an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady
In the process of preparing for our interview with Amy Meissner, her blog was an essential fertile ground for learning about the person behind the work. Work in its truest sense. The mixture of processes she employs, the detail of the stitches and her almost resolute balance of composition are compelling, labor intensive masterpieces. Her craftsmanship is outstanding balanced by a daringness that sets a wonderful tension for the viewer to contemplate. And it is no surprise that within her writings the tangle of art and craft that leaves so many of us frustrated or wading in an unsettled muck, comes to the surface in ways that are earnest and relevant.
There are no answers. The tension between art and craft takes any artist through a range of emotions almost like stages of grieving. It is a mess that figures such as Glenn Adamson seem suggest higher ways of thinking but majority of academia, the art world and craft world re-enforce the borders. There is relief in exploring Meissner's writings that let the reader into a world that echoes with her children's laughter, fevers, tears and questions, stories of her past professional experiences working with textiles and as a children's book illustrator while rhythmically the movement of life and her creative process unfold. Her Alaskan location furthers this feeling of raw nature and memories swirling in a bevy of creative energy. In your mind's eye you begin to picture Meissner with a library of textiles, stitches, threads, yarn and interesting objects. Life working through her dexterous hands. To use Meissner's own words:
I’m inspired by textiles with the heft and history of the domestic -- burdensome to store, impossible to use -- and by the drudgery of working by hand, despite the connotation of “minor art” or “women’s work.” It is perhaps this exact connotation and expectation of what a “quilt” is -- protective, warm, soothing -- so much like what defines the domestic role, that begs it to be pushed against. Hard. I love that during the hours of repetition the meaning of a piece shifts and deepens, but never loses its initial impulse.
Q: When I first came across your work and I think it was on Pinterest, the first blog post I landed on was from February 1, 2015 titled Amateur. You quote Glenn Adamson defining the term amateur from his book, “Thinking Through Craft” and the first few pages of this chapter also titled Amateur, are full of examining the term amateur, hobbyist, “hobbyist is the antitheses of the avant garde” and it is a difficult chapter to read. I say this because for individuals working with processes traditionally labeled as craft, there is an understandable self-consciousness and self-critical tension with the art world. It is always a hot bed topic and my feeling was always that Adamson hops all around to highlight shared histories and needle at assumptions. In this chapter, he says
This idea that develops that use of decorative or craft processes is seeking subversive or an artist who uses it only as a “counterculture” act as opposed to dedication to the craft of the process. It is all very loaded and you touch on these issues in your blog and I am curious if you feel that disregarding this discussion or pointing to it or coming to terms with it is possible?
Meissner: I don’t know if it’s possible to come to terms with this discussion, and most days I don’t have the opportunity to spend time engaged in formal study. Other days I try to convince myself I don’t care about this kind of theoretical rhetoric. This isn’t true, but I have a family and a home, which I work from, and while I would love to be an academic and ready for a debate all the time … I just don’t have room in my brain, space in my laundry room or the hours in a day to be an academic, a producing artist and the mother I choose to be. At the end of the day, what is important is my family and home life; the work is secondary but also very much informed by the first. If my family is tended, my work is too. Does this make me “amateurish” and “pastoral” (another of Adamson’s components of craft)? Probably. Having children certainly changed my professional trajectory and while I’m conflicted about this, I’m also grateful. I can’t do the work I do now without their inquisitive energy influencing my own.
I agree that Adamson’s work is difficult to read — academically dense and emotionally charged— especially that quote about “hobby crafts” being “on par with […] stamp collecting and weekend sport — activities done in a spirit of self
gratification rather than critique” (p.139), because I automatically felt lumped in with the Hot Glue Gun Crowd and that got my hackles up (not that there’s anything wrong with hot glue…). But in the introduction to his companion book, “The Invention of Craft,” he re-states an idea that brought me closer to an understanding: “Craft is an antidote to modernity.” (p. XV) He refers to it as a “corrective escape hatch” and the individual turning to it as a way of softening “the hard edges of the modern.” This I can relate to. Before the Industrial Revolution, “Craft” as a construct didn’t exist because it had no opposite. It was just work. And I see my work as work — I produce with my hands and a set jaw.
