Where is the joy when you’re living in a time of a global coronavirus pandemic and a local toxic-drug epidemic? What is the use of making when your city is seized by global investment-real estate schemes, when there’s too much stuff in a overheated planet and a hateful, superpower president next door?
These questions ricochet around my brain, only abating when this futile, exhausting expenditure of energy hones in on the rote activity of knotting and needleworking. The hand-wringing falls into rhythm as I grasp at lost, tossed threads that I make whole and into whole new ideas.
Making is a very personal physical reaction to perilous times and unstable circumstances but working with found fibre is also an intrinsically social action that weaves in disparate economic circumstances, language, race, age and abilities. Braiding, stitching, knotting, needleworking create resilient connective tissue between one body and another. Strands thicken into solid links between the ancient and the modern, utility and self-expression, the digital and the physical, the personal and the political.
By exploring the inherent qualities of abject manufactured material, the body binds with other bodies and other places, some known, some not. It is work, but outside the tumultuous dominant economic system. It is an experience of the history of production and distribution through the material at hand.
Even in these times, when gathering around a table is a hazardous activity, when our pack species is feeling at loose ends, masked up and reluctantly apart, the tactility of rote hand-making grounds us into the here and now, one stitch, one loop, one knot at a time. We grasp at the tendrils, continuing the work, with the results standing as artifacts of a time, place and our individual and collective states of being.
Three major works created over one year remind me of the uncertainty, the panic, the perilousness of these times, and of the solace gained through individual making and the joy of making with others. The three are relics of two years of material research that culminated in a Master of Fine Arts 2020 exhibit set up one day before the university locked down.
We who turn to rote hand-making activity to quell our anxiety have been knitting, sewing, embroidering, crocheting and needleworking up a storm. My go-to, like countless others stuck at home, is making masks. As the death tolls roll in, I am on auto-pilot.
The thing about busying the hands with tiny repetitive motions is that it opens up time to think, to reflect on the incoming: the unfathomable graphs, reports, studies and scandals. What I’ve been reflecting on as I rotary-cut those squares of cloth, feed them into the machine and steam-press in the pleats is the great homemade-mask debate: to wear or not to wear. To that question I have no doubt: it’s a hard ‘wear’ if you are in the vicinity of others.
Sure, there is a tsunami of science that proves that the three-layered, tight-weave cotton reusable mask that I’ve been making won’t protect you — the wearer — from catching the virus but this is not about you and you alone. This is about us, about keeping our own damn germs to ourselves, a civic duty seen in east Asian nations that have been-there-done-that with SARS. As pointed out in today’s (at this writing) article in The Atlantic, a store full of shoppers in masks may be seen by those on this side of the Pacific Rim as a sign of the coming apocalypse but one of assurance on the other side: I’ll protect you if you protect me (Check out #masks4all and #youprotectmeIprotectyou).
At Emily Carr University of Art + Design, where I’ve spent the last two years, masks suddenly appeared on some student faces as Covid-19 hit the news, far before any social-distancing policies were set. My personal observation is that those taking these early precautions were likely international students from Asian countries where mask-wearing is a norm for anyone contending with even a cold or seasonal allergies. The sudden sight of all these masks in class and corridors may have unsettled the rest of the student body but it inspired me to design something I’d like to wear: reusable, washable, of natural felted fibre, sculpted so it didn’t touch my mouth, infused with my favourite “Panic Button” essential oil blend.
I wasn’t always cool with milling around with the masked ones. When I landed in Japan for what would be an 18-month stay in the late-’80s my first snapshots were of all kinds of people in masks in Kyoto, from little kids in black uniforms on their way to school, to teens picnicking under the blooming cherry trees to old ladies in the narrow streets of Gion. I came to appreciate all the masks worn while cheek to jowl in the infamous Midosuji subway in Osaka, starting with the official charged with gently pushing the commuters into the cars. Reflecting on this (now, while I sew), I wonder what those socially-responsible commuters must have thought about being stuck up against these gaping, mouth-breathing, sniffling foreigners.
