I was recently interviewed by Kari Lorenson at Knotwe: The Hub for Fiber, Textiles, Surface Design. If you have time to check out their site, it's gorgeous, really cool and I was fairly sure they'd made a mistake in contacting me because I'm so not hip. I'm like, a 43-year-old mom. In Alaska. And when the smart interview questions appeared (after Kari took the time to read my ENTIRE blog, no less) ... they were hard to answer. So because I spent a lot of time thinking about them, I wanted to share at least one of the Q & A's here.
This was question #3:
"I am so impressed with the mastery of so many techniques you incorporate into your work. The execution and compositions are complex, decisive and from reading your blog, your past experiences working in textile production and highly customized work, your family have all gave you a wide breadth of experiences to draw upon. To me the art of what you create is in part not only in the conceptual ideas you explore but the way you are able to blend these processes into a vocabulary that re-enforces the presence of the work. Do you feel like the forces behind your work and the processes you take into the fold have changed over time? Are there specific creative risks that you hope to take on in the next few projects?"
My mother’s family is in Sweden so my connection to them is limited in terms of distance and language [...]. So while I’ve had fleeting exposure, childhood memory and stories, I can only speculate about who they were and are as people, as women, as makers. Still, they’ve given me this great gift of history and skill. I’m grateful for this sensibility and this need to make, re-make, make better, make well and feel strongly that the ability to create something from nothing and the sensitivity towards any maker’s hand is a value not taught much anymore. For something so commonplace just a few generations ago, it’s slipping away [...].
The physical gift from these women is the work they’ve produced and sent to me for decades— much of it in the form of crochet and embroidery. I spent 25 years hauling it around and grumbling about the outdated form, about the quantity that just kept coming, threatening to toss it all, but then finally deciding to cut it apart and re-use it as a form of reverence. Which in some respects was the most unthinkable and disrespectful thing to do and I would still feel horrible about it if it weren’t for the incredible release I experienced.
The greater challenge with this type of material, is how to channel this buried feminine energy — this silent stabbing of hook and needle — and create something meaningful and complex from the original work. I will say right now that this isn’t easy on a number of levels, but two dichotomies immediately come to mind — first, it’s difficult to execute a contemporary idea from an outdated or vintage item. I am always teetering on the edge of nostalgia with these cloths (and please grab me if I fall off that cliff). And second, I want to revere each object as the last of its kind, but am absolutely propelled and emboldened by the seemingly endless quantity of domestic and decorative linens in the world. When it comes to making that cut, this lessens the hesitation.
Another challenge is that of the hand. Because I learned to embroider and crochet at such a young age, then spent so many years in production and design for the clothing industry (9 of 12 years in custom bridal, starting when I was 17) my hand instinctively makes marks that are even and aligned. I fight this constantly and can tell when I’ve slipped into autopilot; it is a huge effort to remain loose and chaotic in order to achieve an emotional resonance with the handwork.
My process is definitely evolving. I’ve been drawn to the quilt form for a long time, probably because I have very little history with quilts; the women in my family were/are crocheters, knitters, embroiderers and weavers. The only quilt I inherited was a brittle crazy quilt top that came from a great, great aunt who made it after emigrating to Boston, then sent it to Sweden where it was ridiculed and put in a trunk for 50 years (this, according to my mother, who was a child at the time of its arrival). So I am drawn to the quilt form as a vessel for narrative, language, history, effort, thoughts, materials and the domestic role. Recently, however, I’ve been exploring other forms such as upholstery, felting and embroidery all as an attempt to house found objects that are completely unrelated to textiles such as bone, stone, hair and shell.
I’m so interested in narrative, and the next few larger works waiting in the wings are exploring the narrative of others, some of it fictional. I don’t want to sound like a lunatic when I say I hear voices,
but … I do.
"As parents, we develop an instinctual sense of what to do when our children get sick. Our instincts are part childhood memories of what brought us comfort, a bit of science, a large dose of compassion, and some parental adrenaline."
