Artist Interview: Briena Harmening

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.

In the Studio of Briena Harmening

In the Studio of Briena Harmening

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.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

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…

Briena Harmening in her studio.

Briena Harmening in her studio.

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.


In the studio of Briena Harmening.

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.

Briena Harmening

Briena Harmening’s Birth Control Embroideries.

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.

Briena Harmening.

Briena Harmening’s Metallica Embroideries.

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…”

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

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.

Briena Harmening,

Briena Harmening, “I’d rather be alone,” 2015; crochet, spray paint on wood and plastic, 30 in. X 28 in.

From the Modern Quilt Show, Nashville

On Saturday, September 5, Wedgewood/Houston was bustling with the first Saturday art crawl, and Nancy Conger of the Fabric Studio had something new to add to the mix. Conger solicited modern quilts on her blog and at her awesome fabric store and strung them up on impromptu clotheslines. She received some truly gorgeous quilts and included some of her own beauties. Take a look!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So I was a bad reporter and didn’t get the names of all of the artists, but you can find some of them here! Devin Lott, Nancy Conger, Lindsay Connor, and Jennifer Haston. If you were featured in the quilt show and have a website I can check out, please leave it in the comments below! (P.S. I made the fox quilt!)

It’s a Quilt Show, Ya’ll!

I’m so excited about the Modern Quilt Show at The Fabric Studio happening this Saturday, I’m throwing “ya’ll’s” into the world! I’ve posted about this awesome sewing store in WeHo before. I attended the Washi Dress class here with Miss Make’s Devon lott, and it’s one of my go-to shops for fabric, even if it’s just a pack of owner Nancy Conger’s scraps (the girl has an unbelievable sense of color!) She’ll be pulling out all the stops this weekend with her first ever quilt show, which will be right in the neighborhood of Arts and Music @ Wedgewood-Houston. Please stop by to see some striking quilts, including one of my own! 

Owner Nancy Conger was inspired by other cities organizing outdoor quilt shows, like this one on Mass Ave in Indianapolis.

Owner Nancy Conger was inspired by other cities organizing outdoor quilt shows, like this one on Mass Ave in Indianapolis.

Other Sewing Stuff

Nancy just posted a host of fall classes, sewing labs, and stitching socials. I had never made a garment prior to taking the Washi dress class, and I found instructor Devon lott to be patient, sharp, and very fun. She explained the “why” behind every stitch, so I can repeat the skills I learned.  The Fabric Studio is also now selling fat quarters! I think my next project is going to be a wall quilt with the new Cotton + Steele collection. Or, I can use one of the tons of fabric I already have…err…

The Fancy Fox quilt is not quite complete, but I’m working on it! I promise it will be done by Saturday. 

Watching Star Trek while I quilt with the 3D printed phone stand Tony Youngblood designed!

Watching Star Trek while I quilt with the 3D printed phone stand Tony Youngblood designed!

fox quilt data


Quilt Week 2014

with photography by Tony Youngblood

Paducah, Kentucky is a town of about 25,000 people that boasts a cobble stoned downtown, an arts enclave, and the “Wall to Wall Mural Project” of over 50 murals that adorn the floodgate. It’s also the home of an Artist Relocation Program that offers incentives to artists who will move to Paducah and hopefully contribute to its evolving scene. It’s just about two hours north of Nashville, which is just perfect for a weekend trip.


This sleepy artistic village is transformed each year for one week as Paducah dons the badge of “Quilt City USA”, and 40,000 quilters and artists flock to the Four-Rivers Area for workshops, contests, shopping, and a huge quilt expo. The show ran this year from April 23rd – 26th and included plenty for the palates of veteran quilters and those new to the craft. As a beginner quilter myself, I was thrilled to see such diversity in style and conception. The crowd was predictably retired, although part of me was surprised: there are a lot of young contemporary quilters out there, but I was the lone thirty-something last Saturday.

It doesn’t matter so much because there was tons to take in. The expo showed hundreds of quilts from the U.S. and abroad, most notably Japan,Egypt, and Australia. Contests were sponsored by machine and fabric companies such as Moda and Janome, and categories ranged from hand quilted bed quilts to miniature quilts.

One highlight was an Egyptian artist hand quilting at top speed, cutting fabric as he sewed. I pulled this video of the same guy off YouTube from last years AQS show.

