I was invited to join the Touch art project in 2019, a collaborative exploration honouring the work of Anni Albers, one of the great female artists of the 20th century. The below explanation charts my voyage over the months leading up to the exhibition and my process and thinking through this time.
“When you go with the material, it will take you places your mind could never have imagined.”
Touch Art Project
It all began when I attended an exhibition around ‘Touch’ dedicated to the work of Joseph and Anni Albers and the Bauhaus. There were many things I liked about this exhibition, the weave, the ability to touch pieces, the colour and simplicity of shapes and strong colours, yet the piece that captured me again and again, was the braille.
It got me thinking about language and communication. Here was a form of communication that did not contain words. We are a wordy society. So much emphasis put on words, on stories, on outward expression of inward thought. And, of course, this has its place. But what about the stories that are not told through words, or the stories that are never told. What about all my stories, the ones I’ve never told.
Then, as I walked around a museum in Boston I stumbled across an old memory. During the Incan empire, the form of communication and administration for the Incans, was a knotted yarn called the quipu. The Incans did not write on stone or clay or parchment but rather used textiles as their medium of communication. The exact meaning of these intricate knots are not fully known, but again I started thinking about all that was said without words.
So I started knotting. I knotted several types of threads. Each knot, perhaps each story, had a different feel, a different look. These knots hung in space, perhaps these stories actually wanted to be told.
I would knot on trains, buses, airplanes and as I knotted I noticed that stories past and present flowed, from my lifetime but also lifetimes before me. I was telling them in a way, yet in a way that did not need verbalisation or understanding. They were what they were.
At the same time, in parallel to making, I continued my discovery of Irish trees. I was looking mostly at bark, taking imprints of the contours and stories they told, when I came across a fallen tree in the forrest. I looked at the rings, and considered how much the rings told the story of the bark. Had it been a good year – was there a fire, a drought, a disease? The life of the tree was represented deep inside, accessible only upon falling. I began to link my knotted lines to the rings of the tree.
I took these ideas and started combining them. Making sheets of handmade tissue paper, I layered the pieces together and started trialing. I then started laying down yarn and placing the paper on top while it was wet, making imprints. I started stitching with yarn. I started to think about all those people I had met and experiences I had been involved in, places I had visited, all of which made an impression on my life. The impression of the story through the impression on the paper.
What if I knotted the threads and stitched them in? How would that look and feel? The paper began to take on a different form – no longer flat and uniform but with ridges, landscapes of old stories. I am who I am now as a result of all those interactions, they have shaped me as a paper is shaped.
I considered designs for the knots and the rings. My stories were building. Each piece of yarn was knotted, having anything from one to nine turns in the knotting process. Each knot told a particular story.
Then, one day, I stumbled across some dyed thread that had been left behind after a days making in the textiles room at college. The thread had been wrapped around something so was partly dyed, partly undyed, affected more by the dye in some areas than in others. Such an interesting thread, affected to a greater or lesser degree by what it had come in contact with. The experiences we have in life shape us in various ways, sometimes fiercely, sometimes gently.
I decided on a flow of making, a repeating of a pattern that I saw working. I knotted, stitched the knots on to material, embossed the paper on top so the paper would take the form, dry the paper and then stitch into the paper with the knots.
I made thinner sheets and thicker sheets. I looked at the paper for every angle.
Things started to get interesting when the dyed knotted thread began to ‘bleed’ into the wet paper. Again, the imprints were forming their own life on the paper? What is the imprints were under the paper, what is they were over? What is there was some ‘bleeding’ into the paper? What is the paper was ‘perfect white sheets’ or ‘greyed rough’ ones?
The creative process is always filled with questions. With turning points and happy accidents. When you go with the material, it will take you places your mind could never have imagined.
The imprints made contours on the paper, like the landscape of our lives.
Once I had a pattern I was happy with, I began to stitch. I gathered up the knotted threads and cut them into individual stories.
When you start to stitch, you never really know when to stop. How many knots is too many, or too few? How much I am going to give away, how much do I keep to myself. I realise that as the viewer reads this, they will interpret the knots as they want or wish. Perhaps they will reflect on some of their own stories, the stories that touch them as they look.
As I turned the pieces over, the knots hung down, like roots of a tree. Am I finally beginning to establish roots in my life? Am I beginning to claim the place I find myself?
In the meantime, the build up to the TOUCH exhibition was happening and we produced a catalogue. Things start to take shape when you see your work laid out o the page.
Once I had completed a piece, something intriguing happened. I had the desire to do another one. I changed the type of paper, switching from a waxed white tissue paper to a normal plain tissue wrapping paper.
I ended up with two pieces and brought them both into the space.
I reflected on them both. As I looked at the ordered, perfectly white, nicely presented piece, I began to realise what this was. Somewhere, deep inside, I feel this is the way life should be. A series of neat happenings, creating a thing of beauty and expression. Yet this has not been my life to date. The less perfect piece had way more imprinted threads, some forming perfect lines, others leaving a variety of marks. Many more stories were stitched in. The paper was off white, rough around the edges. This indeed, had been my story so far. There is was, in all its imperfection, laid bare for the viewer to see.
So I hung it. And then the piece was moved. So I hung it again. Always adapting, changing, impacted. Always in motion.
Its final place. I was able to hang the piece out from the wall, creating shadows around the outside. There are layers and layers to our lives, this piece is a reflection of one element of mine.
At the TOUCH exhibition I represented Cork, along with two other wonderful artists. Its was a great experience to meet the other artists from Estonia and Lithuania and share our making processes. The TOUCH exhibition ran from 5th to the 30th March, 2019. It then travels to Estonia and Lithuania for their respective exhibitions.
For those who missed the exhibition, you can find a short video walking through the space: https://vimeo.com/328647658
Looking back is always a key part of moving forward. I learnt a lot, as I always do, from the materials. I enjoy our conversations, and I enjoy what they have to teach me. We come from such a human centred world, we assume that we impact. Yet, its a relationship, its a two way street. Everything impacts on everything else. Not only did I share in this piece, entitled ‘The Stories that Move Us”, those stories I have never told, and may never tell, I also shared the journey with the materials of my choice.
I will continue to dig, for this is what drives me.