Honor our Wrinkles: Fiber, Women, Dykes and Queers

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

Honor our Wrinkles: Fiber, Women, Dykes and Queers

By Sheila Pepe, L.J. Roberts February 26, 2015

I first heard the name “Sheila Pepe” in 2001 in my junior year at the University of Vermont. In sculpture classes, I was making art using wood, video, plaster, and textiles—though the textile element always seemed like an afterthought. (The summer before my junior year, I had injured my foot in a terrible accident. In bed for months, I began to knit after a fourteen-year hiatus.) When I began my intermediate sculpture class, I presented knitted work. My professor, Kathleen Schneider, gave me a list of names of artists working with fiber; Sheila’s was at the top. When I saw her work, I was in awe. Her huge installations took the ideas in my imagination and blew them up—the ante had been upped. What was even more exciting: Sheila was a butch and was crocheting. As a baby gender-fucked butch, I felt surprised and perhaps even embarrassed that I was knitting and not welding, but there was Sheila using a crochet hook and shoelaces and tow-ropes to take over giant spaces, in a gender that I aspired to. Fifteen years later, I am more comfortable in my gender but still in awe of Sheila for not only her artistic practice but also her contributions to local and international creative communities. Sheila has taught so many students, good friends of mine, who also revere her. She writes, speaks up, and collaborates. She is generous with her wisdom and her willingness to listen.

For this issue of Art Practical, I am happy to share my discussion with Sheila about feminism, fibers, politics, and the current directions of our work. Through the winter, we conversed on the phone and through email, sharing our ideas, speaking from our respective generational positions, and laughing about being gender weirdos obsessed with yarn. The following is a small snippet of what was said. —L.J. Roberts 

________

L.J. Roberts (LJ): Do think your use of abstraction mixed with craft is a strategy that inserts political concerns and agendas into a form that can be accessed by a wider range of people with more avenues for interpretation? If so, my work differs greatly from yours in that way. I thought I worked very literally, but now I’m actually working figuratively, which is not where I saw myself going at all. Perhaps that closes doors on the conversation and creates less of a gateway for multifaceted conversations.

Sheila Pepe (SP): I think we are all working literally, but we are also working to combine layers of literal signs and signals that work as metaphor and analogy. It is what it is—and it points to something else. That’s why I’m thinking again about craft and art. One could say that within the context of art, craft may be queer but only if the latter is understood as a static self-sustaining location, invested in and empowered by its marginality. To this end, there must be an inherent disinterest in becoming part of the larger whole. As a personal quest, this sounds good, but as a political one, it doesn’t: few people have the luxury of—or interest in—living and/or working in a static state of marginality. 

I’m wondering what your political ambitions are for the concepts of queer and craft. What do they look like, in your mind’s eye?

L.J. Roberts. The Queer Houses of Brooklyn In The Three Town of Boswyck, Breukelen, and Midwout During the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era (Based on the drawing by Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky and with illustrations by Buzz Slutzky), 2011; crank-knit yarn, fabric, thread, poly-fil 1-inch pins (free to the public and to be replenished endlessly). Courtesy of the Artist.

LJ: For me, lately, the politics of craft and queer identity have been revolving around the notions of women and femininity—in terms of concept, visibility, and political gain—academically and even in the market.

In disciplines that have been traditionally practiced by women, like textiles, we’ve seen a group of men—particularly cisgender men—become highly visible, which is quite different than how women working in textiles have been positioned, both historically and contemporarily. Many representations of masculinity in mainstream culture are quite violent, and so to see a man exuding a feminine masculinity—like knitting or crafting, for example, is enticing. Most of these men who position themselves within the realm of queer craft (if we want to use that term) are making work about men, male identity, and male desire (usually toward other men). The valuing of men engaged in textiles is often hyper-gendered and what I call slyly misogynist. For instance, the show Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters that recently opened in Los Angeles at the Craft and Folk Art Museum seems to embody a lot of the problems you and I have been talking about, in terms of the intersections of queer identity and craft. It’s a show composed entirely of white cisgender men (queer and straight) who all are making work about being male. It’s convenient to engage in women’s work to accentuate and declare masculinity. I think of these men-who-sew shows as illustrating Sedgwickian Triangles,2 a dynamic in which men flirt or bond through a woman who acts as a conduit—but in this context, it’s a creative practice that has been historically marginalized that is a catalyst for these homosocial dynamics. These shows have systemic consequences on so many levels, micro and macro.

We used to call the Textiles Department the “Exile Department.”

