This winter I was honored to be asked to create a series of small works to be presented to four recipients of the Governor's Awards for the Arts and Humanities here in Alaska. The awards ceremony was held last week in Juneau, and while the idea of giving a recipient a piece of artwork instead of a laser-engraved object is exciting on its own, an even more exciting idea is giving textile-based artwork. And even MORE exciting than this, is presenting textile artwork from TWO different artists: myself and good friend, Maria Shell. Maria wrote about the pieces she created for the awards in a recent blog post: Memento. Her work is intricate, vibrant, lovely, intense. I've been a fan of hers for a long time and happy to say we've been friends for a long time, now too.
If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound during the summer. This isn't a paid gig. Nor is it official. Nor is it helpful when we accidentally clean monitored beaches (sorry, it had junk on it, we didn't know you were counting exactly how much). It also isn't pleasant. But the reward is generally a pocket full of rocks. We never take anything from a beach unless we've cleaned it, and most of the time we don't find anything interesting unless we've cleaned it first, anyway. We've been known to cruise back into the harbor with a couple hundred pounds of ghost nets, rope, and too many plastic water bottles to count. We recycle what we can, dispose of the rest. Twice, my son has found the coveted Lego Piece. Once, I found a fairy tea cup.
It's a treasure hunt.
The requested dimensions for the awards commission was 12" x 12" or smaller, so I used 10" x 10" x 2" cradled board, which I pre-finished with 2 coats of polyurethane. I use an upholstery technique on the reverse, which I receive great joy from because I get to use a hammer and beautiful nails called cut tacks, plus it's a clean finish. The materials for this small series are an amalgam of the Reliquary Series and items sent to me for the Inheritance Project. The grey linen is new, but the rest is not. The materials include vintage shantung drapes and heavy taffeta, vintage unfinished needlepoint, crocheted doilies and trims (which I dyed) and beach stones from Prince William Sound and Nome, which are the oldest thing of all.
Four of the works were selected for awards, a fifth will remain in the permanent collection of the Alaska Humanities Forum. They are lovely as a collection, but strong enough to exist on their own.
I think a lot about language and titles, expecting them to work hard and be clear. "Vintage," for example, is anything over 20 years old, while "Antique" is over 100.
Some words I do not use in the lexicon of my current work: "upcycled," "recycled," "stash." These words are tired. They are a contemporary attempt to turn something that frugal women have always done into something new and exciting. These words make me feel like someone is about to sell me something I don't need.
I'm the stoic daughter of an American water well driller and a Swede raised on a farm by grandparents so "Work" is a word I use a lot. "Play" is a word I use, but never in my studio.
I know, I know, but "Play" is different from "Challenging."
And "Fun is different than "Pleasing" or "Satisfying."
Why does any of this matter? Because words matter. There is a difference, for example, between an "Art Quilter" and a "Quilt Artist" (something Maria Shell brought up just the other day). A person can be "crafty" like a fox or "crafty" with popsicle sticks, while the elements of "Craft" versus the "crafting" of a work all have different weights and meanings.
(And also, before it was called "Craft," it was called "Work" and everyone did it, every day, for various reasons and with varying degrees of skill. It took an Industrial Revolution before the idea of Craft was even a thing.)
This is not an argument for Art versus Craft. This is an argument for Language and using it in a way that evokes clarity, yet opens a door for further interpretation.
Are these actual fossils? No. I probably need a permit to remove fossils from an Alaskan beach. But they conjure the idea of something rare and hunted for -- or stumbled upon -- evidence of a life before our own. Titles have to work hard. They are the extra narrative layer that pushes a piece beyond what you see visually. Titles can reiterate a piece (and I've certainly got a few titles I wish I'd spent an extra week or year considering in order to avoid this), but please consider the rich narrative difference between "The Doilies and Rocks Series" versus the "Fossil Series."
I personally want nothing to do with the "Doilies and Rocks Series."
