A few months ago I had the privilege of being interviewed by a woman named Sue Ann Gleason, culinary nutritionist, nourishment guide and marketing strategist at Conscious Bites Nutrition. She was drawn to the textile artwork I'm creating with crowdsourced vintage linens and sought out a conversation, which had nothing to do with food, but everything to do with nourishment.
She has a special project of her own: Luscious Legacy, a writing course that focuses on shaping collections of family recipes and stories. She will use our synergistic interview with her writing group --both of us on the road to discovering how aligned we are in terms of object, memory and reverence for the maker -- a west-coast/east-coast, multi-time-zone conversation that could have lasted much longer.
There is audio from the interview, over an hour long, but we worked together to edit the transcript into a much shorter blog form. An excerpt from that interview is below, but you can find the entire post on the Luscious Legacy site, including the audio link. I hope you'll poke around on her gorgeous website and look into her various inspiring projects while you're there.
Sue Ann: I am deeply curious about what we keep and what we pass on, be it tangible or more spiritual in nature. When I happened upon your Inheritance Project, I was captivated. First, because I saw in it such an honoring. Here you are collecting these pieces of handwork as a vehicle to explore voice and history and narrative. Where did it begin? When did these mystery boxes start coming?
Amy: Family members in Sweden have always sent me linens and handwork, but I’ve rarely used any of these things for my home. They’ve been stored in my trunk for years until I started using the cloth in my artwork. Then I received an email last summer from a woman I’d never met in upstate New York who really wanted to send me a collection of vintage linens. I have to admit the alarm bells went off, but I wrote back with my address and said, “No anthrax, no fire bombs.”
When the box came, my daughter and I opened it on the deck, and inside were all these vintage pointy bras and seamed stockings, linens and doilies. She and I had the best time going through it. Her brother had a friend over that afternoon and she was feeling a little left out, and it was also a time when our relationship felt strained. She was starting first grade and had a lot of fear that manifested in snotty remarks towards me and lashing out at her brother; just this really unsettled presence about her. But that afternoon felt really pure. We tried on bras and held up stockings, and then we caught the boys spying on us through the sliding glass door and we laughed and screamed. It’s just this lovely visceral memory I hope she’ll always have.
I don’t know the woman was who sent this to us or who had owned the items before, but we made up a lot of stories and we guessed and wondered. I felt strongly that the experience was informing the next phase of my work. It felt important.
After I blogged about it in a post called “Box of Mystery,” other people contacted me and things started arriving and I realized right away I had to keep track of everything. These were objects that deserved and needed documenting, spreadsheets, proper thank you cards and shaping.
I also realized I’d need to put parameters around the project if I didn’t want people emptying out their cupboards and sending all their unwanted things to me, so there’s a formal list of items I’m looking for. I’m also asking for information: who the maker is, what the origin is and what the circa is because I feel like this also needs honoring. For the most part, all three of those things aren’t readily known, and that in itself feels so powerful to me. I keep envisioning this list of makers of which 95% will be labeled "Unknown."
This process of collecting, documenting and corresponding with people is vital to what I now call “The Inheritance Project.” I’m inheriting things originally inherited by others. And there’s an understanding that very few of these items are going to remain intact once I begin working with them. People are okay with this. If they’ve spent time looking at my artwork at all, they understand I’ll make something else out of the linens they send. Up until this point my work has been really personal, like memoir, using moments, experiences or fears and transforming them into a piece of artwork that then people bring their experiences to and have responses based upon their own history.
Now, I’m feeling a shift and want to explore the fictional aspect of these items. I’m curious about the mythology generated by this vast pool of artifacts that have little or no history. I feel a connection to these unknown makers, and the narrative gurgling up is something I’d like to explore through the next series of work I make from these items. I’m still shaping it and unsure what the end result will be, but I’m envisioning an exhibition with a written component and a combination of two-and three-dimensional work.
The most amazing thing about the Inheritance Project (my little vintage linen crowdsourcing effort that just keeps growing and growing) is something I didn't quite realize would happen: I've made new friends all over the world and have re-connected with others I haven't seen or heard from in years, many of them artists. The textile arts community is broad and deep; even more vast are the people who feel strongly about passing on their embroidered/crocheted/tatted linens to someone who can appreciate them. No one likes to see these in heaps at the thrift store, but this is often where they go when younger family members don't want or don't have room for them. Our contemporary-always-aiming-for-spare lives don't allow for antimacassars on the arm chair and a doily beneath every lamp. Does anyone have time to dust, even?
