My first job in high school began as an internship at a small shop in Nevada that made costumes, wedding gowns and casino uniforms. I fell in love with a Brother single needle industrial machine whose push-button start up and whining motor stood my arm hair on end. I was also smitten with the gravity fed industrial steam iron (I once forgot to turn it off and left it smoldering on the ironing board...overnight). Loading cones and rethreading a 5-thread serger with its zig-zagging internal paths became as navigable as learning to drive a car -- which happened at around the same time -- and for a girl whose father worked with loud equipment and flying sparks all day, yet kept his daughters safe from this, it was a way to harness industrial energy and wield power over a machine at a moment in life when a young woman is vulnerable to dismissing her own capabilities.
That was all the fun stuff (except maybe the casino uniforms), but the bread and butter work in that shop were the alterations. I've hemmed more Carole Little knit pants from Macy's than I care to count, and learned to make way more small talk in a fitting room than any other 17-year old I've ever met (I'm still not great at it, but I can probably still make a half-naked lady feel pretty comfortable. Wow, except that came out wrong).
To rip into another person's worn clothing has an intimacy rivaled by actually making clothing and fitting a person's body. I've found used tissues in pockets (into the garbage), money and jewelry and keys (into the small return baggie) and seams filled with dust, lint and scales of skin. I've been gagged by cologne and perfume and cigarette smoke. A woman once delivered several vests to be copied and remade, only to discover that her male cat had sprayed on them just that morning. She tried to leave them anyway, and when I explained there was no way I could hand them over to the woman who does the alterations (me) before dry cleaning (her), she snorted and craned her neck to see who this picky "alterations girl" in the back room might be.
During the 12 years I was in the clothing industry, doing everything from alterations, to running a commercial cutter, to fitting custom gowns, to sample sewing PVC raincoats/stretch jeans/metallic halter tops for 14-year olds, to marching to the bank to try and deposit paychecks (9 of those bounced at one factory), to making patterns, to crying on the bus, to finally being mentored by a master tailor for 4 years in the '90s (more crying), the constant hum for me was the intimacy of cloth. And the years that this intimacy was absent (factory work), it bothered me that clothing was so disposable. Later in my career, when returning to custom made wedding gowns, I thought I'd be creating garments that would be revered.
Some were. Most of the clients were lovely women. And I try really hard to remember their smiles, vast embraces and impossibly smooth shoulders.
But the fond memories are often overshadowed by mothers telling daughters how fat they looked, or girls bad mouthing the size of an absent friend's ring ("...you know that marriage won't last... "), or bridesmaids who (I'm not kidding) pushed each other out of the way to vie for the mirrored walls, the ruined gowns returned for fixing ("... we got such a great photo in the hotel fountain!"). It's comical now. But for a girl from a small town, brought up to sew and respect the work of the hand, it was devastating. My last boss, a mentor and man I respected and loved like a father, called me "Provincial." The hardest part was realizing my own lack of skill when it came to matching wits with princesses.
For Pete's sake, who even knew that was a thing?
All this to say: alterations don't bother me. Neither does the prospect of incredibly time-consuming work.
(And I steer clear of Princesses).
Girl Story and Girl Story #3 have been accepted into Focus: Fiber 2016 at Kent State University Museum. If you are in Ohio between February 12 and July 3, 2016 I highly encourage you to check out the exhibition (and send pictures please, because I won't get down there for this one, unfortunately).
One of the notations in the exhibition agreement stated, "Velcro is preferred but not mandatory." A few months ago, I met with the textile curator at the Anchorage Museum and she had mentioned this very thing in terms of displaying tapestries and textile work.
So I ripped off the sleeves.
Adding velcro to a piece and the accompanying mounting bar is easily reversible, protects the fabric and will eliminate curling and bulging at the bottom edge once installed by allowing for minuscule adjustments at the top until the piece hangs straight across the bottom.
So while I didn't have to make this alteration to two pieces of artwork before shipping, I chose to.
