Craftivism with Embroidery: Ciara LeRoy

Meet brilliant craftivist Ciara Leroy as part of our October 2020 series profiling makers and stories which celebrate craft heritage for Black History Month

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Ciara LeRoy’s creativity is boundless. The Kentucky-based artist and designer has attracted a steady following for her vibrant stitched typography, but she’s also a painter, a lettering artist, fashion upcycler and a huge nail art fan. She’s guaranteed to inspire, regularly invokes a smile, and more often than not, she’ll also make you think.

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Ciara didn’t actually start embroidering until a few years ago. “I wanted to translate my lettering into a new medium,” she says. “Something more dynamic, tactile and fine art focused. One of my closest friends, artist Felice Salmon, taught me several stitches and techniques, and off I went. I’ve been sharpening my embroidery skills ever since and exploring more complex techniques.”

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Since then, her style has become “more refined.” Having started out with a painterly, organic approach, she’s now invested in her embroidery being clean, crisp and tidy. With a focus on colour interaction, each piece is a study in colour theory and nothing brings Ciara more joy than exploring unexpected colour combinations at play. Maybe this stems from her childhood, crafting at her grandmother’s house. “A rainbow of yarn. Crochet needles. An unlimited supply of snacks and candy I wasn’t allowed to eat at home,” Ciara recalls. “My earliest memories of working with fibre are days spent crocheting big cosy blankets with my Grandmommy. My grandmother is still with us at 93, and my sister and I still use the brightly coloured crochet blankets she wove.”

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Ciara’s grandmother also taught her how to make small felt crafts, like magnets and ornaments, with simple embroideries on them, all a foundation for a fondness of stitching. Her first creative love, however, is painting. “I’ve been painting for a long time,” says Ciara. “These days, I like to paint abstract and lettering-focused pieces. The impact of a huge canvas with words on it never gets old to me. One of my favourite painting exercises is finding a thrift store piece and altering it with my own message and artwork.”

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One of Ciara’s proudest moments recently was creating a very important message indeed.
“A couple months ago, after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I embroidered a piece about the cycle of outrage and how fleeting the world’s concern with black lives is,” says Ciara. “It only takes the changing of the news cycle for people to go back to their normal lives and forget about the oppression of black people. So I made that piece out of anger, frustration and finally hope. I hoped that by confronting folks with the cycle, that they would be more intentional about breaking it and actively working toward a more just and equitable world for all people.” The piece went viral and her business exploded, with an outpouring of support. “I’ve been using my work to call attention to social issues and explore deeper themes for a long time,” she says. “But it felt good to receive a broader form of validation and recognition.”

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Ciara has been hosting art and activism events, particularly in response to gun violence in the USA, since the mass shooting in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio in 2019. “I knew I had to become a more active part of creating change around this issue,” she says. “When tragedy hits, a lot of folks wonder what they can do. So I decided to provide an answer to that question via stitching events. I invited folks to come write letters to their elected officials and stitch protest embroideries to send along with the letters.” 

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Craft is art for Ciara, exploring deeper ideas than something merely pleasing to look at. She strives to ask big questions and initiate deep conversations through her work. “My definition of art? Art is the truth,” she says. “The difference between art and craft is that one has something to say and the other is solely for decor or utility. There is definitely overlap between art and craft, though,” she concedes. “Art tells the truth by challenging the status quo, exploring deep themes and societal patterns, and preserving culture. A door wreath made of clothes pins, even if it is well made and beautiful, isn’t exploring the truth – it is decorating only, and there is nothing wrong with that, I just wouldn’t call it art. Art has a deeper concept behind the aesthetics.”

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It’s this consideration that makes Ciara’s work so compelling. Even her nail art series, the ‘Mani Museum’ is a homage to famous, and not so famous, works of art on “ten tiny canvases” – it’s a genius play on the idea of gallery pieces and what’s worthy of awe or reverence. She is the kind of artist who will dream about a having a beard made of embroidery floss and then actually make it and use it as a face covering in our new Covid-19 world. Pretty Strange Design? Yes – yet also pretty brilliant. 

See Ciara’s work and blog at www.prettystrange.design, and check her out on Instagram @prettystrangedesign and Facebook www.facebook.com/prettystrangedesign

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Photo portrait credit © sarah dunn photo & design, all other images © Ciara LeRoy