And then there is Dada.
Consider, the difference between "Dada the Cat," being named after an art movement (so cool), versus "Dada the Cat" actually being re-named when my 2-year old couldn't yell "SIMON!" at the sliding door, but he could yell "DA-DA!" (the reality). My husband is "Papa," so, zero confusion on that front.
Does this change your perception of Dada? Of course not, he's still just a Siamese on a diet. But you've got to love a double meaning. Even still, it took 8 years for us to admit to the vet that this fat animal's name isn't "Simon" and it should be updated for their files.
Sometimes weighty titles are personal. Sometimes everybody gets it.
A year ago on this blog:
The final boxes of mystery. (except they weren't, because they still keep coming...)
Two years ago on this blog:
Three years ago on this blog:
I’ve been working with Creative Capital, an organization that, in part, works with artists to bolster their business skills — strategic planning, budgeting, time management, etc. A full day workshop and on-going webinar series are perks for this year’s Individual Artist Award Recipients, generously made possible by the Rasmuson Foundation, and I’m grateful for the guidance.
One of the things the presenters from Creative Capital stressed in our first day-long workshop back in May was the concept of “Doing Less with More.” Let me repeat that: Do. Less. With. More. I know. This goes against the Artist Super Power of “Doing More with Less,” but it’s a new mind-bender to try and apply to my own practice in a few different ways.
So, what do I have a lot of? What might this "more" currently be?
And that is a ridiculous combination of things.
But here are a few jobs I realized have already spun from that kind of kooky abundance, and one of the ways I'm applying that "less-with-more" mind set.
Dragons + Words = Article
Last winter I completed a public art project at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library. The 15-foot, 3-panel triptych originally commissioned in 2003 (for a different library), was taken apart and expanded to a 30-foot, 6 panel banner, featuring a community art project on the reverse. Now the dragon fits the space properly and the project feels complete. I blogged about it in a 3-part series (links at the end), which some of you may have read.
The editor for Machine Quilting Unlimited also read those posts, and hired me to craft an article based on them, sharing the process with her readers. The current May/June 2017 issue features that article.
Is this piece machine quilted? No. Is it a quilt? No. Does that matter? No.
But here's a sidebar that does matter: fiber people and quilt enthusiasts -- please ensure you are paid appropriately for writing print articles. Getting paid in "exposure" or magazine issues doesn’t count, because that’s like the time I received 9 bounced paychecks as a pattern maker in the fashion industry and my then-boss offered to pay me in the clothing we were designing for 14- and 16-year olds. I was 23.
Is it ironic that I blog for free at 45 yet still feel compelled to tell you all to pull up your Big Girl Pants? Yes. The amount artists and writers are paid sets the precedent for those who come after them, so ask for what you are worth. If you didn't make enough last time, get that figured out and make it right next time. The generation coming up will thank you.
Right. Enough said.
Dragons + Doilies = Commissioned Painting
This spring, a friend named Sherri (whom the kids called “Miss-Sherri-Our-Librarian,” when they were 3 and 5) retired after 31+ years with the Anchorage Public Library. I've had a long, lovely relationship with our state and municipal library system illustrating Summer Reading Program posters, custom painting computer kiosks, setting up my table in the youth services area and selling children’s books, reading and showing illustration sketches to groups of kids….and a lot of this was facilitated by Miss-Sherri-Our-Librarian.
Not only did I work with Miss-Sherri-Our-Librarian on the original Dragon textile banner in 2003, but I also got to write grants with her in 2015 and 2016 to double its size. She was also a contributor to the Inheritance Project, her family linens (above) were in The 19th boxes of mystery.
This is all coming together, I promise.
Did you know I've illustrated a dozen children's books? It's true. I'm taking a little break from that super good stuff, but not forever, so when another librarian contacted me to create a commissioned retirement gift for Miss-Sherri-Our-Librarian, I was thrilled and knew exactly what I wanted to do.
