Click HERE for a 10-minute journey through the methods and motivations behind this MFA thesis. (Film made by Ana Valine, Rodeo Queen Pictures, August 2020)
Tripping on this troublesome rug
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.
The other day I did this because it really needed to happen. All that gleaming new-campus architecture, surrounded by other gleaming buildings and gleaming buildings yet-to-come was begging for a little fuzzying up.
I did my undergrad at the old Emily Carr University of Art and Design campus which was decidedly less smooth and metallic and more crafty, situated as it was in the Granville Island artisan mecca on the ocean's edge. I liked running my hand along the old wooden posts carved with decades of scrawled text, and all the wiring and ductwork that in the last few years looked like a set out of Brazil. I miss the giant murals on the cement factory silos next door and the funky houseboats and the food stalls in the public market and Opus Art Supplies 30 feet away from the front entrance.
The new serene, clean Emily Carr building is surrounded by new and planned condos that most students could never afford, high-tech companies and, soon, an elevated rapid transit rail line. As much as I wanted to return for graduate studies, I was not convinced that I would be a good fit here, so asking for permission and access to the sign was a bit of a trial balloon for me. I got quick and full support for the idea and its installation, and now see this new white space as a blank canvas, ready for the next era of student artistic expression.
This is my first solo yarn-bombing foray. A bunch of us attacked the old school back in the day for a textile-themed student show but I have yet to meet my people here. So the Emily Carr Cozy is not just a balloon, it's a flare. Is there anybody out there?
As I busied my freezing fingers with the stringy stuff (in hard hat, on the Skyjack operated by design tech services maestro Brian) I kept an ear out for reaction. And it was good. Sharing the fuzzy intervention on social media (#craftivism, #subversivestitch etc.) reminds me that I am not alone in my need for needling authority. Indeed, this public performance includes behind-the-scenes connecting with my community of makers to collect their leftover yarn and thrift-store finds even before the main act. (You know who you are.)
Textile interventions in the public sphere have a way of provoking polarizing responses. Some love the often-chaotic hand-wrapping of colourful fiber; others view the crafty messing with architecture with disdain of all things cozy and crafty and engendered female. I liked the idea of having to wear a hard hat and working for four hours in a Skyjack, in the mode of construction workers in the immediate vicinity of my rapidly changing hometown, to complete my knitting job.
A visual of the process, below. (All photos by Caitlin Eakins)
Materialistic. People say it like it's a bad thing.
But there's not necessarily anything selfish or hoardy or wasteful about feeling deeply connected to materials. If we all started being a little more materialistic we might not be now contending with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or space junk. I want no part with parting so quickly from one-use-life materials when a meaningful second life is possible.
So when a couple of people dear to my heart were clearly torn about parting with some favourite clothes of their loved ones who recently passed away — one within this year, the other within 18 months — I felt it too.
These bits of cloth are interwoven with the memory of the wearer, his style, the special occasions and the everyday. Just looking at them hanging in the back closet brought the son, the wife, to tears. Some of that emotion is also about feeling at odds with what to do with it all. Yet holding onto useless things, especially in this town where we're so squeezed for space we have to go outside our living spaces just to change our mind, can even bring on some shame or panic that we can't let go, move on.
I felt the potency of the pieces too, and suggested selecting a few items to be repurposed into something that would bring comfort, and in remembrance.
The first project this spring was the Great-Grandfather Quilt, for the first of the next generation who missed meeting his great-grandfather by 9 months. The second was Dad's Blanket, which lives on one of the two matching sofas where father and son watched the baseball in his last three years. The third is a lumbar-support cushion made from silk ties that's parked on his wife's favourite reading chair.
It takes a bit of faith to allow those blazers and sweaters, ties and dress shirts to leave their dark cupboards and be subjected to my fibre-art experiments but I'm grateful they did. It was a little unnerving, plunging wool blazers into a hot-water-wash and tumble-dry, or severing several silk neckties in one swipe of the rotary cutter, but that's the deal with making and innovating: sometimes you have to take a deep breath and boldly go, risking failure.
And there is definitely failure in all of this making. Design changes happen on the fly, dictated by odd dimensions of the pieces and unpredictable fabric behaviour. (It's a thing.) Trying to wrestle slippery bias-cut silk, unstable cashmere knit and coat-heavy woven wool into submission enough to lie flat together is a test of one's patience. The trick is to embrace imperfection and keep the big picture in mind. I think about the Gees Bend quilters I saw a few years ago at Granville Island and the gospel spiritual song two of them sang at the start of their talk, and I say a little prayer myself: God I hope this works.
