About a year ago, a curator and artist from Pakistan named Samina Islam emailed to ask if I'd be interested in participating in a fiber art exhibition -- the first of its kind -- in Karachi at the VM Art Gallery. It was easy to find information on the gallery -- a non profit, in operation since 1987, with a stated intention that aligns with my own:
"Arts and crafts have always been a significant part of any culture and society around the world and artists are integral to its well being, creativity, diversity as well as innovations of any community; artists are people who make a contribution not only to the world’s cultural heritage but also to their country."
But I still had questions, not about sending my work to Pakistan, specifically, but about sending my work overseas in general. This was my first international invitation and I wanted to ensure my decision to participate wasn't clouded by my own giddiness. Luckily, I have a Pakistani friend here in Anchorage, Shehla Anjum*, who I've known for over 13 years. We met in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and our paths have woven like a braided river ever since. When I was first contacted by Samina, my friend Shehla happened to be in Pakistan visiting family.
What are the chances?
"This show is meant to introduce the public to a variety of ways textile and fiber can be used to produce works that go beyond their aesthetics and raise a voice to incite a discourse on a range of issues effectively – a strengthened position that may not have had equal impact through other media.
Shehla wasn't able to meet face-to-face with Samina, but they spoke on the phone in Karachi and discovered they have a mutual friend, Masuma Halai Khwaja, also an artist, and this was probably how my name was thrown into the global mix. Shehla indicated that Samina's enthusiasm for the curatorial effort was contagious and she passed that confidence on to me.
I'm honored to be included in such company, some of whom I've followed for years, such as Sue Stone, and others whose names have more recently been appearing in various publications, such as Richard McVetis, or illustrator Manica Musil, who will soon publish her textile illustrated children's book with Oxford University Press, Pakistan in English and Urdu because of this opportunity. Other contributing artists have reached out to me, across oceans, across cultures, and now we're connected in this small way.
During a time of global uncertainty, this exhibition has a fitting title -- when caring for cloth, you often need to unravel the damage before any mending can begin. I know Samina Islam worked incredibly hard to bring all of us together, and she didn't have to.
But she did.
I sent the first "Girl Story" piece. It's won two awards and exhibited widely, so if she gets lost coming back to me, then that's part of the story.
But she won't.
I couldn't attend the opening, so Samina asked for a video. I think I was more nervous about making this than sending work overseas. So here's what I sent, shaky voice and all. Many thanks to my sister, Erica, for putting this one together.
Here is a list of the other contributing artists with links to their sites. I hope you'll seek them out. I hope you'll cross that bridge.
Rosie James (UK)
Richard McVetis (UK)
Sue Stone (UK)
Lyndsey McDougall (Ireland)
Manica Musil (Slovenia)
Samina Islam (Pakistan)
Numair Abbasi (Pakistan)
Roohi Ahmed (Pakistan)
Asad Hussain (Pakistan)
Masuma Halai Khwaja (Pakistan)
You can read critic Rabia S. Akhtar's review of the exhibition in Art Now: Contemporary Art of Pakistan.
*And back to my friend Shehla Anjum -- she was one of the contributors to the Inheritance Project, and you can read about the cloth I inherited from her in the post The 12th boxes of mystery. She is a writer, question asker, world traveler and generous human, and despite calling the US home for decades, she is also feeling the emotional effects of being born in a Muslim country. Connecting Samina and I has become a glimmer of silver, which she recently wrote about in an opinion piece for the Alaska Dispatch News.
If you are interested in other exhibitions, click on the sidebar category Gallery Shows and scroll down since this post will come up first.
In 2013 I entered "Spontaneous Combustion" in Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX, a biennial exhibition at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. I'd missed the deadline 2 years prior, when my children were 3 and 5 years old. At the time, missing a deadline had felt like one of so many small failures.
I'd sobbed on the living room floor and told my husband I felt some train barreling towards me and the greatest fear wasn't that it would run me over, but that it would pass right by. Melodramatic? Yes. Hormone induced? Yes. Authentic? Totally.
So I drove all of that emotion into this piece.
And entered two years later.
And won a prize.
And the museum purchased that work.
I waited 13 years to have children. I had two careers, completed three degrees, read all those birthing books before they came into my life.
But no one could tell me how sleep deprivation would affect me personally, or what part of the hormonally-laced spectrum I would slide along after giving birth -- a froth of postpartum anxiety with a sprinkle of postpartum OCD? That sounds about right.
It's all here, in every stitch.
My parents hadn't seen the piece in person and this was the third time I'd made an appointment to bring them to the museum for a visit. I cancelled the first visit when my mother returned from Sweden with pneumonia and couldn't travel to Alaska from the Lower 48. I cancelled the second when my grandmother in Sweden passed away.
Most of the original handwork in this piece came from women in Sweden -- great aunts, a grandmother, a great grandmother -- all gone now. To cut into their work felt sacrilegious one second and cathartic the next. My son and daughter drew all of the images around the border, easily four generations of my family have contributed to this piece.
It's a time capsule.
