I have a small piece of handmade lace up in a group show at Sargent’s Daughters right now. I’ve been playing with the process of needlelace for a few months now, but this is the first piece I’ve shown:
I had a bunch of people at the opening ask me how I made this work, and I sort of struggled to explain the process. So here’s an attempt to explain it better, by showing you a piece in progress. I’ll blog more as the piece develops, so you can see the variety of effects you can get with needlelace.
First off, I should mention that I’m definitely doing “experimental” needlelace. There are ways to do it so that your threads line up and make a grid; if you think of something like fishnet stockings, that’s a very easy texture to get using this process. But that’s exactly what I’m trying not to do – in some cases, I let grids emerge, but I really want a texture that is more obsessive, and more frenetic than that.
Secondly, everything I’m doing in these projects comes down to making hundreds/thousands of buttonhole stitches. A buttonhole stitch is the easiest thing in the world to do – if you imaging taking a length of string and taking the two ends and tying them together to make a knot, that’s essentially all it is; just a tiny, simple knot. But the beauty of needlelace (as is the case with so many fiber arts processes) is that beyond just this very simple gesture that you do, there are a million variables that come in and can change how a piece looks. The color of the thread, the thickness of the thread, the material the thread is made out of, how tight you pull it, how many knots you make per stitch – these are just some of the basic variations that can radically alter a piece.
Ok, let’s start by looking at this piece I’m making now. This is the upper right hand corner of the work; I need to divide the piece up into small chunks and work on them a bit at a time. (This isn’t something necessarily inherent in the process, but it’s something I have to do to remain sane.)
You start by doing a drawing on a piece of paper. In this case, this is an ultra-simple landscape – just a green hill and a white fluffy cloud in the back. If you look at the green part, you can see that the string is tacked to the paper – this is done by poking holes through the paper and stitching it to the paper with just ordinary thread. You tack it to the paper about every half inch, or more if it’s an intricate design. This design is really easy, so the tacks are spaced out a bit.
In this picture, you can see that I’ve started filling in the sky behind the hill. Here’s a closeup:
If you look closely, you can see what I’m doing is starting in the upper right hand corner, I’m tying the thread to the top bar of the string that frames the image. Then, I’m extending that thread over diagonally to the right hand bar, and tying a knot. Then, I’m working to the left, taking the thread so that it extends to the top bar again, but stopping along the way to knot it in the middle of the first loop I made.
Oh dear, does this make sense?
Do this over and over and over and eventually you come up with this. Remember, I’m making a particular effort to NOT have a perfect grid, which actually makes it trickier than if I was trying to make it perfect:
This is about 4″ x 4″ and took me easily four hours of work to do. The sky isn’t not even close to being done – I want those stitches to get way more dense before then. That’s for tomorrow. I’ll update when I have more to show.
(Oh, and the biggest question from the opening last night: “How do you have the patience to do this???” Answer: loads of exercise, a relatively quiet life, and knitting. Once you’ve made a scarf out of size 2 needles, you basically have the patience to do anything.)
I have this memory of being in the 6th grade (or so – could be a year more or less, not sure). I used to do these things that today I would refer to today as Social Experiments, or Performances, or Art, but as a kid, they were just things I was playing around with. Summer camp provided especially fertile ground, given that every week a new crop of kids would arrive (I was one of the kids who was enrolled for the entire summer, so I was always there, but it was otherwise a revolving door of other people my age). And summer camp is so perfect for this sort of thing, because it’s not quite school and not quite real life.
One of the first ones I did was to decide for a week I would be the most unhappy person on earth. I complained about everything, all the time. If I stubbed my toe, I made a huge deal out of it; and any kind of slight or sadness I felt was reason for me to go on and on and on about. It really was pure performance – acting this way is not in my character at all, and I have the distinct memory of staring up at a beautiful blue sky one afternoon and trying to find something ugly about it to complain about. Kids my age fled from me, except for a few well-meaning types who must have taken pity on me and tried to cheer me up. By the end of the week, they were done with me, too. No one wanted to be around me, and it was understandable: I was a completely miserable person who never saw the good or pleasant in anything. I took comfort in manipulating the interactions.