"When we mount quilts, we use 2" velcro stitched by machine to a muslin strip. The muslin strip is then hand sewn - carefully and lightly - to the quilt backing so that no stitches or muslin show. Put the soft side of the velcro on the strip sewn to the quilt and staple the hard side to a 1" x 2" piece of poplar. 2" velcro gives us a better chance to get the piece hanging straight since most quilts are not perfectly square."
If making clothing for people taught me anything, it's this: there is no one way. Every body is different, every mind is different.
Every show is different.
(But darn it if male cat pee is always the same).
I'd love to hear your comments about successful mounting/hanging techniques. I'd also love to hear what went terribly wrong so we can all learn from each other.
This post is filed under the How To category in the side bar. There are a few other how to posts available there, although I'll never walk you through anything by blah, blah, yaddah-yaddah because there are lots of other verbose bloggers out there breaking sewing steps down. I know you're on your game, so I show you lots of pictures instead.
And I tell some stories.
First, a story.
I have three younger sisters, and when we each turned 16, my mother insisted we needed a trunk. Not a furniture-store-end-of-the-bed blanket chest, but something old and solid with a journey and a history of its own. In part inspired by the massive steamer trunks passed on to her -- all peeling labels and zig-zagging trips across the Atlantic -- I think she was looking to fortify our domestic stamina, readying us for adulthood, giving us a literal space to store all the handmade things that kept arriving in America from Sweden.
She left her country at 19. If we needed to flee ours, we'd have a receptacle to hold the tangible elements of a life even if none of our trunks have functional locks. None are airtight either. Emotion and memory seep through their cracks. The idea of them forever protecting the items within is just that, an idea.
One sister's trunk belonged to a carpenter; inside are blocked mounts for saw blades and oblong knobs to lock the tools in place. Another's hinges have been replaced and repositioned, leaving shadowy chiseled marks and drill holes from the original hardware. They are utilitarian and square, mended, dented, abused, refinished. My sisters landed trunks with flat tops, able to pull coffee table duty -- despite the hammered-all-to-hell corners and fumigated European worm holes -- able to hold several households-worth of linens each, able to shelter an adult and child if the boogeyman came 'round searching.
Mine is a dome top captain's trunk. When my children were 2 and 4 and messing with the high arched lid, I asked each of them to hold their pointer finger next to a pencil: See? Your bones are the same size. Now everyone stand over there and watch this lid. I let it fall and guillotined that pencil and no one has gone near it since, despite the lure of the little rubber giraffe they know is inside, my impossible little red baby shoes, the doll with the eyelashes that click shut when she's tipped, the three compelling sets of mortarboards and tassels and gowns. Think treasure chest, all wooden slats and strapping and iron end caps, think leather handles, think rivets and black Japanning. It is heavy when empty, a behemoth when full, and serves only one purpose -- to be The Trunk, sitting trunk-like in its trunkiness in every home I've ever had. Actually, I take that back. The cat claw skids on the lid remind me that it served as a launch to reach a narrow 11th story window sill in one teeny Canadian apartment 2 decades ago.
When I was pregnant with my first child here in Alaska, after buttoning my belly into overalls to help scrape acoustic popcorn off our then-house's ceiling, repainting walls and trim and re-surfacing and thinning, I announced The Plan to Empty The Trunk and Jettison Everything. Everything. My husband, God love him, abandoned paint rollers and scrapers to sit with me in the small green-walled baby's room while I piled stacks of linens, doilies, photographs, random silverware and dishes all around my cross-legged self. For as much as he'd grumbled for 13 years of marriage about The Trunk and everything in The Trunk and having to move The Trunk and the fact that there was nowhere The Trunk could ever go and how now The Trunk had dented/scraped/bruised the floor/him, he laid down the rules about the growing discard pile: if a name or date was attached to an item, I couldn't get rid of it. Also, if something in The Trunk was connected to the woman/girl I'd been before marrying him, it stayed. If it was connected to a woman in Sweden, it stayed. If I wasn't sure and probably should phone my mother, it stayed. Those were the rules.
