Can I say for the record that this summer kicked my butt and that I learned a ton of things, and that I am older and more wiser (and also more tired) as a result?
This is all in advance of saying the following, which is: you should ignore the blog post directly below this one. There is no Lacemaking Part One. Or rather, there was, but then I learned better, and got better, and really refined things.
I spent two solid months of the summer painstakingly working on needlelace 100% by hand, as described in the post below. Two months, and I got maybe 25% of an image I had in mind actually done. I don’t know how else to explain this, except to say that there were tears; or rather, not really tears, but anger and frustration, and questions like “What am I doing with my life?” and anxiety attacks and existential fear. I tried to put on a brave face and tell myself that I was keeping a dying tradition alive, and that I was totally and completely up for delicate, detailed work, the kind of which needed a magnifying glass to properly complete, and that I CAN DO THIS, when a friend sounded the alarm. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something along the lines of “Hey, you know you can have a machine do some of that work, right?”
Now, here’s the thing. I’m really against this whole idea of turning my artistic production over to machines. I would much rather hand-embroider something than program it into a computerized machine and have it spit out what I wanted. That – the use of digital machinery – seemed fake to me, or at least in a whole other discipline than I wanted to be associated with. It was fine for others, but not for me.
But this friend wasn’t talking about that kind of machine. She was talking about a simple, straightforward sewing machine; the kind that I had sitting around in my studio anyway. This wasn’t some exotic, bizarre thing that I had to pay a lab fee or fork over thousands of dollars for; this was something that I’d come to think of as an “every day” tool. To not use this sewing machine would be to not use a blender or food processor while cooking on some bizarre notion of making handmade food. I mean, there’s handmade, and then there’s just utter masochism. You can still talk to your plants and grow them organically, and then cook them with love and care and total attention, but using a food processor just brings you into the 20th century, if not actually the 21st.
The same was true with a sewing machine, I just didn’t realize you could use it in such a way. I didn’t realize that there was a middle ground, between making lace as it was made during the Renaissance and plugging a machine in and having it spit out lace like you’d get at the 99 cent store. But voila, there is.
The secret, as it winds up, is water soluble fabric and a special way of guiding the machine. In brief, you stitch (and stitch and stitch) onto this fabric, guiding it each step of the way. It’s an entirely hands-on process – let your attention waver for a moment, and you’ll spend the next 10 minutes trying to undo whatever just happened. The machine works freehand, basically driving the needle in and out of the fabric, but everything else is up to you – the direction, the size of the stitch, whether it stitches one time or ten, if it goes back and forth or forward and then diagonal. You’re just watching and guiding, over and over, for hours. And then you do it again and again, reinforcing the stitches. Eventually, you take the fabric to your bathtub and soak it in cold water and it disappears, leaving nothing but thread. If you did it just right, you now have lace. If you didn’t, you now have a huge pile of tangled thread and you have to start over. (But, erm, this is how you learn. Or so I told myself many times.)
(How did I delete this original pic? Well, here it is on Instagram.)
Now, the trick is, you can only work on very small parts of the image at a time, because only small parts will fit into the machine. So you wind up collaging bits together, like so:
I have to make each element of the lace individually, then slowly stitch it all together. This large lace piece wound up being 38″ x 36″, and I can only work on a piece about 8″ x 8″ on my machine at a time. So there was a LOT of piecing that happened.
Ultimately, it wind up being a process that combines the best of working by hand with the best of using a machine – it’s creative and one of a kind and truly handmade, without being too crazy-making. What would have taken me 30 hours by hand takes me five or six hours by machine – still a while and still a significant investment of time and attention, but a huge difference. And this piece, which wound up to be quite large, wound up taking about 60 hours all together; I don’t know how long it would have been had I been doing absolutely all of it without any assistance. I honestly probably wouldn’t have ever finished it.
This is what it looks like in the end:
And I’m psyched. I feel like a whole new door has opened, and now I have the ability to really go further with this process than I could before. I’m already working (and nearly done with!) my second piece…!
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: