Alumnae Spotlight: Natalie Campbell & Carissa Carman

July 30, 2017 by

WSW alumnae Carissa Carman and Natalie Campbell have spent over a year submerged in the world of contemporary weaving. At times, this means thinking about the physical warp and weft—the vertical and horizontal threads stretched across a loom. Other times, it means looking at weaving without fiber or regularity, or existing in the digital sphere.

In 2016, Natalie and Carissa were one of three pairs chosen for The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design’s Curatorial Fellowship program, and this summer their exhibition Tie Up, Draw Down opened in Asheville, North Carolina. Featuring the work of fifteen artists, some of whom are formally trained in weaving and some who have never woven before, Tie Up, Draw Down will remain on view through September 2nd.

We met up with Carissa and Natalie via email to catch up on the show, and learn more about their past year in the worlds both traditional and nontraditional weaving. 

First photograph: The Event of A Thread, Jennifer Bervin, 2017. Above: Installation view of Tie Up, Draw Down with works by Meghan Price, Joell Baxter, Margo Wolowiec

What drew you two to apply for CCCD’s Emerging Curator’s program together?

CCCD is one of the few organizations in the USA that have support for research and development of new ideas in craft. Natalie has been curating independently for ~10 years, and Carissa is invested in the burgeoning field of textiles particularly. Both of us were drawn to CCCD’s unofficial mission, which is, in the words of Assistant Director Marilyn Zapf, to present shows that are “craft AND…” —it fits with our mode of collaboration, and our associative brains.

On a personal level, we have been close friends since interning together at Women’s Studio Workshop. Both of us came to WSW to re-center ourselves and our practice a few years after college. CCCD’s Emerging Curators Fellowship offered us something similar—a boot camp of sorts—years later. It’s so difficult to gain tools and develop your practice outside of institutions; we encourage others to seek out these rare opportunities—to follow and support what CCCD (and WSW!) are doing, and to encourage other organizations to step up. And also: we realized with young kids and working in the arts in different parts of the country that collaborating was our best chance to keep in touch!

Francesca Capone, selections from Writings in Threads

Weaving is used as a framework for the entire show, but your essay describes weaving as a structure, as a physical action, as a technology, as a type of code, and as a particular feeling for material. How did you arrive at the 5 conceptual categories in which the show is organized?

Liz Collins, Aqueducts, 2017

When we proposed the show Carissa had recently reviewed Janis Jeffries’ Handbook of Textile Culture, and Natalie gave her some feedback on the review. All these questions arose. We had lots of ideas of how to build a textiles show, but to try to pick apart what about weaving specifically might relate to other media. In the Handbook was an inspiring article (by June Ngo Siok Kheng) about traditional Malaysian Songket weaving that outlined a process of 13 steps, and only the last step was weaving warp over weft. We were fascinated by the idea of bringing attention to aspects of the weaving process that are lesser-known to lay audiences (Natalie includes herself in this category, at least until recently!), and to finding other artists that are similarly inspired by various aspects of this complex craft.

Del Harrow, Cactus Kourous 2, 2016

The show developed from a series of conversations: Carissa would see a sculpture we could include, and Natalie would ask “how does that relate to weaving?” —Carissa would then explain winding the warp, which you can see in Liz Collins’ piece, or different weighting systems for creating tension, as in Marianne’s piece… there was a lot of YouTube watching. But we are excited about this way of working and thinking curatorially: how does knowing more about these technical processes (and teaching each other things) prompt rethinking the relationships between media? That’s not to say that every artist in the show thinks about weaving in the same way, or references these steps.

We came up with the idea of five themes in the catalog—lines, bodies, drafts, apparatus, and material—but it could have been three, or eight, or twenty. These categories were visual and conceptual relationships that artists shared. This grouping allowed for us to explore more deeply where each artist was coming from, which we gathered through artist studio visits and email inquiries, and to make decisions in the layout of the show that build off of this.

