Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. was accepted as part of the Alaska State Museum's Solo Exhibition Series, so after finishing at the Anchorage Museum this summer, it re-opened on December 7 in Juneau. I was able to travel there and help install the final tricky pieces, attend the opening with my family and conduct 2 youth workshops. It was so outstanding to see the work in a completely different venue, have a deeper understanding of the process and feel like there's a burnish on the work that comes from the privilege of installing it twice. There are 12 pieces in this body of work, one has sold and will be leaving the collection for its new home in Los Angeles.
I've only been to Juneau a handful of times, but never in the winter. These photos were taken at about 4:30 in the evening...not much different than Anchorage in terms of light this time of year, but for those of you at a lower latitude it might take some getting used to. The bright gallery was a welcome sight.
Some pieces were hung differently in this space.
Others were hung the same.
It still took several hands to install "River," which is 21 feet long.
I gave a talk and slide show on the evening of the opening about personal history, process and my cultural relationship to materials. I don't have a video of this, but I gave a recorded interview you can listen to here. You can also read a version on the Hand/Eye Magazine blog.
I'm excited to share news that the piece, "Descent," (below) was recently accepted into Fiber Art Now's Excellence in Fibers IV in the "Sculptural Works" category. The Anchorage Museum built the beautiful custom light table for it, featuring a diamond-shaped plexiglass window that fits perfectly below the sheer portions of the piece. The electrical cord is brilliantly hidden in the table leg.
Lastly, I led 2 fabulous (and hilarious) kid-filled workshops at the State Museum where we worked with old linens and inserted our own designs and embroideries into the existing handwork, making this old cloth 100% rescued and 100% our own. Their enthusiasm was over-the-top fun to be with.
My gratitude to the many, many people who came together and made this second exhibition and the pieces within it possible. I'm fully aware my work would not exist in this form without the generous donations of rescued or abandoned women's handwork. While the majority of the makers are Unknown and much of their work has gone uncelebrated, I love to think the hours they spent in the making way back when kept those mothers, aunts and grandmothers grounded and sane. I know it's done this for me.
This post is going out right before this exhibition wraps up on February 9, 2019. We'd love for it to come to a venue near you and the Anchorage Museum and I are diligently working on this.
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For more of my work, best to follow me on Instagram: @amymeissnerartist
Inheritance is a project I've worked on for nearly 3 years. It began in 2015 when a woman in New York state sent me a box of mystery filled with linens and vintage garments, and based on the response I received from sharing that story online, I officially crowdsourced more household, handmade/hand-embroidered cloth, along with associated stories. I offered to become the final inheritor of it all, even though most of the origins and makers were Unknown.
Also unknown, was what a body of work made from cast off, abandoned, sometimes-unwanted, or even still-loved-but-burdensome objects would look like. Even when I submitted the proposal to the Anchorage Museum in 2016, I had little to show, but must have been convincing in my direction. I gave up so much control over my materials during the course of this project that it's changed the way I work. After 12 years in the clothing industry, I already endure a rocky relationship with clothing and fabric, but after this exercise in mindfulness, strange abundance and deep emotional dives, I have more ways to side-eye run-of-the-mill cloth.
Yesterday, I walked into the fabric store to by 1.3 meters of fabric to back a piece I'm finishing, found exactly what I was looking for, pulled out the bolt, walked 5 steps and stopped. My daughter, age 9, who was with me when I opened that first box of mystery and there for the dozens that followed, said, "I think I understand, mom," and then, "I don't want be in here anymore. Let's go." So I returned the perfect bolt of cloth to the shelf and we walked out the door.
We aren't snobs, we aren't garbage pickers (well, sometimes), but going through this process has put me somewhere in the middle -- somewhere between what can be and what was, between old and new, between shouting and silence, between the beautiful and terrible, between confidence and uncertainty, between hiding everything and baring all.
And always, always existing in the Not Knowing.
Here's something I feel strongly about: theme kills. Entering into a project -- whether writing or visual arts -- with a theme in mind is a mistake. Themes emerge from the Not Knowing and from probing the Living Questions.