I read “Thinking Through Craft” in the first place because I felt like I needed a language around this Craft/Art discourse. My background is in fine art and clothing design, and then I spent over a decade illustrating children’s books. The discussion I’d bumped against in undergraduate school and again during the time I was illustrating, was between the “fine art” and “graphic art” camps and how those two elements of the art and design/publishing world rubbed each other raw. For years I bristled at the question: “Did you write this book or are you ‘just the illustrator?’” In graduate school, my work sometimes felt lesser because I chose to write creative nonfiction and memoir instead of fiction for my MFA thesis. Now the question has been replaced with “How long have you been ‘a quilter?’” Is my prickliness around these labels derived from the fact that none of them refers to my work as “Art?” Yes, of course. (And don’t get me started on how many times I was referred to as the “Alterations Girl.”)
I am intensely dedicated to my craft, to honing my skill. I can’t disregard this aspect of my work in order to turn to the avant garde, because this would be completely inauthentic to who I am and what my work is about.
Q: Do you find that reading on art or craft theory impacts your process or ideas? If there was a piece of writing that you wish everyone read, what would it be and why is it important?
Meissner: Academic language is just that, a language. And unless you are immersed in that language everyday, you lose it. I can safely say I was a smarter person during the three years I spent in an MFA program discussing, critiquing and writing manuscripts than I am now, wondering hourly why my 6-year old is talking like a baby and pouting her lip in that crooked way, or fretting over when I should discuss puberty with my almost 9-year old — Maybe now? No, wait. Okay, NOW. No, no — I would love to catalog all of the many ways that reading about craft theory informs my work. But I can’t. Mainly because my work isn’t about theory, it’s about life and narrative and the intense work of the work. But what reading about craft theory does do is give me enough language to perhaps purchase a train ticket through this foreign Art vs. Craft Land, or just enough confidence to order the same damned sandwich and coffee everyday while I’m visiting it.
My copy of Adamson’s “Thinking Through Craft” is a porcupine of blue sticky notes, because I made myself read it, but I was far more engaged with the Mystery Woman who owned the book prior to me and made incredibly teeny pencil notes in the margins, which said things like: “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha $, status, social hierarchy, are you kidding?” and “women are already outsiders to everything, why not also art?” and “this is a self-perpetuating loop of bullshit.” I was often more interested in her narrative and response, which felt angry and frustrated — a bit like my response, but less bewildered and clearly more confident. Her sketches for ceramic pieces on the end pages were awesome, too. Probably because they were directly informed by her reading of theory.
What I would suggest is that everyone read. Just read good writing. Read good journalism, read good fiction, read good memoir. Read good children’s books. I say this because so much of the act of editing that goes into good writing can be applied to one’s artwork. The distillation of ideas that creates that pinpoint moment of connection between the viewer and the creator comes from good editing and precise layering of thought. Be willing to “kill your darlings,” abandon work that isn’t going in the direction you want it to, be critical and practice distance. Not everyone loves the same work, whether it’s writing or visual art or music, but we all appreciate that which endures. Skill endures. Clear thoughts endure. Blue sticky notes endure, but only if your daughter doesn’t pull them off the pages and re-use them to make “long curly fingernails.”
Q: Congratulations on your upcoming solo show. What are some of the aspects to this new body of work that are most important to you? How long did it take to prepare all the pieces that will be on view?
Meissner: I was hoping for a summer show in this particular gallery (The Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer, Alaska), and after submitting for their 2016-17 exhibition series they asked if I could show a full year earlier. This was possible because although a number of my larger pieces had toured in state, they hadn’t shown in this community, which is 4 hours south of Anchorage. The gallery is also able to borrow a piece of mine from the Anchorage Museum’s permanent collection, so I had about 5 months to complete 10 pieces to supplement the larger works, a plan the gallery and I made together from the beginning.
