They say if you want someone's attention, whisper. Or maybe that was just a line from a Whisper pantyhose commercial back in the '70s.
Whispering to get attention isn't easy in an image-packed urban landscape where slick marketing messages infiltrate our entire field of vision, from pop-up ads on our screens to the clutter of billboards.
There's so much of it that we subconsciously absorb, dismiss then ignore each image as we move through the visual bombardment. And we wonder why we're mentally exhausted at the end of the day.
That's what makes the experience of public artwork in the city landscape so compelling. No call to buy or to back a product or political organization or private enterprise. With no aspirational words (Believe! Passion! Simplify!) or branded images, logos, phrases or text of any kind to cue our automatic-piloted brain to overlook the visual image, a slight confusion sets in. Whoa. What the hell is that?
First comes the double-take, then out comes the smart-phone camera. The proof of the attention-grabbing power of commercial-free artwork on the city environment can be measured by the number of similar google images. You'd be hard pressed to find that Telus panda ad on a Flicker photo stream, but you'll run across multiple images of a single public artwork, like this giant macrame-esque installation created by Jasminka Miletic-Prelovac, at the only tall building (for now) at Main and Broadway. Or Edward Burtynsky's images on Pattison billboards (spotted along West 4th Avenue, below).
These message-free images that appropriate buildings and billboards are enough to compel viewers to investigate further. Turns out Miletic-Prelovac's work was this year's commission to highlight the livable laneways movement. And Burtynsky's images are from his latest book and new documentary, Watermark.
No logos. No brands. No text. These are whispers that can create a small roar.
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.
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.
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.
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
Artist friend and Maker Faire participant Rachael Ashe
In his speech to graduates of Toronto’s York University this month, one of my favourite journalists, CBC Radio’s Michael Enright, advised the next working generation to “learn how to fix something. Or make something using your hands.” Three years earlier, in his inaugural address, U.S. President Obama noted that it’s “the doers, the makers of things” who have contributed to a functional society, not “those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”
It’s a refreshing, recurring theme, after decades of popular thought that “making” lives in the shadow of that all-important exception of making money, or is relegated to the realm of hobby.
We life-long makers often find we have to defend the attention we spend on learning our craft, acquiring our skills. These things take time, and in the absence of any formal training we will carve out space wherever we can. For me, it was about escaping the classroom to papier-mache a bottle (or cut out giant tissue-paper flowers or silkscreen T-shirts or turn clay bowls) then escaping the office to stitch bed quilts (or build chests or reupholster furniture or braid rugs) until I finally allowed myself to make space for full-time making.
This is why I was in my element as part of Vancouver’s second annual Mini Maker Faire last weekend, a convergence of maker-geeks at the Forum building in Hastings Park in East Van. From weaving to robotics, this is my kind of place. Part market, part installation, part classroom, the real value is in what you know or can learn, not what you have or can buy.
This was the perfect spot to install our Network, a chaotic, collaborative, ongoing public artwork that is simple enough for anyone to add to it. For two days, people tied/braided/knotted/wove/wound strips of synthetic fabrics to the web/maze/forest/snarl, and in the process got the opportunity to connect with others who are naturally drawn to working with their hands. Little boys escaped into imaginary worlds under the sculpture. Bigger girls braided and chatted in groups of twos and threes. We thought we would be spending the two days coaxing visitors to participate by explaining the purpose and function of this random, ongoing fibre sculpture, but it clearly wasn’t necessary. Making is quite enough for anyone drawn to an event like this.
I had a Moment yesterday when I saw the front page of the Richmond Review newspaper, announcing that my design has been chosen for a proposed crosswalk in the heritage fishing village of Steveston.
The Moment was less about the win — although that was a nice bit of validation — and more about the physical proof that domestic crafts belongs in public art.
The design is a crosswalk that appears as fishnetting, in tribute to the historical importance of a booming salmon-fishing port village that was at one time branded 'Salmonopolis.'
It took some mining into my crafty background to problem-solve specific aspects of my idea, like how to elegantly join four net sections in the middle of what will be B.C.'s first 'scramble' crosswalk. My research involved digging through my old macrame magazines and re-learning some knotting I haven't done since my obsession with that craze ended in Grade 9.
Conceptualizing the crosswalk design required physically recalling the same activity as the Chinese, Japanese, First Nations and European residents who created the nets that filled the lofts that are now galleries, restaurants and museums. It also reminds me of the importance of literally 'playing with ideas.'
It's a subtle design, experienced chiefly by walking. Motor vehicles will miss it. But the real subtlety to me is the handiwork that informed it.
According to the newspaper article, this network will be catching pedestrians by October.
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