A few months ago I had the privilege of being interviewed by a woman named Sue Ann Gleason, culinary nutritionist, nourishment guide and marketing strategist at Conscious Bites Nutrition. She was drawn to the textile artwork I'm creating with crowdsourced vintage linens and sought out a conversation, which had nothing to do with food, but everything to do with nourishment.
She has a special project of her own: Luscious Legacy, a writing course that focuses on shaping collections of family recipes and stories. She will use our synergistic interview with her writing group --both of us on the road to discovering how aligned we are in terms of object, memory and reverence for the maker -- a west-coast/east-coast, multi-time-zone conversation that could have lasted much longer.
There is audio from the interview, over an hour long, but we worked together to edit the transcript into a much shorter blog form. An excerpt from that interview is below, but you can find the entire post on the Luscious Legacy site, including the audio link. I hope you'll poke around on her gorgeous website and look into her various inspiring projects while you're there.
Sue Ann: I am deeply curious about what we keep and what we pass on, be it tangible or more spiritual in nature. When I happened upon your Inheritance Project, I was captivated. First, because I saw in it such an honoring. Here you are collecting these pieces of handwork as a vehicle to explore voice and history and narrative. Where did it begin? When did these mystery boxes start coming?
Amy: Family members in Sweden have always sent me linens and handwork, but I’ve rarely used any of these things for my home. They’ve been stored in my trunk for years until I started using the cloth in my artwork. Then I received an email last summer from a woman I’d never met in upstate New York who really wanted to send me a collection of vintage linens. I have to admit the alarm bells went off, but I wrote back with my address and said, “No anthrax, no fire bombs.”
When the box came, my daughter and I opened it on the deck, and inside were all these vintage pointy bras and seamed stockings, linens and doilies. She and I had the best time going through it. Her brother had a friend over that afternoon and she was feeling a little left out, and it was also a time when our relationship felt strained. She was starting first grade and had a lot of fear that manifested in snotty remarks towards me and lashing out at her brother; just this really unsettled presence about her. But that afternoon felt really pure. We tried on bras and held up stockings, and then we caught the boys spying on us through the sliding glass door and we laughed and screamed. It’s just this lovely visceral memory I hope she’ll always have.
I don’t know the woman was who sent this to us or who had owned the items before, but we made up a lot of stories and we guessed and wondered. I felt strongly that the experience was informing the next phase of my work. It felt important.
After I blogged about it in a post called “Box of Mystery,” other people contacted me and things started arriving and I realized right away I had to keep track of everything. These were objects that deserved and needed documenting, spreadsheets, proper thank you cards and shaping.
I also realized I’d need to put parameters around the project if I didn’t want people emptying out their cupboards and sending all their unwanted things to me, so there’s a formal list of items I’m looking for. I’m also asking for information: who the maker is, what the origin is and what the circa is because I feel like this also needs honoring. For the most part, all three of those things aren’t readily known, and that in itself feels so powerful to me. I keep envisioning this list of makers of which 95% will be labeled "Unknown."
This process of collecting, documenting and corresponding with people is vital to what I now call “The Inheritance Project.” I’m inheriting things originally inherited by others. And there’s an understanding that very few of these items are going to remain intact once I begin working with them. People are okay with this. If they’ve spent time looking at my artwork at all, they understand I’ll make something else out of the linens they send. Up until this point my work has been really personal, like memoir, using moments, experiences or fears and transforming them into a piece of artwork that then people bring their experiences to and have responses based upon their own history.
Now, I’m feeling a shift and want to explore the fictional aspect of these items. I’m curious about the mythology generated by this vast pool of artifacts that have little or no history. I feel a connection to these unknown makers, and the narrative gurgling up is something I’d like to explore through the next series of work I make from these items. I’m still shaping it and unsure what the end result will be, but I’m envisioning an exhibition with a written component and a combination of two-and three-dimensional work.
This fall I spent a lot of time sitting at my computer submitting work to shows, applying for grants and answering questions. And while it's not necessary to have a creative writing background for these things, it does take the edge off, kind of like when your husband hands you a gin and tonic over top of the bickering children and the smoking pot on the stove. (That's a terrible simile, implying that while one doesn't need a drinking background to parent and cook dinner, a person may find it helpful).
