Stitching A Love Letter To The Queer Community: A Conversation With Rebecca Levi On ‘Tumble And Bloom’

Rebecca Levi, Dusty (all images courtesy Rebecca Levi)

Rebecca Levi, Dusty (all images courtesy Rebecca Levi)

After descending steep stairs and wandering a dark, dungeon-like hallway, it’s hard to imagine the bounty of botanical-covered beards and bears that awaits in Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s Prince Street Project Space. Artist Rebecca Levi, who some of you dearest Filthy Dreams readers may recognize from our past coverage of Leslie-Lohman’s show Queer Threads, uses embroidery and various other traditional craft techniques to render the queer community.

In her short-lived but memorable weekend-long exhibition at the Prince Street Project Space, Levi showcased her newer series of works including her massively ambitious series #100tumblrbearscantbewrong, using images of bears from Tumblr, and Flower Beards, replacing men’s facial hair with vibrantly colored flowers. Hence, the exhibition’s title–Tumble and Bloom.

With a keen awareness of embroidery’s associations with “women’s work,” Levi deftly juxtaposes the medium’s feminization with the masculinity of her subjects, making her works complex studies on gender performativity and fluidity. And with its playful poses and bright colors, the exhibition, as a whole, becomes a tribute to queer self-fashioning.

Visiting the project space on a sunny Saturday morning, Levi showed me around Tumble and Bloom while speaking on how she began working in embroidery, why she stitches bears and how she found a queer community in New York.

Installation view of #100tumblrbearscantbewrong

Installation view of #100tumblrbearscantbewrong

Your series #100tumblrbearscantbewrong employs source images from bear blogs on Tumblr. Is there a large bear community on Tumblr? I guess there are so many various subcultures on there.

I think there’s so many people on Tumblr, especially exploring queer identity. I don’t really post on there much, but it is a wealth of visual information. The bear blogs are especially picture driven.

The technique in #100tumblrbearscantbewrong is called sashiko. It’s a traditional Japanese technique. You’ll mostly see it on straight lines. It was typically used to repair clothing, then developed into patterns. But again, more traditional motifs like flowers and stars.

What interested you about sashiko?

A lot of my work is inspired by Japanese aesthetics, so actually all of the patchworks on the Patchwork Tumblr Bears are inspired by Japanese block patterns. There’s an influence and an homage.

I learned the technique a year and a half ago at City Quilter, which just closed in October. As soon as I took the class, I started thinking about ways to use it. I had been doing bear content for awhile. At my last show Queering The Lines at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, those bears were more of a bear-take on mid-century magazines like Physique Pictorial. That series had full body bears posing as gladiators, Spartans, Cub scouts and Eagle scouts. I was looking at the tropes Bob Mizer used, playing with them with a bear aesthetic.

A lot of my work to date has been inspired by culling flea markets, especially the Old Chelsea flea markets, and thrift stores for vintage images.

I remember the imagery of the two nude women in your work Two Ladies, which was featured in Leslie-Lohman’s Queer Threads, came from a photograph found at a flea market.

Exactly. In some ways, it’s a history of gentrification–replacing these found source materials with digital images from Tumblr. I got that image from Two Ladies at one of the Chelsea flea markets–the ones that have been replaced by high rises. The Antique Garage is also no longer there. A lot of the stuff in this show is from City Quilter, which just closed.

There’s that history of the source material–source materials being displaced, as well as the transition from print to digital.

Rebecca Levi, Sitting Selfie

Rebecca Levi, Sitting Selfie

I guess that’s the way everything is going.

Tumblr is an infinite scroll. It’s a glut of imagery. After a few days, the images exist, but after a few months, try going back to find it. There’s so much bear content. You could spend your lifetime looking at what’s on there now. Part of this series is preserving that moment, translating it into something more tangible, tactile and permanent. One could argue that the Internet is more permanent, but I don’t know–these works will survive the death of electricity [laughs].

