Sabotage, suspicions, and violence: embroidering the dark side of cartoons with Peter Frederiksen

Stitching shots of hands and mallets, artist Peter Frederiksen zooms in on Tweety Pie’s grubby underbelly.

10 February 2022

“I’m a nervous laugher,” says Peter Frederiksen. So it seems the Chicago-based artist has found his perfect match in cartoons, which often paint heavy material in a humorous way. Peter says these dark themes are usually based around money, food or pride, and tend to boil over quickly into sabotage and violence. “One character made another character look silly, so now one of them has to die,” Peter continues. “There’s also a running theme of fear, which I think goes hand-in-hand with the kind of instability that violence implies; lots of traps and other nefarious setups, but also fears of insecurity, performance anxiety and the unknown.”

For most cartoon illustrators, these themes tend to bubble under the surface. Meanwhile, Peter’s practice is about dredging them up. Peter is also not a cartoon illustrator; he creates embroidered works using free-motion machine embroidery, which he says is essentially “drawing with a sewing machine”. These pieces show cartoon scenes that are cropped and zoomed, lingering on ominous corners of the shot. Matchsticks, mousetraps and mallets all make appearances, and hands – lots of four-finger stubby digits, often clutching pistols – fill each frame. They are also embroidered beautifully. While staying true to the bold form of the medium, Peter manages to stitch cartoons with subtle gradients that deliver a real sense of mood.

“I take a lot of screenshots of old cartoons, usually focusing on small elements but sometimes for an entire image,” the artist tells us. I have a whole folder just filled with different hands that I like.” From there, Peter will crop, edit and add details before tracing and eventually stitching them onto linen; the longest he’s worked on a piece is seven months, for one that's a little smaller than a postcard. “So much of my editing process is finding the right crop,” he says. Wanting to feature the action as much as possible, Peter likes to get “up close and personal”, focusing on moments right before or after something happens in the scene. “I’m also not nuts about showing faces unless it’s crucial to the idea – I feel like showing just hands working at something can be really sinister.”


Peter Frederiksen: Won't hold forever (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)

These sinister themes mirror a world outside of Looney Tunes. Human Cannon Ball, a piece Peter displayed at a solo show at Galleri Urbane in Dallas last year, explores living through Covid. Considering anti-vaxxers and the idea that contact with other humans could be dangerous, the piece depicts a t-shirt reading “human cannon ball”; “You don’t know where it’s going, you don’t know what kind of damage it might cause, but it’s already been deployed,” explains Peter. “There’s no stopping it.” In a recent embroidery piece turned marvellously into an animation, Peter has been looking at doors. After the third year of spending more time inside, the artist says doors have been taking up “prominent real estate” in his head.

Peter’s work looks behind the energetic silliness of cartoons (and sometimes people), depicting something “which is violent and vicious and mean”. However, the artist, of course, loves cartoons. Drawn in by the illustration style, approach and affinity he feels to the humour, he says he’s always been inspired by them, “especially post-war Warner Brothers cartoons”, Peter states. “Also The Simpsons. Always The Simpsons.”


Peter Frederiksen: Well it beats the hell outta me (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: All my suspicions confirmed (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Ducking potential issues (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Set up for failure (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: What have I done (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: The trap has been set (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Human Cannon Ball (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Fielding multiple claims (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: I don't know how but they found me (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Heavier than it looks (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)


Peter Frederiksen: Performance anxiety (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)

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Peter Frederiksen: It's exactly as bad as you think (Copyright © Peter Frederiksen, 2021)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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