My first job in high school began as an internship at a small shop in Nevada that made costumes, wedding gowns and casino uniforms. I fell in love with a Brother single needle industrial machine whose push-button start up and whining motor stood my arm hair on end. I was also smitten with the gravity fed industrial steam iron (I once forgot to turn it off and left it smoldering on the ironing board...overnight). Loading cones and rethreading a 5-thread serger with its zig-zagging internal paths became as navigable as learning to drive a car -- which happened at around the same time -- and for a girl whose father worked with loud equipment and flying sparks all day, yet kept his daughters safe from this, it was a way to harness industrial energy and wield power over a machine at a moment in life when a young woman is vulnerable to dismissing her own capabilities.
That was all the fun stuff (except maybe the casino uniforms), but the bread and butter work in that shop were the alterations. I've hemmed more Carole Little knit pants from Macy's than I care to count, and learned to make way more small talk in a fitting room than any other 17-year old I've ever met (I'm still not great at it, but I can probably still make a half-naked lady feel pretty comfortable. Wow, except that came out wrong).
To rip into another person's worn clothing has an intimacy rivaled by actually making clothing and fitting a person's body. I've found used tissues in pockets (into the garbage), money and jewelry and keys (into the small return baggie) and seams filled with dust, lint and scales of skin. I've been gagged by cologne and perfume and cigarette smoke. A woman once delivered several vests to be copied and remade, only to discover that her male cat had sprayed on them just that morning. She tried to leave them anyway, and when I explained there was no way I could hand them over to the woman who does the alterations (me) before dry cleaning (her), she snorted and craned her neck to see who this picky "alterations girl" in the back room might be.
During the 12 years I was in the clothing industry, doing everything from alterations, to running a commercial cutter, to fitting custom gowns, to sample sewing PVC raincoats/stretch jeans/metallic halter tops for 14-year olds, to marching to the bank to try and deposit paychecks (9 of those bounced at one factory), to making patterns, to crying on the bus, to finally being mentored by a master tailor for 4 years in the '90s (more crying), the constant hum for me was the intimacy of cloth. And the years that this intimacy was absent (factory work), it bothered me that clothing was so disposable. Later in my career, when returning to custom made wedding gowns, I thought I'd be creating garments that would be revered.
Some were. Most of the clients were lovely women. And I try really hard to remember their smiles, vast embraces and impossibly smooth shoulders.
But the fond memories are often overshadowed by mothers telling daughters how fat they looked, or girls bad mouthing the size of an absent friend's ring ("...you know that marriage won't last... "), or bridesmaids who (I'm not kidding) pushed each other out of the way to vie for the mirrored walls, the ruined gowns returned for fixing ("... we got such a great photo in the hotel fountain!"). It's comical now. But for a girl from a small town, brought up to sew and respect the work of the hand, it was devastating. My last boss, a mentor and man I respected and loved like a father, called me "Provincial." The hardest part was realizing my own lack of skill when it came to matching wits with princesses.
For Pete's sake, who even knew that was a thing?
All this to say: alterations don't bother me. Neither does the prospect of incredibly time-consuming work.
(And I steer clear of Princesses).
Girl Story and Girl Story #3 have been accepted into Focus: Fiber 2016 at Kent State University Museum. If you are in Ohio between February 12 and July 3, 2016 I highly encourage you to check out the exhibition (and send pictures please, because I won't get down there for this one, unfortunately).
One of the notations in the exhibition agreement stated, "Velcro is preferred but not mandatory." A few months ago, I met with the textile curator at the Anchorage Museum and she had mentioned this very thing in terms of displaying tapestries and textile work.
So I ripped off the sleeves.
Adding velcro to a piece and the accompanying mounting bar is easily reversible, protects the fabric and will eliminate curling and bulging at the bottom edge once installed by allowing for minuscule adjustments at the top until the piece hangs straight across the bottom.
So while I didn't have to make this alteration to two pieces of artwork before shipping, I chose to.
"When we mount quilts, we use 2" velcro stitched by machine to a muslin strip. The muslin strip is then hand sewn - carefully and lightly - to the quilt backing so that no stitches or muslin show. Put the soft side of the velcro on the strip sewn to the quilt and staple the hard side to a 1" x 2" piece of poplar. 2" velcro gives us a better chance to get the piece hanging straight since most quilts are not perfectly square."