It's held in the safest place it could possibly reside.
It's hidden from light, from temperature and humidity fluctuations, from my future teenagers who will decide to have a house party featuring all shades of vomit. It's rolled, right side out, around a cushioned bolster wrapped in Tyvek -- a paper-like, polyethylene olefin material that repels moisture and dust, with a slick surface that won't snag fabrics or degrade over time. Since we're nerding out here, you should know that Tyvek can be sewn into bag forms or wrapped around costume hangars or furniture, too. (If you are interested in this material and how conservators use it, you can learn more about it in a post by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which describes the four-year-long rehousing of their costume and textile collection. You could also purchase a 50-yard roll of Tyvek through University Products if you have a little froth of anxiety or sprinkle of OCD, yourself.
As a woman, it's difficult to talk about my early mothering experience without feeling judged, but as an artist, I mine this cave to its depths.
Frankly, artists get judged all the time ... and sometimes they win prizes.
Mothers -- parents -- should receive more prizes, too.
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If you want to learn more about the process of making "Spontaneous Combustion," you can read A history of fire, part 1 and part 2. The Histories category in the blog side bar will take you to a series of other process posts about my work, with a smattering of visual how-to.
Now, go order some Tyvek.
In June, Reliquary #8: Scroll traveled to The Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, Colorado for the 34th Annual New Legacies Contemporary Art Quilts Exhibition, which opened on July 8. The show features 39 pieces from 25 artists around the country -- I was thrilled to be included, and even more excited when the piece was granted the Award for Creative Innovation. I've blogged about the process and impulse behind making this work already, so what I'm sharing here are images from the show, recently sent to me by the good folks at The Lincoln Center.
The exhibition jurors included Jo Fitsell, Louisa Smith, Vicki Carlson and Ellen Martin. Awards judges were Jo Fitsell and Louisa Smith.
I was immersed in the Reliquary Series for 2 years and it's been wonderful to see the pieces all together a few times in various galleries, but just as gratifying to see individual pieces stand alone out in the world (to learn a little more about this series, you can visit the portfolio page, or click on the Reliquary category in the blog side bar... then scroll down).
Many of the artists included in this show have work that is immediately recognizable. I aspire to have that quality as well.
Since I live in Alaska, traveling to see exhibitions is prohibitive for a number of reasons. Unless a friend sends images from his/her own visit, I never see how work hangs together, so it's lovely to have gallery shots.
I haven't received the New Legacies catalogue yet and I believe it will be slipped in with my return box -- which is wonderful -- but I can't attach names to the work without it. I don't want to hold off showing this installation photography until after the exhibition though, since those of you who live closer may want an opportunity for a road trip (I totally would).
The exhibition will be up until September 3, 2016 (Quick, fill the gas tank! Pack the snacks!). Gallery hours are 12 - 6pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays and admission is free.
So, apologies to the artists for not pairing their names to the appropriate art at this time; I intend to pop them into the captions at a later date. If your work appears here, please leave a comment or drop me a line if you'd like your name indicated immediately.
I'm down with that.
At the end of this post is a master list with links to all of the artists, which The Lincoln Center has since provided on their site as well. Our thanks for this.
Congratulations on a beautiful exhibition.
Margaret Abramshe, Mesquite, NV
Pamela Allen, Kingston, Ontario
Linda Anderson, La Mesa, CA
Leslie Bowman-Friedlander, Reisterstown, MD
Marcia DeCamp, Palmyra, NY
Helen Geglio, South Bend, IN
Kerri Green, Dallas, TX
Ayn Hanna, Fort Collins, CO
Rosemary Hoffenberg, Wrentham, MA
Sandra Hopkins, Wellington, CO
Kathleen Kastles, Wailuku, HI
Pat Kroth, Verona, WI
Aryana Londir, Phoenix, AZ
Valerie Maser-Flanagan, Carlisle, MA
Mary McCauley, Fort Collins, CO
Amy Meissner, Anchorage, AK
Melody Money, Boulder, CO
Bob Mosier, Conroe, TX
Clara Nartey, West Haven, CT
Do Palma, Cheyenne, WY
Cynthia Vogt, Kennewick, WA
Carol Waugh, Denver, CO
Shea Wilkinson, Omaha, NE
Marianne Williamson, Miami, FL
Charlotte Ziebarth, Boulder, CO
For information about other exhibitions, please see the sidebar category Gallery Shows, and scroll down to see prior posts.
"Inheritance" is currently on exhibit at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey. It's one of four works I shipped for the fiber art invitational "Every Fiber of My Being," curated by Diana Weymar and including work from Maira Kalman, Cassie Jones, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, Danielle Hogan and Katie Truk. Let's just say I'm blown away to be in such company. Check them out.
This post is a brief exploration of the visual dynamic and thought process behind the making of "Inheritance," which I started in the summer of 2015, abandoned for many months, then completed in the winter of 2016.
Plus, I'll explore some misunderstandings.
Like this one: old, dated, even poorly made items of unknown origin and/or maker aren't worth salvaging.