My current work is exploring the use of these older, handmade and unwanted materials and I simply couldn't do it without the support of strangers, friends and family members. I am the current inheritor of these items and they will go on to live another life, ultimately culminating in an exhibition at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center: Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. The Boxes of Mystery series of blog posts are the cataloging effort of all that I have inherited.
Here are the next three boxes:
My new friend from France.
If Nemours, France, sounds familiar to you it could be because of the massive flooding of the River Loing that started last Wednesday (this becomes the Seine 30 km from Nemours). I have exactly one acquaintance in France, Aude Franjou, and she happens to live in Nemours. One of the things I always tell my children when they are complaining is, "Things could always be worse." Perhaps this is something Aude has had to tell her own children this past week. Fortunately, they are all safe (despite quickly rising water and a terrifying rescue story), but the clean up effort in her village will be on a scale more massive than I can fathom.
Aude is an installation artist who works with linen and hemp, creating organic forms that wrap thousands of times around a core, splitting and becoming larger -- often climbing -- configurations. They are evocative and primal, a study of plant-based forms and materials, with the physicality of the process still resonating in the end work. She is also a mother and balancer who understands that in the thick of the everyday one's art often has to take a back seat, but is never truly booted out of the brain. The hands, after all, still have to make.
I imagine she is as distracted as I am, sometimes frustrated, often questioning, but still compelled to do the work she is drawn to. Throw this flooding event into the picture, and know that she is being tested as well. My heart goes out to her.
My sincere thanks to Aude for her Box of Mystery filled with individually wrapped items -- all crinkly brown paper and twine -- with hand written descriptions and explanations of each object. I cannot express how blown away I was that a stranger would take the time to send these things to me. Even more lovely is the fact that she is no longer a stranger. We have never met, but have corresponded many times now, especially this last week.
I opened one small parcel every day for a week, even inviting a friend over to share the mysteries one afternoon.
I have a metal magnet that says, "ATTENTION CHAT LUNATIQUE," but alas, this is the extent of my grasp on the language despite Madame Lally's best efforts in high school. For all the rest of you who payed attention in French class (and were apparently a lot less distracted by the boy sitting behind you at age 14), you will enjoy watching Aude in the video below. I actually LOVE hearing Aude speak about her work and have listened to this about 5 times. My son finally looked at me and said, "Mom. You have no idea what she is saying."
Right. Except in my heart, I think I do.
My friend from Pakistan.
My thanks to Shehla Anjum, long time writing friend here in Anchorage for passing on this embroidered tunic yoke and sleeve trim from Pakistan, which she's hung onto for 15-20 years. She and I met in graduate school (almost that long ago, now) and our paths continually cross and re-cross, most recently about a month ago when she invited me for lunch at her home. She thought this embroidery was emblematic of Phulkari stitching or Balochi embroidery (if anyone has any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments). A pre-embroidered yoke like this would be applied to a base fabric as trim.
Shehla visits Pakistan annually, often traveling to the Swat Valley to meet with women, many of them entrepreneurs, who are existing in a delicate, sometimes dangerous, set of situations. To read a piece she wrote about her correspondence with Malala Yousafzai, click here. The first time she ever spoke with Malala was in 2009, when the girl was 11. Here's where we can all be momentarily stunned at those few degrees of separation.
My friend from Texas, the flat coastal plain where the farmers grow rice.
Bobbe Shapiro Nolan has sent items to me in the past and I had the joy of meeting her in Philadelphia during a Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) conference (she is also a fiber artist, working in the quilt form -- be sure to visit her website). This tender little baby pillow came folded sweetly in an envelope with the following note:
“It felt wistful to me; babies who never made it home, perhaps. But no one ever knows at a garage sale, and the lady selling it gave no details. It could not have been precious to her, as she sold it for $1.”
Many thanks for thinking of me, Bobbe. I, too, have a wistful emotion when I hold this tiny bit of cloth. We have such an intimate relationship with textiles -- we sleep in it, wear it, wrap our children in it -- sometimes we forget how connected we are to the objects, the wearers and makers.
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Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.