Briena Harmening is a text-obsessed textile artist. She uses the daintiest of crafts — embroidery, filet crochet, doilies — to balance out weighty emotional reckonings that she documents in her work. Harmening lives and works in Nashville, and she has a solo show opening at Blend in the Arcade on Friday, July 3 from 6 to 9 pm. The show is titled “I Bet You Think This Show Is About You,” and as you might guess, it’s the work of a scorned lover. Her stenciled letters on canvas and within crochet will sound familiar to anyone who’s had their heart trampled. But Harmening’s message doesn’t stop there. Her material choices recall traditional women’s work and its mind numbing processes, so her emotionally charged text messages speak even louder. The text might be wistful (“Sometimes I miss the old me”) or flat-out angry (“I moved here for you fucker”), but it’s always honest. I chatted with the artist in her West Nashville home and studio.
Brianna Harmening: I am originally from McMinnville, just an hour and a half east of here. I got married really young, moved to Florida, finished school there for a Bachelor of Arts, then started looking at graduate schools. I couldn’t afford to go to certain ones, so I ended up back at University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I got divorced after that, but while I was there, I took art education classes and got my teaching license. I’ve been teaching for five years.
Erica Ciccarone: All at Hillsboro?
BH: I taught for four years at West High School in Knoxville. Then I moved here for a boy. We were dating for years long distance. That job [at Hillsboro] opened up. They’re an International Baccalaureate school, and I’d been trained in that. I got the job that afternoon. I said, “Sure I’ll go.” I have a lot of friends who live here in Nashville. And my best friend lives in Murfreesboro and we’ve known each other since kindergarten.
EC: So your studio is really great! So much space and light.
BH: This is a dream come true because before this, I was working in a second bedroom. I couldn’t afford a studio space. Then I was thinking about having a full time job, driving to the studio, maybe staying an hour or two versus having it at home where I can constantly access it. If I get up in the middle of the night…This space is great. There’s a lot of potential.
EC: I’m a quilter and embroiderer and all around textile nut. When I saw your piece at Ground Floor in The Artist’s Alphabet show, I immediately wanted to know more.
BH: I’m going to Penland School of Crafts for screen printing coming up, and I’m taking a bunch of quilts to work on. In graduate school, I started making quilt tops — not finishing them. Then I would paint or do text on them, and I want to do a series. I have seven quilt tops that my aunt Margie made, and she passed away. It will be a continuance of this series. I thought about mixing them up for my July show at Blend, but I don’t think I can add them into my artist statement.
EC: Tell me about your show.
BH: In July I have a solo show at Blend in the Arcade. It will be some of this work. I had thought, “Oh, if I get a lot of work finished, I’ll put some of these quilts in,” but I think they’ll be way too big and overwhelm the space. I’m thinking about how to add onto these pieces here and make them more like sculptures…
EC: This is crochet?
BH: This is filet crochet. I started out with a series about dating in Knoxville. All these squares that are filled in show where there’s a letter. I started crocheting things people would tell me about dating, and then it got to where I would take things out of context from conversations. I’ve always been interested in language and how we communicate, how we make friends…I just started taking random sentences and writing the way my students speak, which was very funny. Then, I felt like I had to depart from it. I’ve always worked in text in some ways and it ended up in painting. I’ve always been into Richard Prince and Rauschenberg and Tracy Emin. I love autobiographical work. I’ve been through some dramatic things in my life, so I always write about those things.
So this work has kind of evolved from the loss of my relationship. Some of them are angry and some are more somber, just dealing with the loss. I really put 100% into it [the relationship], and it’s been mind boggling.
EC: I definitely sense the loss, but your work is often humourous as well.
BH: Yeah. It’s funny. I guess I use humor to deal with difficult issues.
EC: What’s that process for these pieces that look like they’re dipped in paint? First you crochet the words.
BH: Yeah, then I pour paint over the piece and spread it. Then I go back in with scissors and push through the empty spaces. This one says, “One more fucking love song and I’m gonna vomit in this car.” I felt like every song was coming on, I was wanting to cry when I was driving around. [laughs]
EC: Yeah they can get really grating.
BH: The next one I should probably add something funny. The past few have been kind of sad. I was working on this other one this morning. It says, “I keep leaving pieces of myself with others.”
EC: I like that.