I was mulling on what you said, about the luxury of marginality and the disinterest in becoming part of the larger whole. When I was a graduate student at California College of the Arts (CCA), we used to call the Textiles Department the “Exile Department.” Someone even peeled the vinyl “T” off the door, so it said “EXILE.” The department isn’t located on either of the two main campuses; it’s in a building across the street from the Oakland campus. It was filled with women and a few gender-queer and trans people like myself, and often one would hear complaints about the lack of men—a statement that rung misogynist to me. (Though the department did at the time have one of the only gender-non-specific bathrooms in the entire college.) During this time, when craft was in a crisis—CCA dropped the word craft from its name in 2003—craft departments were hungry to be recognized, I think. I had the aching suspicion that rallying to bring men into these exiled departments provided the double dip of legitimacy and—almost ironically—diversity. When I mentioned this to a mentor, she said, “Oh, the exile has been colonized,” which is also something that queers regularly do to people of color. Most of the rare tenure-track and full-time positions at the top fiber and textile programs in the country have been given to men while women, trans and gender non-conforming people are stuck in adjunct positions. I think this follows a national trend, where homonormative populations—particularly gay white males—have seen their social and economic status advance while women and transpeople see their rights scaled back. We see this trend in the recent decisions made by the Supreme Court. More states will legalize gay marriage, and soon such a case will likely go to the Supreme Court and become federal law. But at the same time it is becoming legal for employers to deny birth control based on religion or to restrict abortion rights. Women and trans people are still being cast aside for what is now a tolerable or even desirable gay presence, one that is resolutely male, white, and Western. In my opinion, this is pink washing.

So, to answer your question, the political project of queer craft needs to embrace a trans-feminist politics, one coming from a transnational feminist perspective. It would center the work of women, trans people, people of color, or people from locations other than the United States as a foundational and critical political position. We must sit down and deeply interrogate how men are positioned in the realm of textiles in the United States and in its academic and art-world offshoots. What does it mean to have men who are making work that pertains to being a man—about men, male desire, and masculinity—appropriating traditional women’s work and theory that is grounded in feminism, without much accountability? Homonormativity that centers cisgender men’s experiences omits critical feminist viewpoints. Simultaneously, works made by women and by trans or gender-non-conforming people are cast aside for being less valued genders. What does it mean to have men teaching craft theory that addresses queerness that is primarily generated by women, trans, and gender non-conforming people? If we are going to use the term queer, we should interrogate institutional power and violence and then act on it in a way that does not perpetuate misogyny, trans-phobia, xenophobia, racism, classcism and ageism. Let’s not have queer be something that skims the cream off the surface but instead something that deeply strives to push our ways of thinking about what’s being accomplished, who’s being forgotten, and where we need to be accountable.

I’d love to hear your answer to the same question: In terms of your political aspirations for textiles and craft, what would you like to see? 

SP: For me, the discipline of textiles is one of many historic traditions that live on in the context of craft. Historically it has strong relationships with various areas of design as lived material culture, and with painting, sculpture, and architecture as a metaphorical device. However the material traditions of textiles must be animated in cross-disciplinary dialogues of larger conceptual frames of space, image, and cultural construction that contemporary art practices have expanded. If you think of all of the hierarchies of making and what’s required to play on a level field, think of this: When photography was invented, painting was irrevocably changed. With painting’s presumed utility gone, it adapted in new ways and continues to do so.

L.J. Roberts. Portrait of Deb 1988-199? (Detail), 2012-2013; single-strand embroidery on cotton. Courtesy of the Artist.

How has the field of textiles adapted in relation to other forms and dialogues to allow the impurity of its material and functional referents? If you make an image with textiles, do you call it a painting? The use of textiles is simply one way to think of making a painting (or a sculpture). Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings made with pours and stains touch on the history of textiles as a way to demonstrate new (and very old) ideas about making images. The broader field is where the rules can and need to be bent into submission.

We can only take a stance of difference in a large, heterogeneous platform that already lives in a broad public imagination. I maintain a public identity as lesbian, feminist, and textile user as a way to persistently point to the political otherness of people and taste. I do so in an effort to make these things move from a disempowered Other to valued differences in a broad field of shared differences—all as empowered in real terms of access, money, and influence. I’m working against purity and for equal access.

