ArtsATL > Art+Design > 30 Under 30: Embroidery meets drag queen culture in the work of Aubrey Longley-Cook

30 Under 30: Embroidery meets drag queen culture in the work of Aubrey Longley-Cook

Aubrey-Longley-Cooke: "Lavonia Elberton," detail
Aubrey Longley-Cooke: "Runaway"
Aubrey Longley-Cook’s “Runaway”

Even if you don’t know who Aubrey Longley-Cook is, chances are you’ve seen his work. A memorable piece by the 27-year-old artist — a folksy cross-stitch depicting such iconic Southern items as fried chicken and sweet iced tea — graced last November’s cover of Atlanta Magazine, on an issue devoted to the city’s waning Southernness.

The artist’s unusual blend of quaint crafts, digital media and contemporary themes thwarts any simple reading of his work and offers numerous points of entry. “Runaway,” in which he stitched sequential images of a running dog, photographed them front and back and turned them into a video, was his first cross-stitch animation and his breakout work. It was one of the more memorable pieces in last summer’s “Talent Loves Company” at Barbara Archer Gallery, and Archer offered Longley-Cook a solo show, which will take place this December, co-presented by the Goat Farm at its satellite, Erickson Clock.

30under30_v3While majoring in animation at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Connecticut-born artist took textile classes, including embroidery (the umbrella term for needlepoint, cross-stitch and the like). He attributes his interest in the latter to his mother, who died of lung cancer when he was 15. “I was drawn to the familial heirloom quality of the practice, and I found it meditative and calming,” he says.

Longley-Cook exemplifies the surge of interest in embroidery documented in the 2007-08 exhibition “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which was a revelation to him. Contemporary artists, designers and average Joes have embraced the craft for its innuendo and irony, or simply because of its appeal. Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti, for example, famously used embroidery in his series of world maps and text pieces (made by Afghan craftswomen), and New York-based contemporary artist Angelo Filomeno uses the medium in his goth-inspired canvases.

Backside of "Runaway" suggests the labor involved.
The back side of “Runaway” suggests the labor involved.

As with the traditional craft of embroidery, Longley-Cook prefers traditional, handmade forms of animation. “You can animate anything,” he explains. “Animation is just clicking a camera more than once.” Influences include Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren, a pioneer of innovative techniques beginning in the 1940s, and Caroline Leafs handmade processes.

The artist usually has a personal connection to his subject, even if it is not immediately apparent. He has depicted his fingerprints in embroidery, for example, and the dog Gus, the star of “Runaway,” belonged to his roommate, the poet, writer and yoga teacher Jared Dawson. Longley-Cook’s work often plays with gender roles and queer identity, and he intentionally uses the traditional women’s craft as an expression of queer culture.

He recently conducted a four-week “RuPaul Cross-Stitch Animation Workshop” at WonderRoot. The community-based art project drew 35 participants from various fields — art, business, science, law — all with an interest in learning to cross-stitch and/or RuPaul and drag queen culture. Additional stitch sessions were held at Mary’s, a gay bar in East Atlanta Village, the artist’s home and parks.

Clay Butterworth works on his Ru Paul stitchery at Mary's.
Clay Butterworth works on his RuPaul stitchery at Mary’s.

The workshop will culminate in a cross-stitch animation of RuPaul, the “queen of queens,” two large-scale projections of which will be the highlight of “Serving Face,” Longley-Cook’s December exhibition  in Castleberry Hill (her gallery building is soon to be razed to make way for a mixed-use development).

“Serving face” is drag queen lingo to describe a performer’s striking exaggerated facial poses. The show will also feature Longley-Cook’s second embroidery animation — he doesn’t claim RuPaul as his own — of drag queen Lavonia Elberton (a.k.a. the aforementioned Dawson) and stitched portraits of other Atlanta queens who performed at the workshops: Kryean Kally, Xee Xee Bow Dong, Justice Tyana Taylor, Cayenne Rouge, Violet Chachki and Ellisorous Rex.

As with “Runaway,” Longley-Cook will create two animations, of the fronts and backs, of both the Lavonia and RuPaul pieces. To reveal the working side — the knotted and trailing threads on the backs — is, he says, analogous to revealing what goes on “behind the scenes” at drag shows. The hours that drag queens spend getting dressed and made up also correspond to the hours that go into making a cross-stitch.

Aubrey-Longley-Cooke: "Lavonia Elberton," detail
Longley-Cook’s “Lavonia Elberton” (detail)

Longley-Cook is interested in RuPaul because he was active in Atlanta in the 1980s and early 1990s. His reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is in its fifth season on Logo TV. “It has made drag accessible to a general audience,” the artist says.

The workshop performances were the first drag show for five of the participants, he says. “It was interesting for the queens, too. They picked less crude and seductive songs than they would have in a club.”

To create the RuPaul animation, Longley-Cook extracted a 35-frame sequence from RuPaul’s 1993 music video “Supermodel” and gave each participant a different pixelated pattern that he made using MacStitch. He let them pick their own color schemes, “tonally related” being the only directive. When all 35 pieces are finished, he will assemble them to re-create the video sequence. So far, the hot-hued results evoke an oft-cited RuPaul quote: “Life is about using the whole box of crayons.”

After the show, the participants will get to keep their pieces, each of which contains 12,800 stitches, which the artist says takes about 120 hours to complete. The project, which received funding from Idea Capital and the Awesome Foundation, is the subject of a feature by ArtsATL contributor Andrew Alexander in the July-August issue of Art Papers magazine.

Aubrey Longley-Cooke
Aubrey Longley-Cook

Because his work can take many months to complete, Longley-Cook gets by doing free-lance photo assisting, graphic design and even catering, he says — “whatever allows me to spend most of the day working on my art.” For a similar reason — cheaper rent — he moved to Atlanta in 2007 after graduating from RISD instead of heading to New York. (A sister also lives here.)

The RuPaul project conveniently provided him with a team of assistants. He has none otherwise, because he can’t afford them and because he feels that the process requires the same hand. He’s not the only artist to recruit embroidery assistants through a community collaboration; British artist Gavin Turk has done a similar project with prison inmates.

Longley-Cook would like to take the workshop on the road, or create a much longer animation with a hundred worker bees. For an artist used to working in isolation, the workshop’s intimacy provided a sense of community and welcome interaction with others.

Longley-Cook has received a 2013-14 Walthall Artist Fellowship. Administered by WonderRoot, this professional development program includes symposia, a residency and a mentorship with a more established artist. Joey Orr of the collaborative John Q will be his mentor. Works by the Walthall Fellows will be featured in an exhibition next spring at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University.

Orr, 44, says that he began hearing of Longley-Cook around the time of John Q’s Cyclorama performance in May, because of their shared engagement with queer history and different forms of media. Longley-Cook’s combination of video, a relatively new medium, and embroidery, a painstaking craft, reminds viewers of the disconnect that can exist between a work and its production, Orr says.

With “Serving Face” and the Walthall exhibition on his plate, Longley-Cook has hundreds of hours of stitching ahead of him. The tall, lean artist has also been invited to participate in “Score,” an upcoming multi-venue exhibition about sports and art curated by Hope Cohn. All of which will give us ample opportunity to see work by this engaging artist, whose budding career threatens to outpace his means of production.

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