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The Magic and Mystery of Amber Mustafic’s Embroidery Work

Amber Mustafic Ascension 2.0, 2021 Hand embroidery on cotton 4" diameter

I came across Amber’s work on Instagram and fell in love immediately. I am a sucker for stitching work and her imagery really grabbed me. So lovely and haunting. 

By way of a little background, Amber is a first generation Albanian-American and decorative and functional textiles have always been in the background of her life. She grew up surrounded by crocheted doilies, embroidered tablecloths, cross-stitch artwork, and delicately woven towels handmade by her mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers.  

I was delighted when she said yes to this Q & A and am so pleased to share it with you.  

You were originally trained as a painter, which you can clearly see in the embroidered pieces. She paints with thread” is a familiar refrain when people view your work in the gallery.  What prompted your transition from painting to embroidery?

A funny story actually! I have dabbled in embroidery here and there for years, never fully delving into it though. I was always very attached to the idea of being a painter. I guess it helped ease some imposter syndrome and made me feel like a “real artist.” In the winter of 2020, I was offered an artist fellowship at my alma mater Colorado College. I had a beautiful studio on campus with a magical view of the mountains. I was beginning a series of large oil paintings (like 4ft x 4ft canvases) when COVID hit, and I had to vacate campus and work from home. My home at the time had no space for me to safely work with oil paints and mineral spirits, and luckily, I had a kit of embroidery materials. I started a much more home-friendly medium (that I enjoy way more than painting)!

The works hold an interesting combination of mystery, mysticism, and romance with an occasional cheeky wink rendered in the embroidered text. Can you elaborate on your choice of imagery and text?

My work often begins with text and the imagery follows afterwards. Even if a piece doesn’t have any text, it was probably inspired by a stream of thought. I’m often furiously writing down little poems and stories in my notes app. Sometimes I’m about to fall asleep and a random, poetic string of words comes into my head and I have to quickly pick up my phone and write it down or else I will definitely forget it. The imagery I create revolves around themes that I have always been fascinated by — nature, magic, and love. It’s just what naturally comes out of me.

Is there an element of storytelling in the work?

Yes. My art is one of my main outlets for my feelings. In each piece, I am emotionally processing the events in my life. My deepest pains, highest euphorias, hopes and dreams, confusions and crises. A lot of it is about heartbreak, honestly. And not just romantic heartbreak; all the kinds of heartbreak that life hands you. I find making things about my heartbreak to be very cathartic and something that everyone relates to on some level. 

There’s something old world about the pieces. Does the work allude to at your maternal ancestry? Is there an aspect of homage?

Yes, definitely! I am the first woman in my family to graduate from high school and college. My mom and grandmothers and great-grandmothers on both sides of my family are very skilled seamstresses and textile-workers. However, I grew up without much appreciation for their gorgeous, labor-intensive textiles that surrounded me because they were so commonplace. It was never regarded as art, it was women’s work, it was duty, it was Albanian tradition. My mom spent all of her long winters as a young girl cross-stitching and crocheting and embroidering. My grandmother was constantly knitting and sewing. It was never something they pushed on me though. Growing up in the U.S., I was supposed to focus on school, grades, jobs and such. I was never taught any of those skills. Because I naturally found my way to textiles with no push from my family, I truly believe that this work is in my DNA. It feels so natural to work with thread and fabric and it’s all I ever want to do. 

Eyes and flowers – how did that pairing become the thrust of your subject matter?

I have always combined portraiture with the natural world, ever since I can remember. I honestly don’t conceptualize it very much. I’m just naturally inclined to that subject matter. I feel spiritually connected to nature and spent most of my time outside as a kid, talking to trees and bugs and such. I find eyes incredibly beautiful and captivating, and same with plants. They both feel like the truth to me, the essence of humans and the essence of the natural world.

I find stitching exceptionally satisfying and would assume it’s the same for you. There’s something quaintly reassuring about it. What is your favorite part about making the works?

Definitely those final stitches. That last hour or so of stitching where everything has finally come together. It’s the part of my process where I have the most fun, adding extra splashes of color, extra highlights, and shadows, etcetera.

What’s something about you or your work that no one would know by looking but is essential to your practice?

I would say my own spiritual journey is the core of my practice. I’m never really making things purely for the aesthetic. I am on a path towards greater compassion, self-awareness, and slowing down. I didn’t take the greatest care of myself from around age 16 to 22. I prioritized the wrong things, partied and drank a lot, and engaged in relationships that did not serve me. I was very out of tune with who I truly am and what I deeply enjoy. My ability to sit down and create art is largely due to the new ways that I take care of myself. And I don’t mean bubble baths and stuff, I mean sitting through negative emotions, being honest about my feelings, and not engaging in destructive behaviors even though they’re socially accepted. My art is part of an overall reclamation of my true self. 

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