Written by Hannah Hickli
Al Hanyok started embroidering in 2018, with the guidance of a friend and three days of high school art courses in their back pocket. In the past two and a half years, they have been learning the fundamentals of drawing as well as developing a singularly modern embroidery style. Swinging from realism to surrealism, traditional to modern techniques, and personal to topical themes, Hanyok is alchemizing influences from across the artistic spectrum.
What is modern embroidery, exactly? It’s not any one style; in Hanyok’s case it spans everything from text-based work to blackwork (using black thread) to landscape embroidery. Instead, modern embroidery refers to the new generation of embroiderers that take from the traditional to incorporate new forms, styles, and purposes into an artform that has historically been sidelined as a woman’s craft.
Some of Hanyok’s work, seen from a distance, could be mistaken for a painting. With strokes of light and colour that commingle on fabric to mimic the effects of paint, this style is (aptly) called thread painting. The comfort with form and light required for this demonstrates the impressive technical progression of Hanyok’s short artistic career.
“I think it’s a unique experience to find art through such a niche field. Embroidery is my first and true love.”
Hanyok was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. They have lived in Boston, Spain, and currently reside in Montreal. Embroidery has informed their travel as a method of visual remembering; a vessel for recording their experiences with landscapes, cultures, and communities. While traveling, Hanyok stitches impressions on remnants of fabric, finding similarities in geologies as varied as Taiwan and France.
Study of Two Mountains - Wuling Pass, Taiwan and Mont Joly, France.
“It’s a way to capture moments. If I do a landscape of a trip that I was on or a mountain that I climbed, it’s like, I did that.”
Photo embroidery poignantly synthesizes this parallel between place-based experience and artistic expression; Hanyok embroiders directly on photographs and postcards picked up in travel, connecting to and re-invigorating captured histories with their thread.
Respectability, Community, and the Carving of New Futures
From Turtle Island to Eastern Europe—places that feature heavily in Hanyok’s place-based embroidery—textile arts have been generationally taught in styles that illustrate familial, cultural, and gendered values. When we look at whose history is archived in collections, however, it is very rarely the labour and art of the many women, non-binary people, and men who have embroidered across history whom are recorded.
Hanyok laments the persistent devaluing of textile artists by the institutions that should value them the most, but they also draw inspiration from it. Despite initially shying away from the incorporation of traditional elements into their pieces, Hanyok now consciously invokes them. While admitting that they are not as drawn to employing traditional effects like cross-stitching or floral patterns, Hanyok honours where the artform came from.
"I realized I fell into this habit of trying to prove my art by trying to imitate paintings, while distancing myself from the traditional flowers and geometric shapes... A lot of modern embroiderers don’t want to be seen as traditional, which I think is kind of a mistake on our part because there’s so much to offer within traditional embroidery.”
Bee with traditional fill, 2020. Hand embroidery on linen, 5” diameter. $400
“Every third conversation I have when I say ‘I do embroidery’ it’s ‘Oh, my grandmother did that’. So did mine! She was an amazing artist. The way people say it suggests that it's not as worthy as an art because everyone’s grandmother can do it. Whereas I think we should acknowledge that if everyone’s grandmother did it then everyone’s grandmother was an artist.”
Reclaiming art that has been historically sidelined as a pastime or craft is no easy task. Functionally integral to the history of human cultural development or not, many forms of textile arts have faced a persistent cold-shoulder from the high art world for centuries. Hanyok summarizes: “Museums love textiles, but not as art. They’ll display an outfit that someone wore that’s embroidered, but the point of putting it up is that it was worn by someone important... I’d really love to see embroidery valued as its own artform.”
Perhaps in response to centuries of dismissal from the fine art world, embroidery has found new communities through social media, Hanyok describes.
“If you’re a painter you can go to an art class and meet other painters. Sculptors can find a studio that offers that stuff. You can’t find a real-life community for textile arts in most places. You have to form that yourself… There are no institutions.”
Using everything from hashtags to crusades against transphobic discourse to unite communities of embroiderers, the modern online embroidering world is shaping itself up to be more organized, radical, and larger than perhaps any institution could hold.
Lately, Hanyok is holding a mirror to life in global pandemia by incorporating Medieval studies into their thread painting. Picking elements from ensemble pieces by Hieronymus Bosch and midwifery books by Eucharius Rösslin, Hanyok reminds us that science only goes so far, and the macabre surreal is still on standby to fill in the emotional gaps left by the mysterious and unfair.
The Triumph of Death Study #1, 2020. Hand embroidery on cotton, 6" diameter. $600
Al Hanyok is an embroidery artist living in Montreal on the territory of the Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. They are represented by Sweetpea Gallery in Victoria, territory of the Lkwungen and W̱ŚANÉC peoples.
Hannah Hickli (she/they) is an emerging writer, biologist, and settler on Lkwungen and W̱ŚANÉC lands.