Judith G. Klausner's Embroidered Toast


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by Judith G. Klausner
11 Monday 11th July 2011

Judith G. Klausner is an American artist based in Somerville, MA. Using everyday food-items, she crafts wonderful household 'furnishings' and accessories such as Oreo cookie cameos, condiment wallpapers and embroidered breakfast cereals. We spoke to her about her love of crafting and how she's resurrected a dwindling (yet once-basic) skill with the aim of drawing attention to the explosive world of gender politics.

Hi Judith, we found some pictures of your Oreo cameos on the internet and we loved them! We're guessing you used a toothpick (or a tiny Borrower sized knife?) Could you tell us more about the process you went through in making them and some of the other pieces in your From Scratch series?

I do use toothpicks for the cameos, as well as flat-head pins and a sculpture tool that's basically a small ball on the end of a stick. I do the grosser details with a toothpick, finer details with the pin and things like the area above the eye and next to the mouth with the sculpture tool. I loved The Borrowers when I was a kid – I used to amuse myself by trying to view the world as though I were only a couple of inches tall. I guess I never outgrew that love of small-scale detail!

The toast pieces are fairly straightforward embroidery with the quirk of a crumbly medium. I use paper beneath the stitching for structural reinforcement and then just work really carefully. The toast gets dryer over time and is more likely to crack, so working quickly is important. The condiment wallpaper is painted with regular paintbrushes in a variety of sizes, much as one would paint with watercolours (I once mistook my brush-water glass for my drinking glass, which may be less toxic given the media I use, but still tasted pretty awful). The cereal samplers are cross-stitched with sewing thread; each stitch goes through to the back of the piece of cereal.

'Toast Embroidery #3: Mold #1', From Scratch, 201. Bread, thread and paper.

Looking specifically at the cameos, who are the portraits of and why'd you choose these faces?

I've done a lot of figurative work since I began sculpting many years ago and I find I am most comfortable letting each person take shape as I sculpt them. Whilst a couple of the cameos were based loosely on the iconography of mythological figures, the faces and personalities were not predetermined.

We know you graduated from Wesleyan University with a specialisation in sculpture and also spent a year studying in Florence, Italy. How did it affect your work spending time in what is arguably the hotbed of European art history?

It makes an incredible difference to study a piece of art while standing in front of it instead of in a dark room on a slide projector. Being able to see the true colours, scale, and context brings another whole dimension to the work. The passion behind the art seems so much more real and alive.

That being said, I think that some of my discomfort with the state of gender equality in Italy has also influenced my work. While women have careers, the vast majority are also still expected to do all of the cooking and child-rearing.

'Oreo cameo #3', From Scratch, 2011. Oreo sandwich cookie.    

You mentioned gender politics - we were really intrigued by the politics behind your series From Scratch.  You could say there's been a trade-off between convenience (foods) and the amount of time women spend in the home. Likewise for the craft movement - but arguably you could say the same for 'male' pursuits like DIY and mechanical repair. It seems people learn less 'skills' are more 'specialisations'... Is this a problem in your eyes?

I have often commented to friends that I think high schools should replace the old 'Home Economics' classes with a mandatory life skills class. Everyone, regardless of gender, should know how to unclog a sink; change a tire; sew to mend clothing; cook simple meals and be able to use basic tools. Culturally we need to move beyond the idea that there are different expected skill sets for men and women, and just expect everyone to be competent.

You've been working on the project for a while now; are you any closer to making your own judgement on whether craft skills are more highly regarded now? They're certainly more popular as a 'hobby'...

While it is still difficult to be taken seriously in the art world while using materials or techniques traditionally associated with craft, the growing number (and prestige) of museums devoted to showcasing such work (such as the Fuller Craft museum in Massachusetts, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York to name a couple close to me) shows an increasing respect and integration. We are transitioning from an era when these skills were valued in a particular way because of their everyday usefulness, to being valued in a very different way for their beauty, craftsmanship and concept.

'Cereal Sampler #2', From Scratch, 2010. Chex corn cereal and thread.

What were your own craft skills like before you started working on your project?

I have always loved to sew, and in fact my job in college was working as a costumer. I learned to cross-stitch from a student teacher in my 5th grade class; the whole class would sit around at meetings and cross-stitch - it was great! To be honest though I hadn't really done any cross-stitching since then until this project. Similarly with embroidery; I dabbled with it as a kid but hadn't done much with it until recently.

Amongst your mediums of choice for this project you've worked with cereals, commenting on how food was prescribed as an edible 'moral code' during the late 19th century, particularly by the likes of Kellogg and Graham.  If we flip that around, do you think perhaps that this sway to convenience foods and artificial additives indicates an almost moral laziness in 21st century life?

I think it’s a very complicated issue, in large part because these additive-filled packaged foods are so much cheaper in the United States than fresh food. There's a lot of pontificating about how everyone should eat fresh and organic - ideally everyone would - but the prices are prohibitively expensive for so many people. It becomes an issue of ‘class posed as an issue of morality’. The root of the issue is finding a system that allows the fresh, environmentally-responsible food to be just as economically accessible as its high-fructose counterpart.

What was your favourite comfort food growing up?

That's a hard one! I've been a bit of a "foodie" since I was young, and was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I could explore that. One of my favourites has always been a spicy Chinese eggplant dish with mushrooms that my dad would make. Just thinking about it now is making me hungry!

The Facts of Life, 2008. Clay, honey bee wings, cicada wings.

This series marks a bit of a departure for you as an artist... You've previously exhibited reoccurring themes of the natural world, especially in terms of insect life. Is it something you'll come back to, or do you feel like you've 'done' it to death?

I will always love insects, and it’s possible that someday I will incorporate them into my work again. I realized at some point that I had created these rigid thematic boundaries that my ideas had to fit within and that I was limiting my creative thinking. Right now, my challenge is to explore new artistic ideas while still creating a cohesive body of work.

When I was a kid growing up, I read too many Goosebumps books and had a massive phobia of insects especially bees and spiders. I guess it's also fair to say that the old gender-stereotype of girls being afraid of bugs is still deemed pretty culturally relevant; is there some gender protest involved in your work from that perspective?

Not a conscious one, but perhaps an unconscious one... When I was growing up my parents both thought insects were fascinating, possibly my mother more so than my father even. As I got older I became ‘the person’ that friends - both male and female - called to get a bug or spider out of their room. Most children think that anything creepy-crawly is ‘neat’; it's as they grow up that the girls are culturally conditioned to be afraid and the boys to not show fear.

Flora Dentata (Tooth & Nail), 2005. Human nail clippings and milk teeth.

Speaking of fear, your 2009 piece Flora Dentata used human nail clippings and baby teeth to make an elaborate floral piece. It looks like ivory, except obviously I know it’s made from human sheddings. How did you find people's reaction to the work? Why do you think people (myself included) find the medium so stomach-churning? I mean, after all it's just teeth and nails...

I am always surprised by how disturbed people are! The comparison you make to ivory is an interesting one; people are much less viscerally revolted by ivory even though it requires killing the animal it came from. We cut our nails and throw away the trimmings weekly, and exchange our baby teeth under our pillows to a mythical creature for a quarter (or probably more now, I think even the Tooth Fairy is subject to inflation), yet so many people find it so much more upsetting. My only theory is that we are evolutionarily programmed to associate any part of a human taken out of the context of ‘the whole’ with peril, since in many cases it would indicate harm.

Has this pricked your fancy? You can find out more about Judith's work at her website.

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