That could be a real risk–Trump might be elected, so you never know. How did you start doing embroidery?

I was doing more pen and ink work before that on similar topics–not bears yet, but those Physique Pictorial magazines. It interestingly was out of a domestic impulse. I was doing the post-post-college apartment redecoration. I was going from bright, crazy colors to more neutral colors with accents. Someone sent me a picture of this amazing embroidered pillow with these stick figure animals. It was cute. I never embroidered, I don’t know how to sew and I never used a sewing machine. So not domestic. But, I was like, “I don’t want to spend $200 on that pillow. I’m going to make it!”

Your stuff is so influenced by 70’s/80’s/90’s culture–this was very much like that D-I-Y influence. Saying, “Screw it–I’m going to do it!” I bought a children’s book of stitches, some fabric and I recreated the exact image.

Rebecca Levi, Boxer Shorts

Rebecca Levi, Boxer Shorts

From Queering The Lines to Tumble and Bloom, bears have been a pretty constant theme in your more recent work. What motivated you to create portraits of bears, specifically?

Originally, kind of like the pillow, it was something I had the opportunity to do. A gallery in Provincetown–Four Eleven Gallery on Commercial Street–was doing almost weekly themes curated by Liz Carney. Now, she has a different approach, but at the time, she was doing a bear show for Bear Week in Provincetown. I thought, “Oh, this is great.” I thought I’d take what I was doing before–using that classical ideal, mid-century physique from Physique Pictorial–and do the same thing, but with the bear physique. It is really a love letter to that physique. It was wonderful because since it was Bear Week, a ton of bears saw the work and loved the whole show.

That was how it started. I did the same show the next year and kept with it. I love doing bears. One of the reasons became apparent with this series using sashiko. The technique is so minimal, but it captures the bears’ curvaceousness. The voluptuousness creates this beautiful, negative space. You can see all the wonderful curves and contrast. It’s just amazing. If it were a skinny person, it would be a completely different feeling–maybe if they were wearing a flowing garment with a lot of feathers, but I think the bear physique is the ideal for this technique. Of course, over the years, I’ve developed a following with bears. I have a lot of bear models and my partner has somewhat of a bear physique.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the traditionally feminine medium of embroidery and bear masculinity.

I agree, but I also think there’s something inherently feminine with the curves and Rubenesque physique. There’s this hardness and softness with the bear physique that embroidery really plays into.

Rebecca Levi, Big Boy

Rebecca Levi, Big Boy

How did you eventually get to #100tumblrbearscantbewrong?

After I took that sashiko class, I thought, “Oh bears…” Somehow I made the connection to try Tumblr bears. My first idea was to do only the “odalisque” poses, but then I got really bored of doing that position. I originally imagined the whole series as a patchwork quilt. It would be a formal exercise. But that would have been really limiting since the whole show would basically be one quilt.

So on the technical side, I had a challenge when I hadn’t done the quilt. I had to figure out how to do patchwork, but that wasn’t my original intention. I started using fabrics–regular blue cotton, printer’s linen and some denim. There’s also some of my own jeans in there, which makes it more personal. Some of the fabrics I bought in Japan. I’m not recycling tons of old clothes–I buy from quilt stores, other places when I travel. But even with that, there are all these personal associations you have with patchwork. It tells a story.

The choice of denim, too, recalls that Levi’s 501 clone aesthetic.

Exactly. It’s a bit of a nod to the leather and Levi’s, but without the leather.

People have asked about the wrestler images. It’s the same as any other of the bears. It was just a guy on the Tumblr blogs. What’s fun about those, though, it’s not a professional picture. It’s some guy standing on his bed in a mask.

I love those photographs where there’s that touch of reality. There’s a litter box in the corner or something. It’s kind of sweetly intimate in a way–it’s this sincere urge to self-represent.

I love that too. Snapshots from the past if they weren’t studio shots, there’s always some crazy shit in the background.

