Melissa Zexter

Tell us about yourself. 
I’m originally from Bristol, RI, where I grew up in an historical house that was built in 1698.  I attended the Rhode Island School of Design where I studied photography. The day after I graduated from RISD, I packed up and moved to New York City and have been here ever since. Initially, my goal was to become a news photographer – to photograph for newspapers and magazines. I somehow got sidetracked and began exploring mixed media with photography techniques. For the past 15 years I have been combining hand-sewn embroidery with photography. I take and print all of my own photographs – both analog and digital.

What is beauty to you and how do you define beauty?
I find beauty everywhere, even on the filthy subway platform. I love to look at people and investigate new places with my camera. Most of the beauty I find is where I live in New York City, a place that many probably don’t consider the most beautiful city.  I find beauty in all of the people that I photograph, people I do and do not know.

What’s the story behind your first camera?
As a child I always had little Instamatic cameras and always documented my friends and family.  I also had 35mm film cameras in high school. I purchased my first real  “professional” camera when I was 18. I worked for a summer as a paid intern at Magnum Photos in New York and saved every penny I earned. On the last day of work, I ran to Olden Camera and bought my first Leica. I still have it! Over the years, I have purchased many other cameras, but that first Leica reminds of my early years in the city.

What defining moment led to you to incorporating embroidery into your artwork?
I have a background in photography, but also have always loved hands-on art making techniques like drawing, painting, mosaic making. Fifteen years ago, quite by accident I began to combine sewing with my photography. I was at an artists’ residency program in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where a fellow artist in residence taught me how to make handmade paper.  I went to the hardware store in town and discovered a sewing section where there was a large selection of threads. I bought some thread and a needle and began to sew pictures onto the handmade paper.  I had never really sewn before. The drawings were of anonymous figures and so the sewing acted as a map or grid over the figures. I also made pillows and sewed images onto them.

What does sewing contribute to your photographs?
For me, sewing was another way to build up a surface and to build upon the content of my photographs. I was also interested in how thread blended in and reacted to the photographs. The use of embroidery is a reaction to the photographs and is a process that aids in the transformation of identity of the person or place being photographed.

What’s most difficult about using another medium like thread in your artwork?
The most difficult thing is how slow the process of sewing by hand is. I am patient, but I would like to see the end product sooner!  My pieces are quite time consuming to complete and I usually don’t have a plan on exactly how they will look at the end.  This is what keeps me going- the challenge of figuring out as you go along how something will look like when finished.

Tell us about your experience at RISD. What are some of your most memorable experiences?
I went to RISD to be a painter.  Midway through my first year in school, a friend saw some of my photographs that I had in my room and he encouraged me to major in photography. His words of encouragement meant a lot and photography became the path that I followed. Very early in my photo studies, I met another fellow student who was also a supportive influence for years.  My favorite and most influential teacher at RISD was a photographer, Wendy Macneil.  I liked to be pushed and she pushed us.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about being “taught” photography. What do you think is one skill that every photographer should possess?
Well, you don’t have to be taught photography to make a quick Instagram photo, but to make strong bodies of photographic work is something else. Technical skills, like understandings of light, camera usage, knowledge of the history of photography, are all important to making photographs. I’m not sure if you can teach someone to be intuitive, but being intuitive seems to be high on my list of skills a photographer should possess.

To that note, what is most challenging about teaching art classes or photography?
For me, the biggest challenge in teaching is to have patience with a variety of personalities and learning styles.

What inspired the use of pink and red thread for Cardinal?
It most likely was a subconscious love of a pink and red sweater that I bought at a thrift store and a blanket that my grandmother crocheted for me, which I have passed on to my daughter. I actually bought the sweater because it reminded me of the blanket.

In many of your untitled pieces, your embroidery offers a ‘net-like’ design over the photographs. Is this intentional? What do you hope to add or emphasize through the additional embroidery?
Many of these pieces explore memory and personal experience while manipulating the generic qualities of the photographic print.  The ambiguous photographs of women and bodies are personalized with detailed maps of personal significance.  The thread’s function is a tool of physical connection. Many of the patterns I embroider are abstract reproductions of personal souvenirs: a floral pattern from a dress I wore as a child, a bus map that runs through my Brooklyn neighborhood, a wallpaper pattern that I grew up looking at. The sewn patterns serve as webs and grids over the photographic portraits, providing another dimension to the images.  The sewing creates a filtered experience; much the way emotions and personal history alter everyday perception. I combine the slow and meditative process of hand-stitched embroidery with the technologically more immediate medium of photography. A more traditional art form, embroidery, is refracted through the modern one, photography, to create structured objects that are embodiment of both fragmentation and focused concentration.

I am always jumping back and forth between using black and white and color photographs. Because I love the energy and abstract quality of the patterns of the thread on the back of the photographs, I have been sewing in reverse – making what usually is unseen, on the back of the photograph, appear on the front of the photographs. This creates a more 3-dimensional illusion and the photograph becomes more tactile and alive.

How did you come to create the Maps and Memories series? Is it an interest in cartography or something else?
This is one of my earliest embroidered series. The photographs were of anonymous women. I intentionally blurred them or embroidered over them so their identities were hidden.  The portraits were not meant to be about specific personalities, but rather to use the body as a mapping of space.  I was also looking at many different types of maps, including bus maps because I used to ride buses frequently to get around in Brooklyn to discover new neighborhoods, and maps of places that my family came from – like the photograph, Russian City includes an abstracted version of a map of the city center where my grandfather’s family lived.

What prompted you to start taking what appears to be random portraits of strangers during “Rush Hours”?
I often ride the subway during rush hour. Usually, there are no seats available and riders are crammed in against each other. Unfortunately, I witness many fights and disrespectful comments during this time. I thought it would be interesting to document the discomfort of being on the train during rush hour. The project became more of a documentation of the variety of characters and unique faces of NY and their territorial use of the trains.

As a current New Yorker, what are your favorite locations around the city?
The Frick MuseumThe Metropolitan Museum of Art roof, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and The Red Hook Waterfront in Brooklyn.

What songs are on your personal playlist?
A recent playlist includes:
Sex on Fire / Kings of Leon
Baby Bee / High Heel Leather boots
Come a Little Closer / Cage the Elephant
The Sweater Song / Weezer
The Immigrant Song / Led Zeppelin
Summer Dress / Red House Painters
Jet / Wings
I Love It / Icona Pop (my daughter’s favorite song)
Massachusetts / Bee Gees
Radiohead, Regina Spektor, Keith Richards’s solo – which annoys my husband, and lots of David Bowie.

What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1. I am a self-taught embroiderer.
2. I would secretly love to live in California
3. I studied French for many years and still have an awful French accent.


For more of Melissa’s work, check out her portfolio.