Part I: Gush.

Sometimes all it takes for an artist is a show – it arrives at the perfect moment and can serve as a fuel for future creative reflection extending well beyond the original encounter.  Such has been my experience peering into the world of Yayoi Kusama.*  The inspiration derived from seeing the diverse body of work (and media) of an artist insistent on asserting an authentic, personal vision (one which not so paradoxically turns out to be deeply resonant for the many), is unparalleled.   I was overwhelmed by this artist’s impressive body of work, her years of dogged pursuit, dedication, and perseverance, not to mention her non-binary, multifaceted defiance of any outside attempt to categorize or pigeon-hole her work and life.  There was something very pointed and powerful for me in this individual’s career and life, in spite of her struggles along the way.  And she continues to create in the face of it all, including, surely, an acute awareness of her own mortality as she transitions into her 10th decade. 

I feel certain art-making is Yayoi Kusama’s way of transmuting her suffering (chaos, confusion, pain, alienation, etc.).  This must be, in part, why her work and life are so interesting to inhabitants of the chaotic early 21st century.  It really speaks to the entire spectrum of the human condition across time and place but which finds its most unrestrained expression in the digital era:  self-indulgence, self-transcendence, hopes, fears, failure, success, struggle, resistance, outrage, protest, surrender, highs, lows, light, dark, expansion,  contraction, contradiction, loud, quiet, hard, soft, contemplative, monkish, introspective, riding the continuum of an life through successive waves of profound confusion and self-doubt as well as profound insight and self-acceptance.

 I was and still am enveloped.

Part II.  Layers, Siftings and Further Musings in a Transitional Era.

Yayoi Kusama’s work will continue to stimulate my thinking in a variety of ways for months to come, but as I am now constantly grappling with art/craft/making in an era of increasing resource limits and crisis-level climate alterations, I also wanted to look at her work through a more narrow lens.  Regardless of what we all personally “believe”/accept about climate change, we are approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity (i.e., its capacity to carry humans in our current configuration) on many resource fronts.  This has implications for every aspect of human life, but in the context of creative endeavor generates many deep and serious questions, not the least of which are:  Is it possible to, and how can we, develop a sensibility in our making that can integrate and nurture humanity, other species, as well as the environment we share? And what does an “aesthetic of sustainability” look like and, importantly, can that become as universally embraced as the fossil-fuel driven aesthetic seems to be today?   One might ask if these questions and their answers even matter at all, but I think the do.  It is my belief that their answers can contribute to how successfully we collectively respond to our many current and future challenges.

We don’t need to look too far into the past to find a time when sustainable making was the only kind of making.  Today many draw attention to, for example, wabi-sabi and related aesthetic concerns as antithetical rescue remedies for the excesses of the industrially created artifact: something rustic, direct, uncomplicated, salvaged, organic, entropy-embracing.  As I reflect on Kusama-world, I am struck by how much our expectations and aesthetic values are outgrowths of the instant-gratification, fossil-fuel -driven world we all inhabit, and how her work is quite possibly this waning era’s most vivid and exuberant expression.

From a materials standpoint alone, Kusama’s work is saturated with acrylic paint, a wide range of plastics and other petroleum-derived components, as well as vast arrays of electric light. These are the materials for the vast majority of 20th and early 21st century artists/designers/makers.   These are also peak fossil-fuel-consumption-era materials, by-products of processes contributing to habitat-degrading greenhouse gas emissions.  Include the energy and resources embedded in manufacturing these materials and components, the embedded and operational energy of a large scale exhibition of this type and its mass-manufactured “swag” (which, as a child of this space/time I will admit to being attracted), and the energy embedded in the cloud-dependent mass social-media feeds (to which I am also a steady contributor and participant), and we have a completely unsustainable model …unless of course we can very quickly (like, yesterday) develop an energy source dense enough to match the miracle of fossil-fueled energy, one that doesn’t destroy the habitability of our planet!

It is a poignant moment.  I am clearer than ever as an artist/designer/maker as to my own purpose and vision and how to manifest it; I am also increasingly aware that I need to find new (or return to earlier) ways of creating to reduce my ecological footprint.  Rhetorical question:  Are the imperative to create and the imperative to reduce my footprint mutually exclusive?

We live in an era of dissonance at many levels of our lives.  We attempt to hold many truths which are ultimately mutually exclusive.  So it is for fossil fuels: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. This fact is one source of a host of misunderstandings and conflicts, of mis- and mal- investment, of alienation from wealth and power on one end of the spectrum and the dense consolidation of wealth and power on the other.  In an era of transition, we will be looking for ways to hold on to whatever we can of the by-products of this energy system, even if to do so endangers our core support system.  We hope something will come along to save us before we are forced to make hard choices.  This dissonance can be paralyzing, and it shows no signs of abating as new generations come of age.  It suggests a repeating “error” code firing in our brains coupled with an increasingly dysfunctional “reset” switch.

