The Stitch Gawd / Threading the Needle through the Chicago scene

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Photo by Danny Sanchez

Photo by Danny Sanchez

Cross-stitching: an art form more closely associated with grandmothers in rocking chairs than rappers and rock stars. That was until Emma McKee, AKA Stitch Gawd, sewed up.

Hailing from Chicago, Emma learned the antiquated art to create a homemade gift for her mother one year. It wasn’t long before she had developed a love for it and began cross-stitching denim jackets as a side project. 

After creating a jacket in Chicago legend Chance the Rapper’s honor, she tweeted Chance the piece she created and the rest was history. Chance had to have it, and it wasn’t long before he was wearing the jacket on the cover of Billboard and on tour. 

From that moment on, every rapper in Chicago wanted a bespoke piece from whom they would affectionately call the ‘Stitch Gawd’.

Nowadays, Emma’s work has expanded not only in context but in scope—focusing her attention on pieces that promote social justice. She’s currently hard at work creating a 9 ft tall 200lb cross-stitch of civil rights activist and victim of police brutality Fred Hampton. 

We caught up with Emma about the art of cross-stitching, her love of Chicago, forthcoming projects and her PBR koozie. 

Photo  by Emma McKee

Photo by Emma McKee

What is your selection process like for deciding which artists get hand-stitched jackets for you? What does it take to get ‘blessed by the stitch gawd’?

It’s not so much a “selection process” as it is a feeling. I usually tell folks that the through line for all of the people who receive my work is that they are all very much, themselves. These are the kinds of people who inspire me the most, people with conviction, a strong sense of who they are - and I really hafta be inspired by you to make something for you! 

Cross-stitching seems to be an incredibly labor-intensive art form. What makes stitching so compelling to you? Do you feel a sort of drive to inspire/promote cross-stitching to others. 

You aren’t wrong—cross stitching is incredibly labor intensive—I guess the silver lining there is that it makes it much harder to copy! It’s funny, I am not, you know, super driven to evangelize needle point or embroidery or cross stitch or whatever. It’s just that I am not very good at any other kind of visual art! I can’t draw or paint...I just happen to be preternaturally disposed towards cross stitching. It’s the thing I excel at, and so, it is the way I communicate my ideas visually. It really is just a means to an end! 

We understand you work primarily on a barter-only system for your artworks. Can you tell us more about that and how it works? Why is it important to you to be compensated in this way?

This is true! People think I’m bonkers for doing things this way—but honestly inviting money into any conversation about art immediately changes the nature of the art itself. Money shifts power and ownership.  Beyond that, I find so much more value in things beyond money.  I explain it like this to people—a dollar is the same dollar no matter where it comes from. 100 pennies no matter who gives it to you—but someones time and energy on the other hard? That can get downright invaluable. There are a lot of things that money cannot buy. (Me, for starters)

Photo by Zoe Rain

Photo by Zoe Rain

You are deeply ingrained within the Chicago music and arts scene generally. What makes Chicago so unique and appealing to you and how does it inform your artworks? 

Without Chicago there would be no Stitch Gawd (literally). I like to use the line “I wasn’t born here but I was formed here”. There really is no place else quite like Chicago. To me it is the most American city—everything that is good and everything that is bad about America is here in Chicago. 

That kind of place shapes a different kind of people with a hustler’s spirit, and some of the best artists of all time. It also is a city with a deep, dark history of corruption, racism and violence. 

So, the people that inspire me most happen to be in Chicago/from Chicago—and the topics I am most interested in talking about in my work are issues that have played out in Chicago in a particularly meaningful way. 

I feel like my collective work has been a love letter to the people of Chicago. And probably will continue to be.

Some of your pro bono works have dealt with police violence in Chicago - namely your Laquan McDonald portrait and your upcoming large scale stitching of civil rights leader Fred Hampton. Do you feel that in light of the recent protests and activism in the United States that we are trending in the right direction? 

A note! I haven’t done the Laquan McDonald piece yet.  

I mean, I guess so. It’s hard to say we are trending in the right direction when we still have 2 million people incarcerated in the United States; when the Chicago Police Department is allotted 5 million dollars a day and shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars in police settlements on the peoples dime but the city can’t seem to afford basic things (nurses, art classes, classroom supplies) for the school children. 

We should celebrate the progress that has been made, certainly. But that progress is *very* relative and there is so much more that needs to happen. 

Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming Fred Hampton piece? What does it mean to you and within the context of your other works of art? 

Sure! So, for the past year or so, I have been working on a 200 pound 9 foot tall cross stitch portrait of Chairman Fred Hampton. Chairman Fred (if you didn’t know!)  was the leader of the Black Panther Party in Illinois, and was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department & the FBI in 1969 when he was just 21 years old.

A while back someone asked me what my art would look like if it was just you know, stand alone - not necessarily a gift to someone. I knew that  I wanted to pay homage & honor the Chairman. A Chicago legend- and someone we need to keep talking about. He is the people’s hero - and his legacy is deeply important. 

I needed to make the piece BIG. As Fred was a BIG person. So I took the learnings from a window install I did for Adidas a few years ago and applied the same principals and viola. A 9 foot 200 pound wood &  blue velvet ribbon cross stitch of an icon. I plan on making 2 more at that scale. See you in 3 years! LOL (but actually it’s taken 18 months or so to make it) 

Photo by Esteban Cruz

Photo by Esteban Cruz

Amidst COVID, many artists are struggling right now, with government support limited and patronage changed. You’re a part of Pabst Blue Ribbon’s program to commission a 1000 creatives in response to the pandemic, how important are brands to supporting creativity right now?

Honestly, I know it is important—but I wish it didn’t have to be. Wouldn’t it be cool if we just lived in a place where folks could live comfortably and had a Government that had its sh*t together and paid for people to stay home until things are safe like every other wealthy country on Earth? Brand’s must support creatives because corporations rule this country. 

That being said I think the initiative is super cool. Pabst has always been down with the artists though - even before Covid PBR has always made avenues to support independent artists. I think this is in their character, and if we are going to have corporate overlords, at least these ones are cool. 

Has being stuck at home during the pandemic been inspiring to you and your process?

To be totally honest with you—not really. I’ve spoken to a lot of my creative friends and the truth is, it’s really hard out there right now. 

I’ve mostly been spending my time working on and finishing up projects that need to be worked on and finished up. I’ve also been working out a ton, drinking hella water, reading and smoking copious amounts of weed. So much of my inspiration comes from human interaction and I am missing it very dearly at the moment. 

What can we expect to see from you in the coming months?

You’ll see a finished Fred Hampton piece, the beginning of a giant Ben Wilson portrait, some stuff with the Chicago Bulls!!! A couple jackets, a 5 foot Beyonce tapestry... I’m probably forgetting something!! 

Photo by Zoe Rain

Photo by Zoe Rain