Dimensions: Expanded Measures of TextilesFebruary 26, 2015
I am most aware and appreciative of this book as a catalyst for thinking.
When asked to put together an issue on textiles, I immediately thought of how I use Neil Cummings’s out-of-print text, Reading Things. It addresses the representation of objects outside of commodity cultures, and calls attention to the slippery and intangible aspects of employing words and images to understand our relationships to things. The book’s written, photographic, and illustrated essays offer an array of means to consider use. The book sits on my bedside table, where I can easily access it. On some occasions, the book is a book like any other, and leafing through pages, I move in a linear procession from start to finish. The more exciting moments, however, are on the days when the book’s bright blue spine catches my attention, and I have time to open it to any page, letting my random selection connect with what I am working on in my writing or curating. Questions inevitably emerge or are reformulated, and on these days I am most aware and appreciative of this book as a catalyst for thinking. It is my hope that this issue on textiles will offer readers a similar path of discovery: to shift the idea of use from an anticipated functionality to use in one’s thinking, creating, and writing. The contributions to this issue consider production and process, reveal cultural breadth, conceptual range, and possibilities of making, using, and thinking through textiles.
Materials must be transformed to become textiles. The contributions to this issue explore making and process in several ways—through elemental fibers, woven structures, and cloth’s capacity to hold color. Sonya Clark employs the most elemental of fibers in her essay: hair. In her most recent Hair Craft series, Clark, who was awarded the 2014 Art Prize, extends her interests to the use of her own head of hair. This series exemplifies how Bill Gaskins once described her work in the New Art Examiner: hairdressing is the primordial fiber art. In this issue of Art Practical, Clark explores this basic fiber in a new way by literally hairing the bow of a violin, resulting in a metaphorical sounding of the African American diaspora. Moving from fiber to form, Rebecca Gates’s exploratory essay reveals how selected artists employ the warp and weft of a woven textile to create works that are simultaneously aural and visual experiences. Her essay and hyperlinks call attention to a range of sonic sources, from accidental shifts in sound created by putting on and removing clothing to textiles constructed to amplify a relationship between form, materiality, and the potential for sound making.
A recent burst of interest in natural dyes is evident with people of all ages working with textiles, as seen in the Bay Area exhibition The Possible at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2014. In a conversation, Carissa Carman and Rowland Ricketts explore their very different reasons for working with natural dyes and their resulting projects. The two colleagues also address the tensions that such projects expose between fiber-arts communities—often composed of artists who build a deep knowledge of specific techniques over many years—and contemporary artists who experiment with and test such techniques toward different ends. Teaching within the same art department, Carman and Ricketts explore the limits of tradition by using age-old techniques in contemporary practice. Carman employs materials and process to explore the range and possibilities of color, and Ricketts conveys his immersive study and consideration of contemporary approaches to traditional indigo farming and dye cultivation techniques drawn from his years of study in Japan.
Education in the arts—its sources, its costs, and its value—is a topic of discussion across the globe. With regard to textiles, the transfer of knowledge of material processes ranges in method: person-to-person, book-to person, hand-to-machine, and even YouTube-to-artist. Those interested in natural dyes, for example, can learn through workshops in a variety of academic, guild, and independent contexts, such as the Wildcraft Studio School. Recipes abound, particularly in older and mostly out-of-print publications and pamphlets from past decades, such as some from a private collection I recently examined in Monograph Bookwerks with the store’s owner, John Brodie. Talking with Brodie was like communing with a human card catalog; each question from a book in the box led to the examination of other books in the bookstore. Brodie’s visual essay offers a sampler of types of older books, revealing a body of collected knowledge frequently overlooked, even dismissed, in today’s theory-based academic discourse. And yet, these technical, popular, and historical publications, which pass through used bookstores and the Goodwill, offer a breadth and wealth of knowledge that was once available specifically for women studying home economics and textile engineering.
Emily Katz and Susan Beal are part of a new generation of artists teaching textile techniques outside of academia, using workshops, online courses, and popular publications to share knowledge of history and process. Katz’s travelogue documents her first visit to Haiti, where she shared macramé techniques and created products in collaboration with her students. Her account of her initial experiences is rooted in the challenges of cross-cultural exchange in a capitalist and commodity-oriented world—in contrast to the conceptual criticality of Carol Lung’s Made in Haiti project. Katz’s teaching is, however, contingent on her presence; working by her side, a student who has a Creole book on macramé can learn far better than from reading alone. Textile techniques or skills can be described in how-to books, but teaching is often a communal experience. Katz’s project calls attention to power structures—in terms of materials, money, and access to knowledge—as well as reciprocal exchange.
