more art than I ever had - and art that I actually liked! Sharing this work was so cathartic and so liberating! I have met other people through sharing my work, and my quilts have become a portal to the outside world.

You are also the Gallery Coordinator for the educational gallery at Harpeth Hall. Please, tell us all about it!

Art education has a special place in my heart, and I love being able to have it as part of my artistic practice. As the Gallery Coordinator at Harpeth Hall, I organize and install five shows per year for the students, faculty, staff, and community to enjoy. I especially love coming up with the concepts for these shows and inviting artists to participate. It is a huge honor to have artists trust me with their work and to trust my vision for each exhibition, and it is an immense privilege to work for an institution that values contemporary artwork in the way that Harpeth Hall does. I am excited to continue to improve how the gallery serves the students on campus.

In your work, you use hand-embroidery techniques you learned from your grandmother in childhood to add a personal touch that represents your feelings and life experiences. What was it like for you to explore embroidery as a kid?

As a kid, I absolutely loved making things and I was raised by creative people who loved making things. I was a huge ham growing, up and I think my family was surprised at me enjoying embroidery as much as I did. My maternal grandmother taught me how to embroider, and I loved making work alongside her. She loves Colonial and Primitive style decor and is especially fond of “redwork” and primitive stitching.

When I was a kid, I liked to do iron-on patterns that I would find at the Dollar General and things like that. When I got into high school, I realized that embroidery was just drawing or writing with thread, which opened up a lot of doors to explore the medium, though I didn’t venture into filling in my lines until a few years ago. And I still rarely do it. Unfortunately, I didn’t save a lot of what I made when I was younger. I developed very low self-esteem as a pre-teen and teenager and would often throw away finished projects of all kinds.

Can you please describe your creative process?

When I’m not stitching, I’m writing, and when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what I want to write. My work almost always starts with the words I embroider. I will get a phrase stuck in my head that just has to be stitched down. That’s when I get out my stash of fabric and start laying out my quilt top. I keep my fabrics in two small baskets - one that contains cool colors and one with warm colors - and I’ll start laying out my quilt top design on the floor. I like to do this part very quickly, and I usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes arranging the fabric for a piece. After I’ve settled on what I want, I go straight to my sewing machine to stitch it all together, and after the quilt top is pieced I’ll use a disappearing ink marker to write my words directly onto the fabric so that I can start embroidering. Being a mom, I have to act quickly when inspiration strikes! Some quilts linger in my stitching basket beside my couch for months, others are conceived, pieced, embroidered, quilted, and bound, all within a few days!

What inspires you the most?

My family and my personal life experiences are what influence my work the most. I’ve got a mean inner monologue running through my head, and my embroidered words are a reflection of my personal thoughts and feelings. I’m really inspired not only by my own mental health journey but also by the balance between comedy and tragedy. I really love how Hannah Gadsby dove into this topic in her special “Nanette”. I imagine that my quilts act as jokes in the way that Hannah Gadsby describes comedy as the act of building and relieving tension. The words I use may be abrasive or sometimes they may have double meanings that are quite serious, but the color and texture that accompany those words are often gaudy and ridiculous. This creates a build and then release of tension - a comedy quilt. However, the seriousness of the topics I quilt about cannot be overlooked. They are often direct responses to difficult experiences or feelings I have about myself. What is a joke anyway?

What’s the message behind your art?

The message of my artwork is to always look deeper. It’s okay to enjoy things on a surface level, but a greater understanding of ourselves and others always comes from examining things closely.

What does your art do for you?

My art is incredibly therapeutic for me, and it’s also a way for me to connect with others. I love the rush of the artistic flow that comes with starting a new piece, and I also love the meditative act of stitching. Being a mom to a toddler and now being in my third trimester with my second child during a pandemic, I’m so grateful to be able to share my work virtually. It gives me a way to connect with the outside world.

It also gives me a way to connect with myself, my past, and my family. The medium I work in is directly influenced by my maternal grandmother, and my work’s kitschy aesthetic is influenced by my great-grandmother. These two women, who were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and who could not be more opposite in personality and personal style, are my central art influences.

What are your dreams, plans and goals?

Above all things, I just want to keep making and sharing artwork and performing comedy. I’ve had to hold off on performing due to the high rate of Covid-19 cases in my area, but I’m looking forward to some new ideas I have for my visual artwork.

What is your advice to fellow art mums?

As parents, we have very specific and limited time to pursue our creative ideas. The best advice I can give is don’t wait! If you have an idea try to begin executing it as quickly as you can. Strike while the iron is hot and make art even if it isn’t your kid’s naptime! There’s a special kind of joy I get when I think of my children growing up, realizing that not everyone’s mom is an artist, just like they’ll realize that not everyone has a dad who can rebuild a car as their dad can. As parents, we all have something that we can share with our children and I hope that art is one of those things for my family.

With that being said, I do think there is a time for rest. My most productive period came directly after a time when I wasn’t making work at all. Switching from one creative pursuit to another isn’t only fun, but also makes all of my work more satisfying to create. My writing has certainly made my artwork better and vise versa.

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