If making clothing for people taught me anything, it's this: there is no one way. Every body is different, every mind is different.
Every show is different.
(But darn it if male cat pee is always the same).
I'd love to hear your comments about successful mounting/hanging techniques. I'd also love to hear what went terribly wrong so we can all learn from each other.
This post is filed under the How To category in the side bar. There are a few other how to posts available there, although I'll never walk you through anything by blah, blah, yaddah-yaddah because there are lots of other verbose bloggers out there breaking sewing steps down. I know you're on your game, so I show you lots of pictures instead.
And I tell some stories.
“If you're too open-minded, your brains will fall out.”
I'm not an early adopter. It's not my personality to grab the latest technology or technique, and by the time I'm ready to try something new I'm racing to catch up with everybody else who's been using it for years. I used to think this meant I was a weenie, too scared to take risks, too set in old ways of doing things like drawing with actual pencils and writing letters on actual paper. But I'm easier on myself now and realize I'm less "weenie" and more "suspicious-questioning observer." When I'm not absorbed in my own mire, I've got one eye on the work in front of me and one eye on what everyone else is doing.
Or has done.
So here's the thing I'm questioning in my studio practice lately: glue.
(I know. That's really boring and I'm sure if you give me 20 seconds I'll come up with another mind-blowing concern equally important to humanity. You can totally stop reading now if you want to get back to blogs about world peace and sustainable living and global warming and I'll catch up to you eventually. I'll be a little sweaty and disheveled when I arrive, but don't call me a weenie because I care about those things, too).
But, the glue.
And the fusibles.
All the sticky stuff -- temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent (or the temporary that inadvertently becomes permanent and visa versa). I'm wondering about its longevity and I'm wondering how often I re-e-e-ally need to use it. And while there's a time and place for these wondrous affixers of textiles -- allowing for accessible community art projects, say, or for proper tailoring, obviously, or doing things like this -- I am constantly looking for the work-around in my own art.
I use a number of other stabilizing and affixing techniques, many learned from years making wedding gowns, just so I can bypass the glue. Did we use fusible interfacing in the atelier? Yes. Did we use fusible webbing? No. Did we have commercial equipment to affix the high-quality, supple interfacing we did use? Yes. Did it sometimes kill the fabric? Yes. So we often chose to interline delicate materials with other, equally expensive and equally delicate materials, supporting these fabrics using old techniques.
Remember the science of chemical reactions? Acids? Off gassing? Deterioration? I know, I sometimes forget about it too, and I even went to school for this about a million years ago, but until you work with old textiles every day, it's easy to forget the effects of age -- the yellowing and disintegration caused by light, moisture, time, untreated food stains, body oil, acid and glues. Some of it doesn't even emerge for decades.
I've picked at ancient Pellon, crusty masking tape, brittle white glue, flaking bits of who-knows-what and while all of it is slightly different and the removal is met with varying levels of success, one thing remains the same: the makers all did this with the best of intentions.
Maybe they thought they were increasing longevity or enhancing the finished quality of their work. Perhaps they were following manufacturer's instructions. Maybe they were just taking a short cut to be done with this damned thing already. I can understand and have experienced all of this, too. And, of course, the glue-like products are better now.
So my suspicious questioning of glue leads to a bigger picture: here's where we need to ask questions in our studio art practice and make sure we aren't bounding towards some technique because everyone else is using it or someone is marketing it to us. Make sure the product and its subsequent use are really part of what makes a medium your medium.
I found a long-term study on the effects of light and aging from the textile department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It's a good read and looks at various products on the market. There are some answers here, but no one knows with certainty what will happen with these products in a century.
I also recommend you seek out and find a textile conservator at your local museum if you're so lucky to have one. Take him or her out to lunch. Ask a lot of questions. You'll get a straight answer about what it takes to create textile work that will still be around in 100 + years, because likely this person has seen it all and can tell you what not to do. I did just this (the lunching). I'm going to do it again, too, because I still have more questions and I happen to like the person who is the textile conservator at my local museum. I also like going out to lunch.
Now. Am I an expert? No. Am I doing everything right with the way I'm handling my work? No.
But I'm trying really hard, and I know you are too.
Fabrics live and breathe. They also die. They need to move and settle into new environments. If you suffocate a fabric in an attempt to create something that is stiff and hangs on the wall like a board, maybe you need to question why. Maybe you need to be suspicious of yourself and your choice of materials. Ask why you would chemically stiffen fabric when maybe you should be working with paper or or wood or metal.