I've had a boy at home with a low-grade fever for four days, feeling lousy enough to tell me in great detail how much his skin hurts, but well enough to insist he needs to eat small portions of "I don't know, Mom, something soft/cold/smooth/and with milk...or maybe crunchy ... no, not crunchy, never mind " every hour.
My daughter was home for two of these days with a soul fever.
But hang on, what is that?
(when children feel) upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. And most of all, at odds with their truest selves [...] Whether the source of the malady was internal or external, it's now raging within, occupying the child's attention and affecting their behavior. Affecting, also, the emotional climate of the home." (Payne, Simplicity Parenting)
And I, as well, have had a combination of the two: the physical and the soul. I've certainly passed on this nasty cough to my son. I've possibly passed on my soul fever to my daughter, although she doesn't know the reasons behind mine. She doesn't know that I am watching the slow, messy spiral of someone I love. She doesn't know that to anticipate another's rock bottom is to travel partway there yourself, but she absorbs my adult energy anyway.
So I have to do something to fix this.
I read Simplicity Parenting when the kids were younger, studied it twice in book groups and heard Kim John Payne speak twice. His work is brilliant, but I'd not thought about it for a while until today. How do I help these children? How do I help myself?
1. Quiet things down.
If you find yourself -- or someone you love -- with a soul fever, I recommend starting with Kim John Payne's four simple tonics. Remarkably, the cure for a soul fever is the same as the cure for a physical one. And none of it is very easy.
-Do not work. Do. Not. Work. This is hard. Okay, just commit to one day off, despite the fact that you have a solo show in one month. And the photographer is coming in 2 weeks. Don't throw up.
-No NPR. This is hard.
-No television, no movies, only some show tunes allowed (pretty easy, except when you've heard "It's A Hard Knock Life" 3 times, then it's hard).
-Weigh the merits of dispensing Ibuprofen vs. letting the fever do its job. Commit to the latter.
-Ask yourself if the cough you've had for 3 weeks is finally going away or if it's just morphed into a sinus infection and ... is that a cold sore? Crap, you're kidding me.
-Stay home from school.
-Power read 2 1/2 Roald Dahl books, but stop when "The Witches" is a little too scary and you're worried you might have nightmares. Then blast through "The Phantom Tollbooth" in about 4 hours.
-Pajamas and bed-head optional, but highly encouraged.
-Read the "BFG" a second time, but skip ahead to the exciting parts.
-Stay home from school.
-Commune with animals.
-Talk a lot about your feelings. Like, a lot -- like, for example, how you like animals better than people. And how you wish you were an animal. Maybe a unicorn. Yes, probably a unicorn. Or a tiger.
2. Bring the afflicted close.
-Make many small wool felt animals. Assume all design details will be dictated by someone else. Allow several hours.
-Paint 26 tiny toadstools and only slightly freak out when your girl wants to organize them all while they're still wet.
-Think about work. Think about what it would be like to work alone. Like, in New York or London or maybe Paris. Think about being 24 and ... oh, and RICH! ... working in Paris. With a wardrobe that doesn't include stretchy pants covered in cat hair. Yes, think about that.
-Rinse out the Vitamix.
-Master the analog clock.
-Announce the time frequently throughout the day. Because now you CAN.
-Cry for no reason.
-Cry for every reason.
-Master the dictionary. Okay. You totally knew how to do that already. Duh.
-Throw up smoothie.
-Lie on the bathroom floor.
3. Let the fever run its course.
-Attend "The Puppet Show that Lasts for One Hour."
-Listen to the description of the Many Feelings. Try to ignore Whiney Voice often accompanied by Baby Talk.
-Break up ... rather ... "facilitate kindness between" bickering children.
-Entertain the fleeting thought: "Maybe they'll both take a nap so I can wedge in an hour of un-interrupted work!" hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
-Okay, now wipe your eyes because that's some funny shit.
-Perform "The Puppet Show that Lasts for One Hour" with 3 intermissions. Do NOT let your brother watch. Scream, in fact, when he tries.
