In 2003, in a wandering-around-a-Swedish-city-where-I-could-maybe-get-us-fed-as-long-as-I-only-had-to-ask-for-an-open-faced-sandwich-and-a-cup-of-coffee kind of way, we stumbled upon Gothenburg's Rohsska Museum. A new exhibition had just opened, and while I'd never heard of this artist and my husband and I were mid-afternoon crabby (what we really needed was an open-faced sandwich and a cup of coffee), the signage for this bright, textile-y exhibit was alluring and people poured through the front doors, so we checked it out.
The work on exhibit was by a guy named Kaffe Fassett. (I know, right, you've never heard of him either.)
And as I bumped into Swedes who'd stopped to inspect the seashell-inspired needlepoint upholstery and the enormous colorful sweaters and the prolific monochromatic quilts, I jammed my fists deeper into my pockets because I really (and I mean, really) wanted to flip all these things inside out. I wanted to inspect edge finishes and backs. Analyze materials. Squeeze. Prod. I know my gallery-visiting self well enough to keep the pokey fingers on lockdown, but others apparently didn't because the security guard spent the afternoon rushing all over the place, politely asking for restraint. This was hard for the particular group gathered there that afternoon.
My Swedish isn't great, but I recognize an undertone when I hear one. I can translate a petty criticism, a fleeting muttered comment. That hem doesn't hang straight. Does he really make all these things by himself? The stitches are uneven. That sweater needs to get blocked. I wish I had a photograph of a certain needlepoint tapestry that hung down over an entryway -- not because of the remarkable work, but because of the hilarity of watching every single Swede that walked beneath it contort their necks to view the snarled wool and knots visible on the warped back side.
I can make fun of Swedes because I am one -- well, a half a one plus a bit of one -- and because I shared their thoughts that afternoon. Anyone who has been taught to sew by a Swede (or a German or a Dane or a Norwegian or a Finn, or a Russian Grandmother ... etc.) and has survived the PTSD of, "The back has to look as good as the front," or the dreaded, "You have to rip this out because it's not perfect," will tell you:
This kind of thinking is REALLY hard to shake.
My mother taught me how to embroider when I was about 3 or 4. Taught me how to use a Viking machine and to manipulate a Simplicity pattern when I was 9. And then I took off. At 17 I knew my way around a Brother industrial single needle, could troubleshoot and rethread an industrial 5-thread overlock, and began training with a designer while going to undergraduate school for degrees in art and textiles. My mother was then asking me for sewing advice.
And here's where I have to take a second to collect my thoughts, because this was going to be a post about how I really have a dislike for commercial fabrics. How nothing zaps my creative energy faster than a fabric store. How, in order to use the vintage fabrics and thrift store clothing and linens that really fire me up, I have to back almost everything with cotton interlining and this is where I employ all that commercial quilting fabric. This was going to be a post about technique. I was going to flip my work inside out and show you all the B-sides. Show you something that maybe everyone else is already doing, but I'm too silly and in my head to know this.
And yes, I do press the majority of my seams open. It reduces bulk and this technique amasses it. But now I'm bored with this whole idea. Why talk about it more? You get it: interesting, yet thin fabrics + hours of extra work + structural reinforcement = Content Swede.
Right. So, I'm far more curious about that sentence up there, the one about my mom asking for help with the skill she taught me in the first place ... this resonates with me all of a sudden. I'm interested in mining that intersection of motherhood and childhood and the ideas and techniques that are passed on, because what, exactly, does it mean to have your child suddenly become more proficient at something than you are?
It's going to happen. We want this to happen for our children. We want to give them the tools and the foundation and the skills to go out into the world and forge their own way. A master tailor I worked for, Manuel, used to say "Kill the father," meaning, "Become better at this than I am." But when does what we teach our children become a hindrance? When is our voice a muttering, petty criticism that lodges in their minds and keeps them from moving freely into creativity? Keeps them forever ripping out the same seam again and again until nothing's left but a hole?
In our house my husband and I have a gentle reminder for one another with regards to what we say to our children. Sometimes laughed out loud, sometimes muttered in passing, it is: Hear you, hearing you.
--My 8-year old claiming that the boy in his swim class is "inappropriate and disrespectful towards the teacher?" Hear you, hearing you.
--My 6-year old wanting to loan a book to a friend "so she can get a sense for the overall series?" Hear you, hearing you.
--Both of them bursting into tears over this or that project because they can't make it perfect? The first time? Hear you, hearing you.
And a museum full of Swedes one afternoon, who've been taught to work by hand with stoic perfection, viewing a wild riot of colorful textile gestures, seemingly created at a speed barely able to keep pace with the ideas tumbling out? Hear a generation, hearing a generation...and a generation, and a generation, and a generation. That's scary.
So, do we embrace these voices, this history, in our work? In our lives? Or do we heave and push against it? Or both. Maybe it's some kind of luxury to take the time to even think about it, but sometimes the work takes so long that all I have is time to wander around in my head, bumping into all those other Swedes. I spend more time undoing perfect stitches in an attempt to free the look of the hand than I do ripping out actual mistakes. I'm unraveling on a cellular level.
Damn ... here I've gotten all heavy and flipped myself inside out to present my B-side for you all to prod. Makes me realize I need a cup of coffee. Here, I'll order one for you, too, and we'll page through this lovely Kaffe Fassett book. Then let's just take a peek at the back of this stitching here and assure this Little One that the knots and wool snarls don't matter. It's all easily fixed and no, you don't have to re-do it, and no, we're not re-doing it for you. Because what we want her to embrace and understand and carry with her into adulthood is the idea that it's the motivation to keep going that is the true perfection.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.