“Sew What?” a Q&A with Justine Mainville
A self-described “dabbler,” Justine Mainville is one of the most versatile artists to call the Mercantile Block home. By day, she runs “crazy industrial embroidery machines” at the Gob Shop, a screenprinting and custom embroidery shop specializing in sporting equipment. By night, she takes the stage with her fiancé and bandmate, Kevin Steinhauser, as electronic duo Math the Band. Onstage, Justine’s energy is boundless. She’s “in [her] own world” as she writhes gleefully along with the music, occasionally coming out of her reverie to brandish a smile or silly face for the audience. “I’m playing keyboards with one hand, drums with the other, and there’s merch out the back of my head,” Justine told me, admitting that she could use a few extra limbs. A few extra hours in the day might also be nice—amidst all this madness, Justine finds time to hand- and machine-embroider her own creative projects. These pieces perform a pleasantly irreverent mash-up of ‘90s youth culture and the ‘60s religious sensibility that Justine encountered growing up with her Catholic grandparents in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In a piece called “The Golden Rule,” for example, Justine updates a classic Christian axiom to reflect the lingo of her childhood: “Do unto others COOL THINGS,” the piece reads, its message rendered in playful, Nickelodeon-inspired orange and blue bubble letters. A collection of Justine’s whimsical sewn art is currently on display at the Resident Gallery—which just happens to double as the entryway to Justine’s Mercantile Block residence. We sat down with Justine in the AS220 Archives to talk about whether it’s weird to see her artwork hanging in the entryway of her own apartment building, the difference between “art” and “craft,” and what it’s like to put together an environmentally friendly show…
You live in the Mercantile Block, which is the same building where your art is displayed, and you also play a lot of concerts at 115 Empire. How does exhibiting at AS220 compare to some of the other ways you’ve been involved with the organization?
To a point, it’s very similar in that you promote an art exhibit through the same channels that you would be promoting a concert. It’s also the same kind of experience of putting your art out there—you feel very exposed. But that vulnerability plays out differently. When you’re onstage, you don’t really hear what people are saying about you and your art. Like, I’m out of it onstage. I am in my own world. But when I went to the art opening, I was very much aware of how people were reacting to my work.
Were all of these conversations just happening around you, or did people confront you directly with their opinions about your work?
A little bit of both… My show’s pretty playful—or fun, I think; I hope! It’s a little sad, but it’s mostly funny. I didn’t feel like that many people had too far away of an experience from what I expected or intended, or even from the experience I had while making the pieces. So it was interesting to see people react and really understand what I was saying with some of the pieces.
Can you talk about a memorable conversation you had with someone as a result of the show?
Yeah, I have one piece called “The Golden Rule,” which says, “Do unto others COOL THINGS.” The piece is a reaction to growing up in a Catholic household while also watching Nickelodeon and getting messages from everywhere. When you’re a kid, that’s just how it is—you watch commercials; you watch TV; and you take little bits and pieces from everywhere to create your identity. Some people really connected to that idea, and there’s actually a fellow in Vermont who wants me to make a much larger version of “The Golden Rule.” It was really interesting to talk with him about what seeing a positive message [like “Do unto others COOL THINGS”] every day would make you think and how that might affect your actions.
What about your friends and neighbors who attended the opening—how did they respond?
After going to my show, a lot of my friends who didn’t know much about my upbringing learned a little bit more about where I came from. And they got to meet my family. I also got to meet a lot of people I didn’t know—and who I wouldn’t normally interact with. I’m not usually a visual artist, so I meet a lot of performers and a lot of people who like to go to rock shows. It’s a different crowd from people who go to galleries and art openings. Through doing this show, I feel as if I got to connect with a new group of people, and to connect with those people in a different way than I usually would as a performer. The show was very personal in that way. I felt like my heart was on the outside of me.
It sounds like you put a lot of yourself and your background into this show, so both friends and strangers got to know more about you as a person through your art. Can you talk about your upbringing, and how your background has informed the art you create?