We were thinking about: What can the woven thread do that no other line can do? How do lines of warp thread build up to create an image? How does varying the density of the warp and weft create different optical effects? Likewise, how do we perceive the body in a woven textile? What ideas are communicated by the act of winding thread on a frame, stretching and tying, before weaving has begun?

John Paul Morabito, Frottage 036, 2016; Polly Apfelbaum, Untitled (from the series A Handweaver’s Pattern Book), 2014, Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.

John Paul Morabito describes his cloth series as hanging “sagging and bodily” from the wall. I would think that traditional woven textile, consisting of interlocking loops, is one of the few media encumbered by its own mass when displayed in a gallery context. Tell us about working with pieces that have such a range of visual and physical weight.

LoVid, Ruby Rendering, 2015

We hadn’t thought about it in terms of weight, but that makes a lot of sense, because even the works that flirt with being extremely flat play with depth and dimension. I’m thinking of Joell Baxter’s woven paper screens that she cuts back into so that the field of vision is irregular and shifts as the viewer passes by, or Polly Apfelbaum’s marker dot drawings on rayon velvet, tacked to the wall to emphasize the sheen and draping of this cheap fabric. Even LoVid’s video patterns have a kind of depth and tactility to them.

In our conversations we were focused on the ability of weaving to move between line, plane, and dimensional object—and, of course, the plane itself as having dimensionality in terms of the weave structure. We both love Del Harrow’s ceramic sculpture because it is a 3-D structure formed from a long tube that is itself formed from coiled clay. The result looks like it might be a sectional weaving viewed through a microscope, while the pattern of surface lines records the process of adding coils of clay, layer by layer, much as lines of weft thread are packed together on a loom to build the woven surface. And yes, there is a shift in weight too, as these linear forms become clay sculpture—Del is very interested in how the material shift impacts the meaning of a form, and he often starts with a shape and fabricates it using different scales and techniques.

Curators with artists from the show, left to right: Campbell, Smith, Fairbanks, Carman, Sparks, Collins, Mysliwiec, Price. Photo by Marilyn Zapf

In your essay for the exhibition, you use the Bauhaus weaving workshop as a point of context for experimental weaving and material exploration. Was this connection present throughout all of the exhibition planning or were other craft lineages considered?

There were a few different interdisciplinary conversations that really drove our research, more than a specific lineage. The relationship between weaving patterns and language has a long history, but in the work of Francesca Capone and Jen Bervin you get a sense of freewheeling experimentation between these forms that we were really interested in—“a realization of ever-extending relationships”—as Anni Albers wrote in her epigraph to On Weaving.

The idea of swatching was really important to us—weaving is by and large a very planned-out craft, so most people may not know that the act of sitting down and composing freely on a loom, responding to materials, plays an important role in developing ideas. The Bauhaus workshops took this to an extreme in terms of technical experiment, but it’s quite a commonplace aspect of weaving. For some artists however this is not a form of ‘sketching’ or planning but actually an end in itself, quite painterly and intuitive. We are continually amazed at how many painters, sculptors, and curators keep a copy of Weaving as Metaphor, the thick, out-of-print Bard catalog of Sheila Hicks’ miniature works, in their studio—and you can see this correspondence between how Molly Smith bends and twists dried iris leaves to build a structure, or how Danielle Mysliwiec builds up a surface from a meshwork of extruded paint, and how Sheila Hicks lashes and bundles tiny compositions from found material.

Molly Smith, Cord, 2017 (detail), courtesy of Kate Werble Gallery; Danielle Mysliwiec, Drawn, 2017 (detail); Sheila Hicks, Torsade I, 2011, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins Gallery

The legacy of the Bauhaus school and textiles is rather gendered and often brought up as a point of exclusion. What is your perception, from preparing for this exhibition, of textile art’s reputation as an innovative, cross-disciplinary medium?