My work explores the work of women--literal, physical, emotional. Theme emerges from stomping around on this landscape, turning over rocks, lifting dead things to find new growth, or investigating why that thing shriveled and died in the first place.
These materials could have been debilitating, or narrow. They were. But roaming and poking at every single corner inside those confines is the ultimate freedom.
I pushed against the confines of form and these surface-bound artifacts -- base items made for the bed, the body, the table, the wall -- elevating and lightening them, while at the same time infusing them with weight.
I wanted to look at things we generally don't.
And open up the process to as many other hands as I could.
I met incredible generous people throughout this multi-year process, many of whom I now call friends. Some are traveling to Alaska this summer to see this work installed at the Anchorage Museum.
Eventually I'll share more about each of these pieces -- where the components came from, process images and further thoughts. But the next posts will be about the installation process and museum programming. There are so many things I've learned that will continue shaping how I approach future projects.
I'm so happy with this work, even when I thought it wasn't enough, or too much, or that I shouldn't have started down such a path in the first place.
I'm still wandering around on it, somewhere between lost and found.
Many thanks to Brian Adams for taking these gorgeous photos, to the Anchorage Museum for all of their unfailing support and guidance, to the Rasmuson Foundation and the Sustainable Arts Foundation for funding assistance to do this work.
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A history of intention. (The piece in this blog, "Fatigue Threshold," is part of this body of work, but is currently touring with Quilt National until October 2019).
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This winter I was honored to be asked to create a series of small works to be presented to four recipients of the Governor's Awards for the Arts and Humanities here in Alaska. The awards ceremony was held last week in Juneau, and while the idea of giving a recipient a piece of artwork instead of a laser-engraved object is exciting on its own, an even more exciting idea is giving textile-based artwork. And even MORE exciting than this, is presenting textile artwork from TWO different artists: myself and good friend, Maria Shell. Maria wrote about the pieces she created for the awards in a recent blog post: Memento. Her work is intricate, vibrant, lovely, intense. I've been a fan of hers for a long time and happy to say we've been friends for a long time, now too.
If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound during the summer. This isn't a paid gig. Nor is it official. Nor is it helpful when we accidentally clean monitored beaches (sorry, it had junk on it, we didn't know you were counting exactly how much). It also isn't pleasant. But the reward is generally a pocket full of rocks. We never take anything from a beach unless we've cleaned it, and most of the time we don't find anything interesting unless we've cleaned it first, anyway. We've been known to cruise back into the harbor with a couple hundred pounds of ghost nets, rope, and too many plastic water bottles to count. We recycle what we can, dispose of the rest. Twice, my son has found the coveted Lego Piece. Once, I found a fairy tea cup.
It's a treasure hunt.
The requested dimensions for the awards commission was 12" x 12" or smaller, so I used 10" x 10" x 2" cradled board, which I pre-finished with 2 coats of polyurethane. I use an upholstery technique on the reverse, which I receive great joy from because I get to use a hammer and beautiful nails called cut tacks, plus it's a clean finish. The materials for this small series are an amalgam of the Reliquary Series and items sent to me for the Inheritance Project. The grey linen is new, but the rest is not. The materials include vintage shantung drapes and heavy taffeta, vintage unfinished needlepoint, crocheted doilies and trims (which I dyed) and beach stones from Prince William Sound and Nome, which are the oldest thing of all.
Four of the works were selected for awards, a fifth will remain in the permanent collection of the Alaska Humanities Forum. They are lovely as a collection, but strong enough to exist on their own.
I think a lot about language and titles, expecting them to work hard and be clear. "Vintage," for example, is anything over 20 years old, while "Antique" is over 100.
Some words I do not use in the lexicon of my current work: "upcycled," "recycled," "stash." These words are tired. They are a contemporary attempt to turn something that frugal women have always done into something new and exciting. These words make me feel like someone is about to sell me something I don't need.
I'm the stoic daughter of an American water well driller and a Swede raised on a farm by grandparents so "Work" is a word I use a lot. "Play" is a word I use, but never in my studio.
