A world of silk organza, memory and shifting perspectives
For the past five months, Fugitive Speech has held space in our Oklahoma Gallery for ancestral stories, forgotten memories and relationships to time. The three artists on view — JJJJJerome Ellis, Anita Fields and Emily M. Chase — approached these themes in varying mediums, from Ellis’ 14-minute video and Fields’ ceramic dress to Chase’s floating fiber calendar. While their materials and mediums differ, their hunger for storytelling, about things both familiar and not, is clear in each work.
As we say goodbye to Fugitive Speech, which closes April 30, we connected with Chase to expand on her artistic practices, creative processes and memory-focused works on view.
How did you get started working with fiber?
My love for fibers has deep roots. My grandmother was a prolific quilter, and, by watching her, I learned the magic of transforming many small, flat scraps into enveloping forms. I love that both paper and fabric are accessible and tactile. We know what they feel like, just by seeing them, and it changes our perception of them. Fabric and paper both have unique ways of letting light through and playing with visibility. I am attracted to contrasts. What happens when something durable is made out of something easily ripped? What does it mean to make a garment that cannot be worn or a calendar that doesn’t record time? How does shifting material change our perception of objects we interact with every day?
I was always drawing growing up, and I found that this was a way to explore storytelling and communication. In my undergraduate program, I was encouraged by my painting instructor and mentor to really dig deep into my interest in garments as a way of expressing identity. For my undergraduate thesis, I created my first three sculptural garments from paper — a process I continued working with as my main medium for the next 10 years.
When I started my graduate program at Indiana University in fibers, I expanded my processes into a myriad of fiber and textile approaches, including natural dye, felting, working with silk and more. I’m a bit of a magpie about processes and materials — I am so interested in what they can do and how they can create new meaning.
What does your artistic process look like?
My process can look very different depending on what materials I am using, but I still think of it as drawing-based. I spend a lot of time thinking about, sketching and creating small samples as I develop new ways of working. When I plan a large project, I often create a rendering to help me understand what the components of the project will look like together. This is especially important when I am working at a large scale. Layering, repetition and focused hand-work are all important to my ways of making.
I sometimes joke that working with silk organza is like trying to sew a ghost that has a vendetta against you. It can be very slippery, shifting when you try to pin it down. But it’s also so beautiful. My silk organza work has been focused on grief, memory and loss. The transparency and shifting quality of silk organza materially plays into the feeling of these experiences — what happens when memory becomes unstable? How do you reflect on the presence of absence after the death of a loved one or a traumatic event? Through the ability of this material to veil and reveal information, I found a new language to talk about these things, which are both deeply impactful and invisible and impossible to touch.
When working with imagery on silk, I approached it in a few different ways. Forgetting Calendar was digitally printed on silk organza using a large-format fabric printer. The white of the text is the white of the fabric, and the black tones are ink. As you can imagine, it took a lot of ink!
With Amnesia, and most of my recent work, I used a material called discharge or decolorant paste, which works similarly to bleach but does not damage the fabric's structure. By applying the paste via screenprinting and a liquid decolorant via a spray bottle, I could balance the controlled imagery and diffuse smoke, which make up Amnesia. The discharge process intrigues me, because I am interested in the idea of making imagery by removing, rather than adding material. The process is also a little magical — after letting the paste dry completely, it must be activated by a hot iron, and the images appear almost magically on the surface of the cloth.
Tell us about your Fugitive Speech works.
In both of these pieces, I was exploring the experience of forgetting. My own memory loss, due to a traumatic brain injury, has shifted my ways of understanding and perceiving time. It’s as though my memory is a book with many pages missing and many more out of order.
In Forgetting Calendar, I was thinking directly about ways of marking time. Each page of the silk organza calendar loses a little more density as the color fades, making the text increasingly difficult to read. The text is a fragment of conversation I had with someone during the worst of my memory-loss symptoms, which I remember quite clearly though many other things are missing.
In Amnesia, I was considering the loss of identity that accompanies the loss of memory. How do I understand myself if the story I tell about myself (my episodic memory) is incomplete? How does that shift the way I exist in the world?
In both works, I am attempting to capture the way these experiences feel to me.
There are so many ways that we are communicating with each other outside of the spoken word. I think art, for me, is always somehow about communicating something internal with the external world. We take a thing we imagine, and we bring it into being. This makes art a powerful vehicle for speech, which may otherwise be suppressed or which cannot be fit into the structures of vocabulary and grammar. So much of my own work is about these internal experiences of trauma, emotion, memory, healing and hope, and I find that the reason for making is to both allow myself the space to explore and care for these things while also reaching out into the world to find who is reaching back. Through making, we find ways to say what words cannot capture.
Engage with stories you might not have heard, experiences you might not have witnessed and memories you've yet to explore — visit Fugitive Speech before it’s gone. Admission is always free.
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