Michael-Birch Pierce’s sewing machine on his workbench. (Photographer: Jason Tesauro)

An Embroidered Portrait Is the Cure for Selfie Fatigue

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(Bloomberg) -- It took longer for me to snap a good photo of my portrait than it took for Michael-Birch Pierce to embroider it. Two to three minutes is all he needs, because it’s all he’s got when celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson, Marcia Gay Harden, and Helen Mirren are queued up awaiting their turn.

At least, that’s what happened in February, at the Night Before the Oscars party hosted by Motion Picture & Television Fund. “Bob Odenkirk saw me at the Phantom Thread premiere in NYC”—where Pierce had been hired by NBC to do custom portraits—“but he and his wife didn’t want to wait in line. When they saw me again at the Oscar party, they said, ‘We’ll wait this time!’” 

Pierce is a fiber artist, fashion designer, and teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2010, while earning his master’s in fine arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, he landed a gig embroidering Christmas ornaments for the Obama White House and  discovered that instead of following a set pattern in the studio, he could take his sewing machine on the road for impromptu sessions.

Now, like a first-chair musician, he jets around the world to create embroidered, in situ portraits that he calls “stitchies”—or, stitched selfies—which he sews live, on-the-fly, as a kind of textile art performance piece. At $10,000 per appearance, he’s worlds apart from the stereotypical county fair caricaturist. “It’s not some party trick,” he says. “It’s an intuitive artifact of the moment.”

You might find him at Art Basel, where Airbnb hired Pierce to set up his “stitchie” station to make embroidered portraits out of needle and thread. At the SXSW conference in Austin last year, American Greetings commissioned him as part of its analog message of disruption. Last spring, at a Los Angeles fundraiser for P.S. Arts, he found himself face-to-face with producer-actor Mark Duplass and his wife Katie Aselton. This April, he created a portrait of Richmond mayor Levar Stoney.

Pierce’s materials range from imported Merino wool felt to silk organza, faille denim, canvas, and leather. “Whether it’s celebrities, CEOs, or dumb tourists, I engage with them the same way,” Pierce says. He still uses a $150 Brother sewing machine available on Amazon. “I’ve set three on fire in foreign countries, due to power converters,” he says. When one went down while he was working at a Depeche Mode festival in Portugal, he reached beneath the table and pulled out another.

At his studio in Richmond, Va.,  I watch him operate his Brother CS-6000i with two hands and a foot like a jazz pianist. In no time, he whips a single, continuous thread into an electric design. His work is part of an ongoing evolution in textiles as a new generation of artists follows in the footsteps of Eva Hesse, Sheila Hicks, and Robert Morris. Pierce also cites such contemporaries as Ghada Amer, Do Ho Suh, and Ebony G. Patterson as inspiring him to “paint with thread.”

Part of the appeal is the spectacle. The flamboyant, bald, bearded Pierce drives the foot pedal and spills abstractions into life via spool pin, bobbin, and feed dog. During a four-hour event, he can stitch about 75 portraits on five-inch-by-seven-inch fabric. 

For Pierce—whose studio life is intense, obsessive, and solitary—embroidering portraits offers opportunities to travel and engage with people. And it helps fund his fine art, which dives into big themes of identity and sexuality. Asked what makes his embroidered portraits so wildly popular, Pierce’s brown eyes curl into a snarky glance. “Sure, it’s my hand, but let’s face it: It’s still all about them.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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