Making this piece, I have been thinking about how history is recorded in the domestic sphere; about patriotism; about the stories we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of the world in which we live.
Redwork: The Emperor of Atlantis camouflages embroideries of war, injustice, and resistance in a patchwork of antique redwork embroideries. Patriotic imagery, homey domestic scenes and fairy tale characters are juxtaposed with embroideries of traumatic events. Making this piece, I have been thinking about how history is recorded in the domestic sphere; about patriotism; about the stories we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of the world in which we live.
Redwork embroidered quilts were popular home craft from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century. As I began collecting redwork for another project, it struck me that some images – particularly those of Indigenous people – read very differently today than they had at the time they were originally embroidered. Originally embroidered as nostalgic imagery commemorating a pioneer narrative, today these stereotyped images are a reminder of the dark history concealed beneath the veneer of patriotic narratives. The disjuncture in past and present readings of these images became the starting point for Redwork: The Emperor of Atlantis.
The project evolved further when, searching for antique fabrics on eBay, I stumbled across redwork patterns from WWII that included tanks, fighter planes and guns – bringing the narrative of war directly into the domestic sphere of decorative craft.
Eventually, the project grew to include images from WWI, WW2, The Vietnam War, The War on Terror, Black Lives Matter, and the current war in Ukraine. Guest artists created sets of embroidery patterns that reflect personal histories: Lolita Newman commemorates her ancestral connection to slavery; Ghazal Tahernia documents the Iranian Revolution; Star Nahwegahbo communicates her truth as an Indigenous woman; and Sophia Boyadjian ties the history of the Armenian Genocide to present-day events.
In the summer of 2018, I began inviting people for monthly embroidery bees in my Toronto studio. Over morning coffee and sushi lunches, we sewed and listened to one another’s stories. In January 2020, I moved to Windsor and, a few weeks later, the pandemic struck. I shifted the project online and began sending free embroidery kits to participants by mail. To date, over 200 people have contributed embroidered motifs to the project. You can see their individual contributions and read their words at https://www.emperorofatlantis.com/embroideries-by-participants
Redwork: The Emperor of Atlantis is a perpetually unfinished work. New participants are welcome to request free embroidery kits from www.emperorofatlantis.com. At each exhibition venue, local histories will be marked with the creation of new patterns and community will be invited to participate in embroidery workshops.
The narratives referenced in this piece are sprawling and messy, they bleed into one another and are incomplete in the way that current history is always incomplete. Some of the histories in this piece have been distilled into patriotic symbols; other histories I have referenced remain in flux – open wounds, gnawing questions.
Thank you to the many embroiderers who have participated in the Redwork: The Emperor of Atlantis. For a complete list of names, please visit: https://www.emperorofatlantis.com/embroideries-by-participants
Sincere thanks to studio assistants, past and present, who have made the project possible by designing patterns; sending embroidery kits to participants; assembling and embroidering the patchwork banners; and teaching participants how to sew:
- Krystal Bigsky
- Tamar Bresage
- Emma Feliciano
- Phoebe Findlay
- Salma Al Ghazhaly
- Shiemara Hogarth
- Mourin Hydier
- Yvonne Gascon
- Daniela Gonzalez Mantilla
- Niko Koochakkowsari
- Jackson Piij
- Tatjana Reithofer
- Emily Roe
- Katia Scandale
- Semonde Snauwaert
- Olivia Taylor
- Szaky Wu
Catherine Heard gratefully acknowledges the support of the University of Windsor Women’s Research Fund, and the University of Windsor Humanities Research Group, where she is the 2023-24 HRG Fellow.
Catherine Heard is an interdisciplinary artist whose works integrate traditional textile techniques into sculpture and installation. Historical crafts such as embroidery become a foil for complex narratives and difficult subject matter, including histories of the body, war, and injustice. Her most recent works invite public participation, engaging the conversational dynamics of the quilting bee. Heard’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, The Art Gallery of Hamilton, The Art Gallery of Kamloops and The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. She lives in Windsor, Ontario, and is an Assistant Professor at the School of Creative Arts at the University of Windsor. Catherine Heard is represented by Birch Contemporary Gallery in Toronto.