How well do we know anyone, even people we see everyday?
And how can we possibly know people who've left us, especially if they never allowed us know them in the first place?
And then, the impossible task of knowing someone who remains unknown because history has failed to attribute her time, her marks.
We can gather our scraps.
We can pick through memory.
We can re-consider.
We can collaborate.
We can create a new mythology.
Last spring I received a Rasmuson Foundation project grant in support of the Inheritance Project. A portion of the grant allowed me to complete a special workshop series this fall at the Anchorage Museum; "Needle & Myth" was designed as five, 2-hour sessions for small work groups of artists, makers, museum members and the public, with a 6th session added at the end. The work generated in these work sessions will become a large community piece installed in May with the exhibition Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. My gratitude to the Rasmuson Foundation for the gift of time, to the Anchorage Museum for the gift of support and space.
I originally prepared 45 or 50 panels, we completed 80.
Over 70 people participated. My deepest gratitude goes to them.
I asked registrants to consider the following prompt before arriving: "She was ____." or "She is ____." This single word or short phrase was then embroidered onto a prepared panel, a linen handkerchief mounted on sheer silk organza. (I received around 85 hankies during the crowdsourcing portion of the Inheritance Project. One Contributor sent me her entire collection of 33). I also asked participants to bring a small, lightweight object, which we then mounted or embedded between the cloth layers. The sheer panels are numbered, and when hung together begin to form a more complete picture of a complex woman, of ourselves.
"...harlot, always making things beautiful, an artist mother, brave, powerful, powerless, rooted, tough as nails, sew much love, too attached, happiness, iguapaeterei, je brule, the matriarch, my only comfort, worth the time, unknown, clever, a weather pattern..."
When was the last time you spent a full two hours considering a handful of words? Hand stitching forces you to slow and consider a needle's placement to achieve a certain curve or line, but this is a small technical thing. What I hoped this project would do was create a 2-hour space to honor memory -- some of it pleasant, some of it painful.
Five men attended. And two children. Six languages are represented.
When one woman told the story of her beautiful mother's two abusive marriages, the entire room fell silent. When another woman shared her mother-in-law's journey from China to Peru to the US with 10 children in tow, the same thing happened. And again, when a woman explained how she'd created the panel for herself, her mother-in-law and the four babies they'd lost. When another woman furtively shared that her mother sometimes stole things, "maybe just a little," we laughed, but then retreated inwards to consider this. Not to judge, but consider. Because aren't we all guilty?
And aren't we -- aren't women -- all worthy of awe?
The safety of a space like this is generated when a task is on the table. No one has to make eye contact with storytellers, no one has to respond directly. There is a reason why the tradition of gathering for handwork has remained so strong for generations.
After the workshops, one of the participants sent a link to this TED Talk. It put a lot of things into perspective and gave a broader language for what I was, and am, trying to do. Perhaps it explains why so many people came, sometimes more than once, to such quiet gatherings.
I'm now in the process of finishing: taking up the stitches left undone, considering the panel order, planning their mount. I've been asked many times if this will be a quilt. It will not. I can tell you it will suspend and hope viewers will be able to journey around each piece, because the messy b-sides are just as valid as all those pretty facades.
Maybe more so.
One year ago on this blog:
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:
This is the final post about the most recent piece of public art I completed. "Dragon Flight" was originally created in 2003 for the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska. At that time, it was a 15-foot long, double-sided triptych that divided a then-new computer lab and a story-time/programming room. In 2010, it was moved to the children's area of the larger Chugiak-Eagle River Library, and in 2014 I started the process of procuring funds to expand the textile work to fit this larger space and add a community art component. A team of us wrote grants, and in the end received funding through the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, the Anchorage Public Library and Friends of the Library. This part took time, but we were patient and gratitude filled.
And I got a little thicker skinned in the process.
The first blog post in this 3-part series, "How to wake a dragon," provides the more important history of the work, as it was originally created in memory of a young woman named Jessie Withrow, who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk.
Every day, I drive past the white ghost bicycle I believe is erected in her memory, right there near the corner of Northern Lights and Minnesota Boulevards in Anchorage.
I brush past her.
The second post in the series, "How to tend a dragon," gives insight into the process of working with this piece once it came down at the end of October (if you are interested in using fire retardant on textile works, you might want to read this), and ends with those ropes dangling in my entry way after I cut it down and loaded all 6 double-sided panels in my car for the 30-minute drive to Eagle River last week.
I'm a melancholic. And part of this personality assumes that everything that can go wrong, will. I was pretty sure my house was going to burn down during the between-time of completion and installation. I was pretty sure I'd get in a spinning, icy car accident delivering it. I could hear the twang! of a cable snapping as we hung it. But the most likely scenario involved dirt, so I wrapped it in 2mm plastic sheeting and didn't remove it until we were positive of the positioning.
In 2003, I'd enlisted my husband's mad scroll saw skills to cut out 3 different sizes of stars in 1/4" mdf, which I painted and hung all around the small room at the first branch library. I'd forgotten how many there were after all this time, but someone had saved the stack and they'd been sitting on a shelf in the storage room at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library since 2010. I was so excited to see them produced last week -- they may as well have been made of gold.
