Emily O’Leary is a Brooklyn-based artist working mostly in fibers. Originally from Massachusetts, she received her BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design before moving to New York. She earned her MFA in Painting and Drawing at the University of Texas in 2018.
Like some sort of slow, slow drawing, her samplers (pieces of needlework made with a variety of stitches) depict scenarios that are modestly strange, a catalog of circumstances just on the edge of recognition or familiarity.
The world is strange but not strange enough! A mad dog sews a crazy quilt. Several people stitch an enormous rag rug with secret illustrations embroidered beneath the surface. A figure crouches over a companion nearly engulfed by an expanse of cloth. Another dog buries an orderly array of pilfered gloves.
My work is comprised of embroidered “samplers” that describe vignettes that are specific in detail but missing enough context for the viewer to be able to fit them neatly within a larger narrative. Most of the extant historical samplers, or pieces of needlework that display mastery over a variety of different stitches, have this lack-of-context problem, too. Museums have thousands of samplers labored over by young women and girls, but usually the only information we actually have about the maker’s life is her name, age, and the year her sampler was completed. There’s just the barest scaffold of details to try and hang a story on.
These traditional American samplers, made to demonstrate the virtues and enhance the homemaking skills of their young makers, usually feature a proverb or Bible verse and maybe an image. My samplers are more pictorial and depict figures engaged in labor that mirrors my own-- sewing or plying fiber. The group of men in one of the samplers is doing the same thing as me, investing their purple cloth with a host of tiny figures, while the figures in another piece work on embroidering grisly imagery hidden beneath the surface of an enormous white rug. I hope that all the time I’ve spent handling my pieces—cutting and piercing and pulling them— animates them somehow.
My abiding interest is in narratives and imagery that appear deeply unfamiliar, but still trigger moments of recognition because of the way they allude both to the mystery of what makes human action meaningful and to what makes us natural and animal, too.