Image from SpinCycle at The Brooklyn Museum.
Pieces of a small edition of books that I am making as part of To Stand in the Center and See All Around.
My materials and tools — handspun Shetland wool and knitting needles.
My tools — yarn, needles, crochet hook, measuring tape, pins.
Most of my life seems to be centered around impractical labor. I have deliberately tried to blur the boundaries between my art practices and the rest of my life so it can be a little challenging to separate them out. At the heart of my work is experience. I like to ask questions and then try to answer them by creating experiences — for myself and others. For some reason, most of these experiences seem to involve making things — sometimes very large things — by hand using processes like spinning (wool), knitting, crochet and other needlework techniques. Recently, I handspun yarn to create a wall that is about 8" x 7" in size as part of a larger installation. There was no practical reason why I had to spin the yarn for the wall yet it seemed imperative that I do it.
Exactly! Why? Someone once said that textiles are "steeped in narrative" and I have carried that phrase with me ever since. When I started to spin the yarn for the installation that I mentioned above (titled To Stand in the Center and See All Around), I had some vague ideas of what I was taking up — vague ideas and about 20 pounds of wool roving — but really, I mostly had trust that the process of making the piece would saturate it with meaning. Knowing that the process was labor-intensive and my deadline for installation not far off, I have worked steadily to create it, which has meant spinning in the evenings and knitting during the day. I have carried the piece with me everywhere I go in my daily life: on the subway, to my friend's chemo appointments, as well as to a nine-day yoga therapy training in Nashville. I don't think that this experience has been a neutral process. Over time, the yarn and the knit fabric began to take on energy from those experiences. You might think that is a bit out there and whoo-whoo to say that but I noticed that, as I worked, people were drawn to it. It is made from naturally black Shetland wool so it is a very plain and simple object. And yet. People can't keep their hands off of it. It has something to say that would not be there if I had used commercially made yarn and knit it on a machine. So that is why I do it. These things we do with our hands to create connections — spoken and unspoken. To me, these connections are at the core of what it is to be human. Maybe that sounds grandiose for a piece of hand knitting, but I have seen it happen again and again.
I guess I already answered that! To Stand in the Center and See All Around will open at bkbx gallery in Brooklyn (345 Union Street — entrance off of Nevins) on March 6th.
This is extremely important to me. I think it is one of my strongest motivations. Although I love the handwork techniques that I use, I would not use them in my art making if they stopped being a good way to connect with people. I think that the communal nature of textiles — their production and the way that everyone on the planet has some relationship to them — are the entry point for me. There is something accessible and friendly about a piece of knitting or crochet. I use that positive association as a way of drawing people in. I gain their trust and, often, we are working together to make something so there is a sense of shared accomplishment. Then, I can start asking the bigger questions. By then, our relationship has changed, become less distant and they are open to my inquiries.
I have found that most people are willing — eager even — to take a risk and think about something in a new way if they feel genuinely heard and welcomed. For my piece SpinCycle I hitched a bicycle up to my spinning wheel. I placed a mirror on the floor so that the person riding the bike could see my face as I sat at my wheel and I could see their face as they sat on the bicycle but we could not see our own faces. Before the rider got on the bike, they selected a story prompt from a set of cards that I made. Then, as they pedaled, which powered the spinning wheel, they told their story into the mirror. I listened and spun the wool into yarn. I have presented this piece twice: once at The Brooklyn Museum and once at Northern University in South Dakota. These were two very different audiences! While the stories were different, the experience of it for me was the same. People opened up almost immediately as they worked their body and as we worked together to create the yarn. They told me very intimate stories about themselves. I mostly just had to sit, spin and listen (and meet their gaze in the mirror). It was as if the experience of working together in this way opened a magical doorway into their lives. The truth is that they opened it themselves. It was just the experience that gave them access to it.
Experiences like I described above really keep me going! I feel so privileged to receive those stories and the trust that people offer me. It makes me feel like I am on the right path and that I am touching something true and real. It is a pretty wonderful thing.
Lately, I have been thinking about how to make that leap be a little bigger, meaning that I am playing around with making the experiences be less managed by me. In To Stand in the Center and See All Around, the experience of the participant is very open-ended and a little less hands-on. I guess one of my questions is, can I be less directorial and still offer someone a transforming experience? Or maybe, can I trust people to have whatever experience they need to have and be ok with that?
You can reach Robyn at Local 347 Shop RL.
Are you an ILSSA member who would like to be interviewed? Please email us at markdown at impractical-labor.org.