Monday, April 21, 2014

Let's talk about who needs to make art.

Last week I was notified that Exquisite Uterus: the Art of Resistance was to be the topic of a panel discussion at the upcoming National Women's Studies Association annual conference. In feminism-world, this is a big deal. The same project had beef turned down for panel discussion on "Crafting Community" at the College Art Association conference in February. Why would the women's studies world be more interested in this project than the college art crowd? Therein lies an interesting question about the function of art, and how we as artists often forget "regular people" need it too.

It was just a little idea we came up with to put in the gallery at UW-Oshkosh for the Wisconsin Women's Studies Consortium/LGBTQ co-conference two years ago. We'd been in the coffeeshop kvetching about what was happening to women's reproductive rights, unaware that we were just at the beginning of what some keep telling us is NOT a war on women (but sure feels war-like.) So we thought, we'd give women and men the chance to express themselves on a piece of cloth, with the image of a uterus - the idea was, it's your uterus, you can do what you want with it. We expected maybe 40 or 50 participants.The EU project now has about 200-225 pieces in the exhibition coffers. They are all based upon the original image that my curating collaborator, Helen Klebesadel, put up on SpoonFlower  to start the project. We each got a few ourselves to give our friends.

So the thing is, not everyone who participated (or is still participating) was a trained artist. The uteruses we got in the mail came from skilled needle-workers, trained artists, crafty types, poets, tinkers, a couple curators, old women, young women, whole collectives of people, anonymous name it. Therefore, if judged as "works of art" individually, some might disappoint the trained eye. Some are beautifully made, but don't carry a lot of content. Like my own, for instance, the only thing about me it reflects is that I happened to be talking about the Bayeux Tapestry to my textiles students and took the opportunity to indulge in a craving for a little crewel embroidery. But it does draw from a battle scene, and, embroidery is very nice. But that's it.

My mom's was actually the last piece of art she ever made. When Helen and I presented in Oshkosh that fall, my mom was in hospice already. She died within a day of that presentation. However, hers, made when she was sick but we didn't really know it, is typical of her, though, when we talked it over she admitted she feared it was "too obvious." Hers has a little nest in the center, and expresses hormonal mood swings in the ovaries with a sunny side and a cloudy side. (She assured me that I probably came from the gloomy side. She was real funny, my mom.) No one else had a nest in the middle, with a funny bird in it, or weather ovaries, so I guess it wasn't as obvious as she thought. When I look at it, it bears all the hallmarks of my mother's professional artwork, but when I look at my own, I just think, well, that's where I was at that moment - grabbing inspiration from what was actually a distraction from real things that were happening then.

All together, the uteruses are most powerful as an army in the gallery. Many are more powerful when you read the statements, which in some cases are beautiful works of literature, or wonderful stories. It's all very personal, even those which are impersonal in their execution. But are they all "Art?" I don't know.

A lot of women who gave them to us said something: "I hope this is okay." What they meant was, I hope this is good enough to hang with the Art. The artists in the group were unconcerned. We got artist-made pieces that were all content, execution competent but not amazing. We got artist-made pieces that were expertly executed, and so far away from the work they exhibit, we did double-takes - an obsessively beaded one from a professional photographer jumps to mind. Helen herself, who normally works in lush full-color paint, made a three-dimensional mask shape in subdued Victorian cream lace. It was an opportunity to do something different, an invitation to freedom.

Which is why NWSA would accept this for their conference on Transgression, and CAA would not accept it for their panel on community. Yes, this is Art Activism, but it's not, in it's execution, academic, nor is it especially edgy, or cynical. What it is, is art for the makers, on an individual level; it's for the people only as a collective, like it or not. This is not a project that will get any one of us into an art history book, but the people who made their uteruses will remember it. The function of art is multiple, and in academia we shy constantly from the idea of the therapy of making. It's got to say something! But it's awkward when the art says something, and does so powerfully, but isn't...what? Expert? The artist didn't pay the emotional and psychic dues of art school? It's pure? It's unhooked from the history of art (that patriarchal linear march of time, Manet begat Monet who begat Cezanne who begat Picasso who begat Pollock who begat Rauschenberg who begat Basquiat, ad nauseum). The uterus project confronts those things we academics hate to hear from our students in critiques: "It's lavender because I like purple." But a big part of me hates this more: that it's considered transgressive to let people do what they want, and that there's really so little room for that in the Art World.

