In my fourth-year sculpture class venerable artist and (now newly-retired) Emily Carr instructor Liz Magor took one look at my first installation of a kazillion doilies stretched across the cavernous classroom and said, "You seem to be in love with doilies. Maybe it's time to break up and find something else to love."
It was just the kind of motivation I needed to embark on a three-year challenge to bring the thrift-shop throwaways into the gallery fore.
I admit I am in love with spidery, handmade doilies. My hands barely know the work that goes into their tiny filigree patterns. Following a complex pattern is a highly meditative exercise in concentration, patience and commitment. Their circular designs reflect the mathematical patterns of coral, brain, bibb lettuce.
But the real power of those little doilies for me is their symbolism. Each one represents its maker, invariably an older woman who has clearly worked this way with her hands for many, many years, who probably learned from her mother, who learned from her mother. When I spot them in heaps in a plastic basket on a thrift store shelf, 50 cents each, I am quietly horrified. How can all these humble labours of love, these overlooked objects of household protection, be reduced to almost no value? And am I still talking about the handmade items or their makers? I've been tangling up the two for a long time — for too long, some might say.
For three years I've been pushing the doily into new dimensions, trying to make the invisible visible. Mixing them up with industrial materials like mortar and Tyvek. Using patterns from the back of 1950s Ladies Home Journals to turn eight-inch-wide doilies into eight-foot-wide doilies. Messing with the macho painting conventions of Abstract Expressionism from the same era.
The show went up at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre lobby last week. I don't know what the concert-ticket-holders will think of giant doilies hanging from railings, the small sculptures of unfathomable petrified doilies or painted fields of doily patterns, with names like Flo (after my grandmother with skilled hands and a bold spirit) and Persistent Grey.
I'm sort of resigned to the idea that many will find it all weirdly decorative. Maybe Magor would say that now I really need to find another object to love. But for me it's a mission accomplished. I've somehow managed to fool everyone with the promise of Art and filled the pristine, privileged gallery space with doilies.
Is my love affair over? I'm trying not to think about it too much. Over-thinking has never helped me.
Unlaced continues at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until Sept. 23, 2013. Gallery Hours: during QET performances or by appointment. Contact: Connie Sabo, gallery curator, 604-505-4297
My biggest obstacle is over-thinking — not to be confused with big thinking. Over-thinking is my umbrella term for all the second-guessing, the predicting, the analyzing and the re-thinking that can turn my mind into a maelstrom. It's unproductive and it's exhausting and it's why I and many of my maker friends are involved in repetitive, obsessive (I prefer the term "devotional") artwork methods. The focus required is just the ticket to get out of the rabbit's hole of circular thinking. Less mental chatter, more mindfulness.
Making is the key to learning for me. As the work takes shape I try to make out what it's saying, where it's situated in the whole art discourse thingy. It's clear that I have to be clear about my intentions, where I'm going with all this, and why. Some thought is necessary.
But over-thinking is a form of self-sabotage and it has threatened the existence of my latest project, Monumental Doily. As I hook into those strands I find myself grasping at threads from my art history and cultural theory classes, trying to work in ideas of power struggles and psychoanalysis. Next thing you know I'm assuming the posture of German artist-shaman/renegade educator/former Nazi militiaman Joseph Beuys, in some sort of feminist response to his famous 1974 performance art piece, I Like America and America Likes Me (below, left) until my Inner Victorian Grandlady cries, "Enough nonsense!" (She would never say, "I call bullshit!")
I have to be able to speak about my work but I have a pretty low tolerance for too much artspeak. I like artwork that has me at Hello, that hooks me in to investigate further and is not just some in-joke designed for the rarified few who have had the benefit of art-historical education.
It should evoke a wide range of responses from a wide range of viewers — 'multiple points of entry', as they say. It should resonate in different ways and over time, and not rely on an instruction manual disguised as an artist statement full of exclusionary academic language (unless the point of the artwork is to create a feeling of alienation). Yet if it's too definitive, it's over quickly, like a trick, and I'm done. Next!
Elitism is ugly and I really do agree with Beuys' belief that everyone is an artist, or at least can be if she would just shut out the rational jibber-jabber already and hook into the emotional/spiritual, the unquantifiable, even the unreasonable. (Beuys' beautiful mind is behind his urban intervention project, 7000 Oaks)
Sometimes a giant doily is just a giant doily, material evidence of one person's attempt to connect in an increasingly chaotic, hectic, overly-quantified and unrationally rationalized world.
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