Emily Barletta is a Brooklyn based textile artist who draws the invisible threads between bodily terrors, biology and traditional crafts. We talked chronic illness, colour theory and craft-making in an interview that was as grotesquely charming as Emily’s work itself.
Beth: One thing I’m fascinated by in textile work is the tactility. There’s this sense of covering the body, like a blanket, a second skin, or taking it over, like a virus. I know you’ve spoken about the idea of your sculptural work coming out of, or growing out of a human body, could you expand on this idea a bit?
Emily: I used to be very obsessed with the body and the emotional memory connect; the idea of muscle memory and your cells storing all of your experiences. I’ve always had a fascination with the grotesque, medical information, science information, and the death industry. I find diseases and deformities to be fascinating, they are the ultimate betrayal. So I started making imaginary diseases or organs. Objects that were inspired by specific organs or cellular structures but were then imaged into fantastical creations, that I tried imbuing with my emotional experiences and feelings.
Beth: I’m kind of a nerd for color theory; can we talk about the place of the color red in your work?
Emily: For a long time, most of the work I made was directly tied to my ideas having to do with the body, so using red was a direct representation of blood and flesh. I’ve always been draw to intense colors. For a long time red was the only color I felt I could work with. Partly because I wanted to simplify the choices in my making process, but also because every time I tried other colors I hated what I ended up with. It wasn’t until I started sewing on paper that I felt I could incorporate other colors.
Beth: I saw your new tattoo on instagram! It made me think of your drawing works, and your use of mark making. The idea of making marks to suggest bodies, and creating marks on the body, how they live in conversation with one another.
Emily: I love tattoos! I wish I was covered in them, but I don’t have whatever quality is necessary to just keep getting them. It always takes me a very long time to decide. I love living in Brooklyn when it’s warm out and you get to see them on people everywhere you go. I find the commitment to marking your skin for life fascinating. I like to image what someone will look like when they’re old and wrinkly and small.
But yes, I find tattoo’s very inspiring, I like how the small marks make the whole image. I appreciate the pain you have to voluntarily put yourself through and the healing process. I recently made several drawings (embroideries on paper) that were directly inspired by my recent tattoo experiences (Untitled 95 – Untitled 100).
Beth: Do you feel like there’s a parallel in your work to the order of biology and the order of craft?
Emily: In my past work, yes. In my current work I think it has gone one step further into the abstract and I feel much more inspired by random transient moments in my life and landscape is very much in my thoughts.
Beth: Can we talk about the place of holes and protrusions in your work? It makes me think of pores in skin, of spots, blackheads, blisters where shoes are too tight, and the phobia of irregular holes, trypophobia.
Emily: I recently just learned about this phobia after wandering onto a pinterest board dedicated to the subject, it had images of my art mixed in with some pretty disgusting pictures of people with injuries and diseases and things living in their skin. I normally like that kind of thing, but this was even too much for me. I have a pretty severe fear of things like bugs living in your skin. I also don’t like anything involving teeth, they really bother me. So maybe I am unconsciously putting it into the work, but it wasn’t until about a week ago that I even knew of it.
Emily Barletta, Untitled big circle, 2011
Beth: You started making art as a result of your spinal disease. I know my work, from my research interests to my t-shirt collection, deals with my disability and health things in small ways. But making art that is directly or indirectly related to chronic illness and disability is complicated! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Like, I know you love Frida Kahlo’s work, perhaps one of the most iconic artists to deal with this subject.
Emily: This is definitely how I came to make art. When you are in pain and also a young person it can be very lonely and isolating, I had trouble relating to other young people. I imagine any form of self-expression can be very therapeutic. It gave me something to do when I was in pain other than just feel pain and be unhappy. Now I’d like to think that I’m making art about other things because I’m no longer in physical pain all the time. Art for me grew to become just the way I express and process all of my feelings.
I love Friday Kahlo, (also Louise Bourgeois for the same reasons.) They made work that was just completely personal. They took everything about themselves and put it out there for the world. There wasn’t any heavy conceptualization. It was a message of life is hard and long and painful and here’s why, take a look. They were inviting you into their inner worlds. I have a desire and feel some responsibility to be this way as an artist. But I also have a very strong desire for privacy. So when I’m working I want all the feelings to be there, but the story to be a bit more hazy.
Emily Barletta, Spill,2006
Beth: Do you feel there is a relationship between craft and chronic illness, this notion of repetition, and the passing of time?
Emily: Like I talked about earlier, the simple act of making can take your mind away from focusing on pain. I feel that this is why my art is very repetitive in nature. Counting and mark-making are very meditative activities. I also think because of my early experiences I learned to be still and to be alone, and this is something I get out of sewing.
Beth: You’ve said before that you were interested in craft as a child and made ‘ugly’ blankets. Is that genre of lumpy earnest craftmaking an interest of yours, you know, ugly Christmas jumpers and that sort of thing?
Emily: I definitely appreciate kitsch. I’ve never learned to knit because I think I would want to start making my own sweaters and I would never make art again.