"Find your teachers."
I am an introvert and I live in Alaska -- a combination that could be as deadly to my creative well being as the sheet of ice in my driveway is to my ass right now. And while I possess a love-hate relationship with the internet, I am grateful for the welcoming community and textile-based imagery I've discovered there.
Much of this work I've dissected, searched for more information about, slunk around the makers' websites, Facebook pages and Pinterest boards (one would think I had gobs of time), looking and looking, all in the effort to learn more.
About technique? Sort of, but not really.
About inspiration? Well ... kind of.
About all the places these artists are showing? No! No! That would make me feel way too remote sitting up here on my ice sheet.
No, I'm looking for how to be.
The first time I saw Bren Ahearn's work online I was smitten by his take on this very pulse: how to be.
-How to be contemporary while still using traditional techniques.
-How to mine one's history while taking a firm stance in the present.
-How to step into a gender defined craft and own that shit.
-How to make me laugh out loud and break my whole heart at the same time.
-How to be brave.
Maybe he could be your teacher, too. Check him out, I found him for you hanging onto a trolley car.
I typically use textile crafts as a medium to explore masculinity's conflicting messages and the violence that sometimes arises from men's adherence to societal behavioral norms. In my latest series of cross stitch samplers, I instead recall actual experiences when I exhibited risky behavior, and I document a violent parallel history in which I was not so lucky.
Currently working on more samplers. Sampler #15 is another death sampler in which I look back at a time when a person tested my blood sugar in the 1980's and I wasn't so certain that the needle was new, but I still let myself be pricked. In Sampler #16 I look at the labyrinthine path of my residential past. I'm also experimenting with stitching on rubber gym mats -- stitching Olympic wrestling icons, fighting imagery and Craig's List personal ads of men looking for other men to wrestle and do other activities.
"There are two kinds of business: my business and not my business."
I'm trying to practice this a bit more than I have in the past.
Reading is such an interesting phenomenon to me. I'm amazed that we can understand letters, which are arbitrary symbols are attached to sounds (more or less, in English). The letters are combined to make words, the words to make sentences, etc. We can read something and then visualize what it means, all from these arbitrary symbols standing in for spoken language. Of course, one could go one step further and say the same thing about spoken language itself.
Right now I am reading "God's Hotel" by Dr. Victoria Sweet. She recounts her experience at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. Laguna Honda is a non-trauma hospital for patients who aren't well off financially, and Dr. Sweet recounts the lessons about life that she has learned from her patients. (The title comes from the equivalent French name for hospitals: hotel dieu).
On Losing the Excess and Looking Within:
Getting rid of most of my possessions before I moved to Japan in the early 1990s was the best thing I ever did. Before I moved, I had lots of possessions, which were distracting me from working on myself and being happy/comfortable with myself. Once I arrived and was in Asia alone, I was uncomfortable because I couldn't be distracted by my possessions. It was a time of great growth though, as I was forced to look inward. I think this lesson of stopping and looking inward has informed my samplers.
On Being Repulsed and Fascinated at the Same Time:
Watching men "spray" is simultaneously fascinating and repulsive to me. I use the term "spraying" to denote marking of territory, as a dog does. I am fascinated to observe how some men spray (and/or cover insecurities) via physical or verbal dominance -- this also is the reason why it's repulsive to me. Here's an article about "manspreading" (on New York City subways), which is a kind of spraying.
On Terminology & (perhaps more importantly) A Most Excellent Table:
"Sense of Place" is a term I never really quite understood, and every time I research it, I get bored. For example, I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and I stopped reading after the 2nd sentence. It might be in part due to my IQ level. In high school I took an IQ test and got something like a 70 or 73, and my teacher said, "I don't think that's indicative of your true ability." I replied, "How do you know?" Anyway, I put the term "sense of place" in the same category as "dialectic" and "phenomenology." Speaking of place, here's a photo of where I do my stitching. The table is an Adler table by Ohio Design. I love the table because I can raise or lower it.
When I first started to make my embroidery work, I was a little nervous about putting my themes out there. After I gave a presentation at a conference, a woman came up to me and said she was grateful that I had spoken. She thought her grandson was gay, and that her grandson's parents were not very approving. She said she would like to take her grandson to see my work to give him hope. To bring this around to the original question about bravery -- for many people, the very act of surviving every day is an act of bravery, as there can be punishments (including death) for people who do not fit some sort of idealized mold in American society. As a white male who is gay, there have been situations in the past which I have "passed" in this idealized mainstream American society; however, I imagine that people of some other groups (e.g., people of color) never get this opportunity to pass (assuming they would even want to). So, there are many people in this country whose bravery is never acknowledged.
* * *
For further in-depth interviews with Bren Ahearn, please check out the blogs Mr. X Stitch and Mixed Remnants. I'm very grateful to Bren for taking the time to answer my emails and for his permission to share his work here.
