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Scott Colin at Outsider Art Festival

I have always been fascinated with self-portraits. Although the modern version of the ‘selfie’ is ubiquitous, it is the artist’s rendition of himself in ink or paint that interests me. The artist knows his subject intimately or, as we say, warts and all. So, to render his image permanently on canvas is a revealing exercise indeed. It is, perhaps, an entry into his visual journal: “This is who I am today.”

The recent Outsider Art Festival in Vancouver offered a vast and varied array of art created by artists on the margins of the art world. What caught my eye, though, were Scott Colin’s self-portraits, modestly painted onto buff paper.  Pictured, left, is Spirit of the Halting: a demure figure, partially obscured by a mask of dots, his soft-focussed head blurring into the background. Pictured, right, is The Fall of my November, a more definitive and stronger statement of himself.  The obscuring veil has lifted enough to see the world with both eyes. The masks that obscure Scott’s face in both portraits not only block his view of the world, they hamper our view of him. The person behind the mask is unknown, perhaps even to himself.

To impose an interpretation on an artist’s work, especially a self-portrait, is a risky exercise and my reading only grazed the surface of its meaning. I had a chance to talk with Scott and he told me, very candidly, about his debilitating struggle with drug addiction. These self-portraits were done just before a relapse, at a very, very dark time in his life. Scott describes himself as an extraordinarily ‘open’ person – a sensitive medium of sorts – who has trouble keeping the world at bay. These dots, then, are perhaps a screen to filter the barrage of sensations the world flings at him.

As tragic as Scott’s lost years were, he is now committed to ‘clean’ living and art plays a large part in his journey of self-discovery. What began as sessions in art therapy turned into a daily practice of personal expression. He continues to explore how to open up just enough to keep himself protected. I did notice, in fact, that there was no evidence of the protective veil in his recent self-portraits – the mask was replaced by a bolder, colourful version of himself. I got the sense that Scott is still surprised at what he is discovering beneath the mask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sans Soucie Zero Waste Texile + Design

This blog is about a Vancouver artist I know, Katherine Soucie, and her incredible work as a zero-waste textile + design artist. Her business, Sans Soucie, turns pre-consumer waste hosiery into new textiles for high-fashion women’s clothing and, more recently, 3D forms. Although Soucie is not an outsider artist, I met her through my outsider art connections and since this is my blog… I get to write about all sorts of cool art events.

When I first met Soucie, I couldn’t really imagine the world of re-used textiles she described. As a person who can ‘almost’ sew a button onto a shirt, I was at a loss to imagine the extent of her industry or the breath of her skill and creativity. I remember thinking that her work embodies everything an artist ‘should be’ in this century:  exceptionally skilled, fully committed, highly imaginative, and engaged in global issues. In Soucie’s case, the issue is the staggering ecological impact of the clothing industry on the environment. It is second only to the big oil producers. Few of us think about our carbon footprint when we buy ‘fast clothing’, with its long chain of getting clothing to market: growing natural textiles (with pesticides), producing synthetic textiles (from oil by-products); dying it (with toxic chemicals), manufacturing it in industrial settings, shipping it around the world (using fossil fuels), and its ultimate disposal in landfills. But Soucie does think about these serious issues and her life’s work has revolved around creating haute couture – truly wearable art pieces – from pre-consumer waste hosiery.

Soucie’s zero waste design philosophy means that she creates items from products that manufacturers have discarded; the process is environmentally sound, low-impact, and free of metal toxins. Any waste she produces is collected and re-purposed by other artists in the design community. In short, Soucie creates gorgeous clothing from waste that would otherwise end up in the trash. And what vibrant and sensuous clothing it is! Her highly-collectible work was lauded in British Vogue magazine last year.

Having mastered the art of clothing design (in my view), Soucie is turning to other creative ventures. At her recent exhibit at Seymour Art Gallery, she displayed some of her quirky ‘wrapped’ sewing machines, each one a unique and colourful reflection of her creative energy. They remind me of the objects that outsider artist Judith Scott so lovingly bound with strips of cloth. For Soucie, the machines are the tools of her trade, dating back to the Industrial Age of the 18th Century when garment manufacturing began in earnest. If only those cloth merchants could see her now! The other artist in the exhibit was Michelle Sirois-Silver, who uses scraps from Soucie’s production to hook colourful rugs.

The word ‘garbage’ doesn’t exist in either of these artists’ vocabularies.

