OLD TRADITION, NEW ART
For those artists who love textiles of all kinds, but especially those textiles from very old cultures such as Asia and Africa, ancient methods can be deeply influential in our own work.
Recently I have been looking at the work of the past six or seven years, a particularly focused and productive time for me. I have been trying to put a very large body of work, “The Threads Project“, into perspective by looking at the inspirations and influences.
In August of 2003 I returned to live in California after two years on the East Coast, in Manhattan and far Eastern Connecticut. As I packed my bag for the trip, for some reason I threw a few scraps of cloth along with a needle and thread into a ziploc bag. No scissors, of course. Airport security.
Some time later, I settled into my apartment very quickly but without any of my possessions. I decided to do something with the scraps, but having no scissors at the moment, I used a nail clipper to cut my threads and began working on this piece.
I had determined from the beginning of “The Threads Project” that I would limit the palette to black, white, and red. Somehow, I envisioned a cohesive body of work even early on, and for aesthetic reasons, these choices made sense to me. As time went on, of course, I longed for more (and sometimes less) color but as I started with these scraps of cloth, the plan was clear. What wasn’t clear was how deeply influential was my love of the tall, vertical shape of Japanese scrolls. And what was even more unknown to me at the time was that I was about to begin working in a way that has been done for millenia by many cultures.
MOON, STREAM, FOREST 2003 Cotton and thread 35 x 18.5 in.
Detail “MOON, STREAM, FOREST”
Artists the world over find the creative in the cast-off materials of their cultures. But in every culture of the world there is a tradition of wasting nothing, particularly in rural societies. We seem to have forgotten this in our own culture of the 21st Century, but not so long ago, for example, our Depression-era families also made use of things we would throw away today.
As a child I was blessed to have Grandparents who lived on a farm. Modern conveniences did not enter their lives until I was a teenager. This self-reliant life meant that food was grown in the garden, soap was made on the wood stove, and things were re-cycled for another use.
As in many rural homes, there was a button jar where all buttons from outgrown or worn-out garments were kept. There were plenty of ways to use old rags and scraps of cloth from discarded garments. But there was also a place for the beautiful as well as the useful and utilitarian things were also made beautiful. My first stitches were made on the farm, under a Grandmother’s instruction. I learned simple stitches, with inspiration from embroidered aprons and handkerchiefs.
These are things long-forgotten, but now, looking at textile pieces that were made decades later, I begin to see that the simpler life of my own childhood is probably deeply connected to textiles made in many households in the world. My work is considered art, or perhaps craft, but its reason for being is far removed in intention from the frugal lives of those who came before us.
As I began with my scraps and needle and thread, I was not consciously aware of all these elements of course. But I did know that there were some important things that I wanted in this piece. I wanted the process of the needle and thread going in and out of the cloth to shape it. I wanted to leave the edges unfinished and allow the in-and-out of the needle and thread to create a texture, responding to the “threadness” of the thread and the “clothness” of the cloth. So I was not “embroidering” in the more traditional sense; rather, I thought of this as “thread drawing”.
The stitches used in this piece have a direct connection to a series of drawings made about a decade before.
FORCE FIELD-THICKET 1991 Colored pencil, charcoal, on paper Approximately 54 x 53 inches From “The Force Field Series”.
This very large drawing was made using a little twig- or branch-like motif, repeated in thousands and thousands of little marks. Layers and layers of this motif in various colors built an image that was meant to “invite” the viewer into another dimension. This same motif was then to serve as a “thread-drawing” in the textile piece, “Moon, Stream, Forest” nearly a decade later. This type of “obsessive” mark, whether in thread or pencil, is a method that evolved into the “stitch-mark”, a triangular motif used in The Threads Project textiles as well as paintings and works on paper.
I made the shapes of the scraps serve my intention and the image evolved around them since I was unable to alter them by cutting. The stitches served not only as a “thread-drawing” to create the image but as a practical method of holding the pieces together.
In the cultures of Japan and India, for example, this same idea has prevailed for centuries. The traditional re-using of cloth to mend or patch garments and household textiles in Japan is called boro. Today these re-purposed scraps and mended textiles are admired and avidly collected. Now removed from their original purpose, whether in the first, or last incarnation, we see the beauty in the utilitarian that bears the mark of the hands that transformed the mundane and worn. The history of the cloth is tied to the maker, from the growing or gathering of the fiber, to the spinning, weaving and later mending and patching. Some of these textiles have been artistically and beautifully dyed and printed. Another cycle of life was thus given to things used in daily life, and now, in our time, these things are elevated to the status of art.
In the boro, we find that the stitches serve the same practical purpose of holding the pieces together, but as with the farmers of rural America in Depression times, the functional could become beautiful as well. So the boro surpassed the functional by use of stitches to create beautiful pattern. The instinct for design and color and texture in ancient rural life in Japan, in India, and cultures throughout the world found an expressive way in even the humblest of materials and simplest of methods.
The ralli quilts of India and Pakistan,also rely on the re-use of scraps of fabric and stitching to create functional yet aesthetically beautiful textiles that have great meaning in their culture.
In American and other Western cultures, the idea of re-using has given us a great quilt tradition as well, giving a new life to the old and raising the functional to an object with aesthetic and symbolic meaning.
Looking at “Moon, Stream, Forest” once more has led me to see that I did not come to make this empty-handed. Indeed, the traditions, history, meaning, and processes that came before are significant and deeply influential.