This is my first solo show, and while this feels exciting, I’m especially grateful for the timing. I received a substantial Artists Fellowship Grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, which enabled me to solely focus on textile art for a year. This show is the culmination of much of the work produced during that time and is such a strong ending to the grant period.
It’s important to me that the work I present resonates with the viewer, either in terms of image alone, or juxtaposition of materials and text or through the concepts themselves. But I also want to be known for rigorous execution of craft, and I think I can tow both lines. There is art I’ve seen that has seared into my mind and workmanship that I will always admire, ponder and aspire to master. I therefore want my work to exist in that realm of art and fine craft. I believe this place exists, whether it’s in response to modernity or is just that uncomfortable blister where two edges rub against one another.
Q: Girl Story seems like a turning point in your work. When I look at Girl Story, it broaches a subject matter that is not talked about in the public sphere but it is an experience of womanhood. Quilts are interesting forms for art because of their multi-faceted history in the domestic/ private sphere to a unique history almost entirely dominated by women. The history as a social document is a rich history as well and there are many aspects about the quilt as an object that are interesting to explore. Did this piece have an impact on how your process and where your work is now?
Meissner: Girl Story, like Spontaneous Combustion, wasn’t so much a turning point as a direct response to where I am as a woman and a mother. If Spontaneous Combustion was the question my son asked repeatedly when he was four and my response to postpartum anxiety and the domestic role in general, then Girl Story and Girl Story #2 are the questions waiting to be asked by my daughter and my internal struggle with how to present a normal life process in a way that honors how menarche could be for her, while still acknowledging how it was for me, my mother, her mother, etc.
Girl Story #3 veers slightly, and came about when I was working on the Reliquary series. I began the piece assuming it was a Reliquary, but deep into it realized that it was my response to a loved one’s addiction and her total inability to be a mother for her three children. It was another Girl Story, another struggle related to womanhood made all the more painful by the fact that for all of us with children there are many moments — some of them fleeting — when we just check out and become unavailable. I think it’s a series I’ll work on for years. My role is evolving, so my work naturally will. This is a deep, deep well.
The fact that these pieces are “quilts” is important to the emotional quality of the work. We approach quilts and embroidery with a certain set of expectations and aren’t necessarily prepared to see embroidered menstrual blood on doilies or hear frightening questions from children. I don’t do this for shock value — I find shock value flaccid and annoying — I do this because they are living questions for me and therefore have value. If they are shocking, that’s secondary and something brought to the piece by the viewer’s own life experience.
Q: You are a very skillful writer. Your blog is insightful and helps inform the viewer about the processes and concepts you explore in your work. I can only imagine that many years from now it will be an amazing volume of your life both the inner life you share and the resonating issues you explore. The use of text has at time played a primary role in your work notably with works such as Spontaneous Combustion and The Acquisition of Language. In your most recent work, it seems to be less incorporated into the composition and reliquary, embedded objects have become your stand in for words. How did this new body of work come together? How do you see your work evolving in relation to objects and text?
Meissner: I don’t know when I first learned about reliquaries, but the clear direction came while creating The Acquisition of Language, in which I address living with chronic pain. The primary text this piece features is “Why do you say always that something hurts?” — a question my children could’ve asked me, or I could have asked my husband, or I could’ve asked myself or my own parents — coupled with a litany of every single body part anyone in our house ever complained about hurting. I embedded fragments of bone, shell, stone and wood in an effort to house pain within the work itself. Both the Girl Story series and the Reliquary series were born from this piece.
Perhaps you’re onto something regarding found objects becoming stand-ins for text — a viewer’s response to an object is based on personal history, just as one’s response to text is. However, there are subtle moments of mark-making, or what I think of as graffiti on a few of the pieces and I have a number of pieces under construction that incorporate text, so I’m in no way planning to abandon this course. I just want to make sure it’s not the only thing I do. I also try to sit with text for a long time if it isn’t coming to me immediately. For example, I have an abandoned piece of needlepoint that has been on my wall for over a year with notes pinned all over it because I can’t get the words and the voice just right for what I want to say — something about being left with a mess to clean up, but it has to be read as if I were saying it to a child, but also to an old woman who has left this unfinished piece of embroidery for me to deal with. I’m still sorting all that out.
