Ashley Gibbons creates fabric art pieces that are soft and beautiful, yet arresting and provocative, a duality she makes use of deftly both to deliver us to a safe female space and get us thinking about the profound magnitude of feminine power. Her embroidered women are iconic, bold, complex, sexy as hell – and on top of it all, they’ve got a sense of humor. The same could be said of her “Action Panties” pieces which bring to mind Jackson Pollock’s wild expression, but use a distinct feminine medium – panties. And where does she get them? From all over, she says. She prefers to use panties previously worn by women, but sometimes she needs to buy them herself. I sat down with her recently to ask her about her art, her philosophy, and what makes her pieces so sexy.
Your “Panties” pieces are so beautiful and provocative. You say you build “soft space in fabric to create a hard dialogue” – what do you mean by that?
I like to work in what seems like polarities – hard and soft, parts and whole, feminine and feminist, sensual and embroidery. With the panty pieces, I have a wood canvas that is covered with metal protrusions of screws, and then I cover them in the softest material – lingerie – which is both actually very soft and also metaphorically the inherent soft spot of womxn. So creating a soft space with fabrics, that people can relate to – panties, lingerie, thread, embroidery – allows a low-barrier entry into more difficult conversations for some people, which in my context is sex, sensual, womxn roles, layered experiences, fem experience.
I call these pieces “Action Panties” to relate back to Jackson Pollock, and his very masculine style of painting. This series is a kind of fem response – using fabric not paint, stretching the triangular panty which is metaphoric of the vagina, lingerie covering the screws. I have this vision of covering the world in these kinds of fabrics as a way of bringing, showing, sharing, and revealing the feminine, and her beauty, power, healing, creation.
How personal is your work? How has the reaction been to your work by women and men? Are the reactions different?
I think at the heart of what I do is show my perspective of the most fem, soft, healing, sensual, energetic vision of the world. When I was young, my mom’s drawers were this space for me. Silk and satin fabrics, jewelry hidden among them, perfumed. I used to dream and dress-up in these drawers with a vision of feminine power. And so now I dream in panties, lingerie, fabric, and embroidery. All this material is for me the source of beauty, fem, uplifting, dreamy, and an alternate world.
My work comes from the most personal place. Each piece is like birthing a piece of me. I have my stories, my perplexes, my questions, my struggles, and my love in each decision of every piece. And each decision has to be answered by only me, so I constantly question myself and my “why” – why are you interested in this, what does this mean, what are these symbols. I am creating a trail of Hansel and Gretel crumbs for myself – eventually, I will be able to follow these clues, these pieces, these decisions back to my whole self, my whole truth.
As for the reactions of men and women, they run the gamut of course, and yes there are some differences but not as much as one might expect. Currently, more men own my work than womxn which interests me. I think men resonate with the fem beauty expression too. I think they feel the passion, beauty, and uniqueness of embroidery. I think women see their stories and selves in the work. I think men feel the inspiration, power, beauty. But I don’t know, this is just my interpretation.
How does sexuality configure into your work?
Sexuality is important in my work and in my life. In my work, I use sex and nakedness to connote truth, vulnerability, bare, enticing. I also investigate sex as part of the womxn experience, in particular, the roles of womxn as provider, provocateur, nurturer, complacent, and powerful. And when society is built on shame, I see that the individual then segments themselves, and we can become isolated parts of a whole person. It’s really a struggle to realize and accept yourself as a sexual being, equally as a nurturer, equally as a learner, equally as all parts that comprise the whole. So freeing myself through my work, which is freeing the womxn in my work, feels like the most natural way to celebrate and connect with our inherent sexual power and freedom. And to me, that is resistance, it’s the witch, it’s the goddess, it’s our inherent nature if we want it. It’s my choice.
Also, in art history, the woman’s body has been the object, painted and investigated by men. So for me, I am both artist and object and subject. I am declaring my story. My body, my perspective, my skills are owned by me and tend to my desires without question or approval.
And womxn are beautiful. The body is beautiful. The fem is beautiful. I love to be immersed in this energy and I want to share in this vision with others.
You do embroidery as well – what is the allure of using fabric as a medium?
Fabric is historically the womxn’s world. And art made with fabric has been relegated to craft, folk, utility, and not as “important” as the masculine paint. So choosing to work in textile and fabric and fiber is a conscious choice to resist this narrative.
Embroidery is historically womxn’s work, and I investigate womxn’s work. Mixing this gentle, slow, quiet technique with sex, sensual, nakedness begins a dialogue about roles, work, polarities. It’s the opposing perceptions that open space for inquiry. Like the panties that are stretched and contorted out of function, to be displayed like artifice or trophy or inquiry or decor. Bringing these polarities together allows for pondering the meaning of each, and your reaction to each. Are you reacting to the naked woman or the naked woman who is embroidered because now you think of your grandmother?
Embroidery is also a transformation of the actual material. It’s like braiding in a new truth, a new inherent material in the fabric. The image becomes part of the fabric. And yet also stands out against it. This is a metaphor for me about truth, experience, perspective. The braiding and weaving of thread create a new textile that holds the previous knowledge (the fabric) and then together builds a new intertwined story. Embroidery is our interconnectedness, our intertwining.
Also, fabric is so beautiful to me. It speaks to my mother and grandmothers. I have a deep relationship with fabric, sewing, adornment, embroidery, dress up, quilts, lingerie, textiles, and fiber.
Where have you been showing your work, and where can people buy it?
I just had a solo show in San Diego at CM Curatorial in January. Folks can check out my IG with photos from the show and the pieces at @missashleygibbons and my website is a great place to see and buy my work and drop me a note to see more.