I’m reflecting on the real, insatiable need for masks in my own vicinity, right now, for those who are jammed into shelters and squalid hotel rooms with shared bathrooms. While I await reports on how this pandemic is hitting the sick and homeless, I’ll assume masks are a basic need. And until I am tested, I’ll assume that I am an asymptomatic carrier.
I mask up for your protection when I go out for my essential business and when I return I disinfect it, put it back in its baggie, then get back to the task at hand. See my simple three-ply pleated pattern below, or, for you non-sewcialists, check out the T-shirt version at bottom.
In the final critique of my final work in this second-to-final semester of graduate studies, I could see that there was going to be trouble.
From the start, there was the trouble of actually getting a full view of this sprawling, chaotic, twisted mass of deconstructed jeans. It required everyone to stand around the perimeter of the low-lit white-cube gallery, in a circle, facing in, looking down at this problem child.
There was the troubling of its position: Why not on the wall or hung from the ceiling? Since it’s sprawled out on the floor, does it invite being walked on?
There was the troubling of method: Why the knotting and weaving and braiding? Why the obvious waistbands and labels? Why spend all this time and labour? Why not just a pile of denim strips?
And there was the troubling over concept: Is it too obvious? Too simple? Too many signifiers? Not enough points of entry? Or too many? Is it art or craft? Who is this talking to? And to what end?
And those are just my questions.
I question everything, especially as I work, with my hands, intuitively. But my first line of questioning is directed at the material itself. What do you want from me? (Or, to borrow from my then-eight-year-old nephew, in an inexplicable situation: What are we even doing here?)
As much as I could have sat and gazed at the striated piles of folded jeans collected, machine-washed and line-dried by my mother and hauled to my studio by my others, now those jeans demanded more of me.
Seams, the index of the work by mainly women in foreign factories, needed to be exposed, so I cut them away from the yardage, bound them up in my own hand-stitching into tight, potent fast-fashion/slow-craft units. For what? For now, just for today: my daily reminder not to overthink or force solutions.
The labels and tags required daylighting, too, and the more collisions the better between fonts and texts and all that those brands try to stand for.
That left the denim textile, the fabric of this whole fraught, toxic industry. Shucked from their constraints of style and function, I ripped them into strips and watched them fall from my cutting table into heaps on the floor like tidepools.
As much as I love the immersive works of minimalist textile installations, more would be more here. I would be mining all my own making methods and circulating them into this circles-within-circles piece, in allegiance with all of those who work with their hands for a living or for the love of material. Or both.
Like most makers I know, I love the challenge of constraining the work to some specific rules of material engagement so I limited mine to a single material, a knotting/binding additive process and two tools: scissors and sewing needle (well, three, if you count my hands).
I intrinsically start from the centre in an almost innate process learned over a lifetime, from macramé plant-hangers (1970s) to braided rugs (1990s) to crocheted giant doilies (2000s) created to cover and protect in the public sphere.
The work begins with a gathering of material-energy into a tight nucleus of force (I’ve been mixing up issues of astrophysics and making over the last year) and spreads outward, finding pattern then breaking that pattern toward new horizons. It’s a process of allowing the material to ebb then roil up again into forces that break into near disintegration, a rhythm that keeps me in the swim of things. As it flows outward into small tsunamis, then eddies, I feel an oceanic, topographic, geologic personality wash over this thing.
And this definitely wants to be a thing, not an immersive installation. This is an object that requires some finishing, a symphony of soundwaves that started with a bang but wants to end in a hum, in the round. It is a rug you can’t walk on, borne of Seismic Rug that emerged while I was confined to the floor with sciatica, watching footage of the horror of the 2011 Japan Tsunami flood in.
It is a resurgence of that making, and that fear of that flood and of the oncoming higher waters, but also the resurgence of my ability to grab hold of physically-challenging handwork after falling on the low-tide foreshore this summer and breaking my ‘good’ arm in two places. I cast aside those fears of not being able to make/do from the cast-offs of this unsustainable era of human history.