Here's another misunderstanding: imperfections in one's handwork should be ripped out and re-sewn.
And this is what I do understand, deeply: Sometimes we have to circle around the heart of a problem many times. Sometimes the right words aren't the first to come. Sometimes you have to put work aside and be patient.
Then one has to figure out how to apply those words to a situation, and this can take a long time, too.
And then there is the misunderstanding of the words, themselves. Like when your daughter, age 7, has worked out the language on the wall and comes to you all wobbly chinned and eyes flashing, fists at her sides, hissing: "You made that art because of us, didn't you?"
And then one has to clear up the misunderstanding of voice: "I could say this to you, right?"
"You have," she says, wiping her nose.
"Okay. But what if you said it to me?"
"What if a man said it to a woman, or to an old woman?"
"What if a child said it to an old man?"
And then, "What if I said it to the cat?" she says.
There are messes she can't even conceive of. And misunderstandings that lay in her path, hidden, waiting for her to stumble over.
And the fears I have as a mother, the things I possess and need to pass on to my children -- the tangible and intangible parts of myself and my history, the living questions and my own misunderstandings, that Inheritance -- how can all this be best shaped for clarity?
How can my intent and my will be made relevant?
How do you create a work -- a body of work -- that prods at this from all angles while striving for purity and emotional resonance?
And how do you use old fabrics, old skills, in ways that feel contemporary and vital? How does the valueless become valuable?
And here's a final misunderstanding: How do you convince people that the needle really is supposed to hang there like that on the finished work? I picked up this piece from the last gallery and some well-meaning art connoisseur -- or a very tidy sewer -- had stabbed it into the canvas.
Mess. Even the idea of it provokes the muscle's response.
If you are interested in other posts like this (note that I don't lay out step-by-step how tos because I believe we're all really smart people around here and can figure things out visually) please scroll through the How To or Process categories there in the side bar. Any of the posts in the Histories category will take you to other artistic backstories if you're curious.
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"(...) A 'romance with the fragment' begins when our childhood pockets fill with relics from the natural world -- in this case, objects found on the shores of Prince William Sound, Alaska -- and later, as adults, when we fill our most vacant spaces with the weight of the spiritual or the worry of the inevitable. The body is the ultimate reliquary for pain and loss; we are shaped and defined by what we cling to despite its apparent worthlessness."
A year ago, I finished "Reliquary #8: Scroll," which is currently exhibited at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center as part of the All-Alaska Biennial where it received a Juror's Merit Award. It has lived a short, full life as part of the Reliquary Series -- an on-going exploration of form, found object and reverence for the discarded.
The piece took 67.75 hours to complete, not including the work on the old metal dock bollards, which I took up again this fall, concerned about rust bloom and corrosive contact with fragile fabrics. When polishing by hand proved thankless, I burned through fine wire grinders, then white felt polishing wheels now permeated with rusty froth and beeswax.
These objects now have the luster and heft of cast bronze. The weight of hours. I love them.
Like the other components of this work, they were found in a heap, in some sense rescued.
In another sense, simply seen and considered and pocketed.
Artists submitting to the All-Alaska Biennial were asked to explore the theme of "the authentic North, its people, materials and landscapes, through a variety of interpretations." And while there could be a literalness to this -- all glaciers and arctic foxes and and the sharp sheen of ice -- I feel like I've been in Alaska long enough to present my own authentic relationship to this place.
I feel closest to it in Prince William Sound.
Picking up trash.
To be clear, I don't use garbage in my artwork, but I use the time handling and hauling it to observe and collect my thoughts on how I fit into this vastness, this depth and solitude, this never-ending work my young family has taken up, not because we are paid or want recognition, but because we love this place and its wildlife.
In our bumbling earnestness, we have been known to foul debris collection data on certain documented (yet, unmarked) beaches. That's been embarrassing to learn, but not enough of an excuse to stop.
We are just one small boat with children and some trash bags.
Besides, to stop this kind of work is to force oneself to stop seeing. Once your eyes are open to the potential of a thing or a place, how do you close them again?
I've been thrilled to see this piece, my thoughts, going out into the world.
And since the work doesn't look like much coiled in a cardboard box, I owe a lot of its showmanship to the willingness of my photographer, Brian Adams, who foremost shoots blow-your-mind contemporary portraits of people and place, not objects. But it's probably for this reason he's able to capture the soul of some thing.
In some place.
For as remote as I sometimes feel, it's this exact quality that grants me clarity.
I've been in Alaska 15 years, the longest I've lived anywhere.
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If you are curious about the work we sometimes do on Alaskan beaches, check out the post What we found, 2 and for work on other, warmer, beaches, there's always the first What we found post.
And, if you wonder about the impetus and/or influences behind my work, please visit the Histories category in the side bar where I share stories and process images.
The All-Alaska Biennial is on exhibit in Anchorage until April 10, 2016.
That Anchorage Press Article is here. Dawnell Smith is a talented writer and a good friend.
You can follow me on Instagram: @amymeissnerartist or on my Facebook Page Amy Meissner, Artist
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.