medium. acrylic yarn
size. 3" x 4"
by. Zach Gesford
location. Harrisonburg, VA
Welcome to Ice Cream Social, the summer's socially distant group art show, featuring creators and makers from all walks of life, coming together to share their love of the greatest treat known to man. Each week through Labor Day, come chill with new artists as they discuss a wide range of topics spanning their personal journeys, art, pop culture, and, of course, ice cream! In this, our fourth week, we visit a pair of artists whose work is infused with humor, chatting with master embroiderer Zach Gesford, and co-creator of the #AuGhost art prompt, digital doodler Jeff Somogyi.
Previous Ice Cream Social flavors include digital art by comic book creators Brendan Albetski, Marcelo Biott, and Adam Reck, the ultimate ice cream sandwich from sandwich swami Deli Fresh Threads, pyrographic wonders from Michael O'Shields, crocheted wizardry by Chelsey Scully, a fantastic oil painting courtesy of Maria Solias and a colorful triptych from jack-of-all-trades Wally Tautz.
There's something I enjoy about showing a mouth eating or smoking or barfing.
Zach! First of all, thank you for being a part of the inaugural Ice Cream Social. I think the best place to start is by asking, how did you get interested in embroidery in the first place?
Yes! Thank you for inviting me to be part of it.
I studied Studio Art at James Madison University. My concentration was painting and drawing, but I took an intro to fibers class as an elective, which I greatly enjoyed, especially the embroidery. After school, I continued to paint and draw, but during a creative dry spell I wanted to shake things up a bit, and I remembered how much I enjoyed my experience with embroidery. So I started stitching, fell in love, and haven't stopped!
As some of your Instagram progress shots show, your drawing skills are still pencil sharp. I especially love the hand-drawn typography you incorporate into your embroidery, but its not just that. You've got a wonderful, sick sense of humor on display in your work. What's inspires you?
Thanks. I'm a retrophile, I'm a big fan of pop art and I have a deep love of the campy and the kitschy. John Waters is probably my biggest hero. I love playing around with bad taste, but I like the idea of contrasting that with technical skill. I also think embroidery itself keeps me inspired, in conjuncture with the other things. When you have this medium that is traditionally crafty and grandma-esque, and you make something wacky, crazy, or even political with it, it has a sort of inherent subversive quality that I find endlessly fun.
Zach, you're a national treasure. You've preemptively answered so many of my questions in one fell swoop. I didn't want to offend you (or expose myself as a total noob in the embroidery world) by suggesting your art has an old lady connotation to it, so I'm glad you did. The juxtaposition of that with political commentary and fart jokes is a triple threat I've never seen before, and it's led to some stellar work. You mention John Waters, as an inspiration, and I also see a lot of Garbage Pail Kids aesthetic here. Coincidence or truth?
Total truth, I love the Garbage Pail Kids! I'm all about anything with that sort of tongue in cheek, cultural satire. I have a few pieces I'm working on now that I think will even further solidify that comparison, sort of incorporating 80's and 90's mascots and iconography. I guess growing up during that time, those were the images I was inundated with, so when I want to make fun of consumer culture or capitalism, those are the things that come to mind: Chuck E. Cheese or the Nugget Buddies for example; equally endearing and deranged little creatures to lure children into consuming, to make it something fun instead of nefarious. And I think that's what I love so much about the Garbage Pail Kids, too, since they were making fun of those hideous Cabbage Patch dolls that grown adults were practically killing each other over to get their hands on.
You mention mascots in general, and the McNugget Buddies specifically – "Dank Nugz" is a perfect distillation of your style and sensibilities – so I've got to ask, which character(s) from the McDonald's Cinematic Universe is your favorite?
Best question ever. Calling it a "Cinematic Universe" really makes me want to see an epic Avengers style saga with those characters. But I'd definitely have to say The Hamburglar. I had a twisted crush on him as a child. Guess I've always had a thing for bad boys.
No further questions, Your Honor. And that's the end of the interview, because nothing tops a Hamburglar crush.
Okay, not really.
A few years ago, you embroidered a fluffy green monster named Steve that looks eerily similar to a Fry Guy. Where do those critters rank on a scale of Mayor McCheese to Hamburglar?
I'd say closer to Mayor McCheese, since they've got that whole food humanoid hybrid thing going on!
I could prattle on about McDonald's all day, but back to your work, you've got a number of things going on in most pieces, from portraits to still life to handmade letterforms. Is there a particular type of subject you prefer sketching out more than the others, or is this blend of words, images, freeform shapes, and people one big sweet spot for you?
Yeah, I think all of those things are things I enjoy, and the blending of all these sort of disparate parts gives me a kick.