The other challenge is creating works that resonate with the spirit of the original wearer, so it's not just a matter of chopping up the clothing into tiny unidentifiable pieces to be re-fabricated in a generic quilt. You don't want to be too literal either, appliquéing ties into a Ties Quilt or (creepier) using every last button and pocket or (horrors) just sewing all the clothes together into a blanket or something.
Binding the one blanket with necktie fabric and appliquéing the suit labels in one corner of an army blanket backing (for the man who served in the US Army) felt like the right balance.
I post each Remembrance Pieces project on Facebook to inspire other material girls and guys, and to pay my respects to the stuff of life and to those of this life no longer.
MORE THAN DECORATION: Flower images carry deep cultural significance for the Maya. Left: A figure dating from 600-900bc nestled in a lily. Centre: Needlepoint detail from a huipil (top), part of a traditional everyday dress. Right: Jesus emerging from a lily in an oil painting of the Immaculate Conception. Carlyn Yandle photos
I've made it my mission to shake things up by injecting the handmade domestic — doilies, quilts, sweaters and rugs — into austere, authoritative spaces and places, from pristine galleries to sketchy undersides of my city, pushing back on everyday misogynistic descriptors like 'girly' or 'old-lady' or the slightly derogatory 'frou-frou' and 'flowery.'
Then I landed in Merida, Mexico, last week where there is no fight against things flowery and archetypical feminine. Here in the capital of the Yucatan state and the ancient Maya culture (not dead but flourishing against all odds, by the way, like Canada's indigenous people) the streets are a flowery visual field of richly needleworked garments and handmade decorative traditions woven throughout the city, from tiled floors to architectural details and murals.
Above and far right: Carpet-like ceramic tile floor artworks are more than decorative. At left, a four-petal flower signifies universal realms; Centre: Merida's impressive El Gran Museo Del Mundo Maya pays tribute to the importance of the handmade floral motif in one of its exhibit salons. Carlyn Yandle photos
Flowers are so sacred and symbolic in the highly complex Maya culture that the Franciscan missionaries, in service of the Catholic Church, appropriated specific flower designs in their battle for their souls, in a cultural war of the roses (and lilies and other healing, spiritually-weighty blooms).
Coming from the land of yoga pants, I'm fascinated by this idea that an acceptable form of everyday dress is one's own hand-stitched art piece in the form of brightly-coloured cultural patterns of flowers on white cotton or linen tops and tunics, over an underskirt edged in a thick band of white lace.
No made-in-China. No apologies, no fading away.
Last week Monte Clark gave four of us some insight into how an experiment by Omer Arbel went awry and ended up as a dazzling installation in his newish Monte Clark Gallery.
The heavy, glittering swags appear as silver-dipped coral or precious Crown hardware retrieved after a palace inferno. The hardened bits of chaos are a dazzling example of why failure is vital in the push for new ideas and materials.
"Failure is a constant companion," says Vancouver-based creative force Arbel, in Vancouver Magazine.
It was the perfect preface for my '3 artworks a day for five days' challenge that bounced over to me on Facebook.
Risk is essential in my work but I don't have Arbel's creative empire to absorb expensive failures, so I turned to stuff lying around the house (a.k.a. Found Domestic Materials) in my thrice-daily experiments. The way I see it, the materials used below were already deemed waste, so if the tests didn't work out, so what? At least no new materials were harmed in the making.
This just uploaded... Six and a half minutes devoted to that question I get a lot:
"What's up with the doilies?"
(Video courtesy of Terry Fox Theatre's PechaKucha program. More info on the entertaining, informative and globally-popular PechaKucha format here.)
Shab-fab granny squares cover it all
Maybe it's the chilly monochromatic climate at work here, but I'm suddenly wrapping myself up granny squares. The more I think about them, the more potential I see.
There's a lot of culture woven into those fuzzy little colour grids. They're there in the background of popular culture, infusing irony and cozy home-yness, nostalgia and disdain. One graces the couches of neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler's nerdy apartment and Roseanne's working-class house. Jemaine sleeps under one (badly).
Sure, they achieve that soupçon of shabbiness or tastelessness essential to the story but those set decorators are no idiots; granny squares inject hits of high colour and pattern to the visual field. They are trippy, decorative non-decor objects. Their form is used because of their assumed function over form.
They are the throws that are thrown around, their colourful geometry reflected and refracted so that they radiate western domestic culture, love it or hate it.
