They are forms that take presence in a room, cozy yet quirky protrusions of color, crocheted yarn and sewn fabric swatches. Rachel Udell is exploring her own language in forms, process and assembly. The passion behind Rachel's work is refreshing while bearing a melancholic air of love, loss, and genuine fortitude.
Rachel is one of a generation of artists who continue to be inspired and find continual apt relevance in the work of artists such as Eve Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager; sharing interest in the rich territories of memory, materials, embodiment and process.
Rachel Udell is a soft sculptor on the move.
Q: Your artist's statement highlights that fibers, textiles, & clothes represented an embodiment of your mother who passed away when you were a young. In particular, you mentioned that she passed away just a week before 9/11 so I am sure it felt like your grief and your family's grief was absorbed and even lost in the grief of a nation rebounding from a major trauma. You mention you have found a connection with your mother through her clothes and personal artifacts and that she is so much a part of your work that you see her as a collaborator. It is such a beautiful response to what must be a hard mixture of feelings that are ever evolving and you welcome the discussion of it in your work. How do you activate her collaboration in your process? Is it done through material, performative actions, or a meditative process ?
A: I was actually 27 when my mother passed away- not so much a young girl- though I felt very much like I was just that- not nearly old enough to lose my mother. Yes, it was an extraordinarily difficult time.
I think for me, the idea of collaboration with my mother always arose out of the materials themselves- her clothing. In retrospect it was a somewhat strange way for me to connect with her, when in life she always taught me to respect her beautifully made collection. When I borrowed my mother’s clothing, I was always so careful to return each item just how I had found it. Now, in my artwork, I cut things up and piece them back together.
Had I been her size, I might never have started working in this way. Perhaps I would have saved everything to wear for myself. But she was a much smaller woman than I am. Still, once I began using her clothing, it seemed a profound way for me to be with my mother. I suppose there was a meditative component too- I would mostly choose colors, patterns and textures according to the aesthetic of the piece I was working on. Once the piece of clothing was integrated, I would always remember the entire garment, and in particular I would try and remember my mother wearing it. It became as though I was manipulating and arranging these beautiful materials my mother had picked out. She was, for me, so intertwined with these things that she wore.
Q: I love your installations. They remind me of piles of clothes, blankets etc suspended in these bodily clouds of soft fuzzy forms that feel very alive and you describe them very suitably as "amalgamations of patterns, colors and shapes. But you also describe them as both fantastic and monstrous. Describe what it is that excites you about creating on this line between something that is dark even morbid contrasting with colors, forms etc that welcome and invite a tactile response from the viewers?
A: Thank you. You know, I’m not sure that making something that is both ebullient, with seductively rich colors and textures, and horrifying, even ugly in some way- contrasting patterns, bulging parts, bizarre combinations, is something that I do consciously. I don’t know- I think my process is more intuitive. (I just kind of go with it, or make my way into forms and shapes that feel “right.”) But I think that because my process, especially with my sculptures, brings me to something that has all of these seemingly disparate qualities, it is significant. I love the forms I see in the natural world, the forms that make up the biological world on micro and macro levels, in all of their range, they are full of splendor for me. I don’t see beauty as being something that is separate from, or diametrically opposed to ugliness. I think it is all part and parcel of the same thing, this larger thing, life. Kind of like how happiness can’t really be known without sadness or pain.
Q: The size and scale of these works are so terrifically impressive. Between the variety of stitch, color, pattern and sheer volume, their weight or experience for the viewer is something of a visual feast. Can you talk about size and scale in your work and are you in a different mindset when you are working large scale as opposed to the smaller pieces?
A: I love hand-stitching, and it is definitely a huge part of my process. Stitching for me is mediative and calming. I think it is more comfortable for me when I’m working on a smaller scale, but there is something really exciting about working large. The larger works have to be put together in pieces, and end up taking on a life of their own. Even when I am working on a large scale, I am technically still working small. It is only when I assemble the pieces toward the end of the process that I really get a sense of what the piece is going to be.
Q: You mention a friend convinced you to sign up for a crochet workshop but you had some uncertainty because you didn't see yourself "as a particularly crafty person or someone who would enjoy 'domestic' types of work" but then the process of crochet really hit home with you. How do you feel about craft now and prior associations you had about crochet as a 'domestic' or decorative art? Do you associate craft as a term to describe your work as representing something only from a materialist perspective?