Resurge feels right for the piece formerly known as the Monster that raises issues from the ground up, this fuzzy menace.
I have this idea for building healthy community in this pretty/cold city through hand-making. It’s a process of making peace with ourselves and connecting with others, transforming individualized desires (thanks, capitalism) into shared desires for a sustainable life and world.
That's the idea. 'How' is the big question.
I start with a few rules of thumb. (I love that phrase for its controversial origin that is a deep-dive into human history and etymology, but also for the visual of the hand-as-tool.) First, the activity must be low-barrier enough to open it up to as much collaboration as possible — no need for special skills or equipment or fees or even shared verbal language. Second, the project must use only found material: freely available, with no better use (because there's already too much stuff in the world). Third, the project must spark interest, otherwise, why would people bother?
A decade ago, these rules of thumb resulted in The Network, an ever-growing public fibre-art piece engaging a wide variety of folks around Vancouver, co-created by Debbie Westergaard Tuepah. That knotty piece continues to weave through my work, mummifying a perfectly good painting practice, winding around ideas of alternative space-making, shelter, and safety nets. Now it's needling into my current project: the Safe Supply collaborative quilt.
'Safe supply' were the two words on the lips of the crowd at a CBC Town Hall gathering two months ago. Providing a safe supply of opioids would go a long way to addressing all the problems and fears raised by everyone from student activists to local businesses, from concerned politicians and developers to Indigenous elders: the toxic-drug death epidemic, violence, homelessness, sexual exploitation, theft, vandalism, mental illness. A safe supply is inherent in the view of addiction as a public health issue, not an individual, moral failing.
Ground zero of this humanitarian crisis is the colourful, chaotic tent city crowded in Oppenheimer Park straddling Chinatown and the old Japantown. The sight of all those bright, tenuous shelters layer up with this history of racism and injustice, stolen land and lives, and soon I am binding up ideas of found colourful material and that call for Safe supply!, embedding it all in a design, with designs for this as a group project destined for exhibit in more privileged spaces. It is planned as a comforting activity in this often ruthless, discomforting city: a dis-comforter.
I begin this overarching theme one block at a time, and that block is, fittingly, the traditional 'log cabin.'
There's a long history of the log cabin block, ingenious for its simple construction that makes use of even the smallest, thinnest available scraps as well as its history as a vehicle for social justice.
I am attracted to the name that stands as aspiration for home and all that that entails, beginning with the hearth, the centre of the block. From the hearth, the block is built in a spiral of connected scraps to form a foundation for countless quilt designs (traditional examples below).
The work has not yet begun but like all collaborations it begins with faith in people and trust in my practice. Something will emerge. We will engage. We will generate some heat in this log-cabin community.
Some useful how-tos and overall pattern examples:
About a decade ago I stumbled across Latvian-American mathematician Daina Taimina’s curious crochet abstractions. What's not to love about needlecraft (and needlecrafters) that advances modeling of non-Euclidean geometry?
I’ve been needling away ever since at the power of domestic materials and methods in making new forms (and new ideas).
Most recently I’ve been fascinated by the sculptural potential of smocking that was once a feature of every little-girl dress before the fantastic elastic plastic age hit.
Smocking expands and contracts rigid material and turns area into volume. Best of all, it’s a slow-craft, inwardly-focused, rote activity that is an essential thinking tool for me: when the hands are busy (with something other than the damn iPhone) then the mind is free to wander. And where I've been wandering around these days is space, from the macrocosm to the microcosm.
For the last year I’ve been meeting regularly with a physicist and an engineer from the particle-accelerator lab at UBC and two scholars in the field of arts, for a project through Emily Carr University that explores the possibilities of 'co-thinking' or 'hybridized thinking’ between artists and scientists.