And so it is, at the likely twilight of fossil-fuel driven exuberance, that Yayoi Kusama’s work is a beautiful, joyous, riotous, inspiring symbol of life. Her work and being are also about persistence and resilience.  I think we flock to its material abundance and ebullience for comfort and affirmation in an uncertain age.  I love the show for this but I am also sobered by it because it reminds me of the hard work ahead.  We artists and makers especially must work to realize a new, unified, resilient vision of person and planet and stay the course in the same way that Kusama has continued to work her entire life to realize her unique vision – it’s demanding, arduous and on-going.  That is the nature of making/creating, of life and work….And it’s all-hands-on-deck now.  K.C.

Images: My own, taken during the show (except from the large composite above: a friend captured the frequently elusive shot from the Dots Obsession viewer): some composites of highlights; my digital montage of Kusama’s celluloid montage, and mash-up selfies from The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and Phalli’s Field.

*Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors! is showing now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta – I received a gift invitation to the show or I would not have made it at all as tickets are, alas, sold out. However, there are numerous windows into this show and her work on YouTube and elsewhere on the fabulous Internet.  Check it out!

A preface to the series on sustainability and sustainable making:  This inquiry into sustainability is a personal odyssey, although you will likely already find yourself delving into this process.  You may already be compelled by increasingly dire warnings by climate scientists to make adjustments in your practice and, if you have, you will realize the process is not as simple as it may at first appear.  If you are making for yourself only, then it is quite a simple matter to make “sustainably”.  My practice goes a bit beyond that scale but not as far as the industrial model.  Ultimately, we all need to become experts in sustainability in all facets of our lives.  I feel that it is an important undertaking, materially and spiritually.  So, I begin in earnest the search for the “right” sustainability model for my own particular practice and life.  In the process, beliefs, assumptions and expectations will be reexamined.  It may get messy but it will be interesting!  I hope you find the fruits of my labor helpful in your own process.  A note:   At the end of each essay in this series, there is a personal practice component in the form of questions or exercises.  Wherever you are in your process, they can help increase understanding and refine clarity.

***
I am in the middle of a great flow of production in my studio right now.  It is a good time to resume my look at sustainability, sustainable making, and the small textile workshop.  Health circumstances interrupted the endeavor which I initiated in writing here in late-2016 (see https://kathycolt.com/2016/08/30/a-guiding-light/).  Going forward, these posts will take on more granularity as I dive down the rabbit-hole that is this most complex subject.  In my last writing on this topic, I intended to launch into dyes and other colorants.  However, since there has been such a span of time between now and that last post, I am going to revisit the underlying premise of this series.

A brief introductory recap and some definitions.

Textile (and by extension, apparel) manufacturing on the industrial scale is historically associated with high resource use (primarily energy and water), pollution (primarily of waterways) and labor abuses. The concerns of the small textile workshop in these areas have no equivalent at the industrial scale.  I have noted elsewhere that the scale of my activities necessarily produces a much smaller footprint.  In fact, I take it as a “given” that the micro-scale fabrication of an art or craft object is a sustainable undertaking, when pursued with mindful regard for the concerns outlined below and to be discussed in future posts.  Along the continuum, there are greater or lesser degrees of “sustainable” in all aspects of life, including one’s livelihood and creative practice.  However, since I am a professional and wish to build my livelihood around sustainable textile design, fiber art and making, it is incumbent upon me to 1) examine my assumptions and expectations, habits and patterns of making; and 2) understand the systems on which I depend, and the materials and substances with which I work.

“Sustainability” and “sustainable” are slippery concepts and the words are used in a variety of contexts with variable meanings along the continuum.  It is always important to understand how someone is using these concepts and to what purpose.  For the purpose of this essay series, I am referring broadly to environmental sustainability and specifically to the role which humans play in that equation; i.e., can the planet, its systems and other life on which we depend, sustain the impacts of human endeavor and activity, and to what extent do we humans need to modify our activity to support the planet’s ability to sustain us?  From this standpoint, arguably all human endeavor in the 21st century is up for reёvaluation.  It is a massive project for humanity undertake.  We have a difficult time agreeing on what the priorities are let alone how to, and how we should, get there.  And we still live in an era of relative energy and resource abundance! We continue to enjoy the many by-products of this apparent abundance. How can we practice sustainability within an unsustainable model?  We can start where we are.  For, while we are figuring it out on the large-scale, we can continue working at the small scale.  We can gather information and experience and become experts at evaluating and modifying, as necessary, what we do, the way we do what we do and, along the way, understanding why we do what we do.

