I don't travel alone much, but recently spent time in Lincoln, Nebraska for the SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) "Creation to Curation" conference (I'm a regional co-representative in Alaska with Maria Shell). Despite the 3-hour time difference for me, I was still up at 4:30 or 5 am each day.
Once of the people who stumbled into that Early-Morning-Inbox-tapping-quietly-so-I-dont-wake-my-roommate space was Christine Chester.
She asked a question, which I'm sharing with her permission, and while I'm no expert, I gave her an answer I wish someone would grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eye and give to me.
I wonder if I could ask you a question about your Inheritance Project and your approach to working with your mystery box gifts.
To set it in context - I am working with old handkerchiefs which have been gifted to me by various individuals - as a development of my work on dementia/loss of memory/identity.
I am struggling to balance the respect I want to show these gifts of someone's quite intimate possession and the necessity to affect them in some way as an artist.
I desperately want to use them all - I want everyone to see what I see in them - I want to show every single detail. But the artist in me wants to change or affect them for the purposes of communicating my thoughts.
You work so sensitively with your materials I wondered if you wouldn't mind sharing any thoughts you might have on your approach. Though you may choose not to and I would completely understand that.
Just to be up front -- this isn't an advice column, nor am I clear on what the hell I'm doing MOST of the time. I'm not a how-to guru and pretty sure I'm no teacher, but Christine had questions about work I felt I could answer since none of these concerns are new to me. I think about them all the time with regards to an artist's choice of materials, my unanswered questions and a deep respect for makers known and unknown.
So I responded with the letter I'd want to receive, and Christine graciously allowed me to share our private early morning correspondence.
Thank you for contacting me and for asking such a compelling question. It’s one that I’ve periodically let my mind wander to, but have decided not to get hung up on, and here’s how I do this:
1. You are the final inheritor of these objects. Unless anyone has asked you to not alter an object (and I have had a woman give me something, then expressly ask me not to “cut it up”…I’m still trying to figure out the work around on that one), then it is yours to do whatever you want with. Guilt. Free. No matter what your mother/aunt/grandmother/neighbor/friend/stranger says. When contributors contacted me about the Inheritance Project, I sent an email indicating that the form of the object would change, so I could give a heads up right away and allow them to change their minds. No one did (except that one lady, but she never got the email, she just gave me this thing in a driveway…long story…).
2. Balance the beautiful and the terrible. Decide what falls back and what comes forward, and when. If it’s all terrible, then its a travesty to ruin old linens. But if it’s all beautiful, then it’s nostalgic craft and doesn’t prod at the deeper living questions, which is what makes this work your art. I often approach this balance through technique. No one can say I’ve destroyed something old and precious if I’ve re-constructed it with the utmost care. Often the terrible is layered, sometimes it is on the surface, but it’s always there. Either in a work's bones or in its graffiti.
3. You are offering these objects a new life. I have about 80 handkerchiefs that I, too, am going to work with, but in community art workshop form, re-distributing them to others and teaching them how to work with this old cloth and found objects, then combining it all into one larger piece. Some of these handkerchiefs still had the labels on them, from 50 years ago — they were never even used. I have a friend who coined the phrase, “Save the best for never.” Is this the right thing to do? It’s what many of our mothers/grandmothers did and somehow that guilt has passed on to us. So stop it right now. You have an opportunity to create a compelling narrative, using old cloth and bringing awareness to your work, your sensitivity and these items. You have every right to do this. The best has come to you now for a reason, so don’t save it. Use it.
4. Show up. You can very easily put this project on the back burner, worried that you will offend someone. But here’s the thing: you probably will offend someone. Some. ONE. (One person contacted me to say she was offended that I was asking for free materials when I should be frequenting thrift stores and buying it myself. Of course, she missed the point of the the project, but her outrage forced me to hone my message and be more clear about my intent). However, the majority of people will see your work and feel moved. Some to tears if you do your job well. So show up every day and work, even if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Go to sleep every night thinking about this project and the answers will come. Write about your work so you, too, are clear on your intention and ready to defend yourself and your choices as an artist should you need to.
I hope this helps.
It’s helped me to write it all down here. I’m grateful you reached out, that was brave.
All the best,
Christine Chester is a textile artist working with mixed media and stitch and her current work focuses on the loss of identity resulting from dementia. In 2015 she had a gallery at the UK’s Festival of Quilts in Birmingham featuring many of these works, and also gained her Masters degree. Christine works as a teacher, specializing in print & dye processes, design and stitch. She runs a specialist teaching studio in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. Recently accepted into the prestigious Quilt Art group, Christine is also a member of textile group unFOLD who had a gallery in 2016 at the UK’s Knitting & Stitching shows in Alexandra Palace & Harrogate.
In short, this lady is no slouch. I can't believe she wrote and asked me ... well ... anything. I'm totally honored to be a part of her world and her sensibility.
* Portrait photography by Sarah Gawler of Sarah Gawler Photography. Other images courtesy of the artist.
Also on this blog:
One year ago: Unicorn Heart
Two years ago: Soul Fever
I sent one out mid April, and a second one especially for contributors to the Inheritance Project. If you signed up and didn't receive one, please check your spam/clutter box. If you'd like to receive a pretty newsletter with links to blog posts and upcoming news (maybe once a month ... maybe), you can sign up for it here. I promise I'm not spammy.