Is any one thing harder to embroider than the others?
I think I struggle with more realistic things. I've seen some stitchers who can make these totally lifelike, hyper-realistic portraits or landscapes, and I admire them because it's something I've never been good at. I don’t know, it's like my brain always goes straight to cartoon/comic book style. Also, I guess I'm not a super technical embroiderer (is that a real word)? Some people call it "thread painting" and I like to think of it as that too, just a different, non-messy way of blocking out colors. I can do a pretty solid French knot, make some nice roses, but there are a TON of stitches that I have no idea how to do yet!
On that note, some of these thread paintings (great term) have complex color gradations involved. "Hidden Valley" is a good example of this. The foliage in the background is richly ornate, as are the creepy Twizzlers mouth and...ahem...butthole. What level of planning goes into this? It's not like you can just splash a new layer paint over the brown eye if its not dark enough.
Most of my planning comes with the sketch. I usually know exactly what I want to do before I start stitching, so I draw on my designs and go from there. With the colors, I can think of a few times when I had to rip out a few stitches or go back over stuff, but I try to always have enough thread on hand to be able to easily have lights and darks to choose from as I go along.
Looking at your body of work, what percentage of your finished pieces are lightning-in-a-bottle stitches versus carefully coordinated? Like, is "Sloppy AF" something you mulled over for a while, or spur of the moment?
The sloppy joe one was just kind of spur of the moment, same with a lot of the more basic ones. But with some of the other pieces that I'm much more proud of, like "Dank Nugz," I kind of just get the idea like a lightbulb moment while I'm daydreaming at work or in the shower. And then sometimes, I will obsess over it for a few days before I actually sit down to start stitching, and when that happens I feel giddy. It's like some sort of deranged birth.
That's art! Do you think there is a full-time career here, or will stitching always be a passion project and side hustle? What's the "5-year plan"? Where do you want to see this going?
Making art a full-time career is certainly my goal! If I never get there and it's always a side hustle? That's okay, because I will still have the need to make. Its hard to say what five years from now looks like, but when I look at five years ago compared to where I am now, that definitely gives me hope. But I don't think I have much of a plan other than to just keep going!
I think that's the trick. Plow ahead. What are the different challenges between embroidery circles and creating patches? Does one result in greater output over the other?
Sometimes I do try to bang out a few little patches because its definitely faster to do something small and simpler like that. They sell a little easier, too. But I definitely get a great deal more gratification over a piece of hoop art that I've slaved over for longer!
Now that we've got a bit of a primer into embroidery, let's talk about "Cliche Cone" a bit. The mouth is something of a staple of yours, and every time it pops up in another piece, it's got a bit of a creepy charm. What's up?
I think it all kind of goes with the mascots and the junk food. I like to make things about consumption. So there's something I enjoy about showing a mouth, sometimes a disembodied one, eating or smoking or barfing. I've struggled with my weight and overeating, and I used to be a chainsmoker. So I think creating imagery of the act or feeling of consuming is cathartic to me in some way.
Something about this piece reminds me of the late 80s Whatchamacallit commercial, which was the high point of surrealist commercialism, and a grossly underrated candy bar. Do you remember those?
Yes! That commercial has a lovely jingle, too!
For my money, that commercial should loop on every wall of the MoMA. Since we're already talking about junk food, what is your Last Supper seven course meal of junk?
Oooh man. First course, I would say Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos. Second course, Cajun fries. Third, fried cheese curds. Fourth, all the cheeseburgers. Fifth, thin and crispy pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar's (it is literally the best pizza). Sixth, cotton candy Blizzards from Dairy Queen. Lastly, all the Reese's products that exist.
I know we're supposed to be talking about ice cream and art. We've done pretty well with one, and we'll get to the other, but we're circling back to beef right now. You and the Hamburglar are running B&E one night. Which burger joint(s) are you hitting?
It all starts and ends at Fuddruckers. Still the best burger I've ever had, and it's the standard I will always compare others to. Its super unfortunate that there aren't as many of them around as other places.
Wow! Fuddruckers! That's a blast from the past. Like Roy Rogers, the fixins' bar was the difference maker. Its the one fast food staple that lacked a mascot. I'm going to put you on the spot; what is the ideal Fuddruckers mascot like, visually and in personality?
Hmm, that is tough. I always associate Fuddruckers with Texas, because there was one in the town my family lived in for a brief time. So I'm thinking a country vibe. Like if Wynona Judd would sell off her likeness, and become Wynona Fudd? She could be the administrator of the fixins' bar, wearing lettuce and tomato chaps, wielding a rhinestoned pistol that shoots out the cheese sauce.
