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.
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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