Susan Beal’s interest in regional craft history inspired her to write about the history of Pendleton, a heritage brand with a long, complex relationship to Native American communities. In terms of education and exchange, it speaks of the transfer of weaving from a hand process to an industrial one. If one applies to Beal’s essay T’ai Smith’s exploration of the muddiness between the terms figure, pattern, and draft, one sees both a working company and the work of making that company function, as Pendleton’s history is contingent on this shift to formalized systems for textile production. Smith’s essay considers the codification of textile practices—specifically, the shift from hand making to making a code to repeatedly make the same thing with industrial machinery. From nineteenth-century mill books of weaving drafts and woven samples to paper patterns for sewing clothing and technical manuals outlining the chemistry and engineering of textiles, education in the field of textiles expanded well beyond the domestic and art-school arenas.
Beal is the author of several books on quilting and craft, the contemporary versions of popular how-to books from the sixties and seventies by Dona Z. Meilach, whose books on macramé and other fiber-art techniques inspire the artist Josh Faught, as discussed in Elissa Auther’s essay. Auther frames Faught’s work within historical and contemporary contexts—highlighting questions about gender, queer identity, activism, and materials drawn from popular culture—and bridges conversations about making and use. Both her essay and the dialogue between Shelia Pepe and LJ Roberts refer to the systems and structures of artists who identify as queer and the broader queer/LGBT community. A charged and timely conversation, the issues raised by Pepe and Roberts add critical dimension and breadth to consideration of several recent exhibitions: Queer Threads, Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters, and Fiber: Sculpture 1960 to the present.
For both Kauffman and Koiki, textile objects inspire study of what it means to wear—and not to wear—a culturally significant garment.
Cultural heritage and its relation to textiles—as vehicles to analyze history, family, and religion—are introduced in the contributions of Vanessa Kauffman and Bukola Koiki. Both focus their attention on head coverings; these textiles carry strong cultural significance, visibly demarcate difference and, for each contributor, are connected to a loss or absence. The Mennonite head coverings of delicate netted tulle once worn by women in Kauffman’s family are the focus of her study of the relationship between these ghostly objects and the community, connecting the personal to the public. For Kauffman, handling her aunt’s head coverings—once stored and flattened in the family Bible—launches a textual inquiry of a silent symbol of submission, bringing to life the complexities of community, markers of difference, and histories carried by textiles, a fascinating contrast in a study of religious garb when compared, for instance, to Frantz Fanon’s Algeria Unveiled. For Bukola Koiki, loss is manifested in her exploration of gele, traditional head wraps from Nigeria, where she was born and raised. Now living in the United States, the artist created videos of her attempts to tie head wraps, humorous reminders of the diasporic experience, in which one might be forced to rely on memory and even YouTube to learn and maintain cultural traditions in another country. For both Kauffman and Koiki, textile objects inspire study of what it means to wear—and not to wear—a culturally significant garment.
Last, but not least, Danny Orendorff’s essay highlights connections between textiles, activism, and community through his account of public programs and artworks created with Nedra Bonds, an artist and community leader in Kansas City. Their collaborative project at Charlotte Street Foundation took on additional significance after the Staten Island grand jury’s decision on the Eric Garner case in December 2014. In Kansas City, with a community collaboration initiated through textiles, #BlackLivesMatter takes on different potential and agency; artists like Bonds use their work to draw attention to issues affecting a community and, through leaders like her, continue to effect change. In such work, there are possibilities for artistic practice, community engagement, and the employment of textiles and the community of textile artists toward conceptual and civil ends.
In one of my earliest memories, I watch my mother’s nimble fingers as she pleats and drapes her sari around her body. I wait for her to move, so I can hear the soft swish of the midnight-blue silk sari in motion. As she walks, the silver embroidery glimmers like stars. Years later, I wonder at how, after watching her repeatedly negotiate six yards of fabric, I am unable to properly tie a sari onto my own body.
Looking at my mother’s sari in my hands, I wonder about the history of its makers and its making—and what now, as I stare at the folded textile, should I do with it since I cannot wear it as the textile was intended to be used? Although simply a textile on the one hand, this sari carries far more weight and meaning when viewed through the lenses of the contributors to this issue. The questions each contributor explores—visually, textually, and aurally—expand the range of measures by which fabrication, process, and use may be considered, pushing the dimensional potential of textiles. It is my hope that readers will experience the issue as a means of discovery in the way Neil Cummings’s book opens up thoughts and possibilities for me: through linear progression, chance selections, and meaningful connections.