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.
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.
There ought to be an international law against the dirty business of jeans manufacturing.
It poisons waterways, mainly in China, prompting environmental groups to raise the alarm against the devastation to communities and local ecosystems, yet consumers around the world continue to cycle through jeans, for work and in slavish loyalty to fashion trends.
Even on the small off-the-grid Gulf island of Lasqueti where I do much of my work, there is a constant oversupply of denim at the local Free Store. Too ugly or thrashed to be snapped up for the price of zero, they are destined for the landfill where the toxic dyes are left to leach into the ground.
But, honestly, if they weren't so pretty, I wouldn't be saving them from the dump. It's that very West Coast denim palette that compels me to rescue these ripped, stained or just outdated jeans, skirts, jackets and dresses and mess with them.
For the past few years I've been cutting them into usable pieces and sewing up utility items — bags, oven mitts, hot-pot mats, lumbar cushions — and before long I fell into my own tiny cottage industry stitching up utility aprons.
Lately I've been working them up in quilts of high-contrast hues with frayed exposed seams or muted reverse greys, all in conversation with the coastal views just beyond my sewing table.
So for environmental reasons and the pretty, durable nature of old denim, I keep innovating new uses, but my explorations into non-utility pieces (the stuff we call Art) is more about the culture embedded in all those jeans: the worn knees, the rips, the stains that all speak to the physical work people do on this off-the-grid island community to sustain them.
I dabbled with undulating appliquéd fields inspired by the coastal climate and vistas but lately I've been more interested in exploiting the sculptural possibilities of this weighty, stiff fabric.
Enter my latest exploration: large-scale macrame.
Knotting seemed like a natural way to enhance dimension, and it's relevant to this island community where knowing a few useful knots is an essential skill and in wide evidence. It also speaks to the late-'60s/early '70s back-to-the-land counterculture that defines Lasqueti. I liked the idea of creating a large-scale fringe for this place on the fringes of urban life. (Fun fact: The 13th-century Arabic weavers' word for "fringe" is "migramah", which eventually became known as "macrame".)
I gave myself some rules of engagement (like I do) to create a pattern. 1) The strands would be all three-inch strips. 2) The overall length would be largely determined by the number of strips I could squeeze out of an average size of jeans. 3) I would work from dark jeans to light to dark fabrics, to create a highlight in the centre of the piece. 4) The overall width of this super-fringe would be determined by the piece of driftwood I selected.
Fifty-five hours of knotty work later I completed 28 Jeans: Denim Ombré, a wall-mounted macrame work that continues to inspire more ideas and more questions: How can I achieve a more sculptural effect? How can I find that beautiful place between pattern and collapse? And most importantly: Why did I throw away my old macrame magazines??
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