Definitely difficult to answer this question concisely, but of course it’s important. We might quote Julia Bryan-Wilson: “Craft’s influence on virtually every aspect of contemporary art is the worst kept secret in art history.” To lay claim to textiles as ‘innovative’ after so many textile artists, mostly women, devoted their lives to championing their relevance feels… irresponsible, at best. There have been compelling debates recently on the Critical Craft Forum Facebook group about the (still!) one-directional flow of attention to painters who quote textiles to challenge convention, the market, authorship, etc. But Elissa Auther, who served as our mentor(!) in this process—and who has written about various historical shifts in this debate—also encouraged us to see the field as much more hybrid today, thanks to the efforts of such innovators as Sheila Hicks, who at times has called herself an “object maker,” perhaps to break free of the categories and debates that get put upon anyone working in this mode.

How has organizing and curating this exhibition reshaped your view of contemporary textile arts?

This is such a small drop in a huge bucket. Our hope is that this show supports other shows and research that explore how specific crafts are fields of knowledge for interdisciplinary exploration—so maybe to think less about implications for textiles in general, but to encourage looking at weaving with fresh eyes. In the 1960s-70s many textile artists wanted to “break free” of the constraints of weaving by incorporating off-loom techniques into woven work (again, see Elissa’s writing!). Today it seems like boundaries are more fluid, and we wanted to show how for some artists the grid of a weaving pattern or the meticulous set of steps are actually a source for new ideas.

The artists we selected all have seasoned practices; it was a great challenge to contextualize the exhibition in a way that challenged and honored all of them, their expertise, their research and their creative development. Also we coordinated  5 new works for the exhibition, which was energizing and challenging—and would not have been possible without the professional team and support CCCD offered. Additionally CCCD’s program and reputation is attractive enough that many artists traveled for the opening. This enabled a round table where the artists discussed the undercurrents of their practice and its relationship to weaving. Understanding and having access to the idiosyncrasies of each artist and their practice makes the works more dynamic, building content and breadth to contemporary textile arts and its ever-changing terrain.

Installation view with works by (left to right): Polly Apfelbaum, Laurel Sparks, Sheila Hicks, Molly Smith, and Marianne Fairbanks (foreground)

Tie Up, Drawn Down is on view at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design through September 2, 2017. It features the work of Polly Apfelbaum, Joell Baxter, Jen Bervin, Francesca Capone, Liz Collins, Marianne Fairbanks, Del Harrow, Sheila Hicks, LoVid, John Paul Morabito, Danielle Mysliwiec, Meghan Price, Molly Smith, Laurel Sparks, and Margo Wolowiec.

All installation views above of Tie Up, Draw Down (#TieUpDrawDown) at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (@centerforcraft); Photo Credit: Steve Mann, Black Box photography.

Carissa Carman’s interdisciplinary artwork incorporates social practice directed by the construction, design, and usability of specialty objects and services. These playful interventions in site-specific environments are pseudo-purposeful, yet soulful and generous. Originally from California, Carman earned her BA from the University of California Chico (2001) and her MFA in Fibres and Material Practices at Concordia University, Montreal (2012). She has received residencies and grants from the Women’s Studio Workshop, Andy Warhol Foundation, New York Foundation of the Arts, New York Council of the Arts, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Elinor Ostrom, and is recently a Curatorial Fellow with the Center for Craft Creativity and Design. She has presented widely in California, New York, Seattle, Florida, Montreal, Sackville, Cuba, Italy, and France. She is currently a Lecturer in textiles at Indiana University Bloomington.

Natalie Campbell is an independent curator and arts worker based in Washington DC. She studied Art History at Hunter College CUNY and has taught at schools including the Corcoran School of Arts + Design at George Washington University and the Maryland Institute College of Art MFA Program in Curatorial Practice. She has curated and co-curated exhibitions at venues including the American University Museum, Washington, DC; Smack Mellon, Brooklyn; Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York, the Center for Book Arts, New York, as well as numerous temporary, collaborative, and publication-based projects outside of traditional exhibition spaces.