I grew up in Amesbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts, which are both little seaside towns on the border of New Hampshire. Since both of my parents worked, a lot of my youth was spent at my grandparents’ house, and it was a great place to grow up. The house is very 1960’s/1970’s, and my grandparents are both very old-school Irish Catholics. It was especially interesting growing up with grandparents, because they were one more generation disconnected from me as I was experiencing all of these things that a normal kid of my generation would experience, like watching TV and eating sugar cereal, or going to the movies and playing sports. So my childhood was a strange mash-up of all these different experiences, and my show really tries to capture that feeling. It’s kind of a collage of all these weird little pieces that make up my self.
I also grew up with very Irish Catholic grandparents, and some of my most vivid visual memories are of all the cross-stitched and embroidered samplers that my grandmother used to decorate her house. Your work strikes me as a kind of tongue-in-cheek revision of those samplers.
Well, the things on the walls [at my grandparents’ house] were crazy. Of course, there were a lot of pieces with religious-based quotes, like either prayers or sayings. You know, “love is family,” or “love is patient,” or “love is kind.” But then every once in awhile you would see something hilarious. Like, for instance, my grandmother had this one that said, “Cats are little people in fur coats.” I’m like, where did that come from? She didn’t get that from the Bible. And I have a piece called “Nana,” which says “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” That was the exclamation my grandmother would use when she was upset or surprised or flustered. And I really found it hysterical that this super Catholic old woman would be running around the house after a bunch of children repeating that phrase.
Was it your grandmother who taught you how to sew?
I guess the first person who sewed in front of me was my grandmother, and that was definitely a link between the two of us. She had this beautiful, hundred-year-old Singer sewing machine. It was crazy looking. These days, sewing machines are still dangerous, but they’re made so that little kids can’t stick their fingers in them. With my grandmother’s sewing machine, that was not the case. I wasn’t allowed to use it. But she still encouraged me to sew. Like, she would give me a needle and thread and some buttons, and I would make little clothes for my Beanie Babies.
So even as a kid, your sewing was already straddling the line between two different generations. Is expressing that disjuncture sort of “the point” of your show?
I’d say the point of my show is to marry a little bit of my upbringing with a little bit of the world around me, and to show how a marriage of those two sets of experiences helps shape your values system and ultimately your identity.
Some of the pieces in your show are strictly hand-sewn, while others are made on the machine. How does the dichotomy between hand- and machine-sewing play into that message?
As a kid, you get certain messages from the people close to you that are handmade for you, which are imperfect but they’re still a message made especially for you. Those feel like my hand-sewn messages. And then there are these other messages that you get from other places that are not tailored specifically for you. They’re mass-produced, and everybody is getting the same ones. Like, everybody remembers Ren and Stempy; everyone remembers watching Rugrats. That’s kind of what my machine embroidered pieces remind me of. Everybody gets those messages the same way, whereas the little things your parents or grandparents did with you are like these little messages that are hand-packaged specifically for you and your family.
How did your family respond to seeing those personal messages reflected in your show?
Everyone’s reactions, but my family’s reactions especially, have been very nostalgic. My grandfather passed away about ten years ago and my grandmother is still alive, but she has dementia. So I feel like the memory of her is fading, and I’m trying my best to preserve that for myself and for my family—in part, through my artwork.
Your upbringing and childhood experiences have clearly been a huge creative influence for you—what other aspects of your life have had a similar impact on your art?
Well, I work in an embroidery shop in Warren, Rhode Island, where I run these crazy industrial embroidery machines. It’s a sports store and screenprinting place that also has an embroidery section. I’ve been working there two-and-a-half years… But I still mostly hand-sew! When I’m doing things that aren’t at my work, I just sit around and hand-sew. I’m actually not good at using a sewing machine at all—like, I think I’m terrible at it! It’s funny because these huge embroidery machines don’t scare me, but my little Necchi sewing machine does!
Can you weigh in on the difference between “art” and “craft”? Do you identify as either an “artist” or a “crafter,” and do you see any value to this distinction?
