What Would the Alternative Be?

If you are someone who is on Instagram and someone who likes to knit or spin or dye or sew, then you may have noticed that this community of makers has been immersed in a much-needed discussion about diversity and racism. I think I have traced the origin back to a blog post by a (white) woman who runs a small yarn company (I won’t link to it - at this point, it isn’t very important). She posted about her 2019 resolution to be braver and take risks, including a solo trip to India. The way she described India and her relationship to it was offensive to a lot of people, especially to people from India (!). Starting with some comments on her blog, the conversation began and the momentum around it was started. Crafty BIPoC voiced years and years of frustration, hurt and anger. They told stories of being treated rudely or like criminals in yarn stores, of being overlooked as vendors at fairs or in craft-related media, and of rarely ever seeing themselves represented in this world of fibre and of white people saying the most ignorant things to them.

Some of the stories reminded me of my own experience buying yarn in Nashville, TN, where I was treated with friendliness and was part of the general conversation in the store until I told the person behind the counter that the yarn I was buying was for a Black Lives Matter hat design that I was creating. It was like I flipped a switch - suddenly I was invisible. The reaction was stark and immediate. I was totally confused - these white ladies went from being my new besties to refusing to meet my eyes and acting like I wasn’t there. I left the shop and sat in my car for a moment and it dawned on me…oh, THIS is racism in action, happening to me, myself a white lady. As RuPaul says, “Why it gotta be black?” It don’t.

Of course, that story is dripping in my own white privilege - to only be on the receiving end of that kind of experience when I stepped out of the place that has been carved out for me on the backs of millions of black and brown people. White people are supposed to stay in line too, you know. I thought of the Black woman who scoffed at me and said, “You think a knit hat is going to change things?” when I suggested that what BLM needs a good, simple knitting project to bring people together (this was immediately after the Pussy Hat Project transformed that first Women’s March in 2017). I am cringing as I write that. I suppose I get points for enthusiasm but…yeah, no. Her comment was brought home again when I finished the design and posted it on Ravelry. Almost immediately, the comments were negative. ALL lives matter, they said, and rated my design poorly. They, being white women.

More recently, a friend suggested that I check out Layla Saad’s workbook, Me and White Supremacy. I downloaded it and read through the first two chapters. I’ll confess - I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to see (and feel) what is so uncomfortable and goes against this story of me as a Good Person. This is the same naivety that made me believe that white women in a yarn shop in Tennessee would cheer me on for knitting for Black Lives Matter. Feeling kindness in your heart is nice…but not quite enough. And yes, it isn’t fun and I don’t feel great. It is hard to hold the pain of others. It is hard to feel helpless in the face of systemic racism. It is hard to feel responsible for systemic racism. And…we see where we are with pretending it doesn’t exist or being complacent in the knowledge that it does exist.

I will say, however, that calling out White Apathy about half-way through felt unhelpful. It made me wonder if there is some way to hold white people accountable but also acknowledge that we are dealing with a lifetime (or many lifetimes, if you believe in that) of notions about oneself. If we want real change, we have to be willing to let there be times that look fallow to the outside world. It isn’t apathy, it’s digestion. I see it happen in men who are genuinely wanting to see their own sexism and misogyny - after a certain point, they shut down. I feel it in myself in this work. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that BIPoC never get a break. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see the privilege of taking a moment to digest. And still. I would say that all of us need time to integrate new information, especially new information that calls up so much discomfort, so that we can take the very necessary next steps. I am not sure that labeling that moment of digestion “apathy” is correct. If someone takes a step back and never returns…well…that’s another story.

I remember complaining to someone about how tired I was of having to explain what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sexism to men over and over and over. Why don’t they ever step up? Why can’t they be curious and ask a question for once? It’s like they WANT to be ignorant! And so on, like that. She said to me, “I don’t know the answer to your questions because I am not a man. But it seems to me that part of our work , coming into the world in this female form, is to teach men this. We may get tired of it. We may not want to do it. Yet, we have to. What would the alternative be?”