For the next week, I decided to do the opposite. I showed up bright and early on Monday morning with a big smile on my face, and spent the entire week being sweet as sugar to everyone around me. Anything negative or dark that came my way, I just hastened it out and laughed it off. I remarked on how wonderful the weather was, constantly. I went way out of my way to never talk about myself and only say great, positive things about other people. The response was a bigger surprise to me than the response of a week before: people absolutely loved it. I mean, I knew they’d like it, but I wasn’t expecting how much they’d go for it. They fell for it. Everyone wanted to be around me. Popular kids invited me into their cliques, and counselors cut me all kinds of slack when it came time to do unpleasant tasks like swimming lessons. It was 100% fake, but at about 11 years old, I had figured out the secret to climbing the social ladder.
As a result, I lost almost all faith I had in any kind of human interaction. The whole thing seemed like a huge game — and a boring, silly game at that, which I had already figured out the ending to. I started really fucking with people around then. I went to a playground (this was outside of camp) and decided I was going to transform into a cat. I crawled over to a group of kids my age who were hanging out there and addressed them with a meow. The kids freaked out and fled — they literally ran away from me, and I was left standing there, alone, in the middle of the playground. I concluded that this was it; an honest reaction, and from now on I would be a cat. (I quickly changed my mind later that day when I remembered one of the popular girls from camp where I had been all smiley had invited me to a slumber party, and that I really wanted to go. Thus ended the cat experiment. Human interactions were stupid and fake, but by god — there would be potato chips and pizza and other forbidden foods at the party, and that totally one-upped knowing better than all of humanity.)
I know that you don’t wanna hear my opinion
But there come many paths and you must choose one
And if you don’t change then the rain soon come
See you might win some but you just lost one
You might win some but you just lost one.
I’m in a really cool new group show called Space is the Place at BravinLee programs in NYC. Also in the show are: Jeffrey Beebe, Steven Charles, Chris McCaw, Fred Tomaselli, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (and also one other artist but he’s chosen to remain secret for some reason).
It runs January 9 – February 8, 2014
Here’s some pics of my piece…
That’s my Soft MoMA to the left, and Steven Charles’s amazing painting to the right. Here’s the Soft MoMA, as worn by Jeff:
It’s a floating cube that you walk into to “view the museum.” And here’s a detail of what’s inside, with better pics forthcoming:
Oh Amy Wilson, where have you been all this time?
Ugh. I’ve been busy. Busy in that “collapsing after a 17 hour day” kind of busy, and also busy in that “endless navel-gazing, question-asking, living-in-my-head, going around and around, thinking too much” kind of way. The last few months have been a lot, and they culminated in the last six weeks of hell.
Over the last six weeks, I went from having a minor toothache to a major one, to a swollen face, to emergency surgery, to more surgery, to yet more surgery; loads of antibiotics that didn’t work, exhaustion from the non-working antibiotics and the infection itself, nightmares/depression/anxiety, seeing things my body SHOULD NOT DO, and finally – as of this Monday – a huge gaping hole in my mouth with about 20 stitches holding it together, loads of Vicodin, and yet more antibiotics. Not fun, and I’m not out of the woods yet. But I do kind of feel like I got a kind of break from the ordinary (bodyhorrorvacationinhell?) that is maybe giving me perspective on things… or maybe that’s just the Vicodin in my bloodstream.
Or maybe it’s that December is upon us, and with it the end of the year and all sorts of summing things up and wanting to put a nice cap on everything. I don’t even know anymore. But here are some things I have in the works, and have had in the works:
1. I was in a really nice exhibition at Montserrat College in Massachusetts. It doesn’t look like there’s a link up on their website, but we got some press from the Boston Globe, which was great.
2. More Art commissioned me to make a series of drawings for their Envision 2017 project, in which several artists are asked their hopes and wishes for NYC in the future. (One more set is forthcoming.)
3. I started my school’s first old-fashioned (non-digital, all by hand) Fiber Arts class, which takes up the crafts of spinning/weaving/sewing/knitting/crochet/etc in a school/city that is very craft-adverse. This has been a really interesting experience and has lead to all sorts of conclusions in my head that I don’t know if I’ll wind up going back on; everything from the growing generation gap between my students and other people my age (see footnote 1) and the difference between art vs. craft (footnote 2).