The most intriguing of Soucie’s recent ventures has been her residency with HCMA Architecture + Design, an architecture agency that explores the public realm, seeking to ’tilt’ their perspective by watching artists at work. In Cast ON, Cast OFF, Soucie ‘knit’ a sculptural room from waste hosiery. A crown of LED lights hangs above the sculpture, inviting us to step inside the warm glow. The other pieces are seats, filled with natural latex foam.  Soucie asks us to consider what its like to be inside a garment that is not a garment. For Soucie, the residency was a perfect fit because structure and architecture has always informed her work as a textile designer. The project was another reminder that we all, as consumers, must step away from the frenzy of fast fashion. There are more sustainable ways to make the clothes we live in.

Gee’s Bend quilter Louisiana Bendolph

Louisiana_Bendolph,_History_0I was last blogging about  Gee’s Bend quilts and my introduction to the work of the remarkable women who make them. I met two quilters, Louisiana Bendolph and her mother, Rabbit, at Lonnie Holley’s workshop last fall. I sat beside Louisiana, a modest and reserved woman, and looked through a beautiful book about the quilts, as well as the autobiography she contributed to the book.

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When I closed the book, Louisiana asked me what I thought about it. I was at a loss for words. You see, her biography reads like something I would have expected from an African-American woman over a hundred years ago, not someone who was born in 1960. As I’ve said before, my knowledge of American social history comes from books; I have not lived there or experienced the truth of racial oppression. It looks quite different in real life.

 

But Louisiana was patient and waited for me to speak. I said how sad I felt to learn about her childhood. From age 6, Louisiana worked with her family in a cotton field, from sunup to sundown, every day except Sunday, which was saved for church. She felt wistful as the school bus passed her by. She went to school only on rainy days (not many) and from the end of November to March when it was time to start planting crops again. She didn’t have much of a childhood, and says her life was hard, but they had to work in order to survive.

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Louisiana watched the women in her family make quilts, but didn’t make her own until she was 12, and only then because it was something to do. Her life was busy with children, a husband, and a low-paying job. In 2002, she went to Houston to see the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit and admits that she didn’t know what to expect other than seeing some old quilts. She was shocked to see her name in a book beside a photo of one of her quilts. She was profoundly moved when she saw her great-grandmother’s quilt on display, realizing that she had created something important and continued to live through her artwork.

Louisiana had always thought her quilt-making days were over. She had made enough quilts to keep her family warm. But on her way home from the exhibit, Louisiana started having visions of quilts. She says the visions have never disappeared and she keeps making more and more and more quilts. Sometimes she holds the design in her mind and sometimes she draws it on paper. It’s mainly about colour for Louisiana and her quilts are a testament to her exquisite sense of design and colour.

LB imageI met Louisiana and her mother a few days later at a  music event featuring Lonnie Holley. I had a visit with her before the concert began and she told me that she was going to be on stage with Matt Arnett (their manager) and participate in the introductory lecture. She hadn’t planned what she would say; she was a storyteller and the story would unfold as she said the words. Unfortunately, Arnett dominated the session, telling stories about himself and his father who began collecting outsider art many years ago. Listening to him was painful. His words were fuel for his own ego, not for the artists and musicians who were the stars of the event. Time ran out. Louisiana didn’t have an opportunity to speak.

Read paragraph 2 again. Just sayin’.

 

 

 

The Gee’s Bend Quilters

images (3)I have no excuse for my blog silence since I finished my degree.  Laziness, perhaps. Recharging, probably. Anyway, I have been prodded along by some of my readers, so here we go.

I left off writing about artist Lonnie Holley and his visit to Vancouver. He came with the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and that was an eye-opening (and eye-popping) experience for me. I had heard of these quilters, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Unfortunately, I missed the lecture they offered about their work, but I did get to meet them at the workshop with Lonnie Holley.

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Gee’s Bend is a very small, riverside community in Alabama.  As you might have guessed, the community has a long, and inexcusable history of plantations and slavery. Perhaps the only good news to come out of that area is that the quilting collective has carried on their quilting traditions, with skills passed down through the generations. Notice was taken of the work in the 1960s; now their quilting masterpieces hang in museums and are recognized as one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to art history in the United States. Documentation suggests that their unique abstract style evolved because of their geographical isolation and unusual degree of cultural continuity.

This blog serves only to introduce you to the quilters’ stunning work. Enjoy.

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The degree

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I’m happy to announce that I have completed my Master’s degree. The thesis is called Outsider Art:  Forty Years Out, referencing the chaos that ensued with outsider art terminology after Roger Cardinal published his book Outsider Art in 1972.

Next step? A book about outsider art in Canada, of course!