If there was a mass shooting happening near you, would you 1-run, 2-hide, or 3- fight?

Featured image: Angela Ea

By Angela Ea

A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to hear Bren Ahearn’s artist talk at BAM on an exhibition called “Strategies for Survival.” The exhibition is on view at BAM until January 15, and includes works that range from instructions on how to react in mass shootings, HIV scares, near-death experiences, questionable career choices, and unlucky circumstances that may be experienced by unorthodoxically feminine men.


Photo: Miles Mattison
You can follow Bren on Instagram at @brenahearn!

San Francisco-based needlework artist, Bren Ahearn, comes from a family of makers. His grandmother crocheted Afghans; his mother made quilts, and his siblings work in puppeteering, graphic design, and fashion. From his youth, Bren was a creative kid who was fond of things “atypical” to society’s preconceptions about masculinity. As he grew older, he gradually stopped being creative in order to fit in his peers. Now as an adult, Bren uses his free time to work with embroidery, challenging society’s preconceptions on masculinity.

Bren Ahearn’s artist statement: “I use textile crafts to explore masculinity’s conflicting messages, and I typically use the cross stitch ABC sampler form to document how I’ve been educated to be a man in US society.” 

Historically, ABC samplers, like the one shown below were created as demonstrations of needlework that portrayed the alphabet, motifs, border patterns, and other imagery. They were used to prepare girls for basic needlework skills in the household. All along, embroidery has been accounted as a feminine pastime.

Bren Ahearn takes these associations head-on and humorously appropriates them into his works by following the similar pattern of ABC samplers, but he blows them up in size and inserts  provoking remarks, alluding to current events and his own personal experiences.

Four of Bren Ahearn’s Amazing Works

“Sampler #14” alludes to the HIV scare that was especially rampant in the 80’s. In 1989, Bren Ahearn had a moment when he was stuck with a possibly unclean needle and became worried about getting HIV. Luckily, he did not contract the disease. A common theme in his works is rhyming that sounds humorous at first but show a darker alternative meaning in personal stories that end with death. During the artist talk, Bren flipped this sampler over to show how much messier the cross-stitches look in the back of his works. But with the “messiness,” the viewer can see the direction in which he is making his stitches.
“Sampler #13” The list under the heading, “Pussy Chronicles,” includes instances where Bren acted unmanly (or to be more direct, like a pussy) according to society’s standards. He questions acts of violence and sports and also shows his sensitive side. As Bren outlines how people will mock others for not displaying masculine traits, he reveals how society has ingrained the idea that emotions and feminine traits are unacceptable and should be suppressed within men.
“Sampler #2” From the moment we are babies, we are gendered according to our sex. The moment family and friends find out a baby is a boy or girl, often they will adjust their gifts: giving a girl dolls and a boy cars. By aligning to gender stereotypes Bren becomes the “true man” according to societal norms. But then a gain, the blue uniform is only on the surface…
“Sampler #4” During the artist talk, Bren mentioned that when he was a child, he carried a lunchbox with a flower design to school one day but was humiliated because of the girlish pattern. I found this last sampler the most interesting because of how he used balls to create flowers. By turning something that is violently charged like contact sports to create something delicate like a flower, Bren Ahearn brings two worlds together and shows they can coexist.
Images: brenahearn.com

Here is a picture of the lovely faces of other teens who had the opportunity to hear from Bren.

Photo: Angela Ea