Portuguese American Journal

Street Art: Ana Martins cross-stitches traditions to emotions – Interview

By Millicent Accardi

Ana Martins, also known as Aheneah, is a 23 year old Lisbon artist who is quickly establishing a reputation in the art world, with her street murals made by stretching wool-yarn over nails or screws to create patterns, forms and compositions.

Her goal is to deconstruct, decontextualize and transform a traditional technique of cross-stitching, into a modern graphic, connecting cultures and generations. Her background in art and graphic design combines her style and vision along with influences from the embroidery method taught to the artist by her grandmothers.

 Aheneah is often showcased in urban art festivals and exhibitions, like WOOL, VU Lisbon, and ESTAU. She also hosts workshops. Her signature cross-stitching embroidery technique, using wool is evident across all of her art pieces, from simple cross-stitching, in the shapes of X’s, to contour line stitching.

The artist’s most recent pieces utilize the element of screws, which functions as the support and anchor points on which to weave the wool. The size and mass of Aheneah’s projects have also scaled up significantly since her earlier experimentations, which were made on poster-sized black cardboard.

Today, her public art can be seen on the streets of Portugal with such titles as ‘Switch-over,” “No glass to hold me back,” and “Semear,” pieces that are as large as 2 x 5 meters (6.5 by 16.5 feet) and use up to 700 meters (nearly 2,300 feet) of wool and 2300 screws.

Her latest project, called, “Perception” features a series of limited-edition pieces on wooden planks, which as Aheneah claims, she used to explore materials and methods to scale up traditional techniques. Now, she says, it’s time to challenge herself and merge everything that she has already experimented and bring it back to a tiny and delicate scale. Through this new challenge, Aheneah learns that “every time you look at something, it can seem different from the last time. We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are. That’s why these are never-ending pieces.”

In this interview with Millicent Accardi for the Portuguese American Journal, Ana Martins speaks of what guides her to explore and create unique artistic mediums which belong with the traditions and stories rooted in her community.

Q. You have a background in graphic design, where did you go to school? What artists did you study with?

A. I studied in Caldas da Rainha, a city in the center of Portugal which is really influenced by the energy of ESAD.cr university. In Caldas da Rainha, you find a strong artistic movement which helps students to explore mediums and start projects. It’s really curious that many old students nowadays are excellent artists/designers, who inspire me and serve a reference for new students.

Q. How do you come up with designs for your images?

A. In my work, and specifically in my street artworks, I always try to find a theme by understanding where I’m going to be working. I have to keep in mind that the piece will belong to a community, so I try to find what kind of people live there and what are their traditions and stories. Then, I try to focus on the theme that draws my attention the most, the one I think it’s more relevant for that specific purpose. Finally, somewhere as I research my personal experience and memories, I find a message that combines both and which guides my process until the end.

Q. Can you describe your process how you create a piece? Do you build a pattern by hand or on a computer? A pounce-pattern? How do you block out the image on the wall?

A. My work process is very curious. I always start working on digital software to plan everything including the final pattern. I move more quickly that way. After that it’s time to pick up the needles, threads, scissors and do the manual production. In some cases, I go back to digital to finish it. I often say that I’m always jumping from analog to digital and vice versa. When making cross-stitch walls, this is even more strange. One day I’m at home with my grandmothers preparing the wool loops, and suddenly, the next day I’m in a workshop with power tools, wood, screws, and nails.

Q. You have “murals” which look digital but are actually formed out of wool and nails (like looms). Where did you get the idea to use wool as a medium for public art?

 A. I’ve grown up seeing my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and mother sewing, knitting and embroidering together. I remember seeing them, sharing tips and magazines. It was inevitable to want to try, so I started to ask them to teach me. Somehow, I’ve always wanted to be part of that “club” and when, I joined, I found it the best way to spend my free time (while also learning something new).

However, my perspective about embroidery changed when I stumbled upon the cross-stitch. One day, while working on my graphic Design Bachelor’s degree, I saw my grandmother doing cross stitch on a kitchen cloth and it blew my mind. I quickly realized that cross stitches worked in the same way as pixels. Two similar units came to life in different generations, one very traditional, done by hand and another one which has emerged with digital evolution. As I was studying graphic design, the pixel was my work unit, it was a quick step to use the potential of cross stitch. I didn’t think twice before experimenting and taking it to another level.

Q. Your latest works, ‘perception’ (a series of limited-edition pieces on wooden planks) what was the original idea for this project? How did it come about?

A. The principal idea for this project was doing the opposite path I was doing until then. I was used to exploring materials and methods to scale up traditional techniques, it was time to challenge myself and merge everything that I’ve experimented with and bring it back to a tiny and delicate scale. Even so, our individual way to look, figure out and react to what surrounds us, keeps being the tricky part. It is a whole trip to understand how the human eye perceives an image depending on the distance, light, wool thickness, size of the nails or even a pixel 10% brighter. That is to say that every time you look at something, it can seem different from the last time.

We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are. That’s why these are never-ending pieces.

Q. You replicate the look of cross-stitching—your grandmother introduced you to embroidery. How did she teach you? What is her name? Can you share a story about her? Or a favorite piece of embroidery?