4. I’ve been a little obsessed with this drawing I made (actually a page from an artist’s book) over the summer, which combines drawing with writing and embroidery. Here, it’s out of context and the photo sucks, but maybe you can get a sense:
…and it’s informing the newest piece I’m working on right now (more info in a bit).
So, that’s a start – a first stab at getting back to normal and getting back to blogging! I’ll end it there to not go on over and over and over, then obsessively edit, then delete because it’s not good enough…
1. I’m amazed at the difference between my students’ opinion on art events vs. what you hear from the majority of artists, or at least the artists/art critics/dealers/etc of a certain age. For instance, my students are nearly unanimous in thinking that Chris Burden’s New Museum show sucks (I haven’t seen it yet, but have only heard glowing things from my colleagues); meanwhile, they loved Matthew Day Jackson at Hauser & Wirth, which was pretty universally panned by critics and fellow artists. I don’t think they’re doing it to be contrary; I think these are genuine reactions to a genuine difference in opinion. It’s interesting.
2. Thinking about the difference between art vs craft has been a nearly 20 year long obsession of mine; it’s something I want to eventually write a book or at least an essay (or something!) on. But my newest definition between the two is this:
*Art (at least as we understand it now) is somehow connected to the notion of the avant-garde
*Craft is connected to the idea of tradition and history
This is not to say that art cannot draw upon history. It’s just that art’s relationship to history is more antagonistic than craft’s. This is also not to say that craft cannot be innovative; it’s just that craft doesn’t seek to “kill the father” in the avant-garde sense. (This definition creates all kinds of problems – but, I should mention, they’re problems that I rather like. For instance, 19th century academic painting would now be re-classified as craft. To me, that feels right. It also eliminates the previous twin signifiers of craft – utility and materials – from the discussion. Given how much art has changed over the last 50 years, I think this is super important, and that there’s way more to the difference between the two than just “art is made from paint; craft is made from string” or whatever.) Anyway, this theory is very much still a work in progress, but this is what I have so far.
… I know you think I’ve forgotten about you.
But this song accurately sums up my feelings toward you:
I’ve started and trashed at least 30 blog posts. Somehow, I’ve been unable to finish anything.
But I swear, you were always on my mind. And more is coming soon.
I owe this blog a major update, because I have been up to a whole bunch of things. But what kicked my butt in finally getting me to write a post was this morning’s sleepy internet surfing, which lead me to discover this artist’s work:
Chéri Samba makes work that is like Frida Kahlo meets David Wojnarowicz meets… I don’t even know. And not knowing much of anything about the politics and culture of the Congo, I find myself completely unable to really pull apart the exact meaning of this work. But the imagery! The colors! My god. I love these paintings.
(Yeah, I know – everyone knows about this guy but me. As always, I’m lagging behind. But still… I had to share these paintings. They’re so great.)
For more, go to http://galerie-herrmann.com/arts/samba/
Something artists often gripe about when they’re around fellow artists, is the constant call we always get to donate work to charity. It usually starts off small – when you’re starting out, you create this pile of art work no one really wants, and you’re happy to donate it to a few charities that you think are cool. But then it escalates and escalates; I don’t know if you wind up on a list of people likely to donate work or what, but there have been years where I literally would have to dedicate 100% of my studio time to making work to give away, if I granted every request for free art. And it’s one thing if it’s a charity you care about (maybe an issue you are deeply committed to, or a charity that has assisted you or a friend in a time of need), but most of the time, it isn’t. I just got a request a few weeks ago from a children’s science museum in a state I’ve never been to, from someone I’ve never met…. and they actually expect that I’m going to give them a $2,000 drawing, because, why? How does that make any sense? How is this supposed to strike a chord with me? I don’t have kids, I’m not involved in science, and I don’t live in the community in which the place is located. Do they actually think I’m going to look around my life and see absolutely no one else in need that I’d rather help more?
There’s the whole issue of artists being generally broke, just scraping by in their existence, and how donating a work can adversely affect sales of their work that they so desperately need. I’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I thought I’d share my new strategy I’ll be using whenever I’m approached by a charity to donate work:
1. Determine if said charity even tangentially fits with my own moral/ethical/social/political/intellectual ideas. (If not, it’s just a flat no.)