Well, I do tend to connect more with people who identify as crafters, because I don’t paint; I don’t draw; instead, I sew and collage and do things typically labeled as “craft.” But I don’t think that makes me less of an “artist”—it’s just that I happen to connect with certain materials more than others as a means of expressing my ideas. I feel as if most people’s method of distinguishing between art and craft is to identify whether a piece has function. But really, I think the function of a piece is completely determined by the person who owns it—after their shows, artists don’t get to choose whether someone will hang their pieces on the wall or put them to use. Besides, when I sew little dolls or other things that could be considered functional, I’m still expressing an idea and trying to make something that I think is beautiful, regardless of whether someone is going to play with it or put it on a shelf. So I do proudly wear my crafter pin all the time, but I also find this division between “art” and “craft” frustrating and a little bit problematic.
Did your opinions about “craft” as a misnomer play any role in your creative process putting together this show?
I thought about that when I was writing my artist’s statement, actually. Do I address the fact that these are “crafty” things and not a more conventional “art” form? But then I realized, why would I do that? The work was going to hang on a wall in an art show, so I didn’t want to give people a disclaimer that basically implied, “This is NOT ART.” Because I believe the definition of art is fluid; it can contain many things.
Do you ever wonder what happens to your pieces go after they get sold? Since your work is so personal, is it strange for you to imagine these pieces becoming a part of someone else’s life?
I think about that a lot. I sell a lot of things on Etsy, and I like that there’s a function that when someone gives you feedback they can send you an appreciation photo. So you can see the piece displayed in the recipient’s home, or being given as a gift. I really enjoyed seeing, for instance, a big banner that I made hanging in someone’s house with her cat in front of it. I like knowing that she’ll see it there everyday. I hope all my pieces end up like that—with a nice, happy life and a friend.
What has been your experience selling your work on Etsy?
Because I straddle the line between performer/musician and artist/crafter, I see the good and bad of Etsy. I’ve had a good experience, because it has enabled me to connect with people all around the country and even the world. I’ve sold some pieces to customers in New Zealand and Australia. It’s also a great way for other artists who live in Providence to connect online and show their friends’ work off. My neighbors, April and Rich, sell things on Etsy and that’s really their livelihood. It’s become their job. It’s great that we can support each other that way—by favoriting each other’s shops and stuff like that.
How would you say that the community from an online art forum is different from the gallery community you experienced through this show?
I feel like the gallery community was made up of people I had invited and also people who just go every month—people who go downtown and kind of wander from gallery to gallery. Whereas I feel like people online are definitely looking for something, and they know kind of what they’re looking for. And the community there is a little disconnected, unless you’re really passionate about someone else’s art or type of art. It’s a little difficult to find each other, just because there’s so much. Whereas Providence is really a town where people wander around and find each other, and walk to find each other. I came here for the college and stayed for Providence.
What is your Providence story?
I was going to Fitchburg State, and I was miserable. It wasn’t the right school for me; it wasn’t the right environment. My friend went to Johnson & Wales, and I had come down here to go to a concert and visit her. I had only been twice—like, I hadn’t been here a lot and I really didn’t do much at all while I was here. But I just had a good feeling about it. So I applied to Rhode Island College, and I went there. I connected with some people, but I didn’t really find my footing in town until I got involved with AS220 and when the band started gaining traction. That’s when I started to think, this is a good place for me. This is where I should be. We went to Foo Fest in 2010, and we found out that AS220 was building the Mercantile Block apartments. So we thought, why not? Let’s just apply. It worked out, we moved in, and we’ve been here ever since.
Does “we” refer to you and your bandmate? How did you become a part of Math the Band?
Well, my bandmate, Kevin Steinhauser, is also my fiancé! Kevin and I have been dating for seven years, and he was doing Math the Band long before me. I was just going to all the shows and being supportive. When he wanted to put together a band, I was like, “I’ll learn whatever!” Five years later, I’m playing keyboards with one hand, drums with the other, and there’s merch out the back of my head. Since it’s only the two of us, we could really use some extra arms.
How does your music inform your art-making process?