LJ: I admire your practice of maintaining otherness in a large arena to encourage dialogue in overlapping communities and facets of material culture. I think a textile pedagogy, in which a foundational aspect is how to see and analyze the concept of difference, is key to finding something deeper. There has got to be a move toward applying multifaceted interdisciplinary approaches to textiles that makes the experiences of making, viewing, and consuming them multidimensional and not cliché or exotic. I don’t want to label everything as queer—the labeling defeats the purpose, and you end up with a calcifying effect. I think it is better to venture into territory that is unknown and that leaves more questions than answers. You want to be taken to a place where the walls of your thinking crumble and you begin to consider possibilities that seem unthinkable or unimaginable. I think your questions locate critical locations of inquiry that often are cast aside by easy trends. For a discipline that expressed anxiety about being marginalized by both craft and art circles for a long time, turning to trends is a fast but faulty way to attain leverage. 

During our conversations, one profound thing for me was hearing about the many ways you’ve stayed within and moved through marginalia throughout your life. You’ve employed different strategies at different times in response to personal or political elements or environments that necessitate these tactics—at times you’ve been separatist and at times very inclusive. To me, your ability to shift and still maintain your politics over a lifetime is very inspiring. And I wonder if multiple textile circles can take this model of shifting impermanence as a framework for the development of critical movement without becoming static or turning to easy solutions from anxiety. I feel good about a cycle of persistent destabilization that is at times uncomfortable. I want to think big and inclusively, but I also don’t want to abandon discussing specific political issues and concerns that feel urgent pertaining to textiles, both conceptually and logistically.

SP: In your 2007 thesis, you argue that queer theory could provide a model for theorizing craft—as Other and marginal—and note the sources of queer theory as being activism, feminism and women’s studies.1 This is a compelling idea, since my decision to use crochet in 1998 (rather than any other craft form) was that it was a valued yet marginalized form that honored my biological and feminist mothers while it winked to those who knew me and my mustache, as a mashing of gender signs and behaviors. 

I’ve come to call it queer in order to speak to another generation. But I’ve always found the word queer as it’s performed very limited in the art community and beyond. I have found it consistently so male-identified that seeing the work through my lesbian-feminist lens would never completely fit in. What about you?

LJ: Great question. I once saw this punk patch that read, “Not queer as in radical but lesbian as in FUCK YOU.” In a lot of supposedly radical queer dialogue today, lesbians can get a bad rep. I think this trashing is tied to the policies of institutions like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival excluding women of trans experience (many of whom are lesbians and dykes). I've never attended the festival because I find their policy of exclusion towards trans women violent. No one should be denied a chosen gender. I think it's important to remember that trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) don't represent all lesbians. At the moment I identify as gender-non-conforming and as trans and a dyke. I have friends, lovers, and ex-lovers who identify as lesbian and dyke who steadfastly affirm my gender and those along both masculine and feminine trans spectrums.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we currently define what a woman is and how I apply that to my own identity. In the ’90s, when I was inching my way out of the closet, I saw images of butches, and they were pierced and muscled and bearded, and there were femmes of all sorts of variations and dykes that were neither. The definition of a lesbian or a dyke is messy and has a huge range. I've been thinking about how Leslie Feinberg, who recently died, had the ability to encompass many identities while holding each one (or mash-ups of them) with the utmost integrity. Many of the dykes in my life do that. 

I don't always find the term queer entirely appropriated by cisgender men, but I think it tilts that way. I think we all know that there are shows and programs billed as queer whose entire rosters are cisgender men. I find the term queer useful in that it’s fluid and makes it tougher to form assumptions about a person’s identity, body, sexuality, race, and gender. I think many of my friends who experience constantly shifting identities feel good about using queer as a descriptor of identity and practice. And no doubt it was useful when the AIDS epidemic was at a fever pitch. But I think we forget that many lesbians and dykes have always been queer and gender-non-conforming or trans, too. Somehow a schism happened in which the term woman became a very constrained idea in queer dialogues.

SP: Sometimes constraints prove quite powerful. And it's power that I am thinking about, in terms of identity and the parallel to craft and art designations. For example, if you are looking to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to include all people other than self-identified women, then it’s like asking the Museum of Arts and Design, formerly the American Craft Museum, to do the job of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Yes, there may be some overlap in what you find in each collection, but the differences in power and reach are quite different. That difference is not just in naming but also in experience. We expect MoMA to make the first move in being more inclusive, not the other way around.

Notes

  1. Lacey Jane Roberts, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Duke University, 2011), 243–59.
  2. "The triangle is useful as a figure by which the 'commonsense' of our intellectual tradition schematizes erotic relations, and because it allows us to condense in a juxtaposition with that folk-perception several somewhat different streams of recent thought." Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985)
  3. For more about Sedgwickian Triangles see: Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985)

Comments ShowHide

Related Content