2. If so, and if I’m unfamiliar with the charity, ask for a full accounting from that charity as it pertains to their expenses for salaries, benefits, real estate, etc. It should be information that they keep around anyway for tax purposes, and should be freely open to public scrutiny. And I’m not an unreasonable person: I know that Executive Directors have to be paid competitively, that benefits are expensive but should be offered to all employees, and comfortable, decent offices in easy-to-get to locations are important for the long term productivity of the charity. I GET IT. But I also get that if you’re going to hit me up for a donation, I deserve to see exactly where my money is going and what it’s being used for.
I really think all artists should do this. It shouldn’t be weird, or rude, or anything like that – it’s just a simple, non-invasive way of checking out where your donation is going. You’re not showing up at the charity with a clipboard, making notes; the charity is reporting their information to you. They could easily lie if they wanted, but you’re going to trust them enough to take their word for it.
But I think this could be a really good way of making charities not look at artists as this endless bank of free money. When they ask for this benign thing of a “gift of art,” what they’re really asking for is the gift of money – they’re going to turn around and auction or sell off the work anyway, and keep the money. So call it like it is, and be transparent. Because, after all, if I was going to give a major gift like $2,000 (which that is a very major gift for me) to a charity, I’d want to know where the money is going, and it would be understood by the charity that this is a fair question. So why should giving them a work of art be any different?
Some of my favorite charities include the Innocence Project, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Clinic, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and just about any and all charities that promote low cost medical services (including birth control and abortion) for women. Should any of these charities ever want art from me, EVER, they’ve got it, in a heartbeat. But that’s where my priorities are – not teaching kids about the wonders of electricity in a state-of-the-art museum blah blah blah whatever.)
Elektra KB has two solo shows up now, and they are amazing. In her work, she creates a mythology in which she plays both the theocratic ruler of an imagined land, and the entire insurgent guerrilla army rising against that ruler. Spanning across photography, collage, sculpture, book art, and even performance, her work creates an all-encompassing vision, where life in this place mirrors our own, somehow both absurdly and succinctly.
In conjunction with these shows, there is a free performance that she is staging. The flyer is below:
I’m the kind of person who plans everything, all the time, down to the tiniest detail; running different scenarios in my head over and over, so that going into any given situation, I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C (and sometimes all the way to the end of the alphabet). It occurred to me recently that the one area of my life that I haven’t obsessively ran a million different versions through in my head, is when it comes to teaching. What do I want my “teaching career” to be? Where will I be in ten years, or twenty?
I fell into teaching very naturally. Well, actually – first I tried and tried to get a teaching job and failed miserably, gave up, moved on, and then years later was offered first one job and then another. And since then, I haven’t overthought it; I’ve just taken what’s come my way, proposed what has been of interest to me and had it accepted, and learned by doing. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, to the point where I really get shocked by it all when I stop and think about it. Somehow, eight years have zoomed by.
And so, the question naturally comes up: where am I going with all this? I am extremely happy with my position I have now (extremely, extremely, and I’m not going anywhere short term), but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it would shock anyone to say that I don’t want to be in the same exact job in twenty years. Spending much of your life pledged to one company/institution/whatever doesn’t seem realistic anymore. Sure, when I was a kid, I had relatives who would get a job at Company X when they were 22 and stay there til retirement. Now, though? Now it feels like you blink and twenty years are gone, and somehow you wind up without money for retirement or whatever, and hey, it’s your own damn fault, because what? – you thought the company was going to take care of you?
More to the point, I’m increasingly finding NYC to be unliveable. I recently rented and watched the new Morton Downey, Jr. documentary (which was quite good) for the sole reason of seeing footage of the NYC/NJ that I remembered so fondly as a kid… and that’s just sad (I mean, really: When you fondly look back on Roy Innis punching Al Sharpton and get all misty-eyed, you have to wonder what the fuck is going on). NYC today is practically unrecognizable compared to the city I fell in love with and pledged I’d be with forever when I was in my late teens. And NJ? Well, change has come more slowly, but all those shots of the Seacaucus wetlands that aren’t there anymore were a real battle cry to me that the time has come to really start thinking hard about everything.
