The Medium is Her Message

Crushing on artist Marlena Kaesler

Part whimsical, part theatrical, and a little bit rock-and-roll, Marlena Kaesler’s wearable art transforms its wearer into a flapper from the ‘20s. Or rather, something reminiscent of a flapper. A flapper, but, like, in a velvet owl mask. Besides birds, she works her embroidery into skulls, moustaches, and jellyfish, all of them a little punk rock. With her beginnings in the music industry and time spent as a performance artist, it’s no surprise that all her work has ample dramatic flair.

WORN spoke to the artist about the fruit costume that started it all, changing perceptions about traditional craft, and the human body as a canvas.

Tell me a little bit about your involvement in the Toronto music scene.
At 14, I learned guitar, and started going to my first indie rock shows. When I was 17, I got my first job as a promotions and publicity intern for Sonic Unyon Records in Hamilton, Ontario. The guys there would encourage my creativity by getting me to set up window displays for new record releases. A couple years later I moved to Toronto and picked up the bass. I met Jonny Dovercourt, the creator of the Wavelength series, and joined the band Republic of Safety. It was an amazing experience, and I had the opportunity to play shows like the Hillside Festival. I also added vocals and bass for a few shows with The Hidden Cameras. Now, I’m involved with a venue called the Music Gallery, which showcases emerging local composers, contemporary jazz, classical, and modern indie rock.

What were some of the outfits you wore as a musician?
I sang in the band at Toronto’s Fake Prom last summer, and I created an incredibly intricate dress with hand-glued sequins—it took me well over 30 hours to make. I literally sat there at band practice, and in between songs would individually glue the sequins to my hand drawing of ocean waves and jellyfish. The dress ended up in NOW Magazine.

Another proud outfit moment was when Republic of Safety opened for my post-punk heroes, Mission of Burma. I wore an off-the-shoulder turquoise silk dress that I made and cut holes in the back of. Roger Miller, the lead singer of Mission of Burma, came up to me after the show and said, “Me and Bob (Weston) were talking about your dress while you were playing. Did you make that? You couldn’t find that in a shop.” He started telling me about his process for bleaching stripes on his jeans, and we ended up talking about bleaching processes for about half an hour. It was pretty neat.

What attracted you to embroidery?
I think seeing my Oma’s love for unique design shaped my style and love for embroidery. When I make most things, I think of her, and the confidence she has to indulge in her own distinct and eclectic look.

Where it really all started, though, was when I was working at a horrible travel agency. I wore a banana costume to a work party, and after that the entire office called me “banana girl.” I wanted to take ownership of this embarrassing moment, and I came to the conclusion that the only way to do that would be to make a new, embroidered banana dress to wear at a formal office function. It was then that I invested in a $300 embroidery machine.

In your recent interview with the contemporary embroidery and needlecraft blog mr. x stitch, you say, “I think seeing something shocking in the form of embroidered black velvet would have much more impact than seeing said image on a canvas.” What is it about an embroidered image that makes it have more impact?
I’ve heard from a lot of artists working in traditional mediums like knitting, crochet, and embroidery who feel that their hard work and vision are trivialized by those who don’t see traditional handiwork as a viable form of contemporary art. I think we should use this misperception to our advantage. If someone views embroidery as a “silly craft,” then a work of embroidered art that depicts gun violence or political repression in a graphic way could be shocking to them, because it shatters perceptions around how embroidery should be used. It also makes for a memorable graphic statement in an unconventional medium. The more artists take risks with embroidery and other traditional mediums perceived as being “quaint,” the more it will inspire fellow artists to work toward changing the perception of traditional mediums on a bigger scale.

What are the steps to creating your finished designs?
It starts off with an idea and a sketch. The sketch is then scanned and put into Photoshop where I make the sketch more primitive, meaning I convert it to black and white and clean up the lines. Then I digitize the design by going into an embroidery program and inputting the needlepoints. The best way I can describe this is that it is like pointillism, because I mark the design with lots of tiny dots. To ensure that the image translates well in thread, I test-stitch my design on water-soluble rice paper, going back and forth from computer to machine sometimes over 50 times; it’s like being a choreographer to the machine needle. If I’ve done a good job, all the thread will remain intact and the image will come through after the rice paper dissolves. My process still hasn’t been fully perfected yet, but my failures are always important lessons, and eventually I find successes.

Tell me about your performance art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
I worked with Jon McCurley and Amy Lam, two performance artists who’ve just completed a residency there. Their work was called Life of a Craphead Retrospective, and they presented everything they will ever make—past, present, and future—over a period of 50 years. I re-enacted a famous Skittles commercial with them. Jon and Amy were the directors, and the actress who was in the original commercial worked with us. I played the part of the makeup artist/hairdresser on set. It was absolutely hilarious.

How do you see your skills in designing wearable embroidery transferring to women’s clothing?
I think it’s in my approach: I see the dresses that I make more as art pieces than garments. Instead of sketching the initial design for a dress, like I would for a piece of embroidery, I start by draping the fabric on a woman’s body—it’s like sculpting. I think I end up with a more thoughtful and personal design this way. My lack of formal training leads me to make tons of mistakes. But when I do fail at something, I always come up with a creative fix, which usually improves the dress design.

I want the clothing I make to inspire others to view fashion as more of an art form than just the creation of disposable garments. How can you feel unique or special wearing something that a million other people own? Buying underpriced, overproduced copies diminishes clothing’s value, the way I see it. I don’t buy anything that I can make. That way, all my clothes fit well, and I feel I value my body more.

The ‘20s seems to be an inspirational decade for you. Why do you gravitate toward that time period?
It’s in demand right now, and I love the aesthetic. It’s just such a beautiful time period, in which people relished fantastic fashion.

You’re also an accomplished makeup artist. What is it about the human body that makes it such a strong object for both your embroidery and your makeup art?
People are simply fascinating to look at—I like honouring that. When I’m working with the human face or body I know I will always feel challenged, because the canvas will always be different. My work gains personality when someone is wearing it. Each person who wears a garment I’ve made transforms it, and I find that fascinating. If the medium is the message, then wearable art takes on a million different messages based on the person, and the message is forever changing.

interview // Karen Fraser
images // courtesy of Marlena Kaesler