In October 2018 I started working on what would become a wedding dress. An image of the work came to mind soon after sending Little Black Dress to its home in Chattanooga earlier that summer. This new one, Wedding Dress, would be ivory with ivory waxed linen to add delicacy.
The dress was started in the studio; woven first over a dressmaker’s form, then off-form to complete the structure, then several coats of paint followed by several days of sanding and clipping loose fibers. Finally, by mid-November, I could take her home for the last step—the application of the waxed linen, perfect for the upcoming long nights that started at 5 in the afternoon.
I began at her hem and worked upwards, layer after layer. Square knots at reed junctures: right-over-left and pull; left-over-right and pull. The strands were a little shorter on the bodice than on the skirt—a subtle design element. Another subtlety was to place the knots a little closer together around the hem, arm openings and neckline to better define the edges. Knot by knot and inch by inch: right-over-left and pull; left-over-right and pull. Altogether, a little over 7 weeks and 4,000 strands to finish her. Granted there was Christmas, my birthday and New Year’s during that time. But still 4,000 strands.
Interestingly, and unexpectedly, in the knotting process I felt somehow like I was beading the dress. One bead at a time, row after row, from bottom to top. Even more so, during the knotting/beading, it also seemed as if the wedding dress was slowly embodying itself in the process—as if it was becoming both a wedding dress and a bride.
I remembered this with Little Black Dress. She had her own personality, one that absolutely aligned with the person who took her home. Makes me wonder who the bride is.
Irish waxed linen has added a layer of complexity to the work. Because apparently it needed more.
Originally utilitarian, waxed cording grew out of waxed sail cloth. During the 1800’s, Scottish sailors developed a method of applying linseed oil to their sails for waterproofing. The oil, which was prone to yellowing and hardening, was replaced with wax in the 1920’s. Twenty-ish years later, in the next evolution, wax was applied to the thread before it was woven into cloth, rather than after. Thus waxed cording.
Over the years, artists and artisans have incorporated waxed cording into their book binding, jewelry making, and leather, basket, fiber and mixed media works. Crawford’s Irish Waxed Linen, the brand I use, is made in Lisbon, Ireland with European linen flax. It usually comes in spools and in different ply’s, or number of twisted strands. 4-ply has become my size of choice. And it has introduced a whole new element to my work.
The cording allows itself to extend out beyond the surface. More so, it is willing to stay there, holding its own, as it introduces a new movement into the work. Equal to the reed, even though it is finer and more delicate.
Oddly enough, while working with it, my fingers seem to remember what to do. Much as the cording remembers what to do. Am intrigued with this.
Florence Williams studies how nature affects us. Specifically, spending time in nature enhances brain function, reduces stress, mitigates disease and increases creativity. A fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, Williams sees an intrinsic link between the patternings of the natural world and our human body; in short, syncing with nature restores us.
Many of us feel this in our bones. Our internal clock tells us it’s time to head outside to connect with something outside of ourselves. What we’re ultimately seeking is that delicious moment when our mind stops, our senses activate, and we become fully present to our surroundings. Here, with the sky, trees, woods, water, birds, flowers, fields, grass, dirt, or mountains—however it looks at the time—here we come back to ourselves.
Art making offers this same delicious moment.
In an earlier posting I wrote of a challenge in deep studio work. Today I write of a blessing.
Art comes into form through our hands. We can guide it, but we can’t force it. And we certainly can’t logic our way into it. Art happens when our minds stop, our sense activate, and we become fully present to the work that wants to come forth.
My time spent in deep woods is no different than time spent in deep studio. The connection to something so much bigger.
The gift of being present.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
This is the opening of “Wild Geese,” a poem by Mary Oliver. Oliver, an iconic American poet, has honed the art of sensing and transcribing wildness. The passage has floated in and out of my life at different times, usually lingering for a few years at a time.
Have you noticed this in your own life? A song, a movie, a book, a quote—something seemingly relevant to your life slides in as a companion at a very specific time. More so, you don’t call it in, it appears on its own. How does the touchstone know when to come in? Have we unknowingly sent some sort of signal requesting its presence?
When Oliver’s lines come in, I’m reminded that there is a bigger picture than the one I can see. That there is a patterning, an unfolding, and my singular job is to stop the resistance. The incessant mind chatter, the fear, the search for a logical response.
Right now, these words are taped to my studio wall. This does not have to be hard as I am making it.
