I’ve recently been reflecting on why I use with the materials I use in the creative process. Why the small scientific vials and the toilet paper rolls? Why the string? My work often features unconventional media, including things that are:
- Produced on Masse
- Designed for Children….
I think a part of this has to do with the fact that, as an art-school drop-out I am largely a self-taught artist. I have always been fascinated by artists whose choice of medium informs their work on a conceptual level, and I think there is something special about objects that are cheap/found/mass-produced/designed for children. Somehow, when working with such seemingly valueless and common items, I get a sense that there is a stripping down of the sanctity of Fine Art. This appeals to me because I fundamentally believe that the arts should bring people in, not push them away. When there is a piece that incorporates wax crayon, for instance, there is something largely relatable for people as this is a creative tool given to children. And as all children are artists, perhaps nodding to this shared nostalgia creates some kind of common ground.
There are a number of artists who have been influential to me in their use of unconventional media. Brian Jungen, for instance, is a Canadian artist of Swiss and Dunne-Za ancestry who uses found objects in sculpture in such a way that they create recognizable imagery but without concealing their original form and intention. In his series Prototypes of New Understanding (1998-2005), Jungen deconstructed and recombined red, white, and black Nike Air Jordon’s to create masks that resemble those displayed as West Coast Indiginous artifacts. The result is an interesting commentary on the commodification of cultural symbology.
Brazillian-American photographer Vik Muniz has also created work wherein his choice of materials carries great meaning. In his “Sugar Children” series from the early 1990’s, for instance, Muniz created portraits of children with whom he had played on a black sandy beach while vacationing in St. Kitts. These were the kids of sugar plantation workers, and when Muniz met their parents, he was struck by how weary they were. “How could those kids become those grownups?” he wondered. He concluded that life had taken their sweetness from them. The result of this reflection was a portrait series where Muniz depicted some of these children in the very material their parents were so weary from producing, sugar. In addition to bringing in the sense of taste into the creative process, using sugar to create the portraits added a kind of poetic bittersweetness to them.
Finally, Jessica Stockholder is another artist who has been inspiring to me in her choice of materials. Stockholder is an American sculptor whose installations act almost like paintings in space and often feature brightly coloured found objects from places like the Home Depot or Wal-Mart. Stockholder’s work inspires me perhaps less directly in form than philosophy. She seems to collect materials with an open, ‘beginner’s mind’- a keen awareness of the suchness of ordinary objects. In doing so, she is open to finding beauty outside of the culturally-mandated limitations of “value”. On plastic, she writes the following:
“I like the color of plastic; I like that they’re inexpensive but gorgeous. And why are they so inexpensive and gorgeous—compared to diamonds, which are so expensive and probably no more beautiful than these plastic things? I think these plastic things are stunningly beautiful. And they don’t last long, not because plastic doesn’t last long—it does—but because the objects themselves aren’t strong and people don’t value them.”
In addition to having an appreciation for materials-informed concepts in visual arts I think there is also an element of nostalgia for me working with string. Someone once told me that you can tell a lot about where an artist grew up simply by the colours to which they gravitate. I’m not sure whether or not that is true but I would agree that nostalgia and sense of place can be huge factors when someone is “tapping in” creatively, whatever that looks like. I grew up in a household where my mother quilted. Textiles, embroidery and fine craft adorned the walls. And although I don’t sew, knit, crochet, or seem to have any kind of crafting skills or aptitudes, I am instinctively drawn to fibre.
Maybe fibre appeals to me because it feels like a physical manifestation of mark-making. I’ve been making marks since I had the capability of holding tools that allowed me to do so. When I was in high school, I became very interested in figure drawing, and there was a book that I got out of the library on the subject that had a “ball of yarn” prompt. The idea was to “free up”, creating a gesture drawing using many lines without leaving the page. But there was something about using real yarn to achieve the same aim that really stuck with me. I couldn’t let go of that idea for seven, eight years. And finally, a psych degree, a couple breakdowns, and a handful of life experiences later, I began to experiment.
It’s luscious, somehow, to touch the lines with which one is creating shapes, shadows and forms. In a way it is more direct than using a tool such as a pen. At the same time it is often less precise. The whole process is as humbling as it is engaging. It’s slow and methodical. Despite the process feeling inherently messy, there is no quick and dirty, no instant gratification. But in this slow, repetitive, ritualistic process I have been given space to reflect upon the meaning of the work itself. The dialogism of the process mirrors the back-and-forth required to form meaningful human connections. The tangled chaos of it all echoes the absolutly unfathomable series of events, many interpersonal, that contribute to the formation of identity. I’ll write more on this in another post. For now, I’ll head back to the studio and play with some more strands of fibre. They’re cheap, unclassy, nostalgic, dripping in glue and personal meaning.
For more on Jessica Stockholder check her out on Art 21
Here is a great article on Vik Muniz in New City Brasil
This String Portrait Project is supported by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.