-Announce the time ... again. Get frustrated and start crying because crap if "5 minutes after 20" totally doesn't sound right and now you've forgotten how to tell time and it's probably because you're stupid. Except we don't say stupid.
-Except smoothies are stupid.
-Draw yourself a bath upstairs but return quickly because bathing by one's self is boring and besides, is that a puppet show I hear my sister performing?
4. Allow for a slow strong return.
-Complain about "The Witches" and explain that you would like the book removed from your Cozy Couch Area because the cover artwork makes you have a tummy ache. Really, you're feeling fine, it's just "The Witches" that makes you feel sick now. Blame your mother for this because she gave you the book and she should have known how sensitive you are to these things.
-Announce the time using the big hand and the little hand for Papa when he comes home.
-Announce that you will maybe perform "The Puppet Show that Lasts for One Hour" tomorrow at school. Because you will go there instead of staying home.
-Ignore dinner, no one wants it anyway, including you.
-Go for a long bike ride as soon as your husband walks in the door, airplane-weary, but still able to brush children's teeth and read (more!) and oversee pajamas (fresh!) and break up bickering (new techniques!).
-Pedal and pedal and pedal.
-Ignore the phlegm you keep coughing up and listen to Hilary Frank's voice in your earbud and know you aren't alone.
-You aren't alone as a mother. You aren't alone worrying about another mother's descent, the messy spiraling one, the rock bottom you're anticipating -- there, you've said it even though you told yourself you wouldn't here -- the root of your soul fever.
-Know this time with your own children will never come again and think about it in the most beautiful, most kind way possible. Shift your bitter thoughts through images and words, then present them to the world so you are left with a sweetness behind these days.
-Know it's okay to make this slight alteration in reality.
-Then wonder if your children would like Paris. Wonder if you even would.
*Text excerpted from Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400 - circa 1204, by Cynthia Hahn, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012 (pp. 9-12).
And about that embroidery ...
The stitching around the slate beach stones is called shisha or shisheh embroidery. Shisheh means "glass" in Persian, referring to the glass pieces embroiderers originally employed; now this technique more commonly uses mirrored disks (the other name for this is "mirror work"). Reflective elements such as this are said to be an attempt to ward off the evil eye.
Whooooooo-ooooooooo-ooooooo (insert wiggly fingers here).
If you'd like to learn a simple version of this stitch, check out a comprehensive tutorial at Joyful Abode, then do yer own thang.
And for more "How To" posts from this blog, click on: "A history of chaos," "B sides," or "How to box & ship a quilt (like a Swede)" (more located under the sidebar's "How To" category). Most posts are visual explanations of embroidery or construction techniques, but others are explorations on how to be, so get your Smarty Pants on, or your Thinking Cap, or your Smock, or your Mad Scientist Goggles and get to work, people.
So damned much to learn. So little time.
"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.
The work on exhibit was by a guy named Kaffe Fassett. (I know, right, you've never heard of him either.)
And as I bumped into Swedes who'd stopped to inspect the seashell-inspired needlepoint upholstery and the enormous colorful sweaters and the prolific monochromatic quilts, I jammed my fists deeper into my pockets because I really (and I mean, really) wanted to flip all these things inside out. I wanted to inspect edge finishes and backs. Analyze materials. Squeeze. Prod. I know my gallery-visiting self well enough to keep the pokey fingers on lockdown, but others apparently didn't because the security guard spent the afternoon rushing all over the place, politely asking for restraint. This was hard for the particular group gathered there that afternoon.
My Swedish isn't great, but I recognize an undertone when I hear one. I can translate a petty criticism, a fleeting muttered comment. That hem doesn't hang straight. Does he really make all these things by himself? The stitches are uneven. That sweater needs to get blocked. I wish I had a photograph of a certain needlepoint tapestry that hung down over an entryway -- not because of the remarkable work, but because of the hilarity of watching every single Swede that walked beneath it contort their necks to view the snarled wool and knots visible on the warped back side.
