BELFAST — Subtle is not in Shannon Downey’s vocabulary.

Born in Boston and raised on planet Earth, the self-described “craftivist” has fastened together a life of design and discourse. Downey, who goes by the moniker BadAss Cross Stitch, uses embroidery exhibitions and workshops as a vehicle to seek social change. When asked if bias has impacted her life, Downey drops all pretense.

“I’m a queer woman, so yeah.”

Downey’s fiber art will be exhibited at Waterfall Arts in a three-part show named “Radical Acts” Oct. 21-23. During the exhibition, Downey will host three embroidery workshops and give an artist talk on the evening of Oct. 21.

“I have loved Shannon’s work from the very first moment I read about her,” said Waterfall Arts Program Director Amy Tingle. “Shannon’s passion and determination to show others how joyful it is to use a medium that has historically been used as a tool of subjugation and subversion has changed me and changed my own relationship to embroidery.”

Downey’s exhibition will also include a selection of her own hand-stitched pieces from her vintage collection “Rita’s Quilt” — a 102 by 75 inch quilt created by more than 130 artists from across the country. The quilt project was completed in tribute to all of the women artists throughout history whose work has been undervalued and underappreciated.

With a life motto of “make art smash systems” and a goal of teaching a million people embroidery, Downey’s passion and perceptions are built around actions and outcomes. Radical Acts weaves all of this together.

“It is a radical act,” Downey said, “to come together in community to discuss hard things, to make time to create art about yourself, to participate in something greater than oneself — to learn something new.”

Downey has never been afraid to explore new territory. Armed with a degree in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she has been a middle school teacher, a college professor, and has run a digital marketing company. The common thread amongst all was activism.

It was during her time at the marketing company that she discovered her passion for embroidery.

“I was on a device 24/7, and I hated it,” said Downey of her digital marketing career. “I started stitching to do something with my hands that didn’t involve my phone.”

She found that embroidery awakened her to new possibilities and perceptions.

“I immediately found what a beautiful resource (embroidery) was for me. I suddenly had all these creative ideas. It moved from stitching, to stitching in order to think about stuff, all the activism I was doing. When I needed time to process, I would stitch.”

Shannon Downey’s fiber art embodies her activism. Photo courtesy of Shannon Downey

Her pieces are thought-provoking, simple but elegant, and speak to Downey’s activism and advocacy with a loud voice.

One such piece portrays the shape of a simple handgun, bathed in a background of gray.

“I lived in Chicago, and I was working around gun violence and stitching around that,” Downey said. “I found that when I stitch around something that matters, it always causes me to write directly after.”

Shannon Downey embroiders thought-provoking art. Photo courtesy of Shannon Downey

Downey’s activism and advocacy efforts are ambitious and wide-ranging. Human rights, abortion rights, gun control, gender equity, and systems change are just a handful of the issues she has “stitched” around in her role as fiber artist/activist. It is this duality that has created her preferred title of “craftivist.”

She put those passions to the test in the year prior to the COVID pandemic. Downey sold all her possessions, mapped out hundreds of fiber arts events, and set off in an RV to take her stitching and sharing on the road. The pandemic quickly forced a hard reset.

As Downey shared her work virtually, she also returned to the road, hosting workshops in parking lots and campgrounds, even driveways.

As a “craftivist,” Downey discovered a broader audience for both of her passions. She now does remote speaking engagements, and hosts online gatherings for makers, but prefers her in person teaching workshops.

“I realized I was creating an opportunity for people to engage,” Downey said. “And to engage in ways they had never done before. It was a powerful tool.”

With a schedule full of exhibitions and workshops Downey is grateful to display her art, but remains focused on her other work.

“My art has always been meant to create a conversation,” Downey said. “Any time my art is on display it’s a little bit of a trick to get people into the room and to get them thinking and talking about these issues, what it means to them, and how we might change them.”

Shannon Downey is the “craftivist, BadAss Cross Stitch,” and an expert in artful needling.