It's just a question.
I'm all for pushing boundaries and materials -- this is where the work is most alive for me -- and I make a lot of mistakes. I've ruined things and felt really sad about it. I've also done stupid shit like grind away at rusted metal using a wire brush and a Dremmel at the kitchen counter wearing eye protection, a face mask, an apron and -- get this -- a cashmere sweater. Yes, that idiot was me. I am still picking hair-fine wires out of that sweater and spent a week pulling them out of my family's feet with tweezers. It's kind of like forgetting your sleeping bag on a multi-night Alaskan camping trip. You only do that once.
(In my defense, it was really cold in the garage, I was excited to use a power tool and the kitchen was sunny. Also that cashmere sweater came from the thrift store, but still).
So be suspicious of products and their claims for longevity. Be suspicious of yourself and your inclinations. Push and push, and strive to understand your materials, their properties, their limitations or you might end up with a mess you can't undo.
Or a really expensive rotting shark.
I'm just saying.
Memory is a strange thing. It is fleeting, it is shaped by the retelling, it is and is not a shared experience. It can define a person's life. So much of memory is held in place by the details surrounding it -- the smells, the sounds, the tastes -- and yet the walls of this supportive container are just as malleable, a shape-shifting vessel holding an element that could be gas or liquid or solid or some combination, but never the same thing twice.
When I was nine, while waiting for a friend outside her house, I draped a blue camp tarp across my shoulders, swirling the extra fabric into the crooks of my elbows, fisting sturdy wads of it in place at my sides. We'd planned an elaborate fort -- our eye on a dense cluster of black oaks -- and I was impatient because she'd had to pee, again, the result of medication she took for a heart condition. Her mother had died that year and our friendship felt distant and strained. We couldn't talk about her family's loss, but we could play in the woods the same as always and I was looking forward to an afternoon of normalcy for the two of us, although I wouldn't have defined it as such at the time. She wouldn't be gone long, just a quick pee. I marched along the sidewalk in a long trailing blue straightjacket, waiting. Then I fell.
Sometimes, even 35 years later, I still wake to the sickening sound of my face hitting the concrete.
I remember thinking I should get up. I should be crying -- no, screaming -- or calling for help at least, but I was still tangled in the tarp and pinned to the ground. When her family found me, I'd somehow made it to the front door, but no one told me that my two front teeth were demolished, or that my lips were already swollen and bloody. I stared at her older brother, the boy who had once sealed our dollhouse animals in a Tupperware and tossed them into the middle of the pool. His face was slack and white, his eyes fixed on my mouth. The father took me by the shoulders, walked me down the hall into the bathroom and propped me in front of the mirror, never saying a word. My hair was in pigtails. I think the hall carpet was rusty orange, the bathroom wallpaper a repeated series of brown line drawings featuring naked people hiding their privates with cleverly placed towels.
The next memory takes place at my home, sobbing in our living room, tucked under an end table with a bloody cloth and a bag of ice while my mother spoke to the dentist on the phone, holding a triangle of tooth in a ziplock bag (the other, bigger triangle forever lost outside where my friend and her brother still searched). Strangers were replacing the carpet in our trailer, from matted mossy green to brown, the weeks leading up to this day punctuated with, "This brown shade? Or this brown? Or maybe this brown?" The man on his knees below the window by the TV, spoke Italian and I remember thinking he was probably someone's grandpa. He turned to me with a tool in his hand and said, "You have to be more careful." He shook that tool at me.
And that horrible smell of new synthetic carpet.
I didn't make this piece of artwork because my teeth broke off. Or because I still dream that they are falling into my hands, all bloody pulp and shards. Or because it's my worry for my own children when they spin out of control down sledding hills, or crash into one another on purpose with razor scooters. I made this piece because the words are what the muse whispered in my ear a year ago and it was up to me to figure out what it meant:
My teeth. My teeth. My teeth are falling out.
My work takes a long time to make. There are many steps, several ways to begin and abandon processes.
So I have time to think about and explore what each piece means.
This is, in a way, a luxury.
In other ways, it is haunting.