I've explored bravery in my own work, written about it, run away from it and then tiptoed back around to peer at the hard and deep questions; it's a vital exercise to explore where other artists push the boundaries of society's expectations and then question your own. Openness and bravery lead to deeper creativity and a willingness to risk. Feeling abandoned on an ice sheet? Go find your teachers. Learn how to be.
For other brave(-ish) posts from this site, you may want to check out "A history of pretty" and "Write a letter to your mother."
Like timidity, bravery is also contagious.
"The eye has to travel."
in order to discover what reverence means.
Not because we've been taught this in some church, or in some room, or by some one
and have since forgotten,
but because we are curious about the word.
The eye has to travel if one wonders how to instill reverence in the most ordinary things,
the object we step over or toss,
the thing that in our constant seeing has become
The forgettable rock.
A bit of shell.
The unidentifiable bone.
Does one build a vessel?
If I say, "This is an object not to be forgotten," will you believe me? I have no scrap of parchment proof. No indication that what I'm showing you is some true relic. You can question the authenticity, but I'm also not asking you to worship.
I'm just asking you to think.
All I have to show in my hands is reverence. Time and time and time
I am newly smitten with the work of Bay Area artist, Susan Danis. Her work is arresting, thought provoking and was used here with permission. I also think her taste in glasses is outstanding.
Someday I have to meet this woman.
In the late 80's and early 90's, I worked for a little bridal salon and alterations shop where I made a lot of headpieces and veils. It started after my employer, Laurel, had ordered a new line of wedding accessories on a buying trip to Dallas, and when we unpacked that first frothy shipment of tulle and pearl-encrusted finery, analyzed and dissected the construction, tried everything on and had sufficiently marched around all afternoon sweeping our arms and singing "One Grecian Urn! Two Grecian Urns!" we'd agreed: Amy can make these.
And I could.
So I did.
And let me just say, I could use a hot glue gun like nobody's business. Those opaque sticks of glue -- so shiny! The nozzle -- so melty! I massacred the end of the Laurel's cutting table with permanent drips and smears of cooled glue. I glued the shit out of those headpieces.
One might say I was self taught.
It was the time and place for this, and I did a pretty darned good job. The work was well done and clients were happy. But I was also a teenager and I can't imagine I would have picked up on the finer points of customer relations or the nuances of happiness or disappointment. I know I didn't -- unless they were my own happinesses and disappointments -- but this is the deeper work of what we now scientifically define as the teenaged brain. But that's so, like, totally a different story.
Years later, after factory jobs where I'd been a cutter-sewer-patternmaker-illustrator-designer-production manager-etc., I returned to the bridal industry to work for an expert tailor and couturier from Manila, Manuel, my mentor, in an atelier where white-girl-proving-herself felt like the primary job description. One of the first brides I worked with still needed a simple veil made. Normally the seamstress -- a lovely, sharp-witted woman from Vietnam, with ramrod posture and a powder blue vintage sewing machine -- made the veils. But I offered to make this one, and I knew this much by then: no hot glue.
I created a small buckram frame, alternated silk organza and peau de soie in a pattern that echoed the gown, added a single layer of fingertip-length tulle. Done. I hadn't made a veil in years and it felt great. I brought it in for the final fitting where the bride twirled in and out of family members with cameras, handed it to Manuel, and as he tucked the comb into her loose bun he leaned in and said to her, "This is just a fitting, what do you think about the length?"
No. This was the real thing. This was her veil. I made it. It was ready to go out the door with the dress. This veil was getting married tomorrow.
"We'll deliver everything later tonight," he said, kissing and hugging and dancing the beaming family out the door, then he disappeared into the back room to quietly ask the seamstress to make a proper veil. Of course I asked what was wrong with the one I'd made.
"It's just not ... fine. It's not fine enough."
I woke at 3 this morning, my son snorting and blowing his nose on the other side of the wall, and this was the memory that came to me, this embarrassment and confusion about what "fine" meant. And I think it emerged from a comment my friend Christine Byl added to a recent post I wrote that touched on that old semantics debate between art and craft. The imagery in her comment stuck with me, and a lot of other people contacted me to say it resonated with them, too. I fluffed my sniffling kid's pillow, discussed the merits of Mentholatum in the darkness (met with refusal) and thought about the weight of words and understanding and experiences decades removed until 4 am. Then I made coffee.
I will preface the following by saying that Christine Byl is a fine writer. Her thoughts are culled from a spectrum of experiences and education that is as deep as it is broad. She intimidates the hell out of me on paper, but then I get to spend time with her and she's so real and kind and interested in everyone and everything that this silly "I'm-really-dumb" feeling fades right away. Her first book, Dirt Work, is an exceptional exploration of her ongoing work as a trail builder, an academic and a human; I highly encourage you to seek it out and read it. She is a woman who knows her tools, and one of them is language.