I know, I know, but "Play" is different from "Challenging."
And "Fun is different than "Pleasing" or "Satisfying."
Why does any of this matter? Because words matter. There is a difference, for example, between an "Art Quilter" and a "Quilt Artist" (something Maria Shell brought up just the other day). A person can be "crafty" like a fox or "crafty" with popsicle sticks, while the elements of "Craft" versus the "crafting" of a work all have different weights and meanings.
(And also, before it was called "Craft," it was called "Work" and everyone did it, every day, for various reasons and with varying degrees of skill. It took an Industrial Revolution before the idea of Craft was even a thing.)
This is not an argument for Art versus Craft. This is an argument for Language and using it in a way that evokes clarity, yet opens a door for further interpretation.
Are these actual fossils? No. I probably need a permit to remove fossils from an Alaskan beach. But they conjure the idea of something rare and hunted for -- or stumbled upon -- evidence of a life before our own. Titles have to work hard. They are the extra narrative layer that pushes a piece beyond what you see visually. Titles can reiterate a piece (and I've certainly got a few titles I wish I'd spent an extra week or year considering in order to avoid this), but please consider the rich narrative difference between "The Doilies and Rocks Series" versus the "Fossil Series."
I personally want nothing to do with the "Doilies and Rocks Series."
And then there is Dada.
Consider, the difference between "Dada the Cat," being named after an art movement (so cool), versus "Dada the Cat" actually being re-named when my 2-year old couldn't yell "SIMON!" at the sliding door, but he could yell "DA-DA!" (the reality). My husband is "Papa," so, zero confusion on that front.
Does this change your perception of Dada? Of course not, he's still just a Siamese on a diet. But you've got to love a double meaning. Even still, it took 8 years for us to admit to the vet that this fat animal's name isn't "Simon" and it should be updated for their files.
Sometimes weighty titles are personal. Sometimes everybody gets it.
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The final boxes of mystery. (except they weren't, because they still keep coming...)
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I "officially" stopped collecting boxes of mystery for the Inheritance Project a long time ago. Like, September-30th-2016-long-time ago. But in the way I always accepted old cloth before the Project became a thing, I still accept it now.
At the end of this post is a sneak peek at one of the pieces from the Inheritance Project body of work, and when I send out the next newsletter, I'll give another peek there. I just finished a large piece yesterday and I'm on the home stretch for a May exhibition at the Anchorage Museum.
Meanwhile, a deep and belated thank you to the next two Vintage Linen Contributors to the Inheritance Project. These items were delivered this fall.
Many Contributors to this project are artists, and Anchorage-based Carol Lambert is no exception. I met Carol two years ago, when we were both curated into a small group show at Alaska Pacific University called Fragments of Time. She is a fine artist -- draws, paints, and is someone whose eye seeks the details that flesh out the darker undercurrents of life: a severed bird wing, a bit of bone. Around Christmas, she opened her studio and offered years-worth of still life props to other artists and makers who could find them useful. Alas, I didn't make it to her open studio prop give away, but I'd already visited with her in my own studio this fall when she delivered culled fabrics and accoutrements. Of course, these items blended easily into my life, despite how long it's taken me to share them here. So long, in fact, that I've already used several yards of it (although the Canadian in me really still likes to think in meters). Thank you, Carol, for contributing to the Inheritance Project and for attending one of the Needle & Myth workshops at the Anchorage Museum this fall. It's been a delight to follow your work all this time.
You, too, can see Carol's paintings and drawings here, and/or follow Carol on Instagram: @carollambertarts.
Thank you to Dennis Anderson, one of two men who have contributed to the Inheritance Project. Dennis and I were put in contact through the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska last fall. The quilt he contributed was made by his Great Grandmother, Hettie, on a Singer treadle sewing machine. I love this photo of her and have it on the wall in my studio. It's a source of great joy and defiant power.
Do not mess with this lady. Do not.