After I got over the initial shock of being invited to join the dozen research assistants on this project (having barely squeaked through Math 11 and remaining the problem child at my tax accountant's office) I realized that I would not in fact be taxed with fully grasping unfathomable ideas of space-time or the confounding mechanicals inside UBC's cavernous particle-accelerator building. Instead, my role as a facilitating artist includes producing an artwork out of this whole experiment, for a group exhibit later this winter.
So why not smocking?
There's something zingy about using the most basic of methods — tying string knots in fabric — as I grapple with concepts like infinity, black holes, space-time, and a contracting universe. As I play with folding 540 square feet of area into volume, making a shape with no beginning nor end, I wonder about the possibility of doing the opposite of Dr. Taimina: making a model that is looking for the math.
The shape that is taking shape is as convoluted as many of our group discussions, and sits in that unsettling space between pattern and chaos, structure and collapse. It's as precarious as Leaning Out of Windows, the name of this four-year co-thinking project, yet tempting enough for the possibility of catching some new views.
Back when I was still transitioning from workaday newspaper editor to mainly work-for-free artist I applied for a Nexus card.
"Whaddaya you do for a living?" asks the clerk in her American drawl, without looking at me.
When I get this question I always wish there was an easy answer, some simple keystroke like in the relationship status options on Facebook.
"It's complicated," I say. She sighs.
I start in about how I was a journalist but then quit to go into full-time Fine Arts studies, then after graduation I got a studio and am now developing an art practice and doing work for upcoming projects... and stop as her eyes fall to half-mast. We go back and forth for a while like this when she announces: "I'm gonna put you down as housewife."
Even though I've always been self-supporting I decide not to waste my breath defending my non-conforming life choices. But really, I'm using the best skills I have to be a contributing member of society and I'm grateful to be a part of the ever-expanding, borderless community of crafters, craftivists and visual artists, all connected beyond language by hand-making for peace of mind and social, political connection.
Craft creates wellness, it brings humanity during turbulent times, it breaks down hierarchies and is the connecting thread between those who make for personal, tactile pleasure or for use and those who make art for art's sake. Craft is as at home in the home as it is on Etsy or in the white-cube gallery. It has footholds in ancient practices and the avant-garde. It complicates categorization and won't be fenced in (or out).
Making and their makers form an essential humanizing force more encompassing and enduring than even advanced capitalism but there's no way to show that value on a Nexus form.
I reject that line of questioning. And I am not married to a house.
Everyone is feeling that relentless creep of plastic that is threatening to consume us, the consumers. I felt myself drowning in the tsunami of stuff over this past year of grad studies at Emily Carr University. Art, as one instructor stated, is a wasteful business.
Even as I retreated back to my green, pristine Gulf Island I was hit with it at the end of the long drive through forest to the local dump: a mountain of garbage. This, from a small off-grid community known for its environmental consciousness.
My art practice is driven by a need to physically grapple with the unfathomable when words are not enough. In the strange way that an idea for an artwork takes hold, that sight of that mountain of petroleum-derived recycling-rejects led to my latest project: Foundlings.
For a while I’d been trying to land on a low-barrier, low-skill technique that could involve kids in the making of objects from found, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials. Then I landed on the work of late American sculptor Judith Scott, whose many exhibitions of her curious bound and woven fiber/found objects have led to discourse on “outsider” art, disability (she was profoundly deaf, non-verbal, and had severe Down’s Syndrome), intention, new sculpture forms and the privileged art world.
Within a month of escaping the art institution I was driving a pickup-truckload of colourful non-recyclable, non-biodegradable bits from the home-grown garbage mountain to the island’s only elementary school.
Before we got to the making part I sat down with the students and shared some images of Scott’s work for inspiration. We talked about how this artist’s method of wrapping, binding and weaving fibre around objects adds curiosity to what is on the inside. We talked about how working with familiar objects and materials in unusual ways can lead to new ideas. And we talked about how an object can be terrible and beautiful at the same time, does not have to be a recognizable thing nor have utility.