I’m not sure if the actual music does, but the touring experience is definitely influential. Seeing different parts of the country—and, in some cases, different parts of the world—changes your perspective. I get to go to all of these tiny towns and big cities all over. So I see what other artists are doing; I see what kids are wearing in these different places; I get to connect to people I don’t see every day. I definitely find that really inspiring. I think that the best part of playing shows is connecting. You’re not on your computer at home—you’re in a room with, in most cases, hundreds of other people. Whenever I go to a concert, I always end up meeting someone new, or shouting with a bunch of people, or even just holding hands with another person. Even as a performer, I love looking out into the crowd and seeing people excited or getting a hug after a show.
What are some of the coolest places you’ve visited on tour?
We toured four months with Wheatus in just the UK, and I really loved it there: all the castles, all the ruins. It was shocking, as an American, to see people picnicking on ruins in the middle of a park or in a castle. And to see how that’s not a big deal, whereas anything historical in the United States is behind a gate and you can’t touch it. And most of these things in the US are only a few hundred years old, whereas in the UK 2,000-year-old sarcophaguses are just in the middle of a park and you can go up and sit on them. That was really shocking to me. But it’s also really interesting and kind of helps me realize why Americans don’t do well in history—because we don’t get to connect with ours.
Did you play any castle shows?
I wish! We did play on Mathewson Street in Liverpool, which is where the Beatles played a lot of their first shows.
And Mathewson Street is also the location of AS220’s main office in Providence!
Exactly! We felt so at home! We also played some shows in old mill buildings. But generally it was pubs and bars and things that are typically show spaces. A few of those may have been converted buildings, but it was kind of difficult to gauge because everything looks really old over there!
“New Work” is a green show—can you talk a little about what that means?
Every material in my show, with the exception of the electrical components in the lamp, is either recycled, bought secondhand from a thrift store, or resourced from other projects/people. There’s nothing in any piece that is mass-produced or polluting the environment.
What was the process of finding the materials like?
I’m a crafter, so my whole house is filled with materials. I’ll buy things at thrift stores and put them aside to use in the future, and people will give things to me. I didn’t have to buy anything specifically for this show, with the exception of the lightbulb for the lamp. I didn’t really put any emphasis on the buying part of the process. But a lot of the materials did come to me with their own stories. For example, we have a free bin in the Mercantile Building. I was going through the free bin, and I found this shrunken grey sweater. It was so tiny, but it was clearly an adult sweater. And I was like, “I really love that grey color. I’m going to bring this back to my apartment and use it to sew.” Because it was wintertime, I kept the sleeves intact as I was working on the piece, so I could stick my hands inside to keep warm. And one day, as I was working on it, my neighbor April was over, and she asked if I got the sweater from the free bin. Apparently, that sweater was like a cat with nine lives. It had come from Small Point Café’s lost and found bin, to her house, to this guy who wanted to take it home and make arm warmers out of it, to the free bin, all the way to my apartment, where it was sewn into “The Fisherman”! So it was kind of funny to find out where some of these materials came from.
All your materials arrived with their own stories, and then by turning them into art, you’ve added your own stories to the mix. What kinds of messages do you hope people will take away from your stories?
I have a banner called “I Love You,” which I think is the largest piece in my show, and I think seeing positive messages like that every day can really affect anyone, but a child especially. When you grow up in a house full of positive literal messages, even if they’re prayers or if you don’t directly connect with them, it still affects your upbringing and value system in a positive way. I’m definitely not a religious person anymore, but the messages that my grandparents gave me about religion have made me try to be good and kind to people. “I love you” and “Be good to each other”—those are really the most important message that I’ve taken from my religious upbringing.
Be sure to check out Justine’s show, “New Work,” in the Resident Gallery at 131 Washington Street sometime this month!
She’ll also be taking over the Performance Space at 115 Empire on Wednesday, August 7, in a concert featuring Math the Band alongside their UK touring partners Wheatus.
Interview by Caitlin Kennedy, communications intern at AS220; contact her at email@example.com