Shannon Downey, of the Instagram account @badasscrossstitch, learned how to cross stitch when she was young and rediscovered her love of the craft when she found herself burnt out by her day job and looking for a creative outlet.
Downey picked up a few patterns at first but quickly found that she was interested in creating her own. Cross stitch—no longer the territory of the prim ladies of yesteryear—became a voice for her to process what was happening to the world around her.
She stitched a large sign for the women’s march that read “I’m so angry, I stitched this just so I could stab something 3,000 times.” Shannon Downey stitched another piece—the one that launched her Instagram account into the public eye—in response to the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape. That piece reads, “Boys will be boys held accountable for their fucking actions.”
We reached out to Shannon Downey for an interview to ask her about Badass Cross Stitch, and her new project: Badass Herstory.
College News: First, tell us about Badass Cross Stitch and how it began. Cross stitch as an art form has mostly been associated with housewives and grandmothers, so it seems an unusual choice for someone who’s a young feminist activist.
Shannon Downey: I ran my own digital marketing company for 10 years. Around year seven, I started to get really cranky. I was connected to a device 24-7, and it was really having a negative effect on me. I stumbled across a Star Trek cross stitch pattern on Etsy. I decided I should definitely buy it and cross stitch myself a Captain Picard. I hadn’t cross stitched since I learned in fifth grade. I stitched it up and felt transformed. I felt creative and calm and there was real satisfaction in having made something with my hands. I kept stitching and the more I stitched the better I felt. It really evolved from there into an expression of and tool for my activism.
I think it’s a perfect art form. It’s personal, calming and expressive—so there is a real depth and value to the process of creating. For the viewer, it’s quite unexpected and there is great power in that. I can say really controversial things in stitch, and folks will stop and spend time with it because the delivery mechanism is unexpected. Additionally, it is absolutely a reclaiming of a medium that has been historically used to teach girls how to be domestic. The art of it has been undervalued for far too long!
CN: We’ve seen this idea of art as resistance gain a lot of ground recently and within that lies ‘craftivism’ where women are reclaiming these activities that have traditionally been dismissed to make their own political statements, like the knitted pussy hats in the Women’s March or your cross-stitch patterns. What do you think is the role of art and crafting in activism and resistance?
SD: Art and artists have always been at the forefront of politics, religion, activism and resistance. What I am most interested in is the power of art to not just move people emotionally but to create opportunities for others to engage in activism in order to bring about actual social change. Art as a catalyst for action is the space I live in and I’m thrilled to see so many creatives taking a similar approach. The question I always ask myself when I’m creating is simply: How will this move people to action?
CN: Your art went viral after a photo of your piece that said “Boys will be boys held accountable for their fucking actions” was shared in response to the Harvey Weinstein news breaking. What was it like to suddenly have a much larger audience to share your message with?
SD: When that piece took off it was because millions of survivors were using it as the illustration to accompany their #MeToo stories. It was astounding to me that a piece I made was connecting with so many survivors. I was deeply humbled. The digital community that grew out of that moment (particularly on my Instagram) is amazing. I’m not talking about numbers—I’m talking about depth. The folks that engage with me and my work regularly on Instagram are some of the bravest, most honest, open, thoughtful, challenging, critical thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of engaging with online. It fills me with hope every day that social media can, in fact, be a tool for connections, conversation, growth and change.
CN: Amid the barrage of content coming from all sides at the moment, why do you think your art is resonating so deeply right now?
SD: This is going to sound cheesy, but I deeply believe that the primary driver is the intention behind my work. We can all spot a bullshitter a mile away. We know who is creating noise and causing division and who is legitimately trying to move us all forward as humans. I approach my work in a way that is authentic to me and everything I believe. I’m not here to be an influencer or get a brand to pay me to post shit. My intention is to move people to action around issues and I believe people feel that and know that. Beyond intention, I think it’s the content of my work, the medium and the framing of my positions.
CN: Right now, you’re working on a new project, Badass Herstory. Tell us about that!
SD: Yes! This is my most ambitious project to date. I’m asking all women, female identified, and gender non-binary folks on the planet to participate. The quick overview is that folks are asked to “tell me their story” on a 12 inch x 12 inch piece of fabric. Then, send it to me. There will be a giant public art installation and a digital museum. I want 1 million stories. I want the world to see the complexity and diversity of stories from the most marginalized voices.
Low key though, this is a community organizing project because everything is more fun when you are doing it WITH other people. So, I’ve been traveling all over hosting free community workshops where I introduce the project, teach folks how to stitch, and then get them started on their pieces. Folks are then getting together after I’m gone to stitch together again and again. They are becoming friends and allies. They are identifying issues in their communities that they want to take action on. I have about 600 ambassadors from all over the world signed up and they have been gathering folks together to participate in the project. It’s amazing. I want every college campus to have a Badass HERstory group!
Everyone who is interested in either making a piece or starting and participating in a stitch-up group should immediately go to www.BadassHERstory.com and learn more. Feel free to hit me up on social too!
CN: Thanks, Shannon, for this interview! We look forward to following Badass Cross Stitch and Badass Herstory!
Find Shannon on Instagram at @BadassCrossStitch and @BadassHERstory, and on Twitter at @ShannonDowney.
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