Like many musicians that go on tour, Geoffrey Muller spends a lot of his time in vans messing around on instruments.

Unlike many musicians, Muller’s instruments — an embroidery hoop, fabric, and a needle and thread — don’t make a sound.

“Cross-stitching isn’t like playing a musical instrument,” Muller said. “With a musical instrument you sit at home and practice a lot; you can always get better. With cross-stitch you finish something and then it’s finished. It’s very small, detailed work.” 

Muller, the 38-year-old Houston music mainstay who has been a part of more than a few local bands over the years, including Grandfather Child, Robert Ellis and the Boys, and Fiddle Witch and the Demons of Doom, started cross-stitching about four years ago. He saw a friend doing it at a coffee shop and said he got hooked right away.

“The first one I did just says ‘Purple Stuff,'” he said, remembering the days before his cross-stitch work could be found for sale at the Esperson Gallery downtown. “It was definitely a… decrease in quality.”

It was a decrease in intensity, too. While Muller still takes on Houston-related cross-stitch projects (he regularly cross-stitches Houston landmarks and he recently finished a piece that depicts a tiny Beau Beasely, the guitarist for Insect Warfare) , these days he is just as likely to rattle you with a cross-stitched Abu-Ghraib torture scene as he is cheer you up with a tiny Whataburger number placard.

“I’m working on a series from American media,” Muller said. “There’s some from Gitmo, and there’s another one that’s in progress right now that’s the image of a naked man on a leash, from Abu Ghraib.”

“Ouch. that’s a bit uncomfortable” someone commented on “Abuse of a Detainee,” which Muller posted on his Instagram on Monday.

“Yes.” he replied. 

“It’s super intense,” Muller told FPH. “It’s just another medium for looking at the image that you don’t typically see. We’re used to photo and videos, that seems like a normal way to convey that information. But with this, I think it makes you look at it and think about it a little more because seeing it in the medium of cross stitch is not very common.”

Less startling but just as engaging are Muller’s Rothko Chapel pieces, a series on shattered cell phones, and his cross-stitched takes on Houston rap culture and self-portraits. Projects can take a long time or not very long at all, depending on the size and complexity, and Muller said he’s still learning.

“I’m just figuring it out the same way people learn to do most things nowadays — Get on YouTube and watch tutorials,” he said.

But even though this is his first venture into visual art, one thing is clear from his Abu-Ghraib piece or another one that shows someone falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11: Muller is interested in creating provocative cross-stitch work that your average needlepoint granny probably wouldn’t spend an afternoon hammering out.

“Stitch what you know,” he said. “Stitch what you’re excited about.”

Not that there’s not room for grandmas in Muller’s cross-stitching world. The community he’s discovered is rich, welcoming, and talented.

“I used to stitch with my grandma,” he said. “And sure, I guess there are a lot of grandmas that do it, but it’s a huge community. I just started without knowing anything about it, but there’s a long and deep history of needlepoint and embroidery. Any culture that had fabric did it, and there are so many people out there still doing this art form. There are some amazing artists out there.”