Articulate Q&A: Elsa Hansen Oldham

Elsa Hansen Oldham is an embroidery artist best known for her cross-stitched images of famous people.

P.T. Anderson, David Foster Wallace, and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi have all appeared in her stitchwork.

But before devoting herself to art full-time, Hansen Oldham was on a very different path, studying for a career in outdoor recreation. In the summer of 2008, while interning as a park ranger in New York City, she began dating the director Van Neistat. While Neistat edited his TV show, she would sit nearby and sew. Before long, she realized that cross-stitching was her true passion.

We asked Elsa about her Kentucky roots, the physical demands of her craft, and the genesis of her “white guilt quilt.”

You began with ambitions to go into outdoor recreation. At what point did you start calling yourself an artist?

I didn’t begin to call myself an artist until my first solo show [Editor's note: 2013, in New York City's Dickinson Gallery]. Before that it was just an obsessive hobby. After the first show, it was like a curtain was pulled away from a path I didn’t even imagine was hidden there.

When selecting figures for your work, is it always off the top of your head, or is there research involved?

Sometimes it is completely off the top of my head. Those are the pieces I tend to enjoy the most because there will come a time, years down the road, when I understand why. Other times there is much research. Often this research involves reading biographies. Still other times it comes from mine or other people's conversations.

Elsa's cross-stitched depiction of the June 12, 1994 highway pursuit of O.J. Simpson.

Elsa's cross-stitched depiction of the June 12, 1994 highway pursuit of O.J. Simpson.

How do you care for your hands to make sure this craft is sustainable long term?

At first I didn’t. Two and a half years ago, I came down with a debilitating case of carpal tunnel. I couldn’t stitch. I couldn’t even put on a t-shirt. Getting over that took an immense amount of time and effort. I tried everything. Acupuncture, physical therapy, stretches, intense massages, and epsom salt baths. I wasn’t able to stitch for a long time. Slowly it got better. Now I have to not stitch as much and do simple stretches before bed.

You’ve lived in NYC—for many, an artistic Mecca of sorts. Why’d you return to Louisville, and what unique aspects do you love about it?

New York City was where I received my arts education. It influenced my ways of thinking and my work ethic. I will always be grateful to it. I returned to Louisville for many reasons but the main one was that I ultimately found New York City to be an oppressive place to live. All the noise and light and stimulation made it very difficult to get a good night’s rest.

Upon my return to Louisville I realized how much I missed it, how much I love it. I love the people here. I love the parks, the houses, and the pace at which people live their lives here. I love being close to my parents. And I am coming to realize that the depth of my connections to this place are irreplaceable, that I have access to parts of me and a perspective on the world that is only strengthened by incorporating my present with my past.

You’ve spoken about Van Neistat’s early impact on your artistic path. Your husband (congratulations, by the way!) is also a creative by trade. How has Will influenced your embroidery?

Will has had an immense influence on my embroidery. Through our discussions and from his amazing book recommendations I have come up with many an idea. A few times he has outright given me an idea to the point where I should credit the piece to us both. An example of this is my “Larry, Curly and Moe” piece which depicts Larry Flynt, Curly Neal, and Moe Tucker.

What art was around your house growing up?

My sisters often painted together. My father is an architect and he would often draw for us as well. My brother is a photographer. Somehow I guess our parents infused us with a respect for creative practices.

Where do you find materials?

I am lucky to live one block away from one the finest and only cross stitch stores in the country. It is where I [buy] most of my threads and linens. Also, whenever I am traveling I like to visit stores that may have the supplies I need. I found amazing fabric stores in Japan and France that I am still using supplies from.  

A cross-stitched rendering of Marcel Duchamp, beside his signature  Fountain  sculpture.

A cross-stitched rendering of Marcel Duchamp, beside his signature Fountain sculpture.

You work in an “8-bit” style. Were you a gamer growing up?

We had an original Nintendo that was kept at my grandmother’s house. We were allowed to play it during long visits. The prescribed distance likely elevated the 8-bit aesthetic into something exciting, forbidden, rarely attainable. I was very into the game Excitebike.

Describe your process! Do you begin with sketches? How much, if any, room is there for error?

I usually start with a design. To create my designs I look for an image of a person then draw him or her on graph paper. Since cross stitch is composed of little squares, graph paper designs can be translated directly to linen.  

These days I don’t stick very strictly to my design and have been playing more with free form stitching that is loosely based on my drawing. There is a lot of room for error because you can often just add more stitching to fix a mistake. Removing stitches is one of my least favorite things to do, but it happens from time to time.

Explain the genesis of the “White Guilt” quilt, and the resulting project.

As a Kentuckian, with Mitch McConnell acting as our most prominent voice in the world right now, we have a lot to answer for. Many of us, myself included, have lived in a willful ignorance of the hard awful depth of racism. I guess it should be obvious. So I wanted to be overt. I wanted to celebrate the lives of black people. We have to speak to each other, everybody, like children sometimes because we assume that we’ve moved beyond obvious, unfounded, unhealthy prejudice. I wanted to basically state the obvious: that plain gratitude is never excessive. I changed the title to “How About Thank You.”

Was there ever a time you felt like giving up?

Sure. Probably once a month I swing into a mood of giving up. This is another area where Will has had a great influence on my work. He is very encouraging.

How much of the “you” sitting here today would your 20-year old self recognize?

For better or worse, most all of the me sitting here today the 20 year old me would recognize. I think who I am now is a fairly natural progression of who I was then.