It took just under 3 hours to hang, with the help of Bill, the gruff, yet lovable library facilities manager, who brought his super ladder. I promised chocolate chip cookies for his help and made good by delivering them the next day (despite the fact I only had 1/4 cup of chocolate chips in the house and had to secretly chop up a bunch of the kids' hidden Halloween candy because there was no way I was going to the store at 9 pm).
On Saturday, Dec. 10, 50 of us gathered to celebrate and tell the story of the now 30-foot, double sided dragon while children ran between the stacks squinting and pointing as they looked for "their squares" on the reverse. Some were dismayed to not find them right away, but I promise they're all there.
I'm not the same person who made the dragon in 2003. As a mother now, I have a different sense of community and how vital it is to nurture. My children, who saw this piece for the first time in 2013, aren't the little pudgy-armed sillies who posed for this photo back then, either. They weren't at all interested in posing for photographs on Saturday, but they are the ones who helped and helped and helped with the community art part ... my daughter, now 8, must be responsible for at least 15 of those star-studded squares.
And when it comes to raising dragons, even the smallest ones, I'd say there are a few important things to pass on:
For example, I'd want a dragon to remember that everyone is always welcome at a table.
And that every one of us deserves to make a lasting mark, no matter how small or imperfect, because we all deserve to seek and live with beauty.
And yes, of course there are some things you absolutely can and should go back and change, even years later, with the intent to make better.
And you should do this every chance you get, because there are too damned many things in life we can't change, or fix, or make better, ever.
I'd also want a dragon to know that there are people you'll never meet who still have an enormous impact on your life.
And because of all this, gratitude should be the first emotion you lay on the table.
Other public art posts:
A month ago, I wrote a post about a current public art piece I've been finishing up. If you haven't read "How to wake a dragon," you could go do that right now.
Or, there's a warp-speed version here: I made a public art piece for a branch library in 2003, a double sided triptych textile dragon, 15 feet x 44". When the branch library closed in 2010, the really nice librarians rescued it and moved it to another, newer branch library. When I saw it in 2013 in the larger space, I realized it could be better. 2 years ago I wrote a proposal to refurbish it with a community art component. Wrote grants with librarians, got rejections, got funding. Spent October conducting community art workshops.
There is so much more to this project. The why of it. The fact that the original budget steered me to use thrift store clothing for the majority of the fabrics, and this decision not only made the piece so much richer and varied in the end, but set me on a course with my personal work that I adhere to today. I still look to old fabric; I would rather take something apart and make it better than it ever was. I'd rather not start with all new.
This mindset is limiting and restrictive. But in the words of my wise, once-first grader, who surprisingly mourned the loss of the confines of the kindergarten play yard at his little school: "I don't like recess anymore. I don't like first grade. I don't have any freedom, because ... because ... because there are no fences!"
Something to think about.
Meanwhile ... dragon tending.
Step 1: Bring your dragon home.
Step 2: Mend your dragon's wounds.
After vacuuming each panel, I took them apart and added stitching over top of several tulle sections that should have had this before. When the work was handled at some point, there were a number of snags in the more delicate fabric, so I covered the damage with more stars.
The snags probably happened during transport and re-installation in 2010. Frayed cable ends were the culprit, so I finished these with small shrink wrapped sleeves so it wouldn't happen again. The shrinkwrapping looked so nice I wanted to shrink wrap everything all around me. Mainly I just wanted to use the heat gun.
These cables drop the piece 18" below the sprinkler heads. This is code. If you are engaged in public art, you will need to know building code. Or consult with someone who does. Or marry an architect.
When dismantled, the six panels are 2 different sizes: 2 are 90" x 44" and 4 are 44" x 44". This is a function of the original installation. The biggest panels were a nightmare to get under my machine with all the 3-D scales and padded dragon forms, but my 22-year-old PFAFF -- as usual -- was a champ.
Step 3: Control your dragon's flame.
The other thing I needed to address at this point was fire retardant. The original piece hadn't ever been treated with anything other than Scotch Guard (which is why it was unbelievably clean), and this had started bothering me a few years after it was originally installed. I used a Fire Tect product purchased through Dharma called "Fire-poof," and used the sprayer they recommended. The product safety guidelines recommend ventilation, eye protection, and gloves.
I worked in my heated garage, but this fire retardant is corrosive when it comes into contact with metal, so I draped cabinets with plastic to protect everything from overspray. If you use this product, test a series of fabric swatches first. It beads on some fabrics so I back brushed and swabbed those areas to force the liquid to penetrate. Because it leaves white specks if the product does bead, I swabbed the entire thing until dragon and I were fully soaked.
Then I freaked out because it looked like a sopping mess and I was pretty sure I'd ruined the whole damned thing.
Step 4: Support your dragon.