This idea put into words would've sounded ludicrous and I was glad I didn't have to explain it to anyone in advance. Like, to an art director.
This cracks me up every time I look at it.
Less with more, I'm telling you, stick it in your brain. Figure out what you have an abundance of and go make something fabulous with it, or with them.
Elsewhere on this blog, there be dragons:
One year ago on this blog:
Two years ago on this blog:
Commissioned work & public art:
“How to write a sex scene:
I don’t remember completing the sex scene writing assignment. And despite ripping apart my file drawers, I couldn’t find my original notes (neither could my former professor, Jo-Ann Mapson, when I asked her for them over a decade after giving that lecture and assignment — no, we cobbled this list together a few weeks ago based on what we both recalled). And I never wrote a novel, even though I started one and abandoned it after 200 pages.
Nearly every writer has to come to terms with the sex scene, because if your characters are alive, they’re having — or at least thinking about having — sex. It's true. You’ll have to describe it if you want believable characters. The point of Jo-Ann’s lecture was this: make sure the style of the scene is indicative of the type of story you are writing.
Years later, she would send me an old yellow quilt -- not particularly well put together, not loved or cared for, but obviously used hard. Maybe like the unknown woman who made it, or laid beneath.
And it -- she -- spoke to me.
"Fatigue Threshold," made from that quilt, is my sex scene.
I can’t define the style. It’s hard core, but metaphoric. It’s specific, but oblique. Like the construction of the final piece, the style is layered.
But I can tell you this much: it was terrifying to create.
Not the slicing, or the construction or the use of fragile fabrics. Not the time I knew it would take, or all the ways it could go wrong. Not the technical finessing of a sheer border element, or the handwork.
No. What terrified me was releasing the work into the world and having people assume this character, this actual narrative, was mine.
I don't know why this bothered me so much. It happens to fiction writers all the time — readers assume a writer’s characters are autobiographical, and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t, or at least wholly aren’t. Something similar happens with film actors and the roles they portray. It’s difficult to separate the maker from the made.
For me, the distilled quality of a piece and the choice to make what I make, relies on emotional truth.
Emotional truth is the reason why some non-fiction is better represented as fiction, and why some authors will complete one narrative only to repeat it in another genre (think Alice Sebold).
Sometimes the literal truth is too close to the surface of an idea, and it’s better to poke and prod at that fire from a distance, circling from a point where you watch all the sparks disappear into the night. You sense the full scope of flame. You see how it lights up the surrounding foliage.
Stand too close to a fire, and you blister your boots.
I thought about Amelia a lot while I worked on this piece. I considered the triangular bit of crocheted tablecloth Helen sent me for the Inheritance Project, that washing-machine-bleach-ruined scrap of a once larger work Amelia had made while incarcerated. I thought about calling the piece “Amelia.” I wanted to embed her crochet into the layers. I wanted to tell her story, or it’s myth. But I did none of these things, because every time I sidled up to the flames with my purposeful stick, I singed my arm hair. Amelia’s specific story was not only not my story, but I couldn’t even see what the story was while standing right on top of it.
So I found a longer stick, and I duct taped another stick to that one, and I whacked the coals from my vantage point somewhere in the trees until I saw the moment, that spark rising and becoming the wisp of a path to the emotional truth: a woman’s breaking point.
Her fatigue threshold.
“In the study of materials — iron, steel, wood, plastic — fatigue refers to a component’s failure after repeated and excessive loads. It is the crumpled beam, the snapped lever, the bowed wall. This piece explores the landscape of women’s work through the use of abandoned cloth, the female form and traditional handwork, to portray the moment before collapse. The burdens are emotional, physical, sexual, literal. We hoard, we discard, we mend, we make do because despite our destruction, some scrap of beauty can always be salvaged.”