So, as a white person, can we be curious and ask a question? Can we realize the enormous debt of gratitude that we have towards BIPoC for educating us, over and over and over? Can we step up and do the damn workbook? We already know what the alternative would be and it is exactly this that needs changing.

EDITED TO ADD: Re-reading this about a month later, I mostly feel in agreement with what I have written. I feel a little uneasy about putting that Nashville story in there as it reinforces that need that we white people have to put ourselves in the center at all times, even when talking about racism. I am leaving it in for a couple of reasons. One is because it is where I was at a month ago and it is ok to leave those traces as markers. I hope I will see progress in the future. I also think that my point that white people also are put into a box in systemic racism is important. We are getting played too! Someone is benefitting from this system but likely it isn’t you and me. Remember that!

I also wanted to add that I have observed some white knitting celebrities saying things like, “I do this work in other ways besides making statements on social media. I am not comfortable doing it here and I won’t be forced (or “bullied”) into doing so.” My initial reaction was to think that it was a little slippery but to respect that we all have different personalities and we need people working in all aspects of life - not just posting (or posing) on social media. I do still believe that AND YET…I also see that these moves are hurting BIPoC. How do I know that? I am reading their response and they are telling me (and others)! To me, that is more than enough. I can’t justify spending money on patterns and products when I know the person receiving it is ok with hurting BIPoC. I understand that it can be uncomfortable to take a stand in the volatile world of social media. It feels risky that one’s words will be misunderstood (you can pretty much guarantee that they will by someone!). But those concerns are as nothing compared to the pain of racism. As nothing.

Facelift

As the snow continues to fall here in Newfoundland (looks like winter arrived a month early and is fully settling in - the forecast has those little snowflakes in it from now until May), it seems like a good time to take stock and line up some projects to dig into during these months of short days and busy wood stoves. As I look around here at this website, it feels out of date with a few newer projects not yet documented and some ideas only half-realized.

So, let it be known! Coming soon - a new look, new content and new stuff in the StudioLove store.

Meanwhile, check out my Winter Newsletter for some recent news and links to cool stuff like my ongoing (and free) video series about cultivating creative life, Small Things Brought Together.

And here are some pretty pictures of the snow.

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Not That

My Zen teacher is fond of saying, “Whatever you think it is now, it isn’t that.”

I think what he means is that we have a tendency to create an idea of what a thing is or will be and then work really hard to contain it in that little box that we just created around it. We do it to people too - you are this and then when you do something that doesn’t make sense within that little box, we get all upset.

This goes for art making too.

I am halfway through my artist residency and it has been so satisfying to build - however temporarily - my whole existence around making this project, Reliquary. I didn’t know if it would really “work” in the sense that I had no idea if these objects that I have been collecting would actually speak to me and tell me what to do…but they have! I tune in, listen and follow.

Then this side thing happened. I am wondering if maybe this side thing wasn’t the point of the whole project only I didn’t know it because I was so busy creating that little box.

One object that was donated was a homemade clown toy that was given to the donor by an aunt when she was born. Although she never really liked it or played with it, she kept it, not exactly sure why but not able to get rid of it either. (Thus perfectly meeting the criteria for the project, I will add!) As I started to work with it, I got this idea to mount a light in its head that moves and have it project…something, I wasn’t sure what. Not really knowing how to do that, I ordered some small LED lights, which turned out to be perfect but then had the problem of how to make the thing I want to project. And here is where I had my revelation.

All my life - from childhood to now - I have had big ideas of making things. Grand schemes of amazing projects. And then when I tried to carry them out, I quickly discovered that I had neither the materials or skills to make them happen as I envisioned. A battle ensued between trying to make something look as grand and perfect as I imagined and the reality of my resources and abilities. I write this in the past tense but it is a battle very much alive in me today. But here’s the thing that happened with Buddy the Clown. I stopped fighting and embraced my quirky, make-it-work with cardboard and string approach.