Cate Blanchett adorned a designer version on the red carpet, to a chorus of derision by the fashion police, which secured the actress more publicity.
There's something delicious in the mix between haute couture and the easy, scrappy crochet method that results in over 13,000 Etsy items under the search term, "granny squares".
I've loved/hated granny squares ever since my cousin and I were given matching shrink vests at age 10, from our moms. I would have been wearing that single, large purple granny square at a time when the Italian dads in the neighbourhood were setting up that granny-square pattern in concrete breeze walls around their brand new Vancouver Specials.
Like the blankets, the breeze walls evoke utility and thrift but are visually interesting enough to warrant new consideration. The modularity of granny squares and breeze-wall blocks ooze with potential, especially as a mash-up.
Granny squares command attention. The Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum took on new dimensions when it was covered in thousands of donated granny squares as part of its CAFAM Granny Squared installation a couple of years ago.
Suddenly, a city that is generally at odds with notions of the handmade, the domestic and the artisanal was attracting mainstream media attention for its collaborative crocheted culture jam.
A couple of years before that, in 2011, members of many Finnish women's organizations and the craft teachers' union blanketed Helsinki Cathedral's steps in 3,800 granny square tilkkupeitosta (Finnish for 'quilt').
The modular motif marries beautifully to existing architecture, as the granny squares take on a Tetris effect, cascading down to the giant public square in this domestic intervention.
But what about the granny square as a building block itself? What if a building appeared to rise out of a giant crocheted coverlet? How could concretized crocheted granny squares be utilized as sculpture?
It's a fuzzy concept worth building on.
I spent most of the day yesterday sitting with a very close friend in a hospital bed, waiting for the surgeon to slice into her gut and remove a large cyst and maybe an ovary or two. Or maybe all her lady parts. There was frank talk about the expected pooling blood and lingering pain and there were some last-minute tears as she was wheeled away.
It was hardly the time to go mingle at a gallery that night, but friends and family would be there for the opening of the Domestic Interventions show so it was the right thing to do. My sister exhibitors, Monique Motut-Firth and Janet Wang, had probably wrestled with attending too; they were both fending off whatever bad colds their little kids had brought home. But we all showed, and even managed to say a few words about the work.
I mention all this because this is what the work is about: trying to nurture an art practice when there is other, more pressing nurturing to be done, not to mention the cleaning and the making-a-living. Sometimes you just have to laugh over the lunacy of trying to paint or build or cut or even think amidst the domestic pressures; sometimes you’re ready to toss it all in, but don’t because you know this ability to express the predicament is what holds you together.
That’s why this show includes uneasy domestic objects, uncomfortable self-portraits and sculptures, paper dolls composed of the fictitious feminine form from women’s catalogues. We brought these works together to talk to one another, and to try to convey that dis-ease of the familiar with the strange. There’s something funny about a tiny mother-artist figurine gnawing through the telephone wire or a mannequin wrapped in 1950s ads of ecstatic home-makers or a long line of girdled paper dolls, but there’s a dark side too.
We love our families and our home life but we need our art practices too. We may live in a corner of the world that respects cultural workers as much as welfare recipients but we can’t help ourselves. Our domestic world and our work as artists will continue to twist and intertwine and something will continue to emerge that will evoke the messy, conflicted, emotionally charged and banal everyday.
And that’s important.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 at Cityscape Community Arts Space gallery, 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
Group exhibit dwells on the domestic
My brief stint as a home organizer was an eye-opener — door opener, to be precise. I got a rare view of the reality behind the doors of some beautiful houses. Often I was the only outsider who had been invited inside for years, for many different reasons.
Home is where it all hangs out, for better or for worse.
Ostensibly it’s where the meals and love and traditions are shared but it’s also the backdrop to power struggles or social isolation (by choice or by circumstance) and other domestic dynamics that we don’t post or tweet or share or Like.
It’s why Monique Motut-Firth, Janet Wang and I decided that our group exhibit at Cityscape Community Art Space opening next week should include an opportunity for others to take a break from the relentless perfect-homelife-branding and share in the real, in our Dirty Laundry installation.
During the course of the month-long Domestic Interventions exhibit visitors to the North Vancouver gallery will have the option of anonymously adding one of their own pieces of domestic reality to the ‘laundry line’ set up in the Lonsdale Avenue space. It could reveal that our very private, personal problem might actually be a public issue that deserves an airing. Or it may be that no one will take on the option.
There’s power in negative space too.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 with an opening reception Thursday Oct. 16, 7–9 pm at 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
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