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.
Everyone is feeling that relentless creep of plastic that is threatening to consume us, the consumers. I felt myself drowning in the tsunami of stuff over this past year of grad studies at Emily Carr University. Art, as one instructor stated, is a wasteful business.
Even as I retreated back to my green, pristine Gulf Island I was hit with it at the end of the long drive through forest to the local dump: a mountain of garbage. This, from a small off-grid community known for its environmental consciousness.
My art practice is driven by a need to physically grapple with the unfathomable when words are not enough. In the strange way that an idea for an artwork takes hold, that sight of that mountain of petroleum-derived recycling-rejects led to my latest project: Foundlings.
For a while I’d been trying to land on a low-barrier, low-skill technique that could involve kids in the making of objects from found, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials. Then I landed on the work of late American sculptor Judith Scott, whose many exhibitions of her curious bound and woven fiber/found objects have led to discourse on “outsider” art, disability (she was profoundly deaf, non-verbal, and had severe Down’s Syndrome), intention, new sculpture forms and the privileged art world.
Within a month of escaping the art institution I was driving a pickup-truckload of colourful non-recyclable, non-biodegradable bits from the home-grown garbage mountain to the island’s only elementary school.
Before we got to the making part I sat down with the students and shared some images of Scott’s work for inspiration. We talked about how this artist’s method of wrapping, binding and weaving fibre around objects adds curiosity to what is on the inside. We talked about how working with familiar objects and materials in unusual ways can lead to new ideas. And we talked about how an object can be terrible and beautiful at the same time, does not have to be a recognizable thing nor have utility.
We worked over time on the pieces, some kids on their own and some in groups of two or three, adding even more fibre and found plastic detritus from their year-end trip to the local provincial marine park. On the final day of school I arrived to pick up the final pieces and was astounded at the creations. They were richly textured, humorous and foreboding, and proof of why I collaborate with children: they consistently demonstrate the importance of letting hands and imaginations fly.
They each titled their pieces in their own hand and I installed them for exhibit on forest plinths (moss-covered stumps from the last big clearcut) in time for the annual Arts Fest. With no chance they’ll degrade in the weather they remain there, pretty and pretty disturbing: our inescapable stuff.
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??
For the last six Saturdays I have thrown open my studio doors to seven kids between the ages of 5 and 7, ostensibly to offer some art classes, but really, this was for me. I had been feeling a little stuck, with lots of false starts and second-guessing in my artwork. It was a sign to shelve the 'work' for a while and go play outside (my comfort zone) with kids.
There is nothing easy about mixing wildly enthusiastic kids with acrylic paint and ink, Sharpies, white glue, pointy scissors and a wide range of making materials. But through trial and error, this messy, slightly chaotic exploratory play leads to some beautiful surprises.
Kids at this age are not hung up on outcomes yet; they are intrinsically curious about whatever materials they come across. Their gift is showing me where their untamed hearts take them, without wrecking the joint.
I've always loved making but as a school kid I felt great anxiety about producing the class assignment correctly. I was constantly comparing my effort with the next kid's and everyone could identify who were the "good" artists and who were the hopeless cases, with the main message being messy = bad). So I decided that my class would not be about making any things in particular but just playing around with materials and methods.
I started by giving each kid a coil-bound sketchbook that would live in the studio for the entire six weeks. This is where all the weekly experiments would go, but it would also be a place for them to glue in any flat things they collected that week from their world — photos, leaves, magazine clippings, bits of fabric, birthday cards.
The sketchbook "stuffing" quickly became the warm-up to art-making, as kids ran into the studio to retrieve their sketchbook from the shelf, showing one another their latest finds, and looking over their past pages.
As they stuffed they discovered new ways to arrange the pieces, which often led to new ideas. For example, one page of glued coins and leaves became a story about a money tree. Another kid learned how to do pencil rubbings on the reverse side of his page of found objects.
But a 9x12-inch page can be a little limiting, so I showed them how their larger experiments could be folded up like a map and glued into their sketchbooks. Going through their own sketchbooks became an activity of unfolding and folding, which also gave them a chance to review their weekly experiments.
I remember being frustrated over the limitations of gritty, porridge-like tempera paints, unyielding plastic paint brushes and shabby newsprint so I put out a bucket stuffed with quality brushes of all sizes and a selection of brilliant, heavy-body acrylic paints. I set them up with their own Styrofoam palettes, a large sheet of white paper masked out right on the wall and made the intentionally vague suggestion that they paint what is inside them. That led to some surprising abstracts, and yes, it did include one portrait of poo. But it was poo with great intention, plus the kid who did that ended up captivated by his palette of swirling colours so the next Saturday he cut it out and glued it into his sketchbook.
Then there was the fun-with-yarn day. One kid demo'd his new pom-pom-making gizmo while other kids glued down bits of yarn like spaghetti and embossed it with a sheet of tinfoil. As they talked and watched one another create, some of those three-dimensional designs morphed into mazes and maps, with the help of Sharpies.
At right: A bit of yarn, some glue and a sheet of tinfoil transported this young artist into a world of tornadoes and skateboards (or was that snowboards?).
Above: A loose suggestion to create a mosaic from magazines, perhaps sorting by colour or shape was advanced to use found patterns as a dress on a picture of a girl, (left) and a mosaic of heads, appropriately entitled, "Hideous Heads."
Letting the kids loose on a wide range of mark-making tools pushed their ability to express themselves. "I love this black" was Mimi's first response as she took the velvety oil pastels for a spin, while the watercolour pencil crayons allowed Javi to achieve some finer painting details.
Every week we talked about the word, 'inspired', as in, I am inspired by your great works.
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