One of the more creative computer-bound opportunities I did have was for Mabel Magazine, who asked if I would write about creating art in Alaska for their "Living..." segment. This is the first time my writing and textile art have appeared together in print, and I was beyond thrilled when my copy appeared in the mail this week.
Mabel was founded two years ago by Liz Kalloch and Stefanie Renee, two creative San Francisco Bay Area women committed to print and creating a magazine that offers "real stories about real issues that people face with their creative endeavors, with their businesses and in their lives."
The current issue's theme is "What's Next," and these well-written essays explore all the ways creative women have come to terms with what is next for them, whether it's rebounding from a work layoff, losing a loved one, staying open to the unknown or committing to staying right where they are.
I'm honored to be in such good company.
Mabel isn't available to read electronically (on purpose), but you can certainly order your real copy online. I showed it to a friend of mine yesterday and she said the same thing my husband said when it arrived, "Oh! This is such a nice magazine!" It really is. The writing is thoughtful, the photographs are gorgeous, the paper is lovely, the layout is beautiful.
I'm really thrilled to be a part of something so well conceived and executed.
I hope you'll check it out, lots of inspiration here:
"The most important benefit of working in a series is that it helps you learn how to work from your own ideas and discover your own unique voice [...] Become aware of the the work that excites you, intrigues you, and makes you back to look at it again. This is the kind of work you should be making."
If you've considered working in a visual series but aren't sure where to begin, you may want to take a look at Elizabeth Barton's book. Especially if the last series pieces you did were those enormous watercolor nudes in undergrad with the nipples that look strangely like bowler hats, which are a bit too graphic to hang on the wall now that you have small children (note that I am not including a photograph, this is a family blog here, people), and/or also, you feel perhaps like you've forgotten how to create anything in a series other than macaroni and cheese dinner out of a box.
A few months ago, I answered an interview question about one of the three series that I'm engaged in called Girl Story. I'm republishing it here since I'm thinking a lot about this series right now. I've got the fourth Girl Story on the wall and the 5th is waiting in the wings, with perhaps a 6th elbowing her out of the way back there behind the velvet curtain. If I don't attend to these ladies soon, somebody's going to get an eye poked or launched off the stage into the mosh pit.
But maybe that's a good thing.
This is question #4 from Kari Lorenson's interview at Knotwe: The Hub for Fiber, Textiles, Surface Design:
"Girl Story seems like a turning point in your work. When I look at Girl Story, it broaches a subject matter that is not talked about in the public sphere but it is an experience of womanhood. Quilts are interesting forms for art because of their multi-faceted history in the domestic/ private sphere to a unique history almost entirely dominated by women. The history as a social document is a rich history as well and there are many aspects about the quilt as an object that are interesting to explore. Did this piece have an impact on how your process and where your work is now?"
Girl Story, like Spontaneous Combustion, wasn’t so much a turning point as a direct response to where I am as a woman and a mother. If Spontaneous Combustion was the question my son asked repeatedly when he was four and my response to postpartum anxiety and the domestic role in general, then Girl Story and Girl Story #2 are the questions waiting to be asked by my daughter and my internal struggle with how to present a normal life process in a way that honors how menarche could be for her, while still acknowledging how it was for me, my mother, her mother, etc.
Girl Story #3 veers slightly, and came about when I was working on the Reliquary Series. I began the piece assuming it was a Reliquary, but deep into it realized that it was my response to a loved one’s addiction and her inability to be a mother for her three children for a time. It was another Girl Story, another struggle related to womanhood made all the more painful by the fact that for all of us with children there are many moments — some of them fleeting — when we just check out and become unavailable. I think it’s a series I’ll work on for years. My role is evolving, so my work naturally will. This is a deep, deep well.
The fact that these pieces are “quilts” is important to the emotional quality of the work. We approach quilts and embroidery with a certain set of expectations and aren’t necessarily prepared to see embroidered menstrual blood on doilies or hear frightening questions from children. I don’t do this for shock value — I find shock value flaccid and annoying — I do this because they are living questions for me and therefore have value. If they are shocking, that’s secondary and something brought to the piece by the viewer’s own life experience.
Are you working in a series? Have thoughts about this process? We'd love to hear them shared here, so leave a comment. We're all about learning from others around this place.
Also, if you'd like to read more about the Girl Story Series, check out the previous posts "A history of pretty" and "Write a letter to your mother."
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.
"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.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.