Anxious is the word of the day, even the year. Perhaps in a visual artist’s version of stage fright, I often feel anxiousness stirring around in my body as I prepare to face the work currently in process, the one that’s trying to stare me down. If not that version, then anxiousness about making the deadline for two solo exhibitions coming up in a year. Or, if not those, anxiousness about the financial implications in spending so much time in the studio. Choose your flavor: which form of anxiousness do you wish to wrestle with today Anne?
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Really? Is this true? Do you have proof this is true?
I don’t have proof but Oliver’s declaration, as if it is true, is what I’ve got right now so I’m going with it. For this particular passage
Love, love, love Colossal. Do yourself a huge creative spark favor and visit the site. Incredibly well curated, you can spend hours following the threads.
And sign up for their newsletter—it’s one I wait for…
When I was a teenager living at home, mindlessly scanning a Newsweek Magazine one day, I came across a picture that stopped me in my tracks. The image was of one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: Anne Truitt’s Morning Child as it stood in her studio.
Staring at the photo I was spellbound. There was a presence I could sense but not articulate. An almost sentient being in a glorious deep blue color that seemed to vibrate as it stood in the middle of the floor.
Anne Truitt was an American modernist sculptor who melded color field inquiry with minimalist form. In essence, she sought to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake.” (from Truitt’s first book, Daybook)
In my early 30’s, married with 2 kids, I went back to school to get a second undergraduate degree, this time in art. For my senior thesis I focused on Truitt and her body of work. In an incredible twist of luck, the head of the art department at that time actually knew Truitt and put us in contact with one another. Pre-email, we wrote back and forth to one another, me with questions seeking to better understand how and why she developed her work, and her with thoughtful answers that encouraged broader interpretations—no directly telling me what it meant.
As the thesis was wrapping up, Truitt invited me to her home in Georgetown, near the Washington Cathedral. The light seemed familiar as we walked into her living room. I realized it was the same light that filled her studio in the Morning Child image from years before. Grace was present.
Our understanding of Truitt’s work comes through sensing it, being quiet and letting it come in; she created it doing the same.
This is her first major influence on my own work. She spoke many times of how she would first see the finished pieces in her mind, sometimes randomly and unexpectedly; other times through focusing on a particular event or topic. It would then be her choice to bring the work into form, or not. In the studio, I often start with attaching an interesting section of a vine to the work wall and then wait until it tells me what it wants to be. Sometimes the wait is several weeks. Testing the patience.
Second, Truitt achieved the three-dimensional color by applying layer upon layer of thin, transparent coats of paint, alternating vertical and horizontal strokes. Layers and layers of blue, until it became like the sky. For me, it’s reed, layer upon layer of reed. Start with a few reeds, let them set up. Then come back the next day and add a few more. Day after day, layer after layer.
Third, is the melding of touch with transmutation. Said Truitt, “In the narrowest meaning of the concept, it is touch, after all, that I am after in my work; the touch of my hand I hope to find transmuted into something that touches the spirit.” (from Daybook).
Random weaving is the language I use to transmute reed and vine into something else, into the form they told me they wanted to become. Maybe something of beauty, maybe not. But always something Other.
In thinking of Truitt, this prayer by Krishna Das comes to mind. He offers this when closing a Kirtan:
"If we know anything about a path at all, it's only because of the Great ones that have gone before us. Out of their love and kindness, they have left some footprints for us to follow. So, in the same way that they wish for us, we wish that all beings everywhere, including ourselves, be safe, be happy, have good health, and enough to eat. And may we all live at ease of heart with whatever comes to us in life."
Thank you, Anne.
The more I work with Random Weave, the more I realize there are (literally) layers upon layers to both the process and the product.
The finished piece, the product, is usually pretty determined in how it wants to be created, what it wants to look like. The process of creating it to meet those specs is often intense. Most of the time I can get it. Sometimes not so much. I have loved many of the works that have come from the studio and I have stomped on others. Nothing uglier than ugly + random.
Random Weave is a choice. It’s the focus I chose when returning to the studio a couple of years ago. It’s also a language. I’m always thinking about what can be made using this particular language. I also wonder how far the materials can be pushed before they break. Yes, reed breaks. It’s my fault, I push it too far. I’ll try the move again, maybe a little slower, maybe with less of an edge, maybe in a slightly different direction.
Other things I think about in the process:
The Line, with a capital L. The mark of painters. It’s there in each strand of reed.
Surface. Talk about a textured surface.
Volume. Most works are a vessel of some sort. Probably not to hold water, probably something else.
Rhythm/pattern. The reed wants to self-organize itself when it starts to gather in a work. I’ll let it gather together some, but not too much. Am very conscious of a move being “too expected” and will often turn the reed the other way.