So, in trying to think of all this reasonably, I came up with a Best Case/Worst Case Scenario for my future self. They break down like this:
Best Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere beach-y but with access to rural areas (or rural, with access to beachy areas, although the formal is preferred). I ride my bike to work every day, or walk. My students are centered and grounded and love art, but really don’t care about the art world. We make art together, and talk about art and philosophy and critical theory. Some of the students write poetry; the university/college has a commitment to diversity in terms of race/age/etc, and so we wind up learning so much about ourselves through late night jam sessions involving roaring bonfires at the beach and tearful conversations. Everything is beautiful. I have tenure (or something similar), and can afford a one-bedroom house/apartment.
Worst Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere landlocked and sun-bleached, and religious (Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical – whatever, it’s all the same). Every day, I get hauled into the Department Chair’s office to explain why I’ve shown “obscene art” to my classes, and at least once a week I have a football-y student ask me if it’s true that “Jackson Pollock was a homo.” It’s hot all the time unless you’re indoors in the freezing cold air conditioning, and I have to drive everywhere, and all the radio stations I can get on my car radio are Top 40. I start drinking heavily, and ducking into the women’s room to cry on frequent occasions. Everybody hates me and thinks I’m weird and stuck up. I’m an adjunct, and earn less than a McDonalds fry cook.
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that the two things important to me in a teaching job are: 1. quality of students and 2. location. (What’s a given is that I want to earn enough money to support myself, but I’m not especially salary-driven.)
Students: I have amazing students now. They would be super hard to ever leave. I feel like I understand them and they understand me, and we work well together.
Location: My location currently sucks. But it could be far worse.
But getting back to students: I’ve been thinking lately that art students require a certain… finesse? skill?… in communicating with. And it’s one that I’ve come to really love and enjoy, and really deeply get. And it’s a connection I won’t be quick to get rid of.
Say for instance, I say to a class full of art students, “I want you to fold a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper in such a way that the 8 1/2 sides meet, and you wind up with a piece of paper that is folded at exactly 8 1/2 x 5 1/2.” It’s a pretty reasonable request, but I’ve tried this experiment with my classes before, and I know what always happens: about 1/2 of the class gets it right; another 1/4 get it totally opposite (folding the paper horizontally instead of vertically), and the remaining quarter will do some variation of the following: make a paper crown, eat the paper, fold it in triangles, cut themselves with the paper, start crying (possible a combination of all of these).
This is because I have made a crucial error in my directions (this, I have learned from years of working with art students). I used something that resembled math (aka, numbers) in my directions, and math stirs up in art students a kind of primal fear that can’t be abated or calmed in any rational, normal way. You’d think that numbers under 20 shouldn’t really wig them out so bad, but they do – and they sort of panic and freak out unnecessarily. They detest math, and are actually deeply afraid of it.
You cannot use math to communicate to art students. If I do the following:
“Fold your paper like this,” (hold up paper correctly folded)
“Fold your paper hamburger, NOT hot dog” (ok, I needed someone to tell me this one, but I swear it works. NO REALLY. Every time. They laugh and think I’m nuts, but they fold their paper right.)
…everybody gets it. That’s because I’ve just explained things visually. Art school kids are incredibly visually literate. They’re also culturally literate, literature literate, critical theory literate… and so forth. They’re just not math literate. In fact, they’re deeply math-phobic. Math makes them terrified and afraid, like some sort of cornered, feral animal. And each one is horribly ashamed of being this way and thinks they’re the only one, until they realize that everyone else in their class is and then they become sort of weirdly proud of it. (There are other things, too – other little tricks you learn along the way that helps you to relate to them, and explain things thoroughly so that they really get it. It’s not just math, it’s a whole communication style that’s different. You can’t just port the pedagogical approach used by a successful biology teacher into a studio classroom. It doesn’t work that way. And it makes sense – it really shouldn’t work that way, if you think about it.)
It also helps that I will forever be, in my heart and soul, The Kid Who Made The Paper Crown:
And so the problem becomes, now that I have a firm grasp on how to speak to art students, where does that leave me in my “teaching career”? Will I ever be able to shift gears and go talk to jocks taking Art 101 because it’s required? Or older folks going back to school “because it’s fun”? Or have I somehow screwed myself, by becoming so enamored with art kids, that I’ve severely limited my career options for the next 30 years?
This is what I’m trying to figure out.