Friday, March 28, 2014

In which I pass time thinking about my new sharp and pointed obsession, and continue to ponder sestinas...

I'm supposed to be recruiting new art students right now. But, instead I sit in my empty presentation room, with my beautiful website work on a screen taunting me, and no one to watch the amazing 360 degree video tour I was so excited to bust out on them this morning. Art is a tough sell. Interdisciplinarity is hard for some to understand, and here I sit, an artist, thinking about fencing and poetry.

My friend, the Dr. of Physics has convinced me to take up fencing. So last week I went to my first lesson with her. The attendees included she and I (middle-aged female academics in nice shoes) a couple adult men, a couple teenage men, a nice couple in their early 20's and one single teenage woman. Our instructor, Deirdre, was an extremely good and enthusiastic teacher. And, of course...the saber, the mask, the funky jacket. Good equipment. Romantic and threatening equipment. Plus archaic Italian terminology. Thus, I plan to continue wielding a sharp object, at a length of 3 feet.

I seem to be becoming some sort of a old-fashioned European man. I'm trying to write sestinas now, and the odd thing is, the language of my profession fits the poem's language requirements really well. In textiles, we use words of many meanings: fabric, material, fiber, and so forth. As I constantly tell my students, the history of textiles is the history of humankind, period. Was the wheel a more or less important an invention than the string? It only depends on if your goal is to move things or hold things down, it seems to me.

So far, my sestinas are hopeless hackneyed things, but I see hope. I think I will be able to craft both a passable sestina and a visual companion for it, expressing whatever it says in two ways. While I was before rejecting the idea of writing a sestina using the simplicity of color names to match my first drawdown, I now wonder if the simplicity is false, and the complexity lies within the choice of color words. I know a bit about the history of colors, of course, because, dye, right? Pigment. And for the past 3 years or so, since I was taken to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, the geometry involved in composing a page of illuminated text has been on my mind as well (did you know, it follows music time? I learned this in Kalamazoo when I spoke with artist Daniel Mitsui - "The other way to determine proportions in medieval art is musical, based on the aesthetic writings of St. Augustine. Everywhere the ratios of 1:2, 2:3 and 3:4 appear; these correspond to the pitch ratios that produce the harmonic intervals favored in medieval music: octave, perfect fifth and perfect fourth." ) A sestina with an illustrated border might be in order here but is it too obvious? And would it be interesting after one go? Don't want to be a spinning bore. Or boar. I becoming a French monk, perhaps...who used to be a swordsman, or who is in drag? I've no idea. I'd be a lousy monk; one pair of sandals, for instance, wouldn't do. But I continue to wonder why I keep returning to old things...fencing is an old art, not unladylike if the vintage photos on Pinterest are to be believed. In order to be a real vintage Valentine, all I need is a heart-shaped patch above that organ on my jacket. Stitching one of those on will be the easiest task I have ahead.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sestina project