Rebecca Levi, Drag March 2015

Rebecca Levi, Drag March 2015

Speaking of self-representation, the two Drag March works from 2015 and 2016 are a bit of an outlier in the show, but they are explorations of gender, self-presentation and–again, to use another 90’s word–gender performativity. They’re also a celebration of queerness. They’re definitely both a “more is more” approach, maximizing color. The Drag March is so inspiring.

I’m also using red, white, blue and pink, it’s a subtle tribute/critique of patriotism. I’m saying in a tiny way, “This is America too–goddamn it.”

Quilting and patchwork also has a long American history. So to turn to your other major series in the show, how did you first begin making Flower Beards?

In my show at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, there was one Flower Beard in that. It was the last piece I finished. I wouldn’t say it was an afterthought, but it was like, “Oh, let’s get one more piece in.” It sold right away. Everyone wanted that Flower Beard. I knew I was onto something and I really wanted to do more.

I love flowers–I grew up in New York City. I never touched a garden until I was in my 20’s. In San Francisco, I had a garden for two years and I just went bananas. This is not an art statement, but I friggin’ love flowers. I love spending time with them and figuring out how to interpret them in embroidery. There are books about flower embroidery where I get ideas from sometimes or sometimes, I just create my own fantasy flowers.

I started that one at the Bureau based on the Internet meme of flower beards. I think it was on Buzzfeed–an article like “These Men Are Putting Flowers In Their Beards And It Is Amazing” or something like that. [Note: Close, it was “Guys Are Decking Their Beards Out With Flowers And It’ll Probably Give You A Pinterestgasm”]

Rebecca Levi, Dionysus (Nayland)

Rebecca Levi, Dionysus (Nayland)

Most of the subjects are people you know–I think I see Nayland Blake somewhere in there. What role does community play in the series and your work as a whole? 

I’d say about half the Flower Beards are people I know. Using the people I know, there’s a nice dialogue about community. I’m from New York, but I moved to Montreal and San Francisco. I moved back to New York in the late 1990’s. I feel like I didn’t find a queer community until Queer Threads, but by that point, I had been back for 15 years. I know tons of people, but it took me so long to find my queer community–that Cheers feeling.

That’s part of Filthy Dreams’ motivation to build a community of minorities who don’t even fit into our own minorities. Particularly as a woman, it can be hard. 

Maybe you fit in from 6-11PM. But after, your time is up.

Exactly. It’s time for you to go. Why do you think you had trouble finding your queer community?

I think there were a couple factors. One was just the fact that I had so many communities that I really love since I grew up in the city. I was also a little closeted as an artist–especially as a queer artist doing subversive, naked art. I didn’t publicize that in my professional life. Sometimes it’s generally hard to put yourself out there. My partner was really good pushing me to do that. He actually bought me a weekend pop-up space for my 40th birthday. We filled two rooms and tons of people came. It was a little bit of a coming out as an artist. It really effectively pushed me forward.

With Queer Threads, I found friendship and inspiration. It really challenged me to up my game. I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the artists and we support each other. The artists in the Flower Beards too I’m in genuine dialogue with.

Installation view of Mutton Chops and Blue Mohawk (Backwards Flower Beards), archival pigment print on acid free mat board

Installation view of Mutton Chops and Blue Mohawk (Backwards Flower Beards), archival pigment print on acid free mat board

You’re also showing the backs of your Flower Beards using photography. What inspired you to also present the backs of the works?

For the Bureau show, there was a piece that wasn’t exactly working. I saw the back and it looked more interesting. Something about the backs seemed to stay with people. There’s the practical function that when they’re finished the back is gone, but it’s more than that. There’s this balance of emotion.

There is a whimsical lightheartedness with my work. My illustrations are a little darker and more challenging with more complicated emotions. I think the backs really bring that out. It’s an exciting counterbalance.

In many ways, it’s a celebration of queerness, but we’re also complex beings. We’re complex beings as queer people. I think these Backwards Flower Beards bring out more of the complexity–the pathos, the anxiety, the complex emotions.

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