22 August 2012

It's Content That Matters

When I tell someone that I am an artist, the next question is usually "And what kind of art do you do?" If I said I was a painter or a potter or a jewelrymaker, I'd be home free; I'd fit in a category. Instead I will likely answer that I am a writer and textile artist who also makes prints and has recently added enameled copper to my work. I end up attempting multiple definitions and descriptions of how I use textiles. "Embroidery" and "Russian punchneedle, like a miniature punched or hooked rug" lead to nods and comments that let me know that the questioner is thinking of monogrammed linens, samplers, or that old rug Grandma had. "Second-generation Polish snutki" entails explaining how these are not tatted or crocheted, but there's no way around "doily" in most people's minds. "Printmaker" is a bit more accessible, "enameling" less so. And at the end of the encounter this person may have some vague notion of what techniques or materials I use, may have asked questions about my subject matter and have some picture in mind -- but how this all adds up to art and in what category I am to be placed have not been resolved. When I was much younger, this uncertainty on the part of others would have troubled me. 

We live in a culture of labels and specialties and categories, a time of "this, not this," of belief systems based on duality, black/white, good/evil, us/them. I admit there was a time when I was bothered by my "lack of category," having absorbed messages about choosing one thing to focus on (as in college: pick a major, pick an area, pick a specialty), about that focus being both an indication of my commitment (as if a measure of character and maturity) and the only route to a style, to success, to expertise--in short, specializing in "this, not this" was proof that I was engaged in serious art and not some crafty, dilettantish hobbying.

I spent my 20s haranguing myself to "decide" so that other people would take my work seriously, whether that work was a poem, a stitchery, a print, or an essay. Meanwhile my life was anything but specialized. I lived on a small farmstead on the west side of Puget Sound and commuted on a ferry to Seattle to attend graduate school. I had chickens, rabbits, and a herd of dairy goats; sold milk from the farm, as well as show and breeding stock; raised organic beef and pork for sale and home use; kept a huge garden. The joke was that we'd be completely self-sufficient if we could only grow coffee, sugarcane, a bookstore, and a museum. I was a homesteading generalist, and that was reflected in my writing and artwork. Meanwhile, the world out there was telling us all to dress for success, get the money, get a career, specialize. Eventually even I tried out cubicle life, technical writing by day and farmsteading every other waking moment. It made me sick. I retreated to my barn. After a long dark night of the soul, I knew that I could only survive if I could live an authentic life, not the one the specializers and categorizers wanted to pick out for me.

Intuition kept insisting that I didn't need to specialize in a form of being human. It whispered "It's content that matters." And lucky, lucky me, I heard her voice.

My very self is expressed through my activities, the beings (human and other) I surround myself with, and the settings I place myself in. My life has meaning because its varied content is unified by my values, the sincere gratitude I feel for and to the natural world, and my commitment to wholeness. One day I realized that, if everything I was doing was an expression of me, an evolving and flawed, infinitely curious human woman, then what else could my art-making be but varied and changing?


03 December 2011

Relief Prints, or When The Stories Come Too Quickly For Stitching

Memory and loss, origin and transformation: I meditate on these questions when stitching, working slowly, intuitively, and without a fixed plan. The piece tells me what to do next, and, the result is more like a poem than a narrative. But sometimes the story is everything; I feel driven to show you something specific, to explain this world, or to create a new one. It's an urgent need that cannot wait for stitching to make it tangible. And that is when I pick up my fine gouge and a piece of linoleum and give myself over to the pleasure of carving.

One Of Us Is Dreaming

A relief print is both story and image. It depends equally on what is cut away and what remains; the ink simultaneously tells the story of those choices and reveals an image.


We tell stories all the time, to ourselves and to others. We conjure and recollect. We edit, we embellish, we illustrate, and sometimes we say more than we meant to or less than we'd hoped.


Along with the print Aleksandr Kowalski Never Forgot His Chicken and the second-generation snutki Temporary Bodies, On/In/Over is currently in the exhibit Open Space: Art About the Land, a touring show sponsored by the Red-Tail Conservancy. It received a Purchase Award.