"Fatigue Threshold" is about sex. It’s about abuse. It’s about a moment. It’s about a lifetime. It’s about one woman. It’s about all women. It’s about the monotony of tasks and burdens and the domestic realm and exhaustion and birth and life and despair and the slow death of something once precious.
And it is, to me, incredibly beautiful.
Working with old linens is tricky, because focusing on their beauty alone feels nostalgic. The alternative is to destroy them, but that feels self-indulgent and pointless to the work I’m trying to achieve.
I will always strive to balance the beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, and it’s always on my mind.
I’m one of 85 artists accepted into Quilt National 2017. I’ve never submitted before, but I have 3 hardcover catalogs dating back to 2011, so I’ve been following the exhibition for a long time.
I recently traveled to Athens, Ohio for the exhibition’s opening. I’m incredibly honored to show with such a talented group of artists.
The work will travel until September 2019, so I won’t have this piece for my solo exhibition, which is a shame since it’s an important component to the Inheritance Project. But more people will see it this way, and hopefully they’ll be moved. Maybe they’ll contact me.
If I had to write that sex scene now, at 45 instead of 31 or 32 years old when it was originally assigned, I’d opt for balance. Some raunch, some metaphor, some matter-of-fact language.
Zero cute names.
And I'd do the assignment.
Elsewhere on this blog:
I don't travel alone much, but recently spent time in Lincoln, Nebraska for the SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) "Creation to Curation" conference (I'm a regional co-representative in Alaska with Maria Shell). Despite the 3-hour time difference for me, I was still up at 4:30 or 5 am each day.
Once of the people who stumbled into that Early-Morning-Inbox-tapping-quietly-so-I-dont-wake-my-roommate space was Christine Chester.
She asked a question, which I'm sharing with her permission, and while I'm no expert, I gave her an answer I wish someone would grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eye and give to me.
Just to be up front -- this isn't an advice column, nor am I clear on what the hell I'm doing MOST of the time. I'm not a how-to guru and pretty sure I'm no teacher, but Christine had questions about work I felt I could answer since none of these concerns are new to me. I think about them all the time with regards to an artist's choice of materials, my unanswered questions and a deep respect for makers known and unknown.
So I responded with the letter I'd want to receive, and Christine graciously allowed me to share our private early morning correspondence.
In short, this lady is no slouch. I can't believe she wrote and asked me ... well ... anything. I'm totally honored to be a part of her world and her sensibility.
* Portrait photography by Sarah Gawler of Sarah Gawler Photography. Other images courtesy of the artist.
Also on this blog:
For other artist profiles, click on the sidebar category: Find Your Teachers (then scroll past this post, which will appear there, too).
One year ago: Unicorn Heart
Two years ago: Soul Fever
I sent one out mid April, and a second one especially for contributors to the Inheritance Project. If you signed up and didn't receive one, please check your spam/clutter box. If you'd like to receive a pretty newsletter with links to blog posts and upcoming news (maybe once a month ... maybe), you can sign up for it here. I promise I'm not spammy.
I recently updated my artist statement -- that challenge of fitting in every idea you have about your work into about 1000 characters -- a small piece of writing, but one that refines the point of why you're compelled to do what you do.
Or at least kicks your ass in the process.
It's a version of the first artist statement I wrote in 2014. Not much has changed. But it still kicks my ass.
I should probably whittle it further.
But I'm not a poet.
And although I'm in my head most of the time, I'm not that smart.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
But I'm a really good seamstress. And maybe a little mysterious.
I'm shuffling through images, grouping themes to spread on the table as I move forward with this work, honing edges and abrading excess, waiting for the surprises that shouldn't be surprises at all. (Related theme-based posts are Ice. and Fire. and Bone.)
One thing that is a surprise, is that this blog was recently listed in the Top 60 Textile Blogs on the Planet. Yup. This one is #29. Huh. This, despite the description of, "Frequency - about 1 post per month."
Hey, go easy. I'm a busy woman.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.