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.
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.
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)
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.)
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.
It's getting close to a decade since I packed it all in: my needles and wool, my sewing machine and fabrics, my mid-level-management career. There was more to explore.
I've been mixing it up with a wide range of materials (and makers) ever since but even I'm surprised to find that my latest tools of choice for bushwacking new routes of making are the ol' crochet hooks, knitting needles, rug hooks and embroidery needles.
The line on the paper has always been too limiting to me; I need to pick up that line, play with it in my hands, turn it into area, then volume. I remain entranced by the possibilities of connecting something created by a silkworm or an industrial manufacturing plant to a mathematical model or a wearable with uncomfortable connotations.
The beauty of fiber is in its physical and metaphorical ability to connect the Art side to the Design side (not to mention the science side), weaving the two together until it's clear that playing with ideas cannot be put into separate boxes.
Except if we're talking shipping boxes, for the Toronto Design Offsite (TO DO) Festival next month.
A few object-experiments from my ongoing Fuzzy Logic series will be packed in there, as part of the Vancouver group of makers, selected by the Dear Human creative studio.
It's all part of the ‘Outside the Box’ exhibits featuring works from three selected Canadian cities — Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver — and five from the U.S.: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
It's a fine way to mine local design ideas and visions through an unexpected selection of objects that are shared in various locations via specific-sized shipping boxes.
The Vancouver contribution includes nine individuals and teams who live, design and make in the greater Vancouver area. The connecting thread is a pursuit of a design practice through material exploration, according to Dear Human. "Whether through common applications of unusual materials or transcending common materials through unusual applications, exploration is evident in each of the included objects."
Rounding out the Vancouver Outside the Box continent are: Cathy Terepocki, Dahlhaus, Dina Gonzalez Mascaro, Hinterland Designs, Laura McKibbon, Rachael Ashe, and Studio Bup.
Vancouver Outside the Box will take over the windows at 1082 Queen Street West, Toronto, from January 19-25, 2015.
TO DO is an annual city-wide not-for-profit week-long festival that celebrates and showcases the nation's design scene, providing exposure and cross-pollination of ideas and techniques. There are too many exhibits, installations, talks, parties and films to list here, so check out the full (and growing) schedule here as well as the fun promo video.
I would rather watch the little kids in my life play than watch the best TV. But it's tricky because they don't like to be observed and if they feel I'm too interested, they are on to me and it all comes to a halt.
I have to refrain from the urge to referee, guide, demonstrate or facilitate. Because it's only when they're sure the adults are not interested that the seriously unstructured play comes on, with all its small power struggles and shared moments of joy. (See legendary Lynda Barry talk about play at the end of this post.)
I'm fascinated by the ability of kids to spontaneously engage in creative collaboration (a.k.a. 'play') with other kids they didn't know 10 minutes before. It's a lesson in the power of putting ourselves out there creatively, to let go of control and all expectations.
In the past week, I took my inner kid out to play with strangers in two distinct venues: the Vancouver Art Gallery, in preparation for the opening of Douglas Coupland's major solo show, and at the first Arts & Crafts Social at a small Mount Pleasant neighbourhood gallery.
After-hours at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we were all quickly introduced before we were invited to attack and stack Coupland's priceless/useless toy bits to assemble his imposing 'Brick Wall' at the entrance of the exhibit, under the artist's direction. We were just playing but in retrospect we were problem-solving issues of density, colour, weight, communication, and give-and-take. We were just talking but on reflection we were wrangling with issues of value, object-images, collections, consumption, globalization and categorization.
A few days later, I hauled out one of my portable projects and headed to the inaugural Arts & Crafts Social (#HAWCsocial) at Hot Art Wet City Gallery hosted by Rachael Ashe and Kim Werker.
The beauty of a drop-in, BYOP (project) event is that if you're feeling a little shy, at least you have your work to focus until you're comfortable enough to mingle. The tables soon filled up with conversation-starters beyond the beer and wine: stabby felt needles, crochet and rug hooks, Thai take-out, Sharpies on canvas, a digital drawing pad and an old manual typewriter.
You play, you learn — about other methods, applications, directions. And you get to hang with people not typical of your usual social circle. To me it was worth the admission-by-donation just to get a glimpse of the unrestrained mind of Billy Patko (below, left). Which got me thinking: what would Patko's prolific doodles look like in a large-scale format? (See Photoshop'd sketch, below.)
Coupland's show, Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything runs May 31 to Sept.1. The next Arts & Crafts Social at Hot Art Wet City is June 25, 7:30 - 11pm.
The Crassmas season is one big distraction to me. But once I remind myself that a gift does not have to be a solution to someone's problem but a simple, seasonal gesture, I embrace the chance to make, and make it merry.
The place is a happy mess. Wool strands are stuck to my glue gun nozzle, my slippers are splattered with spraypaint. Black plugs of leather from my new punch tool are lodged in my laptop keyboard and tiny glass beads have rolled into every corner of the apartment.
There is some method in all this mad, frivolous playing and decorating, but I only see the playing with ideas after the fact.
Turns out my spontaneously created (ie. still in pajamas) 'copper pipe' wreath (sliced wrapping paper rolls and copper spraypaint) was a practical exercise in understanding patterns of circles within circles — the focus of a major project next year.
Glass-bead snowflakes, a dark-weeknight distraction, was a lesson in math ( a five-inch-diameter object requires a five-foot strand of beaded wire) and an experiment in creating area and density from line.
Crocheting chunky-wool slipper booties had its own lesson in scale; in this case, what looks cute in a kiddie size looks hideous in an adult version. (Breathe easy, teenagers.)
The gingerbread A-frame cabins involved more industrial design than I anticipated and more geometry than I normally like to endure but was essential for gaining the most area out of four cookie-sheet squares of dough. The possibility that math can be fun is matched by my new-found fascination of some basic chemistry that reveals the power of heat to turn granular sugar into glass, and the power of water as the only solution for pots cemented with rock-hard sugar syrup.
I can't rationalize the pounds of candy and icing sugar I bought for the four kids to decorate the gingerbread camp. That I would ever indulge in that sort of seasonal folly is a freakin' Christmas miracle.
Wrap (I), polyethylene fibre, 96" diameter
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.
Wrap (II), polyethylene fibre, 96" diameter
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.
Flo (I), acrylic on canvas, 60" x 60"
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.
Ravages (I), found cotton doilies, mortar, dimensions variable
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
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