A couple months ago, my good friend Lynn Kilpatrick had a sestina published in The Incredible Sestina Anthology (edited by Daniel Nester, a Write Bloody Book.) Her sestina is called "Francis Bacon Sestina" and was inspired by a quote about his own painting, from Francis Bacon . It's not unusual for Lynn to be inspired by visual art, and it's not unusual for me to be inspired by Lynn. (That's been going on practically since the first moment I clapped my eyes on her.)  I like to think it's mutual. Anyway, what  Lynn's sestina inspired in me was really more sestina than Francis Bacon. She has another sestina with which I was already familiar, in fact, I appear in a footnote of that one. But I didn't really know much about the sestina form until I got the Incredible Sestina Anthology and read the intro, wherein, Daniel Nester draws a little diagram of a spiral. Nester says, "Believed to be invented in he 12th century by Arnaut Daniel, a troubador who influenced Dante, the sestina is a 39-line patterned form that has spiraled into new life in English in the past 100 years or so." Yes, he said "spiraled" which in context is a terrible pun, but also a forshadowing of what the form looks like when drawn down in a pattern for use as a visual. And I know this because I did it. 
Now I have to decide what to do with my draw-down. Of course, it could be a weaving, but I am not sure the weaving is what I want to do. Decisions about scale, media, and so forth will probably be determined by a particular sestina - whether it's one of Lynn's or not. Maybe I'll write a sestina for my "Sestina"?  I do like some of the words that come from Lynn, one of which is "time." In my diagrams I assigned a color to each of the six repeating words (in the sestina form, the last word of the line in the previous stanza is the last word in the first line of the next stanza, all other word orders fall into place based on where the numbers fall now on the spiral.) 'Time', in this case, turned out to be yellow, but I wrote, "The color of time?" on my notes to myself because, maybe time isn't yellow? Color may also be determined by my media. There's work to be done, here, surely.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Where's it going?

Over the past couple years, I've focused primarily on two things in my "studio practice": hand-knitting and manipulation of commercially woven double-weave textiles. I've wondered myself where this is going. Today I think I found out. I signed up to take a bunch of courses on...wait for it...DOUBLE KNITTING. Maybe now I can stop fixing looms in my basement and stay up here, where it's warm, and there are knitting needles and humans and a telephone and a television and a nice happy big dog? Anyway, that's my plan.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Last night, on Pinterest, I read the number 2 best practice for a blogger was consistent posting. Well, we know I fail miserably at that, but over the past week or so a lot has been pushing me closer and closer to blogging again. We can thank the internet, but also the fact that school started (as it tends to do!) and that's always kind of a kickstart into thinking bigger thoughts than, "What's for dinner?" (Chicken Tikka Masala, nosy Parkers.)

We've had horrid weather up here in Northeast Wisconsin. It's kept me indoors and online. A few weeks ago a brave lonesome soul reached out to find artists in his temporary home up here and thusly, we got to have Robere Mertens come teach a couple days in Textiles. More about his work in a bit, actually, he is probably his own blog post so maybe tomorrow, but to stay on theme, let us just point out that he reminded me of someone. Okay, a lot of people. People I miss. People from the Pacific Northwest who make art and music. Like, say, the genius person who started the Facebook group, Retro Bellingham. Now, if you were in Bellingham, WA between 1982 and 1997, you were in a magical land. I was there twice. I had what I call my do-over time, where I did all the things I didn't do the first time and got a lot out of it. Bellingham then was dying. It was nowhere. The richest people in town were fishermen who went up to Alaska and risked their lives all summer, then came back and spent money at the only two fancy restaurants, and all the other people were gritty townies and college kids enjoying unbelievable squalor and freedom on the streets pouring downhill from either side of the campus.

There wasn't much in town then except lovely old empty storefronts, a really high quality vintage clothing store, and a lot of bars. With bars, there were also good places to get breakfast till late in the day, of course. To get downtown from campus, one walked down one of three main streets, Indian, High, or Garden, and then onto State Street (past the bars - Bucks/3B/Doublewide, Up and Up, The Beaver Inn) to Holly, then down into town. Along Indian, High and Garden streets there were old houses chopped into little apartments or rented to great hoards of college kids who had parties in their basements. Some who wished to live with fewer people would rent at the Alamo on Indian, or the really brave and avant-garde may have gotten a room in the Daylight building on State, and had the bathroom down the hall. Some houses became famous as places where they would have parties with bands playing in the basement. Lots of times, people would come up for shows and "crash someplace" on a sofa of a stranger, or kindly college kid trying his or her hand at booking shows.