A: I generally don’t think of my work as craft. When I first started working with crochet and textiles, I just felt like I’d discovered this wonderful new medium that allowed me to express how I was feeling more accurately than any other I had previously tried. I see my work as fitting into several categories. Fiber art and soft sculpture are probably the two terms I use the most.
The language of fiber art is often used to indicate connections. One can weave an elaborate narrative, or knit together varying concepts…I think these literary devices also work visually. Fibers and threads literally tie knots, create stitches, and form a visual vocabulary.There are layers, both physical and metaphorical that I’m really attracted to in the fiber arts.
For me, the term craft implies a few things that my work doesn’t approach: the first being skill, and the second being function. In my work, it is pretty irrelevant how well my stitches are executed. And aside from granny square blankets I’ve made for my niece and nephews, and a few wearable items here and there, I don’t really make pieces that serve any traditional function. What I make is mostly about emotion and expression, and a sense of connection.
That said, it is from the rich, storied histories of the materials and processes of craft that I find inspiration and a starting point for my work. To me, the domestic arts were those that were passed down in families, from mother to daughter.
My father’s mother once knit me a blanket. As far as I know it was the only thing she ever made. She used just one stitch, and all of the same color, a sort of taupe-ish brown. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was my favorite thing in the world because she made it with her own hands, and she gave it to me. The blanket was a tangible record of my grandmother’s time and energy. What was she thinking about when she made it? I’ve loved that blanket so much in the years since she died. It has unraveled quite a bit- to the point that I’ve put it aside and no longer use it. I think about trying to preserve it. Mending it. Or making it into art.
Other than that, I didn’t know any women who knit or crocheted or sewed. I thought of these activities as talents that other women had- alongside things like cooking and baking. My mother never liked to cook or bake. I mean, she did these things, but I don’t think she ever really enjoyed them. They were chores for her. I guess in many ways, all of this gets tied up in my understanding of gender growing up. My struggle with gender roles, categories, identity, and meaning have always been either lurking in the shadows of my work, or right at the forefront.
After my maternal grandmother passed away, I found a needle, a spool of red thread and a pair of partially mended gloves in her closet. I found this to be such a poignant vignette of my grandmother, who I had known as this larger-than-life, strong-willed woman. I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I’d wanted with either of my grandmothers, or with my mother. These things that they left behind gave me an intimate glance into something I didn’t know about them, and a starting point for a continued relationship.
Q: I am sure viewers cannot help themselves and interact with your work by touching or squeezing it. Do you consider this in the decisions you make about the way you install your pieces? Do you welcome that kind of interaction?
A: I’m a very tactile person. I always want to touch art in shows and museums. When I first started showing this work, it quickly became obvious that people wanted to touch it. At first I really wasn’t comfortable with this, especially with pieces that were made primarily of my mom’s clothing. The crocheted pieces most certainly invited touch.
I was recently a part of an exhibition that included a “touch tour” as part of its run. It was a really neat thing- a group of visually-impaired people were invited to tour the show. I love that my work can be accessible to different audiences. I’ve also shown in places that had a no-touch policy. It can be amusing to watch people confronted with this dilemma, even as the works are hung in relation to the human form, sometimes eye-level. People are forced to interact with them, while abstaining from touching. Even in places where touch was prohibited, I think most people ended up touching them anyway.
Q: Do you feel you will ever introduce a collaborative element to your work? Such as let other people make forms that you arrange into a whole?
A: I have worked collaboratively before, and really enjoy it. It is always interesting for me to see what other people bring to the table, and how different work/processes/ideas enter into a dialogue with one another. Working with other people helps draw me out of my insular world sometimes, and to see things through a new lens. I feel lucky to have found an inspiring community of artists and curators in Philadelphia with whom I’ve worked on many different projects. Ellen K. Bonett, Anna Cherniahivsky, Joanna Fulginiti, Bonnie MacAllister, Melissa Maddonni Haims, and Ruthie Schanbacher are some of these amazing artists.
Q: Lastly, who of your peers would you give a shout out to who you think is making amazing work? How do we see their work?
A: There are so many people making incredible work out there- I am humbled and inspired every day. Aside from the talented artists I mentioned earlier, I think Iviva Olenick is making really amazing work. She makes beautiful, pithy, often auto-biographical narrative embroidery pieces, though she has also done some large community projects as well. Once she did this project in which she invited people to tweet poems to her, which she then embroidered. I sent her one. I think her emphasis on exploring personal history and relationships really resonates with me. You can check out her work at www.ivivaolenick.com.