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.
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.
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:
For other artist profiles, click on the sidebar category: Find Your Teachers (then scroll past this post, which will appear there, too).
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.
"Find your teachers."
In 2009, I joined Facebook and slunk around all the pages belonging to people I went to high school with, saw what everyone looked like ... err ... I mean, was up to ... and then didn't to go to my 20-year class reunion because I slid off the earth with my 2-year old and newborn.
Social media cooked right along without me.
I'm that late-adopter mom who writes epic text messages with her pointer finger. And edits before sending. I edit and re-edit Facebook posts. I edit posts I wrote 2 weeks ago. I'd edit your posts if I could. I write snarky posts and cancel them because I'm a Facebook Weenie and can't imagine adding more conflict to my existing life-drama of "Why do we always have to eat a yucky dinner?"
I also go to bed at 9 pm.
So when I saw Kathy Halper's embroidery work online last year, I had to contact her. If there was one thing I could learn from this person -- amid my riot of small children and exhaustion and yucky dinners and the wondering what the hell I was doing with my artwork all the while editing myself into oblivion -- it was, perhaps, how to just be.
-How to be contemporary while working in a traditional medium.
-How to create work that feels spontaneous, yet well crafted.
-How to use language to make a social point.
-How to be better at listening.
-How to be heard.
-How to find my voice.
Meet Kathy Halper, I found her for you. We've been exchanging a mile-long thread still connected to my original email, with the subject heading "Awesome Work." When I see this in the inbox, it always means I have a good excuse to cuss ( I don't in person), whine a bit (okay, I do whine in person), keep it real, bare it all and edit that shit, of course.
Kathy Halper, Chicago Area, Illinois USA
Best advice given freely but never followed:
Get off your ass.
Seriously, as far as my art career is concerned, I’ve been pretty good about following the advice I give others, which is to set your sights on a goal, meet people along the way, develop relationships, work hard on your art and jump at opportunities when they’re presented to you.
Opting out of:
The 9-5 world. I had a brief return to the the business world this past year, acting as Marketing Manager for an ecommerce company. Turns out, after years of running loose as an artist and mom, I’m no longer domesticated enough to be in captivity.
Not currently. Not recently. But definitely in the future.
What don’t I watch!?! Downton Abbey, Shameless, Girls, The Good Wife, The Daily Show, Last Week with John Oliver, Better Call Saul, New Girl, Nashville, The Americans, House of Cards, any new movies On Demand ... In my defense, I spend a lot of time sitting embroidering so while my brain turns to mush my hands keep moving.
Spending too much money on:
Currently working on:
A series of embroidered narratives that are forcing me to examine my life at 56. I became an empty nester this year and I can see 60 from my front yard. This is forcing me to think about the ways life has not turned out as I imagined it would. I’m finding the work therapeutic in giving me closure and giving me a way to say goodbye to things that are no longer. It may sound depressing but I don’t believe the work comes across that way. We will see.
Hoping to learn:
How to make money as an artist.
On Voice and Truth:
I wish I could give a formula for finding voice, but I honestly believe my voice found me. And it took a couple of decades.
It seemed to emerge when after years of “trying on” different voices I finally created a body of work that incorporated so many disparate parts of my life:
-My adolescent love of needle crafts.
-My life as a mother of teenagers.
-My focus on figurative art exploring relationships.
-My love of wordplay from my days as a copywriter.
-My fascination with pop culture and the discovery of Facebook.
It’s like I put them all in a blender and my social media embroideries came out.
I never got a formal art education, but my daughter is getting a BFA so I have an idea now of what I missed. It’s taken me close to 20 years to create the work that feels like “my voice,” and I believe a good art education could've shortened that journey enormously. To be challenged every day by other artists' voices and forced to explore other mediums and study art history would’ve been such a wonderful experience. Yet I also realize that the work I’m doing now could’ve only come from my years of trial and error and my life experiences.
Years ago I made a lot of money doing commissioned paintings for clients of an interior decorator. I would do whatever they wanted to match the living room and go with their decor. As we struggle to pay for college educations, I often wonder why I don’t go back to this lucrative side job. But since I've found my voice, I've come to realize that I'm incapable of not being true to it.
For more of Kathy Halper's work:
Yes, and about that "making money as an artist part," check out Kathy's etsy shop for some little bits of voice that might just reflect your very own: www.kathyhalperdesigns.com.
And for further Awesome Work (of the fine art variety), head to www.kathyhalper.com.
Hey, if you're a Curious Learner type, you'll also like the post Find your teachers: Bren Ahearn.
"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.
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