This afternoon at the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) conference in Philadelphia, 24 artists participated in 3 rounds of PechaKucha talks. No, not a Chupacabra, not a puh-chaw-kuh-chaw, not a pitchy kookie, not a picky kackie ... a PechaKucha.
(A concise way of presenting, which allows each speaker only 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each. After your last slide, you shut up, sit down and let the next speaker speak).
The experience was moving, vibrant, inspiring and I'm thrilled to have been a part of it. Many thanks to Maria Shell for her persuasion and hard work putting it together.
My PechaKucha talk is below and clicking on an image will take you to other posts related to the work featured, its process/history or sister pieces. If you've never visited my blog before, this might be a good introduction.
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In Defense of Doilies: An Artist's Relationship to Materials.
My name is Amy Meissner. I'm an artist in Anchorage, Alaska. My work explores fear and loss, motherhood, womanhood, and the fleeting quality of memory. While I don't always work in the quilt form, I do hold intention to work within the boundaries of abandoned cloth.
I come from Scandinavian women. I am the 12th first-born daughter to a first-born daughter, a line extending to 1642. My son severed this lineage; if born a girl, that daughter would've been the 13th.
I don't know what kind of inheritance that would have been, but I know mine.
Part of my relationship to cloth comes from a heritage steeped in making. Of bent necks, rough hands and stabbing needles. Swedish women have sent me linens my entire life -- I filled a trunk with doilies, tea towels and pot holders. Unwanted -- by me-- for the most part.
But when I had children, I sensed a shift. My living questions encompassed thoughts like, "How do I escort my daughter into womanhood with grace and joy and strength?"
"How have my own experiences shaped me as a mother?"
"How do I gather the tools I still need -- to get it right?"
To have a relationship with one's materials is to be open to the narrative power of voice. Not just your own echo, but in my case, open to the ghosts of prior generations, who still have something to say.
Whether or not you want to hear it.
Whether or not you think it pertains to you.
Whether or not it is "contemporary."
Or even beautiful.
Because an artist's job isn't to make people feel good, it's to make people think.
Materials are persistent, demanding you question their use if you are to find the heart of a piece. Have you questioned your materials lately? Can you say what you need to in another medium? Why use cloth when paint or wood or paper may be the better entryway? I ask this all the time.
In Mary Karr's book, "The Art of Memoir," she writes: "One can't mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit." That visual is worth remembering, so I'll repeat it: "One can't mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit."
So, what does she mean?
Don't wear armor for a job that requires one to be naked, raw and vulnerable in order to seduce an audience. Also, you're going to need all your muscle strength to hang upside down from a pole so get rid of all the extra shit you're hauling around.
Or, figure out how it can support you.
For me, this meant embracing a heritage I often found confusing and foreign in ways beyond language and custom.
I spent a lifetime shoving linens in a trunk, so turning to them with joy hasn't been easy or even visually interesting at times.
In my defense, the 12-year old me didn't want a table runner for her birthday, or embroidered tea towels for Christmas ... again. I associated these items with disappointment, with a family's unwillingness or even failure to really know me.
These were the outpourings of distant Nordic women on the other side of the world, whose warmth towards me I questioned the few times we'd met. I didn't understand that their love was held in the physical act of making. That this was a vital way to nurture.
Perhaps they thought filling my trunk would prepare me. But, for what?
Early mornings at a stove?
Late nights hand washing, starching, ironing and mending?
I'd been taught to navigate the domestic realm, but I didn't want to then and don't want to now.
Ironically, this is exactly what I'm doing. Laundering these items late night, slithering around my stripper pole, confronting questions of mortality and fear and disappointment and loss. Circling and circling until I find the entryway. Until I find the voice.
Another irony, is that I am being sent more domestic linens now than ever before. Through my recent crowdsourcing effort called the Inheritance Project, I've received packages from all over the world -- England, Canada, Sweden, Australia, the US -- people are considering the history of cloth, judging its weight, then letting it go.
Sending it to Alaska. To me.
And I am accepting and shaping it. I'm holding the time, the material, the work it took someone to create something from nothing. For every maker I can name, there are 20 or 30 items that come labeled "Unknown." Same with origin, same with circa.
Inheritance. It's a weighty thing.
And it's forced me into a correspondence and documentation effort that far surpasses the time I have available, but this is an integral part of the work I'm compelled to do right now. The handwork of the past and the lingering hum of history simply become another material.
And I know it's the right material, because I continue to ask myself if so. And also because of its persistent nature. The raw material continues to arrive at my door, along with stories from strangers, about strangers. And I keep circling, looking for the entryway, considering the living questions.
I'd always thought it was funny to force a man -- in from the field and starving -- to wade through a sea of doilies to get to his hot dinner. But here's that last irony. At 6:00 I hear the side door open, the scrape of shoes and my husband say, "Ugh, what's all this laundry stuff hanging everywhere? --Wait -- is that lingerie?"*
To breathe new life into the discarded is to hold a deep relationship with materials. Even if it means confronting vulnerability, questioning beauty and becoming a vessel for the work and time of others.
Even if it means defending your past, defending memory, defending doilies.
Thank you for listening.
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*Now, a quick note--my husband would actually never say this...although he did admit to thinking briefly that a certain red batch of doilies looked an awful lot like some really sexy stuff hanging there. No, what he always says, without fail, is this:
(Insert his version of a Swedish accent) "Oh. So many beautiful things."
What a guy.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.