I will never make slick, polished work, even with all the money in the world. So what if I embrace the claptrap aspect of it? Instead of trying to hide it and pretend that it is something perfectly finished and resolved, I have decided to celebrate this urge to pull together something from bits and pieces, an odd replica of something “machine made.” It’s been very liberating to embrace rather than push-away what comes naturally. I feel almost giddy with relief and excitement!

Think of it as a kind of DIY Olafur Eliasson, only, you know, where everything is made with yarn aesthetic. Catchy, no?

In Residence at Struts!

I am thrilled to have arrived in Sackville, NB, to start my month-long residency at Struts Artist-Run Centre. I am working on a new project titled, Reliquary. For this project, I am collecting well-worn objects from local residents (and you too, if you like) and transforming them; tapping into their stories and energy to create something new.

Do you have something kicking around the house that you have used and loved (or not) and can’t quite bring yourself to throw out or get rid of?  I am looking for things that have a history – they don’t have to be fancy or special, except to you.  You will have the option to have the object returned to you in its transformed state or it will become part of a silent auction at the end of my residency, with any funds raised going to support the Artist Residency Program here.

Send it along! (Should arrive no later than October 10th to guarantee that I will have time to work with it.)

Struts Artist-Run Centre

7 Lorne Street

Sackville, NB

E4L 3Z6

The beginnings of a transformation.  Donation by A.G.

The beginnings of a transformation. Donation by A.G.

Free Falling, Or: Religiousness in Art

The question that most artists are asked first after admitting? confessing? stating that they are an artist is "Oh, what kind of art do you make?" maybe followed by "are you a painter?"  For a lot of years, I could manage with a vague description, like "I make public art projects with lots of participation from the community."  Or, "I make public art projects that use needlework on a large scale."  Who knows if anyone understood what that meant but it seemed to satisfy.  These days however I really can't say my stock phrases without a sense that I am either lying or woefully out of date.  Those kinds of large, participatory projects are no longer my focus.

As I have noted a few times, the past several years have been a time of change and not a little confusion.  Moving away from such public-oriented work to a more studio-based practice has been strange and difficult.  Perhaps more than that, I have let go of many of my long-held notions about what constitutes success as an artist.  In a way, letting go of that ("that" being the cataloguing of exhibitions, projects, commissions, etc. as a measure of success) also pulled the ground out from under my feet.  When you remove those external measures from the equation, what's left?  Pretty sure that the only thing left is the art itself.  Such a way of thinking, of making art, is both liberating and scary.  

Even with this new perspective, when I see exhibitions happening, or books being written about art or projects being commissioned, I still sometimes think, hey, why wasn't I included in that?  The answer that I work myself back to is always the same - your new work isn't ready yet.  Be grateful for this time of solitude.  If/when it is ready, it will get shown.  When I look back at my early work, fresh out of art school, I remember those many years of feeling overlooked.  I remember the conviction that I had within myself that I was an Artist.  Why didn't people see it?  Now, of course, I am so grateful that I didn't show that stuff.  It was only semi-evolved and would have set me off on the wrong path.  Instead, I worked and struggled and made some very iffy things. Then there came a moment when everything fell into alignment and the work flowed and people responded.  The boom years! 

I feel a bit like I am in those post-art school years again now.  I know that I have something important and big within me but it is still only partially cooked.  I also feel it getting closer.  I had a moment the other day when I thought, "I make religious art.  My objects are magical in a way that comes directly from connecting to spirit."  To be honest, I can not think of a less popular way to describe one's artwork!  Oh dearie me.  (I mean, if I am going to be unpopular, I might as go whole hog and use old Grannie phrases like that too.)  The cynical, calculating, conservative world of the business of art doesn't have a lot of room for such baldfaced sincerity.  And to use the word "religious" is even bolder and more horrifying.  Yet, once the thought was thunk, there was no denying it.  Again: liberating and scary.  But mostly liberating.

I will be artist in residence at Struts Artist-Run Centre in Sackville, NB in about a month's time.  I am hoping to fully embrace this new found sense of where I stand and see what happens.