In olden times, young women stitched artful samplers and pastoral scenes to cultivate and display their refinement and domestic skill. Today, Olivia Montoya is giving this most ladylike of traditional handcrafts a contemporary twist, capturing the zeitgeist of her generation.
Working under the nom de needle Koe-zee, Montoya, 27, creates beguiling thread drawings using embroidery and cross-stitch on duck fabric. Her canvases are round and petite, from 3 to 7 inches in diameter. With equal parts sweetness and sass, they depict the issues and iconography of the here and now, in particular the multidimensional interests and sensibilities of modern women.
“Feminist,” proclaims one of Koe-zee’s best sellers, the word rendered in a delicate font and embellished with tiny flowers. (It also comes in a more audacious version, “Feminist As F–.”) “Smash the Patriarchy,” declares another hot item, again in dainty lettering. Some of the images – like a raised middle finger with a prettily painted nail – need no words. By pricking our sense of the counterintuitive and subversive, Montoya delivers timely statements of angst and empowerment with disarming cheekiness and charm. “The Feminist and Smash the Patriarchy pieces have definitely become very popular in the last year,” she says with a laugh.
Products such as LaCroix sparkling water, a recent obsession of Gen Z and millennial consumers, cartoon characters, emojis, snatches of hip-hop lyrics, and other pop-culture references show up in the pieces, adding to their playful, relatable vibe. Mystical lotería playing cards and grinning Día de los Muertos skeletons are a shout-out to the Mexican side of Montoya’s family. Occasionally she’ll take an earnest, overtly political stance, such as a cluster of signs raised in protest of US immigration policy. Yet she also indulges in unapologetically lovely, old-fashioned expressions of natural beauty and everyday joy: the mountains and meadows of the Pacific Northwest, cozy home interiors she calls “dream spaces,” and her personal favorite, houseplants. “I love that there’s a range, those differences,” she says of her work. “It’s definitely a representation of me.”
Montoya lives in Seattle, where she was born and raised. “My parents were both creative people, and they definitely nourished a creative atmosphere for their kids,” she says. “My dad did charcoal drawings, and my mom did fiber art. She taught me how to stitch when I was 5 or 6.”
After graduating from Seattle University with a degree in psychology, Montoya worked as a server in various eateries (a sandwich shop, an ice cream parlor) to make ends meet and honed her needlework skills in her spare time by watching tutorials on YouTube. Her two roommates likewise were artistic types holding down unfulfilling jobs. One day in 2013, as she tells it, “we were sitting around and decided we needed a creative outlet.” They formed Koe-zee (a play on their initials) and ran it together for a while. When her two friends amicably moved on to other pursuits, Montoya kept the business and the name. She sold at pop-up shops, flea markets, and craft shows, wholesaled to local boutiques, and eventually opened an Etsy store. She quit her day job this past August, by which time Koe-zee “felt sustainable.” That she’s been able to make a go of it is, she says, “extremely rewarding and exciting.”
Now her days are spent stitching away in her plant-filled studio, with music blasting or “really bad ’90s TV shows” on in the background. She loves the challenge of custom work, whether it’s making an original wedding or pet portrait or adapting a stock character’s hair and skin tone to customer specifications. “It’s really fun when people come to me with a concept that I can bounce off of.”
In the round: Koe-zee canvases are framed in the wooden hoops in which they were stitched. “I keep them in their hoops because I create them in a circular mindset,” the artist says.
Pets rock: Montoya loves portrait commissions and finds pets harder to capture than people. “It’s subtle things, like the way they hold their faces. Definitely around the mouth and the nose is the most expressive part of the animal.”
Big dreams: Someday, when she’s not so busy filling orders, Montoya would love to work on “a large-scale, very detailed piece for a fine arts setting.”