The meaning of my work lies in the materials I use: old fabrics, clothing, abandoned domestic linens. Scraps of a life that came before or existed parallel to mine, each bit a memory in its own right. And all of these fragments are fragile, each needs a system of support fabrics and inner structures or outer veils to keep them whole and safe and contained, keeping them alive just a little bit longer.
No one sees this part, this way of working that draws from years of making patterns, draping mannequins, building corsets for wedding gowns. You aren't supposed to see it. I rarely use adhesives or fusibles. When I have, I've been disappointed and wished I'd taken the time to solve the problem in a different way. But each case is different. Sometimes glues are necessary, but for me it is always a last resort. Is isn't a medium.
No one sees your memories unless you share them somehow. This, the problem for each of us to solve: whether or not to share. Does revealing memory lead to further understanding? Or is it more confessional, useless information that no one cares about?
So this piece is a reliquary for loss, and how the accumulation of every small loss in one's life begins to shape a person and forces us to make choices. We can curl into a sobbing ball beneath a table, or we can take these shards and try to form them into something beautiful and dark. This piece is the vessel for a memory, but the making has shaped that memory so it will never be quite the same as when it existed solely in my mind. This piece doesn't look like that day. It doesn't represent that day. But it is the culmination of all the days between that one and this.
I found out this week that the piece has been accepted into Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York. This is the second year I have submitted and been asked to exhibit. The first piece in 2014 was also perhaps difficult to look at and understand. For this reason, I'm incredibly grateful that the jurors chose to include my work each time. I wonder if they took a chance on its inaccessibility. I hope people will view it, wonder and come away wanting to know more. Hopefully they'll make there way here.
I lived with broken, poorly repaired teeth for decades: composite bonding materials always too yellow or too white, or that threatened to pop off (like in the station wagon on the way to the 4th grade Christmas play), or that had to be supported by pins drilled into the existing tooth. I've endured multiple root canals, dental surgeries, stitches in my gums. I remember an incredibly painful file getting stuck between my front teeth and my head being yanked off the dentist's chair again and again while he tried to free it, tears rolling down my temples and collecting in my ears. That was the week before I got married.
10 years ago, pregnant with my son, I dropped stacks$, accepted my vanity and had proper veneers made. Coming home from the dentist's office, I nearly drove onto the sidewalk because I couldn't stop staring at my new teeth in the rear view mirror. These were movie star teeth, fused to those fragile shards beneath. The right glue. The right color. The right shape. The right medium. Porcelain.
God damn it. I deserved them.
I've talked about series work before and since I just sent this piece off to the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY (which feels very far from Anchorage, AK -- more on this in an upcoming post), I'm sharing process photos of how this piece from the Reliquary Series came about.
I spent a lot of time researching reliquaries and memento mori for this series, exploring them through writing and drawing and pattern making, and have every intent to continue along this path for quite some time. I have no connection to these religious items based on my own history, but I'm a collector and a master of highly organized hoarding (and the requisite purging). The impulse behind this work is the question: How do we honor the worthless?
The cloth, the stone, the unidentifiable bone.
And why would we?
And, should we?
I think a lot about what it means to revere objects that are old, discarded or unwanted -- especially things that someone once made, or chose, or lived with, or wore. And then I wonder about the combining of these histories and the shaping of an object with a new energy.
And alongside the mental journey, is the physical act of creating. The building, the repetition, the decision making, the standing back and realizing: Oh crap. I just made something that is too f***ing precious.
Then conjuring the cajones it takes fix that last part.
Because sometimes a slice is the only way to insert what is needed into an object. In this case, a soul.
What kind of cuts do we make to reveal our own souls? When do we put aside our deep embarrassment or fear or stumble through our lack of words in order to peel back the precious parts, the pretty parts, the smoothed over and gilded? How do we find the hidden spirit within an entity? Where does it hide?
A certain palette emerged in this series, and to see the work all in one room made me realize the power and meaning behind this limited range:
white: bone, history and the domestic
gold and amber: bile, bodily fluid and the gilt edge
black: ash and decay
flesh tones: the body
red: blood, the wound
orange: the soul
I spent 12 hours making French knots using wool from discarded crewel embroidery kits.
And the time it took to solve that design problem, offered further time to solve construction problems I knew were coming,
and allowed the recognition, despite the hours invested, that something still wasn't right. Either too literally portrayed, or just not fine enough,
and to know how to fix it.
All the while considering the sinister behind the beautiful.
The macabre within the gilded vessel.
The darkness behind the light.