Here is her comment:
Some interesting thoughts here, Amy. Isn't it amazing how many people find it difficult to talk about these distinctions without a whiff of value-laden language? As if art or craft or amateur or expert must be better or worse, when really the intents or histories or positions are just different. As my favorite quote of the year goes, "It is bizarre to treat all differences as oppositions." (Marilynn Robinson)
Gabe and I talk a lot about craft-art distinctions, particularly because of his work which includes elements of both, as you know--the aesthetics and training and palette and intention of "fine art" and a medium and method (cutting up tiny pieces of paper) more associated with craft. I've come to think that there's a false dichotomy in setting art and craft opposite each other. Craft is more a subset of art. Art is like a river with lots of different feeder streams--ground springs and silty glacial run-off and rain-fed mountain gushers--and the quality of the art will be influenced by what primarily feeds it. It could be craft techniques, or aesthetic concerns, or activist impulses, or all of them blended. But while those may all affect the character of the art, they don't make it something else. I mean, it's a huge discussion in "fine art", how something is "crafted" or a discussion of the artist's "craft"--not at all diminutive. The degree of skill in the making is part of the success of any piece. So what we call "crafts" are perhaps types of art-making that foreground the "made" component. (Woodcraft, needle craft, etc.) In this way, craft is a component of art that may be present or not, but it isn't an opposition. It's apples to oranges, in a way.
"Expert" is also so loaded. My favorite experts--and the kind of expertise I aspire to--are utterly cognizant of nurturing Beginner's Mind. True expertise does not shun the qualities of apprenticeship.
So we need some new words! What's the word we really mean to contrast with art, to signify some pastime or activity that's not intended to be considered as an aesthetic object in addition to whatever its use is? What's the word for an Expert that is unafraid of continuous learning? Ah language, such a fluid, tricky, incomplete thing. Makes you want to go build or stitch or glue something, doesn't it?!
There are days I'm rushing at that larger river, others when my output is reduced to a trickle waiting for the log jam to explode, but there will always be an underlying intent to my work, a scrutinizing mantra, a point to it all --
make it finer.
At this time and in this place, and despite my efforts to do a pretty darned good job, fineness is a shifting thing. There are constraints and realities to consider, the many small and large needs of others, so finer falls somewhere between "better than good enough" and "my very best," somewhere between "walk away from this piece of crap you think you're making" and "head down, keep working," somewhere between the upswell and excitement of Beginner's Mind and the cynicism of a mind thick with history and knowing and thinking and worrying too much.
Fine. Finer. Fineness. I do not have some new word to add to the discussion of Art and Craft.
But I will keep considering and coming back around to this old one.
Embroidery has provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness. [...] Observing the covert ways embroidery has provided a source of support and satisfaction for women leads us out of the impasse created by outright condemnation or uncritical celebration of the art.
Rozsika Parker, from The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine
I'm currently working with old and discarded textiles: half-embroidered canvases, linens, leftover or unused wool from embroidery kits older than I am.
Someone once felt compelled to make these things, knew inspiration, motivation. Had an opinion and a standard of beauty. These women buried themselves in the making and the work of the work.
Some of these women I know, or knew. Most are strangers.
Some of the work is fine. Some is not.
But according to the academics and critics, all of this work -- no matter the quality of the stitching hand -- falls under the title of "Craft," not "Art."
I, and this group of ghostly women whose smells still linger on these fibers, made the choice to pick up a needle instead of a brush or a chisel. So there you are.
"Amateur" means, roughly, "lover," from the Latin amare (to love), and one of the hallmarks of amateur activity is a lack of critical distance from the object of desire. If modern art ... is grounded in searching self-awareness, then amateurism is a form of creativity that can never be integrated in to this model ... hobby crafts are on a par with such activities as stamp collecting and weekend sport -- activities done in a spirit of self-gratification rather than critique.
Glenn Adamson, from Thinking Through Craft
I've talked about labels before and figured I was over it. But it's yanking at me right now.
So I'm reading. A lot. And I'm trying to be open.
And I get that the line between art and craft is blurring more and more. And I acknowledge my shallow moments -- like when the spanking new copy of American Craft arrives in the mailbox -- when I think "craftsperson" is an incredibly hip title and "artist" is just so "everyoneisanartist" and where did I put my monocle, and my mustache wax anyway?
But then I return to these ghost women's hands, and realize most of them never had the luxury of even considering a choice between artist or craftsperson, or reading about their amateur status, or getting all hung up and depressed for two weeks when really they were probably quite "supported and satisfied" to have a moment to themselves at the end of the day to lose themselves in handwork.
But if you're like me, if there's something out there in the world, something you might ingest that could make you feel terrible, or sick, or kill some part of you ... then shouldn't you learn everything you can about it? Because maybe you'll form an opinion, emerge hairy-militant and ready to make a change, or maybe you'll come all the way 'round to acceptance, or form a new stance altogether. Maybe you'll learn to avoid it, or make a point to always flip it over to scrutinize the fleshy underbelly before kicking it to the side. But at the very least, shouldn't you be able to make a positive identification and say, "Oh yeah, that's that thing."
You don't have to get all professional on us or anything.
I mean, crap, just be an amateur.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.
Boxes Of Mystery
Find Your Teachers