Like the beginning of most conception stories, this one begins with a uterus. More specifically, an embroidered cartoon of a uterus with the words "mine, mine, mine" running over it repeatedly. That piece, a response to Hobby Lobby’s 2014 ban on covering employee birth control in their company health plans, was embroidery artist Shanalee Hampton’s first foray into political art.
“That was one of my very first political pieces. It was a success and I was able to donate some money to Planned Parenthood. Each time I sold one, it made me happy,” she says. Embroidery was something she initially “really hated” as a kid, but she picked it back up as an adult when she saw the potential it held for art. “I've always wanted to change the way people think about embroidery because it tends to be something that we learned from our grandmas; very domestic, very flowery, and cute. But it doesn't have to be. It can be a really powerful tool for self-expression because you're just drawing with thread so you can do anything with it.”
After attending a political art exhibit in Los Angeles in early 2017 called Into Action, she upped her game, channeling her frustration over politics into her needle and threadwork. “It just became a really healthy outlet for my anger about what was happening in the world," she remembers. "Every time I did a political piece, I felt more confident in my abilities, but also like, this is what I was actually supposed to be doing all along.” She began selling pieces on Etsy but also leaving them stapled up on telephone poles all across Portland for people to see and feel seen by. “There's so much to be angry about politically, but there's so many people to be inspired by too. I want to inspire people to do better, with embroidery, which seems so lofty. And yet I hear from people frequently that my work does that.”
One piece in particular seems to have struck a nerve. Last month, after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Hampton stitched up a piece that read: Who in your life would have to die from gun violence for you to care about gun control? After stapling it to a telephone pole, and posting it on Instagram, the Portland Street Alliance shared it. The piece snowballed. Soon Robert Reich—former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, political commentator, and economic advisor to President Obama—shared the photo with his nearly three million social followers. Hampton’s piece jumped to the front page of Reddit and a host of new fans and followers were introduced to her work.
“I’ve tried to put messages in places where I knew people and I thought it would make them smile and make them feel less alone. That's an important thing to me. We need to know that we're all in this together even if we’re struggling,” she says, noting that was the original point of the messages that can be seen on telephone poles around the city. “It felt good and it made my friends happy. And then I started hearing from strangers who were seeing them and it was making them happy. Just putting positivity out into the world feels helpful.”