With a thin bag of unidentifiables set aside for the thrift store, I refilled and slid The Trunk back into place. Done. Whatever. Now let's figure out how this baby crib goes together. But lodged in me since then has been the niggling idea of provenance and worth. Somehow a name and a date could lend an object value. Initials on a tea towel or scribbled notes on a doily's plastic bag or a hand-written label on the bottom of a painted cup were the small history of a hand. These gestures, like a painting's signature, lent worth and identified the maker, named the dead, honored the thing and the time it took to make it, whether or not it was useful, needed or wanted.
This last Christmas, 15 of us gathered at my parents' home -- sisters, significant others, cousins and grandmas from extended families. Throw into the mix a couple of road-weary felines, a rescued Mexican lap dog, a grandpa-built go-cart featuring a 1970's lawn mower motor and orange helmet from the same era, several hundred cookies, ditto colored pencils, ditto Legos, dear friends and a brand new adopted baby. All hail luscious chaos, and in the middle of it all my youngest sister -- with a ripping head cold -- was tasked to sort her trunk, still in her childhood bedroom. She really doesn't have room for thing in her current life, certainly doesn't have room for the miscellanea pitched into it over the decades, and while she may not have felt the pull, she definitely felt my mother's gentle, but persistent push.
So I sat with her.
If there was something she was willing to send down the road in a flash, I stacked it in the going-home-with-me pile. Was I a vulture? A rescuer? A judge? I'm still conflicted about my role or if I should have even been in that room at all, but I do know I recognized her exasperation: I've dragged my own trunk from country to country, crammed it into apartments/truck beds/spare rooms/closets, all pissed off or mildly embarrassed by its unusable contents. But my connection to these items strengthens as the original makers age and now my children age. As I age. Deep in the second- and now third-generation-children-of-an-immigrant milieu, there are mysteries about the women we are connected to, but are vastly separate from. Women who have difficulty even stiffly embracing a child, but who will use those square hands to make and make and make for them, then ship via airmail and sit wondering when the thank you cards will come.
So I followed the rules: names and dates meant things couldn't get pitched, and if my sister didn't want them, I would take them. Some of it I will use for my work, but a large portion is now in The Trunk here in Alaska for when she has children of her own. In 5 or 10 or 15 years, I will send these linens back to her. Worth growing up with and passing on, someday she will receive a Box of Mystery from me.
Now, the Boxes of Mystery from elsewhere.
Before Christmas, several shipments of textiles came my way. All traveled so very far. Some are beautiful in their crispness, others beautiful in their decay.
Thank you, Mo Orkiszewski in New South Wales, Australia. I've used a sheer organdy panel like this once before and have been on the lookout for another ever since:
Also sent from New South Wales:
Thank you, Adrienne van Spanje, for the battered and wounded doilies and linens. She wrote, “We don't know where they have come from - just part of many donations we receive. Clearly some are very old and well used. I hope that they can be of use to you with this wonderful project -- or perhaps the next project.”
I'm happy to say that I've used several already -- as batting -- before I could even get this post written:
From Arlington, Virginia, USA:
Thank you Tina Thuermer. If anyone has thoughts as to where the embroidered structure may hail from, I'd be delighted to hear. It looks liturgical and what appears in the photo as black embroidery is actually tarnished metal thread. So compelling.
And the last clutch of doilies was slipped into my hands at a recent birthday party:
Thank you Jeanna Duryee, friend who I've known for many years, who can enter the Alaskan woods and emerge with a medicinal arsenal of plants. One of a small number women I've met in my life who resonate magic and earth wisdom.