I could try and predict how my work will evolve around found objects and text, but I’m discovering new things all the time so I try to react as nimbly as I can to retain the spontaneity of the initial impulse. This is difficult because the work is incredibly time consuming. Often by the time I’m able to address the first idea, it has morphed into another, but this feels vital to the process. I’m open to the evolving heart of each story, and seek it within each piece. Judy Martin, a textile artist in Canada, has written, “time is a material.” I can so relate to this concept.
Q: I am so impressed with the mastery of so many techniques you incorporate into your work. The execution and compositions are complex, decisive and from reading your blog, your past experiences working in textile production and highly customized work, your family have all gave you a wide breadth of experiences to draw upon. To me the art of what you create is in part not only in the conceptual ideas you explore but the way you are able to blend these processes into a vocabulary that re-enforces the presence of the work. Do you feel like the forces behind your work and the processes you take into the fold have changed over time? Are there specific creative risks that you hope to take on in the next few projects?
Meissner: My mother’s family is in Sweden so my connection to them is limited in terms of distance and language (I possess enough vocabulary to buy that train ticket and sandwich, for example). So while I’ve had fleeting exposure, childhood memory and stories, I can only speculate about who they were and are as people, as women, as makers. Still, they’ve given me this great gift of history and skill. I’m grateful for this sensibility and this need to make, re-make, make better, make well and feel strongly that the ability to create something from nothing and the sensitivity towards any maker’s hand is a value not taught much anymore. For something so commonplace just a few generations ago, it’s slipping away (here’s where the current DIY movement is perhaps the direct response to current modernity).
The physical gift from these women is the work they’ve produced and sent to me for decades— much of it in the form of crochet and embroidery. I spent 25 years hauling it around and grumbling about the outdated form, about the quantity that just kept coming, threatening to toss it all, but then finally deciding to cut it apart and re-use it as a form of reverence. Which in some respects was the most unthinkable and disrespectful thing to do and I would still feel horrible about it if it weren’t for the incredible release I experienced.
The greater challenge with this type of material, is how to channel this buried feminine energy — this silent stabbing of hook and needle — and create something meaningful and complex from the original work. I will say right now that this isn’t easy on a number of levels, but two dichotomies immediately come to mind — first, it’s difficult to execute a contemporary idea from an outdated or vintage item. I am always teetering on the edge of nostalgia with these cloths (and please grab me if I fall off that cliff). And second, I want to revere each object as the last of its kind, but am absolutely propelled and emboldened by the seemingly endless quantity of domestic and decorative linens in the world. When it comes to making that cut, this lessens the hesitation.
Another challenge is that of the hand. Because I learned to embroider and crochet at such a young age, then spent so many years in production and design for the clothing industry (9 of 12 years in custom bridal, starting when I was 17) my hand instinctively makes marks that are even and aligned. I fight this constantly and can tell when I’ve slipped into autopilot; it is a huge effort to remain loose and chaotic in order to achieve an emotional resonance with the handwork.
My process is definitely evolving. I’ve been drawn to the quilt form for a long time, probably because I have very little history with quilts; the women in my family were/are crocheters, knitters, embroiderers and weavers. The only quilt I inherited was a brittle crazy quilt top that came from a great, great aunt who made it after emigrating to Boston, then sent it to Sweden where it was ridiculed and put in a trunk for 50 years (this, according to my mother, who was a child at the time of its arrival). So I am drawn to the quilt form as a vessel for narrative, language, history, effort, thoughts, materials and the domestic role. Recently, however, I’ve been exploring other forms such as upholstery, felting and embroidery all as an attempt to house found objects that are completely unrelated to textiles such as bone, stone, hair and shell.
I’m so interested in narrative, and the next few larger works waiting in the wings are exploring the narrative of others, some of it fictional. I don’t want to sound like a lunatic when I say I hear voices but … I do.