BH: It would be cool to have them coming off the wall, using that stiffness. I just sent a piece off to a show in Memphis for a show. It was really stiff and it would have been neat to have it shaped. I think I’ll need to dip them in starch. It’s something I want to experiment with later. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to read them.
EC: Tell me about your small pieces, the birth control and Metallica ones…
BH: I love those. I lost my ovaries when I was in high school. I’ve been on and off different birth controls to try to get hormone levels right. I went through this feminist phase about what that meant to me, not being able to have kids, not feeling like a woman, not being sexually interested really and feeling a little bit asexual at one point. I’m always like, “What’s this pill gonna do?” Everytime they would switch me, it would be a surprise. I got those birth control packages out of a recycling dumpster. My mom cross stitches, so I thought I should add some little image or text in them. At that time I had started quilting, so I stitched quilt patterns from an old pattern book I’d gotten at McKay’s.
EC: I love them because cross stitch is so domestic. You just picture a heart shaped pillow on an armchair. It’s the feminine domesticity and the reproductive control of the Pill. I love that contradiction.
BH: They were really quick. They took two days a piece, and I would turn the dial to the day I finished. They also became documentation. I need to get in touch with Planned Parenthood. Right now, they’re just packed up.
BH: The Metallica embroidery was my attempt at something super fun. They were my first concert when I was thirteen, in those developing years…I love metal music and anything depressive. Those pieces became an ode to Metallica. I didn’t want to use images from the title. I listened to songs and figured out an image that came to mind. Then I’d embroider a lyric. I presented them as a game in the gallery. I had them numbered on the wall and I handed out these sheets during show, and for every ten you got right, you got a shot of whiskey. Now my friends are like, “You should make those and put them on Etsy.” That would be awesome to do but you got to have start up ones ready to go and I just don’t have the time. That was one of the best shows I’ve had.
EC: In some of these crochet wall pieces, you leave strings hanging. Is that intentional?
BH: When I do embroidery, I love leaving strings. I crocheted my mom and dad’s portrait of them sharing a drink; they’re not drinkers. They came down for my students’ show in Knoxville and we went out to a bar — we’ve never done that in my whole life — and my dad ordered a fuzzy navel. They shared it. I left some of the strings loose when I gave it to them and they wanted to cut them.
EC: I like this one.
BH: I hate this one! It’s too much blue. An aritist I know said recently that she’d like to see some crochet that’s more painterly, but it’s really hard to build areas up when you’ve got so much space. It’s almost like I’d have to fill it first with silicone and paint on top of it. I just kept trying to layer and put more paint because I can’t go back and push the holes.
EC: I don’t think I’d want your work to be more painterly. I think I like it specifically because it’s not painterly. At the same time, I’d still consider them paintings.
I like this piece and what it says. I think that a lot of people can relate to it. It’s in the context of internet posts and the phrase, “That moment when…”
BH: That’s what I was going for with these. I didn’t want to make the work so personal that I shut people out. That’s why a lot of them are about realizing something in that moment. People can go back to that place when they felt the same. It’s funny. I’m not a big tech person. In fact, I don’t watch YouTube videos. I don’t hunt things out. I’ll hunt artists out but I don’t read all that stuff online. I hate being on the computer for the most part.
EC: I wouldn’t have guessed that.
BH: One of my friends was like, there are all these memes about “That moment when…You need to look that stuff up.” So I did and I was like, Noooo! I thought I had a good idea!
EC: Well you did have a good idea! I like in it in this context so much more.
BH: It’s nice that it resonates, but you know what it’s like when you think you’re hitting on something… It’s like seeing someone’s work and thinking, “I fucking thought of that before! Why didn’t I make it?”
EC: Do you feel that teaching feeds your artistic process or drains it, or both?
BH: I have to have a schedule, otherwise I can totally see why other art teachers just don’t make art anymore. For me, that’s always been really important. I want to show my kids that I’m trying to make it. Teaching is not what I want to do for my whole life. I feel like that’s important. My work feeds what I teach them because a lot of times if I see something I’ll be like, “We’re gonna look at this artist and this is what we’re gonna do.” Our last project was contemporary taxidermy. We looked at all these taxidermy artists and made paper mache animals. We talked about hybrids and combining animals. I only had two students make hybrids. Next year, that’s going to be the requirement. So many of them go to the easy things. I really want them to explore animals…
EC: So what’s coming up for you?
BH: I’m working in the press release for the Blend show now. It must be fun to travel around visiting artists. I really want to get more involved in visiting people’s studios.