Is there a way to protect your well-being long enough for you to create an actual likeness of this?
Okay, I've composed myself. Back to business, you mentioned a Dairy Queen cotton candy Blizzard. I'll be honest, I've never had one, but I've gorged myself with Friendly's cotton candy, so I can picture it. What about that specific frozen treat does it for you?
It's the only Blizzard I really like. It's got these crunchy little cotton candy flavored pieces in it!
Yes! The Friendly's ice cream has the same. Its the go-to flavor for people who like to say they're getting it "for the kids." And that brings me back to "Cliche Cone". Did you have a specific flavor in mind while you were threading?
I mostly wanted to do a pink ice cream to go with the mouth as well as the pink in the background. But once I added the sprinkles on the top, it definitely reminded me of some of the bubble gum and cotton candy flavors I loved as a kid!
I'm glad you brought up that background. Was it a pre-existing pattern or did you add those pink "sprinkles" yourself?
It was a pre-existing pattern!
A perfect fit, and its got some great Saved by the Bell vibes. As we wind down, I want to hit you with a few quick choices in the flashfreeze round. Sprinkles or jimmies?
Jimmies! (Just because their name is more fun.)
Rainbow or chocolate?
Cup or cone?
Cup. Can't stand the mess of the cone.
And finally, sherbet or sherbert?
You're really sticking up for the underdogs here. Sherbet and jimmies have had a rough go of it. And finally for real this time, what's your favorite topping?
Aside from my love of sickeningly sweet cotton candy and bubblegum flavors, I am a complete sicko for peanut butter. Like when you go to those little ice cream stands and they have that saucy peanut butter...heaven.
Couldn't have said it better myself. We end on the highest of highs. Zach, thanks again for taking part in Ice Cream Social, Stay cool!
Ronald McDonald first debuted in 1963, portrayed by at-the-time Washington DC radio personality Willard Scott. The "hamburger-happy clown" looked a little different from the Ronald recognized around the world today, and originally wore a paper cup over his nose.
Ronald McDonald's iconic yellow jumpsuit and clown makeup came in 1966, as designed by circus clown Michael Polakovs, who went on to star as the famous spokesman for the burger chain. Polakovs was inducted into the International Clown Hall fo Fame in 1991. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 86.
Ronald has a dog named Sundae, who appeared in 1998's The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald, a series of six 40-minute direct-to-video animated episodes with live action bumpers. Verne Troyer dressed the part of Sundae, which was voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.
Grimace debuted in 1971 as the four-armed "Evil Grimace," and aimed to steal milkshakes. He reformed a year later, and by 1974, shed his extra set of arms. He was mostly portrayed by the legendary Frank Welker, and had his own backstory expanded in 1999's The Legend of Grimace Island.
Many people remember The Hamburglar, but he was pre-dated by Captain Crook, a pirate who looked to steal Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and apple pies. Over the years, he faded into obscurity until he was dropped completely in the mid-1980s, along with his arch-enemy, Officer Big Mac.
The bumbling Mayor McCheese was based on H.R. Pufnstuf.
The Fry Kids were originally known as the Gobblins. Like many of the early versions of McDonald's characters, they debuted as villains but changed their thieving ways. By 1983, they were renamed the Fry Guys, and more generically, the Fry Kids in 1987, when a group of Fry Girls was introduced into the gang. The colorful crew appeared in commercials through 1996.
One of the biggest metamorphoses came from The Hamburglar, who debuted as an unintelligible, troll-like old man sometimes called "The Lone Jogger." He was reimagined as a childlike prankster in 1985. This impish version's final appearance was opposite Serena and Venus Williams in 2002. McDonald's briefly, unsuccessfully, brought the character back in 2015.
Birdie, the first female McDonaldland character, debuted in 1980 to promote the new breakfast menu, and was a regular in commercials for years. She was voiced by Russi Taylor, known for her roles as original 80s versions of Strawberry Shortcake and Gonzo from Muppet Babies, Martin Prince in The Simpsons, and most famously, Minnie Mouse in a variety of Disney media.
Mac Tonight hyped the chain's late hours form 1986-1997, and found new life in south Asian markets in 2007, and was simultaneously co-opted as an alt-right meme, prompting the company to pull his likeness from many American restaurants.
What did the hamburgers name their daughter?
Virginia-based retrophile Zach Gesford utilizes a deft hand and wry sense of humor to create hand-stitched novelties like embroidery hoops and patches that both subvert and elevate this art medium to new levels. Support this dank nug on Redbubble and Etsy, and follow his work on Instagram. You never know when you might fid a booger-filled hankie or a felt zit being popped.