It’s a damp Wednesday afternoon in Pincushion, a cozy maker space tucked between a flower shop and a restaurant specializing in British pasty in the Las Vegas Arts District off Charleston Boulevard and Main Street. I’m ragged-voiced from having taught Thousand and One Nights to a classroom of UNLV sophomores, showing them how that collection—a patchwork of tales from across the Middle East and India—stitches one story on top of another until a dazzling whole can be viewed.
“Amanda Browder,” I croak to the person pinning stitch lines into an array of what looks to be multi-colored quilted curtains and woven-top linens.
“Yes,” she says, smiling. “You must be the writer.”
I write, sure, but my job is teaching literature, a figurative and cerebral endeavor with absolutely zero danger of needle-threading your fingers to hunks of cloth. Before I can ask Browder a question, she has me sit before a sewing machine and, in literal tribute to Nights, fuse swaths of dissimilar fabric as part of what will become The Land of Hidden Gems, an installation that relies on recycled and donated materials. Designed by Browder — a Brooklyn artist on campus through April and the UNLV art department’s inaugural Transformation Fellow — Gems is a project designed to unite the UNLV community and the larger Las Vegas area.
To seamlessly join them together, as it were.
Amanda shows me how to thread the needle and lower the presser foot of my Reliable MSK-8900M. She’s a kind and patient sewing-workshop leader; her excitement is infectious.
“I’m excited to be here [at Pinchusion], an artist-run space created by people who support the practice of sewing in all its forms,” says Amanda, showing me where to slice the thread against the mounted cutter. “I like working with different groups in the city, because then it becomes a collaboration between the university and other parts of town. A project like this one encourages students and faculty to visit somewhere they might not have been, and it encourages people from around the Valley to go to UNLV to see an installation they helped create.”
Foot on the pedal controlling the speed of the needle, I’m off and stitching. Carefully, I remove a pin with every few inches of progress. Still, I’m too eager. In minutes, I’ve bunched up the fabric — donated by people from all over Las Vegas — against the machine arm and comically sewn one end on top of the other, grinding things to a halt. Time to start undoing my errant stitches with a scissor blade.
Across from me, Holly, a fiber-based artist pursuing her master of fine arts at UNLV, fares no better, breaking a needle against a pin.
“I’ve only sewn a handful of times when I was younger,” she says, searching for a replacement needle. “I love how [Amanda] gets us right into it. She teaches people how to quickly be comfortable with the machine.”
Before settling into Pincushion, I spoke with my downtown neighbors whose children attend Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, a magnet high school in a historic downtown building constructed in 1931. Amanda was there earlier in the day, encouraging student musicians, dancers, thespians, and artists to take turns behind sewing machines. The parents related to me that their kids had a blast. So did Browder.
“The LVA students are wonderful,” she confirms. “Within an hour, they were all sewing away. I don’t ask them to be particular with their stitching. They have freedom to play, freedom to make mistakes.
“I believe that’s how you get people engaged in contemporary art. There has always been a high-low border separating, for example, street artists and muralists from people who display their work in museums. I’m showing the students that something like Hidden Gems is art, too. And art is never perfect; it’s always messy.”
Ultimately, the massive Gems tapestry will wrap UNLV’s Archie C. Grant Hall, which houses classrooms and faculty offices, a student gallery and a theater. The two-story building was the second constructed on the once-dusty Maryland Parkway campus circa 1958. It’s easily overlooked now as traffic flies past the elegant Beam Music Center toward the towering Dungan Humanities Building and Greenspun Hall.
The result, she pledges, will look “very bright.” People will see the fabric-wrapped structure from Maryland Parkway.
“The project is building-sized,” she confirms, “and not at all like a fabric gown standing in a window. Fabric is often private material that ends up on our bodies. By putting in on a public building, we get to see it in a whole new way.”
Gradually, I begin to see evidence of my progress. My stitching is nearly complete.
“What do you call people who sew?” I ask.
Amanda wrinkles her nose. “I don’t want to say seamstresses.”
“Seamsters?” posits someone else.
“Sew-nauts!” says another.
“People who like to sew?”
We nod, weighing it even as we focus on our stitching. No one says anything for a moment.
The machines whirr on.
To keep up-to-date on this project, follow the UNLV Department of Art on Facebook or Instagram. To donate fabric or host a workshop, email project coordinator Holly Lay. You can also drop off fabric at Winchester Dondero Cultural Center, UNLV Barrick Museum of Art, the Donna Beam Gallery, or the UNLV Department of Art Office.