I can make fun of Swedes because I am one -- well, a half a one plus a bit of one -- and because I shared their thoughts that afternoon. Anyone who has been taught to sew by a Swede (or a German or a Dane or a Norwegian or a Finn, or a Russian Grandmother ... etc.) and has survived the PTSD of, "The back has to look as good as the front," or the dreaded, "You have to rip this out because it's not perfect," will tell you:
This kind of thinking is REALLY hard to shake.
My mother taught me how to embroider when I was about 3 or 4. Taught me how to use a Viking machine and to manipulate a Simplicity pattern when I was 9. And then I took off. At 17 I knew my way around a Brother industrial single needle, could troubleshoot and rethread an industrial 5-thread overlock, and began training with a designer while going to undergraduate school for degrees in art and textiles. My mother was then asking me for sewing advice.
And here's where I have to take a second to collect my thoughts, because this was going to be a post about how I really have a dislike for commercial fabrics. How nothing zaps my creative energy faster than a fabric store. How, in order to use the vintage fabrics and thrift store clothing and linens that really fire me up, I have to back almost everything with cotton interlining and this is where I employ all that commercial quilting fabric. This was going to be a post about technique. I was going to flip my work inside out and show you all the B-sides. Show you something that maybe everyone else is already doing, but I'm too silly and in my head to know this.
And yes, I do press the majority of my seams open. It reduces bulk and this technique amasses it. But now I'm bored with this whole idea. Why talk about it more? You get it: interesting, yet thin fabrics + hours of extra work + structural reinforcement = Content Swede.
Right. So, I'm far more curious about that sentence up there, the one about my mom asking for help with the skill she taught me in the first place ... this resonates with me all of a sudden. I'm interested in mining that intersection of motherhood and childhood and the ideas and techniques that are passed on, because what, exactly, does it mean to have your child suddenly become more proficient at something than you are?
It's going to happen. We want this to happen for our children. We want to give them the tools and the foundation and the skills to go out into the world and forge their own way. A master tailor I worked for, Manuel, used to say "Kill the father," meaning, "Become better at this than I am." But when does what we teach our children become a hindrance? When is our voice a muttering, petty criticism that lodges in their minds and keeps them from moving freely into creativity? Keeps them forever ripping out the same seam again and again until nothing's left but a hole?
In our house my husband and I have a gentle reminder for one another with regards to what we say to our children. Sometimes laughed out loud, sometimes muttered in passing, it is: Hear you, hearing you.
--My 8-year old claiming that the boy in his swim class is "inappropriate and disrespectful towards the teacher?" Hear you, hearing you.
--My 6-year old wanting to loan a book to a friend "so she can get a sense for the overall series?" Hear you, hearing you.
--Both of them bursting into tears over this or that project because they can't make it perfect? The first time? Hear you, hearing you.
And a museum full of Swedes one afternoon, who've been taught to work by hand with stoic perfection, viewing a wild riot of colorful textile gestures, seemingly created at a speed barely able to keep pace with the ideas tumbling out? Hear a generation, hearing a generation...and a generation, and a generation, and a generation. That's scary.
So, do we embrace these voices, this history, in our work? In our lives? Or do we heave and push against it? Or both. Maybe it's some kind of luxury to take the time to even think about it, but sometimes the work takes so long that all I have is time to wander around in my head, bumping into all those other Swedes. I spend more time undoing perfect stitches in an attempt to free the look of the hand than I do ripping out actual mistakes. I'm unraveling on a cellular level.
Damn ... here I've gotten all heavy and flipped myself inside out to present my B-side for you all to prod. Makes me realize I need a cup of coffee. Here, I'll order one for you, too, and we'll page through this lovely Kaffe Fassett book. Then let's just take a peek at the back of this stitching here and assure this Little One that the knots and wool snarls don't matter. It's all easily fixed and no, you don't have to re-do it, and no, we're not re-doing it for you. Because what we want her to embrace and understand and carry with her into adulthood is the idea that it's the motivation to keep going that is the true perfection.
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