Embroidery by staff member who’s recovered a stitch at a time on view at the WHC
For Yale alumna and staff member Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan ’17 Ph.D., the stitches in her embroidered art now on view in an exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC) are more than her creative medium; they also mark steps forward on her road to recovery.
The exhibition, titled “Material Obsessions,” is the first campus showing of Beaulieu-Morgan’s embroidered works, and she feels a little vulnerable about the public recognition of her artistry, she acknowledges. This is because while sharing her work, the digital accessibility specialist for Information Technology Services is also being upfront about how the craft has helped to bring her solace while recovering from alcoholism.
“When I found embroidery, I finally and truly entered a real period of recovery for the first time in my life,” Beaulieu-Morgan wrote in an artist statement to accompany the exhibit. The show features about 30 of her finely detailed embroidered works, and runs through Dec. 11.
The Yale staff member began embroidering about four years ago after receiving a cross-stitch project as a Christmas stocking-stuffer from a friend. She had previously worked in cut paper, collage, linocuts, and mixed media, but had sold all of her art materials before coming to Yale in 2009 as a doctoral student in American studies because she assumed she would not have time for artistic pursuits.
Giving up her art making, she has since realized, had a cost. She found herself both anxious and depressed.
“For me, I have to able to make things or I’m not happy,” says Beaulieu-Morgan, “I honestly think I finished my dissertation at Yale because I picked up a creative habit again.”
She enjoyed the first cross-stitch project, but quickly realized that she would prefer embroidery, which doesn’t require a pattern.
“Embroidery is completely freehand, so you don’t have to count or keep track of stitches,” she explains. “Sometimes I might first draw the design out using a water-soluble pen, but mostly I’m just drawing with thread.”
Not long after she started embroidering, Beaulieu-Morgan began posting pictures of her projects on Instagram, including daily ones that documented her progress. Before long she had some 5,000 followers. That grew to more than 20,000 when she solicited suggestions from her followers for designs on a large embroidery hoop as part of a daily project.
“It was awesome to have 365 different suggestions from people all around the world,” says the Yale staff member, who chose the suggestions randomly. “This project was my attempt to force myself to make a space for creative practice every day no matter what else was going on, because all the years I hadn’t honored that were destructive for me.”
Four months after she started embroidering, Beaulieu-Morgan quit drinking.
“I went through my 20s and knew I had a problem,” she says, noting that she came from a family “where everyone on both sides was alcoholic.” As an undergraduate and a graduate student, she says, drinking was a common and frequent part of socializing, but she also used alcohol to dull the anxiety and depression she experienced in her student days.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and I didn’t have any models for what it meant to go to college, let alone to go to graduate school at a place like Yale,” says Beaulieu-Morgan, whose doctoral work focused on visual and material culture. She took a one-semester leave of absence from her graduate studies to serve as acting dean of Ezra Stiles College. While a graduate student, she worked for the Office of Gender and Campus Culture and in her final year was hired by the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning to help in the transition of faculty websites to the learning platform Canvas.
Beaulieu-Morgan credits a fellow graduate student for initially inspiring her to quit drinking, because she “was open about being in recovery,” the Yale staff member says.
“I knew I was not going to finish my Ph.D. if I didn’t quit drinking,” she adds.
Embroidery served as another lifeline for Beaulieu-Morgan, who in her artist’s statement describes her work in the medium as “a celebration of excessiveness in the abstract.” Embroidery, she says, gave her something both “repetitive and compulsive” to focus on in place of alcohol and other self-destructive behaviors. She spends about 20 hours a week on her embroidery projects, and now has some 24,000 Instagram followers.
Beaulieu-Morgan is currently working on an embroidered piece that is a narrative timeline of her relationship with alcohol, from birth to when she quit. A feminist and lesbian, she aspires to do another large-scale narrative piece that explores the history of her sexuality, as well as one about her musical inspirations. She is a volunteer disc jockey on the independent community radio station WPKN, and was hired by Grammy Award-winning Americana musician Keb’ Mo’ to create an embroidered image for his album cover as well as for the singer’s other merchandise. She has also sold many of her works to Instagram fans and others.
Beaulieu-Morgan was invited to exhibit her work at the WHC by the center’s assistant director, Mark Bauer. She says she is excited to be sharing her work with the Yale and New Haven communities, and notes an integral part of doing so is to be open about the link between her artistry with her own mental health journey.
“It is important to me that people know that you can have problems and still be a professional and successful person,” she says. “There are times when I’m plagued by imposter syndrome, and worry that I’m not good enough to be showing my work. But I’m doing it anyway, even though I am scared. … My experience as a student at Yale has been fraught in some ways, but I’ve also met some of the most supportive people in my life here. Yale is truly a place filled with very generous, kind, and amazing people, and this place has also enabled me to do the things I want to do.”