He has been quilting for thirty-five years and works ten to twelve hours a day. Here’s a finished quilt made in Egypt in the same way:

Quilt Makers of Cairo Hand-stiched quilt.

Tent Makers of Cairo Handstiched quilt. They’re making a documentary about these guys! Stay tuned.

The studio quilt collection was definitely my favorite.  I veer toward these nonconventional beauties that do strange, amazing things with the color wheel, add texture, show stitches, and bend traditional block patterns. Artists often dye their own fabric, use silk screening, or paint the fabric using various media.  These quilts bring out something that I love about quilts in general: they’re recycled pieces of art, made from scraps. They grew popular because they were useful and inexpensive. While studio quilts are not known for their utility, they share the spirit of reuse.

Studio quilts also speak to me of landscapes. This quilt below made me think of my old neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Intersected by the toxic Gowanus Canal, it’s a skinny slice of Kings County.

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn

gowanus quilt

“Night Rain in Venice” by Fenella Davies (U.K.)

Modern quilts also tend to use mixed media. This studio quilt used what looks like brass.


“Alternating Currents” by Patricia Malarcher

Keep going for more studio quilts!


“Mimiquilt VI: Degradation” by Mirjam Pet-Jacobs (Netherlands)


“Hunted 2” by Bente Vold Klausen (Norway)


“Mid-century Modern II” by Serena Brooks


“Jardin du Wiltz I” by Anna Torma (Canada)

laura's favorite

Oh my! I didn’t get the name of this beauty! If you happen to know the artist, please leave it in my comments.

tesoro escondito

“Tesoro Escondido” by Patricia Kennedy-Zafred (Pennsylvania)


While these studio quilts left me in awe, I wished that there were more of them, and that they weren’t hidden in a back room. I might not have found them if my boyfriend hadn’t scouted the scene for me. The fact is that a lot of women and men are creating quilts that have a fresh perspective, but if you use the AQS show as a guide, the quilt world is not evolving as quickly as its quilters are. I’d love to see more studio quilts and untraditional perspectives like these. Then, perhaps AQS would draw a younger crowd–a crowd that will be its future.

Here’s the Best in Show. When I read that the entire quilt was stitched by hand, I admired the craftsmanship. It most likely is technically a masterpiece. But it doesn’t make me feel any kind of way.


“Elated” by Ted Storm (Netherlands)

Some traditional bed quilts and wall quilts really were thrilling. I especially loved checking out the Japanese quilts, like these ones.


“Oriental Puzzle” by Hitomi Kanzawa (Japan)


“Autumn Freshet” by Noriko Endo (Japan)

I like these because they engage colors and shapes that I don’t normally see together.


“Dotting the Inside Box” by Sandy Snow (Florida)


“The Road to Love” by Elizabeth Dackson


And check out this lovely echo quilting:


“Red Flowers in Hawaii” by Noriko Hasegawa (Japan)

The miniature collections didn’t get more fun than this one “For the Baby Mice”:

baby mice

And the quilt below takes a modern look at the traditional log cabin:

wonky log cabin

“Abstract 16” by Cynthia Felts (Missouri)

Here’s my final favorite:


“Spirit” by Georgia Spalding PIerce


Shopping was insanely fun. I scored some gorgeous hand-dyed and printed fabric from Quilt Tapestry Studio, met some very  passionate folks from Accomplish Quilting (they’re opening a store in Nashville, ya’ll!), fell in love with Australian Aboriginal and Robert Kaufman prints at Color By Hand, and discovered Tambani Applique Blocks. Tambani is a quilting and embroidering collective  in the northern part of South African from a culture that is rich in folklore. They make blocks that tell these traditional African tales. Their brochure says, “The women are poor, illiterate and unemployed. Husbands often drift toward the cities, many never return.” Not only do these blocks carry out their oral tradition, but they also employ the women who make them; they keep all of the profit.


I also picked up this stunning batik from . The owner, Mary Ogwell, is from Kenya and gave us a great deal because she was anxious to close up and see her newborn grandson in Phoenix.


Finally, a true highlight was getting on a long armer for the very first time. Someday, when I am making a living as a quilter, perhaps I will look back at the Paducah Quilt Show as the day I found my calling!


As soon as I got home, I started my own art quilt. (blush.)

my modern quilt