You’re probably familiar with Chicagoan Shannon Downey’s work—you just might not know her name. “It’s funny because so many people have no idea who I am,” says Downey. “But they know Badass Cross Stitch.”
Downey says her work at Badass Cross Stitch is “craftivism,” embroidered art with a political message. Her “Boys Will Be Boys” design, created in response to the now infamous Access Hollywood tape with President Trump, went viral and has been shared by celebrities like Rose McGowan, Emily Ratajkowski, Tracee Ellis Ross, Zoë Kravitz, and more. But Downey says her favorite cross-stitch is actually the work she created for the Women’s March in Chicago this past January, which reads, “I’m so angry. I stitched this just so I could stab something 3,000 times.”
Here, Downey reflects on her viral (and highly giftable) art from the past year, shares her love for Chicago and tells us what’s next for Badass Cross-Stich in 2018.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Badass Cross Stitch.
It started three years ago, and I’m an activist and a feminist so naturally my world always landed there. But then, with this election, it sort of became exclusively about feminism and politics and rage and anger, and that’s how it turned into what it is now.
What were some of the most interesting events to stitch about this year?
The Women’s March was my favorite stitch I’ve ever done and personally, it was something I very much did for Chicago. I very intentionally wanted to stay in Chicago to march. This is my home, and these are my people. But the most interesting events are not necessarily the most popular ones. When I stitched the "Boys Will Be Boys" piece, I had some traction, but not nearly as much as when the celebrities started to pick it up after the Harvey Weinstein scandal. When that happened, it took over my life for a month.
How did it take over?
It was being used as the visual to go along with so many women’s narratives. They were finally able to tell their stories about the awful things that happened to them. I was so humbled people were using my image and tagging me in it, so I had to respond to as many as I could. There were probably hundreds of thousands of them. It was an interesting turn I didn’t see that piece taking—not that you ever see anything like that coming. The thing is, being able to laugh about some of this right now, turning these awful things into shared memes and jokes, it’s so powerful because the tables are turning and now we can.
Why do you think these pieces went viral in the way they did?
It’s an unexpected medium for the message I’m putting out there, and it’s also the right time, the right platform, and the right moment. I was agonizing over what I was going to stitch about for the Women’s March. I had about 50 messages written down, and each one was too specific. I’m just fucking angry, and that was what came out of it.
A lot of times I’m not trying to make these things pretty; I want you to see the rage in my work. The "Boys Will Be Boys" piece is the worst thing I’ve ever stitched – technically speaking. It was taking something everybody hears over and over and over again and saying, "No, that’s not OK anymore."
How does being in Chicago affect your art?
Everything about being in Chicago affects me. I’ve been here 12 years now, and I’m obsessed with the city. I love it. I don’t think any of these paths would have happened for me had it not been for Chicago—the spirit of the city and even the challenges of the city.
My gun violence craftivism project was because I was here and because the gun violence here matters so deeply to me and is so pervasive. But it seems so surmountable if we really want it to be. What’s so interesting is I started that project as a very Chicago project, but it then opened up to the world. Basically, I invited anyone to stitch a gun and send it to me. I started to receive these incredible pieces of art from all over the world and ended up getting 200 in fewer than six months. I put on a gallery show with Project FIRE, and we sold every piece of art and raised over $5,000. It expanded the idea that this is not just a Chicago problem and a Chicago project, even though at the beginning it absolutely was.
Any exciting plans in the works for 2018?
Hell yeah. I’m working on a book about craftivism and in January, we’re going to launch another global project. I’m bouncing off the walls every day in anticipation. I’m really hoping hundreds of thousands of people will participate. It’s going to be epic.