The bands, and there were many, just popped up like mushrooms. Everyone was in, or knew someone in, or slept with someone in, a band. Some people were in a lot of bands, some people did a gig or two snapping their fingers or playing bass if the regular guy had a test or something the next day. The bands drove the need for artwork.

Artwork for a band poster was made back then with a marker, some rub-on transfer letters, collage, and a copier. Not a color copier. Just a copier. Someone went to the library and fed nickles into a machine to make the copies, or they gave them over to a copyist at Kinkos and waited for them to be done. They were all made in the same three sizes, and the same 7 colors of paper (AstroBrites) but, they all looked different from one another. The information on the posters was clear, and unobstructed, because, you wanted people to come to the show, you know? The person who had the best handwriting was the poster-maker. There was no social media, just word of mouth, answering machines, and the posters. So all the creativity went into the work - the band's name, the way they looked, the songs, the song titles, the way they sounded different than other bands, the posters themselves, the artwork for the cassette tapes they recorded, the booking line-up. People actually went pole to pole with a staple-gun and posted those posters on foot, or on their bike. Hardly anyone drove, unless you drove a huge old car with the band's gear in the trunk.

The band culture drove what we'd call now an "economy." It required all the workers to be deadline oriented, organized, clever, resourceful, economical, and was done "for fun." People worked very hard "for fun." Very few became famous. No one begruged those who did (that I know) but also, no one looks down on those who didn't make it big. So. That's where I came from. That's where I was. I need to remember the fun in work again, and work that hard at having fun. I don't regret much about that time spent within that economy of culture, and I want to live without much more regret about this time either.

Today I drew a hamster with a felt marker on a scrap of paper and it was good.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Well, the last thing I blogged about was Kincaid's death. In the meantime, we've had a lot of loss in the Art Program at school, and the grief process has had me cooking on "low" for quite a while. I am sure one day I will create work about the time period between Sept. 2011 and October 2012 wherein, I watched both parents die of cancer. For now, though, it's too raw. I'm doing some more abstract work about loss, in general - loss of techniques and skill-sets, loss of processes. But, here's the kicker. I hung this new work in the gallery at UW Fond du Lac and's not done.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Needle, Rock, Paper, Scissors

This morning I sit reading reports of Thomas Kincaid's death at 54 while next to me, Rock Hushka engages in his morning ritual of stitching knots. I realize that I too could be working as we sit here chatting. I recall my friend and "lady novelist" Ruthie Knox saying in a recent interview that she gets up at 3 a.m. every day to write before her son James gets up. Ruthie has written something like 3 romance novels in the past year or so. I meanwhile have been waiting. Waiting - in the early 1970's Faith Wilding did a very moving performance piece for Womanhouse, in which she talks about waiting. She lists all the events of a woman's life in terms of waiting. I am waiting, but like my reaction to the Wilding piece I'm beginning to wonder what for. I believed it was for a "good idea." But I have no shortage of ideas these days. Maybe I have been instead waiting for an opportunity - but I know perfectly well I've had opportunites, and could have made some opportunities (like, HELLO! you have a curator embroidering right here on this very couch!) but I've let these pass, because I've been...waiting? I even recently acknowledged that I am waiting to retire to "hit it big" in my art. That's somewhat ridiculous, since I know perfectly well I'm not going to be able to retire for another 20 years. Am I going to wait 20 years to make art? Not likely. So I guess in short, what I am waiting for is for myself to get off my own ass and get some discipline. I mean, if Kincaid died at 54, there's no guarantee I will live till my own retirement. I cannot let the fear of unsold art overtaking my house have such a stronghold. I can't wait to be "discovered" if there's no work to serve as a conduit to "discovery." Expecially since I already am known to many individuals who - while I've been waiting - have gotten to really good places in their careers through hard work and discipline and have reached the high places of which people speak when mentioning "friends in high places." (Okay, so I don't have a friend at the Met or MOMA but there are a lot of other places one can show their work.) In the meantime, I will wait for a few other things, like that article I wrote about Rock coming out in the summer issue of Surface Design Journal, and our next crop of flax to go into the ground, and for summer...