The horrifying thing that happens when you pursue and then catch a butterfly.
I thought for a time that I needed to insert my artist self somewhere. Among quilters, none of my points are perfectly rendered. Among embroiderers, my stitches are narrowly defined or nameless. Among writers, I'm here blogging. Among fine artists, my work is defined as craft.
So I drift. Strengthening an intent that is honed through time, repetition, emotion and the narrative quality of a life. And the more I do this work, the less I care where it lands.
I will not be defined. I will not be pinned.
Among humans and butterflies, I am understood.
This is a link-heavy post. I'm to the point where this blog is coming together into ... I don't know ... something. Here's the list for those related posts:
The Traveling Eye 6: Reliquary
The dream of pioneers
Swallowing the needle
In the deep well of series work
There are several deadlines looming for juried exhibitions in the textile and contemporary art realm. I'm sure most of you are old pros at submitting -- I'm not, but since I finally have a body of work to pull from, I'm learning how best to approach the task of entering multiple shows. Here's a bit of a take away:
1. Get organized. Give yourself a large layout space and organize all the show descriptions you've been contemplating by deadline date, notification date, show dates. Place available artwork on its own sticky note. Make sure no one disturbs this. It could impact the dinner table for, like, days. Oh, except you never eat there anymore anyway because it's always covered with your crap and the island in the kitchen is way closer to the bottomless carton of whole milk in the refrigerator.
2. Allow plenty of time. Days, really. Computer glitches happen. Kids need snacks and bike rides and summertime trips to the library and then there was that last time you hung up the phone and said, "Unless you're bleeding, do NOT bother me when I'm on the phone!" Right, you need to apologize for that when they wake up. That was a lame thing to say.
3. Pay attention to notification dates so you can leapfrog rejected work immediately to another show. If you're upset about being rejected, this is because you aren't submitting enough (insert laughter here).
4. Start that digital file with all those artist statement variations (20-word count, 100-word count, 1000-character count ... ) and indicate which show you've sent which statement to. Adopt a confident stance. I suggest a Wonder Woman pose for one full minute before copyediting your statement, just one last time.
A cool hipster pose is okay, too. It gives everyone the impression that exhibiting is no big deal. Meanwhile, remember that emerging artists need to apply widely. Except there's the other advice that you shouldn't enter just any old show lest it doesn't further your career, so, actually you should be really picky.
Or some lousy dichotomy like that.
Also remember that "callouses only develop in response to irritation and consistent use," so the prickliness of rejection will eventually go away.
Bite it a little. There, did it go away?
Darn. Maybe later.
5. Read the fine print. I nearly submitted to a show once that couldn't accommodate shipped artwork. What? I live in Alaska. Here, let me just walk it to your loading bay. Wait, just let me walk it through Canada first. I also submitted an enormous piece to a show last winter, failing to notice their clearly stated size restrictions. Right. That piece didn't get in. Duh, Meissner. On the flip side, I had to phone a gallery yesterday, because upon re-reading said fine print, I discovered there were no show dates listed, just the opening reception. Duh, Show.
Did I mention that callouses only develop in response to irritation?
6. Respect the jurors by offering beautiful, professional photos sized appropriately (as per fine print, which will specify different dimensions for each exhibition submittal ... naturally). Also, don't refer to your work as "mixed media" when specifics are so much more revealing and exciting . Also, poof read, I mean, proof read. You have to stand out from 100's or 1000's of submissions, so don't screw up your chances in the first round of jurying because of a silly mistake. No pressure.
7. Photocopy your entry form and staple to the hard copy of the prospectus. In 2 months, when acceptance/rejection letters are finally sent it's likely that you will have forgotten not only what you submitted, but what you said about it, who you are, and where you live.
8. Save all your rejection letters to prove to the IRS that you aren't just sitting on your rear.
9. Do your best to just really get right in there, focus and do the hard work. Like somebody said, "Under commit and over perform."
Somebody also said that thing about "A job worth doing."
Somebody also pointed out that only disgusting people let cats sit on their table. Except that we don't eat at our table. Because I never cook anymore.
If any of this advice is appealing, or makes you feel far superior, you might want to check out the alarmingly popular post "How to box & ship a quilt (like a Swede)" or a myriad of other posts in the "How to" category of this blog. I mean, why bumble along when someone else (me) has clearly done that part for you?
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.