Fiber artist Elena Stonaker’s kaleidoscopic fun house is quite possibly the best place to visit in L.A.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY KAT BORCHART
“Do you want to try it on?” When Elena Stonaker poses this question, gesturing to one of her wearable works of art, you don’t say no. Which is how, on a sweltering summer day in the artist’s downtown Los Angeles studio, I find myself donning a denim best adorned with her half-finished, beaded and embroidered embellishments, a piece she guessed she’s already invested 150 hours in. Featuring intricate patterns and symbols typical of the 29-year-old’s work—eyes, flowers, hearts—it is quite the eye-catcher, and, thanks to the thousands of beads that had been painstakingly sewn into it, really freaking heavy. “It’s never really been my intention to be in fashion,” says Stonaker, whose work runs the gamut from illustration and watercolor to huge fabric sculptures and one-of-a-kind items of clothing. “I like to think of [the wearables] more as ceremonial pieces in a way, but like, life as an everyday ceremony. We should be wearing things that impart celebration and importance—life is special.” It’s not surprising that Stonaker thinks this way; she’s just finished telling me how inspired she was by a recent exhibit at the Autry museum in Griffith Park featuring Native American beadwork, much of it in the form of ceremonial garments. Stonaker’s take on the tradition is quite contemporary, though. “I like the idea of empowering yourself, wearing something and just feeling like a total badass,” she says. “It’s kind of like armor.”
The elements of her armor-making are stored around her bright white studio space, where light pours through a huge window overlooking L.A.’s urban sprawl. A rolling cart is filled with containers of color coordinated beads, reams of paper lean against a wall, and a dress form is draped in fabric. White candles line the windowsill and a partially burned smudge stick sits near a desk; one of her fabric sculptures rests on the floor, two seated figures leaning toward one another entwined in a hug. It’s much simpler that her typical sculptures, which feature different-colored fabrics, rainbows of beaded details, constellations of embroidered thread, and other accoutrements like sequins or paint.
They are all rooted, however, in a very simple past, one that is inextricably female and overlooked. “Most of my inspiration technically is from a lot of crafts movements, like folk art, very real day-to-day activities,” says Stonaker, continuing to work on the vest I had tried on by stringing beads as we chat. “It’s such women’s work to be working with fabric. It’s pretty humble historically and it isn’t given a ton of attention because it’s home stuff. I think now this new generation of textile appreciation is shining a light on work that maybe didn’t get the spotlight before.”
The themes of Stonaker’s work are often female-centric as well, focusing on images of love and creation. There is an inherent sense of storyelling and much of it stems from her fascination with humanity’s universal stories, repeated throughout time and across continents, which she’s nurtured sinc eher childhood growing up in Colorado. A theory of American mythologist Joseph Campell, about the need to make modern myths, informs much of her work. “Myths are the things that hold us together culturally as human beings, just having stories to remind us why we’re human and how we should be humans,” Stonaker says, her fingers, which sport shipped peach nail polish, working meticulously all the while. “It’s all these really loaded histories and cultural things that I think keep me working with fabric and inspired by fabric.” It’s the timeless storytelling, the respect for tradition, and Stonaker’s very now spin on it all that make her work feel comfortingly familiar, yet mind-blowingly fresh. Of course, she explains it best: “I think it’s always really important to look at the past, but to also move forward,” she says turning her gaze toward the window, needle in hand. “Like being everywhere at once.”
“When I Gift, You Gift, We Gift” originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Knit Wit, COLD.