"Please use the photograph to the fullest. I love that picture. My mother said that Hettie always dressed that way. The ranch house had a wind mill with a 100 gallon tank about 50 feet from the home. When I spent a week end there about 1949 they had running water in the kitchen. I don't know about a bathroom. They had an outhouse about 100 feet from the house. It was a one seater with the quarter moon cut out in the door. And HONEST To GOSH a Sears and Roebuck catalog toilet paper."
Hettie collected Bull Durham tobacco pouches from her husband and the cowboys at neighboring ranches, using the cloth to make this quilt. It is sun faded and water stained, but I've already incorporated a baby quilt and another piece -- an unfinished embroidery from Olga Norris in England, with its own story of strength and defiance -- to complete "War Room," for exhibition this May. Below is a sneak peek. For those of you who follow me on Instagram, here's where those 2,000 tapestry needles landed.
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How well do we know anyone, even people we see everyday?
And how can we possibly know people who've left us, especially if they never allowed us know them in the first place?
And then, the impossible task of knowing someone who remains unknown because history has failed to attribute her time, her marks.
We can gather our scraps.
We can pick through memory.
We can re-consider.
We can collaborate.
We can create a new mythology.
Last spring I received a Rasmuson Foundation project grant in support of the Inheritance Project. A portion of the grant allowed me to complete a special workshop series this fall at the Anchorage Museum; "Needle & Myth" was designed as five, 2-hour sessions for small work groups of artists, makers, museum members and the public, with a 6th session added at the end. The work generated in these work sessions will become a large community piece installed in May with the exhibition Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. My gratitude to the Rasmuson Foundation for the gift of time, to the Anchorage Museum for the gift of support and space.
I originally prepared 45 or 50 panels, we completed 80.
Over 70 people participated. My deepest gratitude goes to them.
I asked registrants to consider the following prompt before arriving: "She was ____." or "She is ____." This single word or short phrase was then embroidered onto a prepared panel, a linen handkerchief mounted on sheer silk organza. (I received around 85 hankies during the crowdsourcing portion of the Inheritance Project. One Contributor sent me her entire collection of 33). I also asked participants to bring a small, lightweight object, which we then mounted or embedded between the cloth layers. The sheer panels are numbered, and when hung together begin to form a more complete picture of a complex woman, of ourselves.
"...harlot, always making things beautiful, an artist mother, brave, powerful, powerless, rooted, tough as nails, sew much love, too attached, happiness, iguapaeterei, je brule, the matriarch, my only comfort, worth the time, unknown, clever, a weather pattern..."
When was the last time you spent a full two hours considering a handful of words? Hand stitching forces you to slow and consider a needle's placement to achieve a certain curve or line, but this is a small technical thing. What I hoped this project would do was create a 2-hour space to honor memory -- some of it pleasant, some of it painful.
Five men attended. And two children. Six languages are represented.
When one woman told the story of her beautiful mother's two abusive marriages, the entire room fell silent. When another woman shared her mother-in-law's journey from China to Peru to the US with 10 children in tow, the same thing happened. And again, when a woman explained how she'd created the panel for herself, her mother-in-law and the four babies they'd lost. When another woman furtively shared that her mother sometimes stole things, "maybe just a little," we laughed, but then retreated inwards to consider this. Not to judge, but consider. Because aren't we all guilty?
And aren't we -- aren't women -- all worthy of awe?
The safety of a space like this is generated when a task is on the table. No one has to make eye contact with storytellers, no one has to respond directly. There is a reason why the tradition of gathering for handwork has remained so strong for generations.
After the workshops, one of the participants sent a link to this TED Talk. It put a lot of things into perspective and gave a broader language for what I was, and am, trying to do. Perhaps it explains why so many people came, sometimes more than once, to such quiet gatherings.
I'm now in the process of finishing: taking up the stitches left undone, considering the panel order, planning their mount. I've been asked many times if this will be a quilt. It will not. I can tell you it will suspend and hope viewers will be able to journey around each piece, because the messy b-sides are just as valid as all those pretty facades.
Maybe more so.
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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.