The reverse panels are comprised of over 200 community-created, star-themed squares, either 5 1/2" x 5 1/2" or 11" x 11". Much of this fabric came from cotton or linen clothing and required interlining for each square and a full cotton backing for each large section. I invisibly back-stitched along each seam by hand to stabilize, so the panels are heavy and structural without being "quilted."
Just an aside: this is not a "quilt." It never was intended to be and it felt important to adhere to the banner-like intention it's always had, hence no visible "quilty" hand stitching. I don't know why I think it's important to say this, but, well, there it is.
Step 5: Wrangle your dragon.
The banner's edges were originally bound, which had a tricky maneuver at the top to allow for a slat with eyelets punching through button holes. The technique made it easy to square when first made in 2003, and despite the fact I still had plenty of unused blue cotton duck to do this again, I didn't want to. The binding would have broken up the community art and I wanted a cleaner finish overall.
I stabilized the inside edges with twill tape following exact measurements so nothing would stretch, then I matched panels and sewed them together. This sounds easy. It was not. The layered fabric was heavy, the original dragon had stretched after hanging for 13 years and wasn't square, my iron was dying. I was pretty sure I was going to match the wrong panels together, so the inside is covered with Sharpie arrows and notes and descriptions of what goes where.
Step 6: Suspend & protect your dragon.
I hung the finished panels in my entryway for about a week, then the night before delivery, we lowered the ropes and wrapped each panel in plastic (a brilliant move, which I'll share in the next post). This multi-day suspension allowed all the fibers to breathe and move and relax, while the weight of the inner slats encased at the bottom edge straightened everything.
Step 7: Cut your dragon's bonds.
Yesterday morning Brian helped me cut all the suspension ropes and load the car for the transport back the the Chugiak-Eagle River Library.
I was nervous.
Also, it was -2 degrees F outside.
* * *
I'll post soon about the installation and upcoming celebration, which is this Saturday, December 10 from 3-5 pm at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library. You're all invited, of course.
I hear there will be cookies.
Other posts about public art:
For related posts on this dragon, please see:
For other public art, please see:
The summer of 2003: I was between children's book illustration jobs, doing a swell job of simultaneously fretting about and ignoring my creative writing MFA thesis ("Hey look, I should teach myself how to knit..."), hauling my husband from one fika to another while visiting as many aging family members as possible in a 3-week trip to Sweden, and somewhere in there I was commissioned to make a really big dragon.
The work hung in the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska for 7 years, until budget cuts closed that space. Luckily, a manager for a library 20 miles away in Eagle River knew about the dragon banner and personally relocated it to the Chugiak-Eagle River Library where it's hung for 6 years in the children's area.
This public art installation was designed as a double-sided triptych, 15 feet long, made with cotton, wool, recycled clothing and various commercial fabrics. The original location was tight -- the tail faced a small new computer lab and the head faced the program/story time area. The suspended panels fit above computer stations and between small columns.
The work honors a young woman named Jessie Withrow who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk. She loved the library and fantasy books, so we made a dragon for her. When that little library closed, a piece this large could have disappeared forever into storage.
That is the short history of a multi-layered, important story, which involves a lot of people, their support and a willingness to hang on to memory.
Sometimes the very best stories go to sleep for a while, when they have a cozy place to dream. They probably deserve that rest.
But then something wakes them up.
And here's where this piece of artwork rises, after many years, to becomes a story again.
In 2014 I approached the library with some questions -- was there any interest in re-configuring this piece to better fit this new space? If it became a 6-panel, 30-foot dragon...would the library support an expansion like this? And what if we pulled together as many library users as possible -- children, moms, dads, grandparents -- to help make the reverse panels in a multi-step community art project?
What if we unfurled this whole story so it soared over the top of the entire children's section? What if we invited people to be a part of this kind of magic? Would they come? Could we teach them a new skill they could also do at home?
It took 2 years of grant writing, but the "Dragon Flight" project took wing and this month we started a series of community art workshops to create the reverse panels. If any of you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you've probably seen some of the images from these workshops and my studio ... and not a whole lot else. Even the Inheritance Project has been put on hold.
I've never used Wonder Under before. I'm not a super star stitching with monofilament thread (but I've gotten pretty good). And releasing 200 pre-cut squares to eager hands who've never done this kind of work before has been serendipitous and fulfilling.
The third and final "Sky Full of Stars" workshop is on Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 3 - 5 pm at the Chugiak Eagle-RiverLibrary. The large workspace is in the back of the children's area (you get to walk beneath the current dragon to get there). At the end of the month, the dragon banner will come down and I'll take it apart. All 6 new double-sided panels will be installed before Christmas, 2016. More on that to come in a future post.
Dragon on the front, party on the back.
My immense gratitude to the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, Friends of the Library and the Anchorage Library Foundation and to all the hands who've made this project possible. I'd like to thank fellow SAQA regional co-representative, Maria Shell, for posting about her experience working with a community on a large-scale textile art project. I'm not going to lie, I learned a lot from her post and you will, too.
Lastly, my heart extends to the family of Jessie Withrow, lover of libraries, reader of books, vessel for deep imagination. Muse.
Other posts about public art:
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.