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Porn for knitters: award-winning stitchin' bitch Leah Emery talks about bringing hardcore sexual imagery and intricate needlework together at last


Leah, first of all, we'd be interested to know, how do you describe what you do to interested strangers? I reckon those conversations could be interesting.
In short, I create cross stitched images of scenes of hardcore pornography. In a way it's something I embarked upon because it amused me - playing with a very diverse subject and medium and exploring the resulting chaos created by pitting two opposing elements against each other. I find myself (somewhat unnecessarily) tiptoeing around describing the concept initially to someone who's a stranger to my work and gauging the level of interest before plowing head on into what might potentially end up being a train wreck of a conversation. When I first told my dad about my new practice he was worried I'd end up on a police blacklist. Then on the other side of the spectrum, I was visiting an exhibition of mine several years ago and heard what sounded like someone choking, but turned out to be two very elderly ladies giggling at a few particularly explicit images. It was a beautiful scene to witness. My work usually gets a cracking reception from older folks who are themselves involved in domestic crafts.
We're going to presume that when you first learned cross-stitching, you didn't immediately start stitching pornographic imagery. What sort of thing did you find yourself stitching originally? What then drew you to the idea of taking your needles to pornographic imagery?
Funnily enough I had never cross stitched before beginning this series. I'd been involved mostly with drawing and collage and being distracted by a myriad of other crazy projects prior to my adventures into cross stitching. I hadn't been involved with any domestic crafts before this, although I do admire those who have the knack. No knitting, no crochet, although I had been known to make clothes and costumes fairly regularly. The way the series came about was during my time as a video game artist. Despite working in what was essentially an IT company, I started receiving some incredibly explicit spam emails with images of very hardcore pornography that the spam filters weren't picking up. So I'd get to work in the morning and open my email to find serious porn imagery greeting me from my 24" monitors. It made for some very bizarre mornings. I kept the images for several months knowing they'd be fodder for a project until I came up with the idea of learning cross stitch to explore the effects of such a confronting subject matter when married with a very benign and beautiful craft form.
Leah, we can only imagine the sort of investigative research you undertake to find these images. How do you find this stuff? What sort of imagery are you looking for?
Haha - my research certainly delves into some figuratively peculiar depths. The internet  has such authority over all other avenues of resource material, that even though I've collected some brilliant magazines and books, it's my number one reference for sourcing images. I've come to almost exclusively use vintage scenes for their  more authentically human qualities compared to the manipulated, tanned, taut and uniform shapes of today's porn champions. Using the pixellated aesthetics of cross stitching to depict beards, body hair and unkempt bushy regions makes the impact of sexually explicit scenery more acute and heightens the tension between the smutty nature of the image and the colourful beauty of the craftwork used to portray it.
Can you tell us about your attitude to porn -- and how it may have been shaped by your art over the years?
I hadn't been an avid consumer of porn before the chance encounter with unsolicited spam porn on my work computer years ago, but I was already quite desensitised to it thanks to an open mind and exposure over the years to its prevalence in the media. In a way, creating these series has served as my own exploration into my attitude to pornography which is still a work in progress. It could take a lifetime to figure out whether I consider it to be exploitative to women, men, everyone or no-one, my opinion seems to change daily. I'm certainly not opposed to porn and I'm not in favour of any form of censorship, yet to me it seems pornography has mutated from its saucy, raw under-the-bed origins into a readily available bastardisation of plastic surgery, spray tans and Photoshop which is infinitely less enduring as an expression of sexuality than its predecessors of yore.
Is there a particular piece or sequence of pieces in this new show, In & Out, that you find particularly interesting?
For the first time in In & Out, which is a series where I cross stitch panels of sequential stills from vintage pornographic films, I've been experimenting with a more 'snapshot narrative' as opposed to depicting only isolated scene. It's meant a lot more work to ensure the grainy old footage translates well to be cross stitched and interpreted by the viewer, seeing as the range of movement from panel to panel is extremely subtle, but I'm thrilled with all the works and am glad that the execution's proven to be so successful! I'm particularly fond of the work set on a billiards table, and also the neon work which is bleeding with a backlit neon glow that looks like it could have come from the set of a cheap sci fi movie.
One of your past works was 'Self Portrait with Chair'. What was your experience of putting yourself in your work?
When I was invited to show in the UQ Art Museum's 2009 National Artists' Self Portrait Prize I was extremely excited at the challenge as well as daunted to think I'd be using myself as a model. It took a lot of preparation to firstly establish how far into explicit territory I would travel, along with my husband who was a very good sport, as well as what influences of my body of work I'd incorporate. I made lots of sketches of poses and took lots of photos on self timer before settling on the final images, and then having several false starts to get the colour scheme to my liking, seeing as it felt like the most important of my works to date to get just right. You can find the image through the UQ Art Museum or Sullivan and Strumpf websites. I'll definitely be endulging in self portraiture again. It opens up a whole new world of exploration and it feels like an entirely justifiable pursuit, particularly with your kit off...


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By Darryn King   |  

Leah Emery details

799 Elizabeth St, Zetland 2017

Telephone 02 9698 4696

Price FREE
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Date 29 Mar 2012-21 Apr 2012

Open Tue-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-5pm

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