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If you, too, would like to contribute the wounded, unwanted or useless handmade items you've stumbled across, inherited and/or just can't bear to throw away, consider sending them to Alaska. They will eventually become something else, maybe a part of something bigger, even if that something is a larger narrative or deeper understanding. Please know I'm working on it and contact me here for further information. Check out the other Boxes of Mystery posts if you are new to this blog and are left wondering what in the hell is going on up there in Alaska.
For more information about why I feel compelled to do what I do, you can check out this recent interview with Jen Funk Weber. Good to have it in writing because there are moments when I wonder what I'm driving at, and lot of it is laid out in that post. The rest I'm still circling around.
"Before paperbacks and pocket books, before blogs, there were broadsides.
Ten years ago, Elizabeth Bradfield -- writer, naturalist, published poet, fellow MFA companion (back in the day) and good friend (to this day) -- told me she was starting a special online project: Broadsided Press.
A bit like a literary magazine -- but collaborative and reliant on community effort for distribution and printing -- Broadsided Press would take submissions from poets, ask a group of artists to "dibs" on new poetry each month and create artwork that arose from the poems that spoke to them directly. These Broadsides would be printed and hung by "vectors" all over the world, and it was a new format for an old idea, and it was super exciting, and it would include interviews and translations and opportunities for special response features to world events, plus years "in haiku," and did I want to be a part of this?
I did. But what I was really focused on around that time was wading through an icky-pukey first trimester, so I was distracted and didn't really understand how large this project could potentially become. My son's name is "Pelle," in part because of the time Liz patted my belly and asked, "How's Pelagic Meissner?" I might have barfed right after that, but "Pelle" stuck. When he was born, "Carl" was absolutely the wrong name. Ahhh, good friends.
The Butterfly Farm is the latest Broadside I've had the pleasure of being a part of. The poem was written by New York writer, Nicole Callihan and spoke to me as a mother, woman and observer; I knew I had the perfect piece of artwork to accompany Nicole's writing.
Broadsided Press is going strong after a decade of successful collaboration. I've moved in and out as an artist, once even getting an email (okay, maybe twice getting this email) that said "Nudge, nudge your artwork is due," and I looked at my kids and said, "You guys need to entertain yourselves while I help my friend Liz."
Sometimes the artwork already existed:
But most of the time the poetry has spoken to me as an illustrator, warranting something brand new.
The first glimmers of my current direction with textiles happened within these Broadsides -- small opportunities to diversify and explore new materials. Initially, I'd wanted to incorporate textile use into children's book art, but this hasn't come about yet. My work is dark, and somehow the textiles tapped into an even darker place. I know there are dark children's books, I'm drawn to them, but I've been told a number of times by art directors that my particular darkness is a little too ... scary.
Clicking on any of these images will take you to Broadsided Press, where you can print out and distribute these Broadsides in your own haunts -- coffee shops, street corners, buses, bars -- you, too, could be a vector. For those of us who don't get out much, they also look pretty good on design walls.
I'm grateful for the opportunity Broadsided has given me to crack knuckles and stretch arms a bit. It's in this diversification -- format, materials, collaborative effort -- where I've discovered new ways to extend my voice and apply it to current work. If you have the chance to diversify within your art form, it will serve you well. I recommend it.
I also recommend the following:
Elizabeth Bradfield is an award-winning poet, writer, naturalist and publisher. Check out her blog, The Haul Out, which considers seals and other items ashore, mostly on Cape Cod. If I could give her an award for being an awesome person, I'd do that too. Also, I wish she could accompany our family on all our Alaskan boat outings because she can identify everything flora and fauna, and she's not a picky eater.
"Bradfield's poems guide us alertly into this treacherous territory pocked with political pitfalls and theoretical quagmires. One hardly notices the perils that abound because Bradfield is such a deft naturalist, with a keen eye."
—Jon Christensen, reviewing Interpretive Work in The San Francisco Chronicle
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For even more diversification, a year ago I published this. A bit beachy, a bit writerly, a bit of insight as to how all things have a way of fitting together to make a life whole.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.