 A. My grandmothers’ names are Maria and Lurdes. Once, my grandmother, Maria showed me a cross-stitched letters sample. (my favorite traditional piece, that I keep with a lot of affection). As a graphic designer and graffiti lover, I’ve always been amazed by typography and everything made sense when I saw those traditional letters carefully hand-sewn. Maybe this was a turning point for me.

Q. Your bio says that you host art workshops. Are these art? Or embroidery? Or something else?

A. My workshops are actually a mix. I believe that you need to know the rules to be able to break them. So, first, I teach the traditional embroidery technique and then I explain how to scale it up. I choose materials, think about a concept, plan it and finally how to execute it. One of the principal goals of my workshop is to think outside the box and look at our roots as something we can transform and use to enrich our work/path.

Q. What emotions do you hope your street art evokes?

A. Never forget your roots. They will be, somehow, a way to enrich yourself and who knows if you can’t transform them in a way that nobody expected or thought before. How interesting it is to be able to connect two different generations by combining concepts and techniques coming from both.

Q. Have you reproduced embroidery you made as a child as murals or art pieces?

A. Curious! My first mural, with Nike sneakers, is a reproduction of a kitchen cloth piece that I’ve never ended!

Q. You’ve said it was important to you to present public art that is representative of digital images. Is this to get people to look up from their iPads and tablets? And interact with the real world?

A. Sure! What I like the most in my pieces is that the spectator is required to interact with the piece. You have to go close to understand the technique and materials and go far to figure out the whole piece. If you try to use the phone it is even another point of view. It’s curious to think that a technological device can complete or even change the perception you have.

What I like the most in my pieces is that the spectator is required to interact with the piece. You have to go closer to understand the technique and materials and go as far as possible to figure out the whole piece. If you try to use the phone it is even another point of view. Sometimes it’s the only way for some people to understand what is represented. It’s curious to think that a technological device can complete or even change the perception you have.

Q. I interviewed a textile artist who uses recycled fabrics and wool. Do you try to make art that is eco-friendly? Is that a concern for you?

A. Sure, it is a concern for me and nowadays should be for all of us. I proudly use wool produced in mills in the interior of my country and all threads are 100% natural.

Q. Do you dye your own wool? Forge nails?

A. No, unfortunately. My process is already too complex and lengthy to had one more layer. But it’s actually on my to-do projects list!

Q. A mural featuring a fish, is entitled, “No glass to hold me back” where did the idea of this mural germinate?

A. The location of this mural is on one side of a kindergarten building. A quick look over the kids of this kindergarten was enough to bring me old memories and feelings.

Spending hours with my nose glued to the glass of the aquarium in my classroom. I loved how that fish moved so quickly and swiftly, never accepting those glass walls as a limitation. Just like the children and all the process of growth.

Q. Do you work in other mediums?

A. For now, I’m focused on exploring this technique and all the possibilities of this medium.

Q. Do you listen to music while you create art? Name a favorite song?

A. Also curious! I love to work in complete silence just listening to random sound of daily life.

Q. Do you consider your artwork more pictorial or sculptural? Or something else?

A. With no doubts, more sculptural. I love the tridimensional side of it. The fact that has many points of view and different shadows depending on the sun. I can play with textures, depth, and structures and the viewer has much more to absorb and interact with it.

Q. How many hours does one mural take you to create?

A. It depends from project to project. For example, “Immérge” in Bayonne took 60 hours with five people working at the same time! Excluding the phase of sketching, planning and the pre-preparation of the wool that I always do in my studio with the precious help of my grandmothers.

Q. What inspires and influences you?

A. I find inspiration and ideas in daily things, memories, new experiences or conversations.

Following good magazines, blogs and creatives also helps me to keep up to date with what is being done and keep pushing further. Sometimes, searching for new techniques or materials leads me to discover new graphic solutions or new concepts. When working specifically on my street artwork, I always try to first understand where I’m going to be working, what kind of people live there and what are their traditions and histories. It’s also a way to experiment with things that I would never have other way.

Q. How important is it to you to carry on family traditions? In a new way?

A. Some years ago, in Portugal, women used to stay at home, taking care of their children, cooking, cleaning and doing other homework tasks. Embroidery was one of those skills all women needed to have. The “club” in my family was not only based on a specific interest for embroidery but mostly because of tradition and cultural heritage. Taking the skill off from that scenario, deconstructing misconceptions and showing how precious and interesting this embroidery technique, it is a big mission. Keeping my roots and connection to different generations is always my principal goal.

Q. Do you do regular embroidery?

A. I wish I had more time to do it in the traditional way but, still, I have some spare time to play with it and forget about the “professional” side!

Q. What can we do to foster artistic and cultural exchanges between Portugal and the US?

A. In Portugal, there’s an urgency to invest in culture, communicate and boost the projects and artists as they deserve. More online platforms with a critical and thought-provoking vision would help the artistic area to grow. Projects that promote the exchange or collaboration between artists from these two locations would also be an advantage.

Q. Has your work been displayed in the United States? Any future shows planned?

A. Not yet. Maybe in the future!

Learn more about Ana Martins and her art installation @ Aheneah.


Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and SOPAS, Special Congressional Recognition for poetry in the California Portuguese community.  Her new work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, Another Chicago Magazine and Laurel Review.  Find her on Instagram and Twitter @TopangaHippie

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