We worked over time on the pieces, some kids on their own and some in groups of two or three, adding even more fibre and found plastic detritus from their year-end trip to the local provincial marine park. On the final day of school I arrived to pick up the final pieces and was astounded at the creations. They were richly textured, humorous and foreboding, and proof of why I collaborate with children: they consistently demonstrate the importance of letting hands and imaginations fly.
They each titled their pieces in their own hand and I installed them for exhibit on forest plinths (moss-covered stumps from the last big clearcut) in time for the annual Arts Fest. With no chance they’ll degrade in the weather they remain there, pretty and pretty disturbing: our inescapable stuff.
At first I thought all this must still be debris from the Japan tsunami. But that was eight years ago and the surf in my remote neck of the woods keeps throwing up snarls of monofilament netting, plastic shards, nylon rope, bits of fibreglass hulls, and styrofoam. So much styrofoam.
I’ve been collecting up the stuff, inspired by this Gulf island’s own Styrophobe who’s taken on what some would say is a Sisyphean task of removing even the tiny beads of polystyrene from the clefts of rock along the shoreline.
My gathering is a tiny, maybe even futile, gesture but I’m giving form to the invisible: the bits and pieces we overlook on the foreshore or in the forest that, when lashed, bound, and woven together demand attention. These small but critical masses of debris are inspired by the found-material sculptures of Judith Scott. As I lash, bind, and weave I think of how the kids in my life would like to be in on this: hunting for material, making form from their hands and imaginations.
My gathering requires connecting with others to access materials. The Styrophobe, who’s also the guy in charge of the local dump, stands on the top of the garbage mountain, holding up uncertain objects for my consideration: How’s this? This stuff looks pretty good. Could you use this?
In 15 minutes I fill the back of the pickup truck with a curated collection of colourful plastic throwaways: pool noodles, watering cans, yards of orange fencing, jerrycans, twine, tape, cleaning-pad refill boxes, five-gallon buckets and lids. I fill up with purple things, red things, plastics in acid green, electric blue, hazard yellow, and caution orange — all the colours of the petrochemical rainbow.
After a lot of material prep (cutting off snags and sharp bits, wiping and washing off surface debris), I haul it to the local school where the kids, teacher and I dive in and play with the unwanted stuff. We have plans and we don’t have a plan, which is the right place to be with material exploration. This is where we learn to work with each material and not against its inherent nature, a great reminder of the futility of forcing solutions. This is where we learn to follow our hands, to work on our own or collectively over days and not minutes, to consider colour, form, and techniques for putting it all together, to create something that resonates with this time and place out of nothing anybody wanted.
It’s an important start for the generation that will be forced to deal with this legacy of stuff long after the plastic-agers die off.
The brilliant part about being an aging female is your growing self-acceptance. Maybe this is because you don't feel that ever-present gaze anymore so you’re not feeling as judged. Or maybe it’s because you’ve just had enough of all that and it’s tiresome and dammit you like to be cozy so screw them.
Part of my self-acceptance is stepping out of the ‘should-storm’ of art-making and doing what I love to do with my hands: hunting down materials that have already had their first use and playing up their inherent qualities through knotting, weaving, tying, stitching and binding. I want to work repetitively, easily, without technological assistance and without haste or waste. And in doing so I’m carving out space and time to calm down, reflect and to think deeper — more crucial as the distractions threaten to take over.
In this way the work is not just in the form or connotations but the well-being and challenge that is relatable to makers who may or may not self-identify as artists. Wrapped up in there are issues of endurance, innovation, history of labour, the learning of the skill, dedication (and frustration), the specific culture and history of the method, the muscle memory that extends back to childhood, and the relationships built through the gathering of the materials.
Through this making I make some hay over the established boundaries between the privileged art world and real life, between craft and sculpture, between tactile and political action.
Scaffolds is composed of found spun-polyester building wrap, tarp and nylon cord over an armature of waste construction materials including caution tape, PVC piping, rebar, conduit, baling wire, and junction boxes, all attached through simple knots.
Special thanks goes to the construction workers who delivered these materials from their many jobsites to my studio for my useless work with many functions.
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