Fortunately, if you are a textile or fiber artist/designer/maker like me, you practice within a discipline which has a long off-the-grid history.  Many textile/fiber technologies predate the steam engine.  To be sure, industrial societies have made fabulous use of fossil energy resources to mechanize many textile production processes since the dawn of the industrial revolution.  Household sewing machines are great tools, but most of us can still make a stitch by hand.  We can purchase ready-made cloth and yarn spun in faraway lands but can increasingly source fiber from our own regions, and ply it into yarn, which can then be fabricated by hand into some kind of composite cloth.  Today, we yield amazing hues from the laboratory (via fossil energy), but we can still derive colors and auxiliary chemicals from plants, harvesting them from our gardens, processing them by hand.  There was a time when this was all we had.  How far back can we go? How far back should we go?  I will be looking at all of these topics (“fibershed”, global supply chains, embedded and operational energy, handwork and demechanization, degrowth, and more) in future posts.

The process of answering these questions is complex and involves fusing logic/science and ethics/spirit.  Each level of inquiry requires a long-form response rather than a simple yes or no, keep or toss.  Our responses are almost entirely determined by how we look at the world in which we live, our place in it and the value we place on natural systems as well as human constructs like economies.  So, one person’s responses may not initially look like another’s.  Unless you are already living off the grid (in which case you aren’t reading this essay in its digital format), there is always more (or less) to do from a sustainability standpoint.  Again, the point of the process is to start where you are: the more you investigate, the more you know, the more you understand, and the more flexible you will be at modifying your own practice and lifestyle.  Every conscious act toward a more sustainable model is additive at the individual and societal level.  Life and creative practice merge, signaling a personal paradigm shift, a shift which reverberates throughout the larger framework.

Personal Practice: 
Part I.  Start Where You Are: Taking Stock.
Important Note! This is not meant to be a judgmental (or self-critical) process but a thoughtful examination of the current conditions and context of our creative endeavors. 

  1. What scale of making do you engage in? (e.g., personal edification, fine art or craft for exhibition, fine art or craft for market, micro-design/build for market).
  2. What techniques do you rely on? Remember to include marketing pathways if applicable.
  3. What materials and substances do you typically work with (include those which come from outsourcing but are still embedded in your finished work)?
  4. Do you use machines (include any outsourcing like textile printing services, 3-d printers, computer and desktop printer for marketing, etc) in your practice?
  5. Where do your materials and supplies come from (if you don’t know, identify ways you might find out – we will revisit this later)?
  6. By what means and how far have they traveled to reach you (if you don’t know, identify ways you might find out – we will revisit this later)?
  7. Can you identify all natural resources embodied in your materials, supplies and processes?

References and Resources:

If you haven’t seen this already it will be helpful to you in this inquiry:  This 2013 series by Planet Money may be a few years old but still very relevant. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/12/01/246744370/planet-money-makes-a-t-shirt and click on the link: “follow our journey”.

NEXT UP: We will look at my responses to these questions and start breaking out each question into separate discussions for it and future posts.

I recently visited a friend in the fair city of Guanajuato, GTO Mexico – I have been there before and in fact posted in this blog about that trip as well.  This visit was a bit different as life-altering experiences had emerged in my recent past, as well as that of my friend.  As a result, we both set out with the intention of sewing the seeds of rejuvenation.  It really became a launch of the essence of “re” – a return, revisiting, renewal,  reinvigoration, revitalization, restoration, revisiting and review on the way toward a new point of beginning.  Signs and signals, resources and connections began and continue to be revealed to both of us as we progress through this new terrain.

My images from this trip varied but seemed to have a decidedly architectural focus, especially where roof/facade and sky meet.  I was also understandably attracted to the many templos (churches and cathedrals) which populate the religious landscape of Guanajuato (Gto).  The architectural residue of a bye-gone colonial era is enriched with structural and superficial decay, but these buildings endure – maybe that was a metaphor taking hold.  Even in cases where the buildings have been renovated or “restored” with a nod to another era’s sensibilities, their original presence does not fade.  I realize in retrospect that this was a profound symbol of solidity and grounding after a year of standing on shaky ground.  In any case, these buildings are essential landmarks which give the entire State of Guanajuato its character, along with the many-colored domiciles stacked on the slopes surrounding the city’s natural structural essence – that of river valley.  Indeed, when I arrived, the rainy season had just begun and the imperative of the geographic low point repeatedly asserted itself during my trip as flooding from recurring thunderstorms regularly inundated parts of the city.  Of course, the rain also brought a renewal of a green, lush landscape latent during months of seasonal drought in this high desert region.

Rain notwithstanding, I was pleased that we were able to make it outside to see art and eat excellent food, including the most moist and delicious tamal I have ever tasted (thanks to, my sincere apologies to vegetarians, lard).  ¡Nos veremos en el futuro, sin duda, Guanajuato!  For a slightly different perspective on the trip, visit my wearable site’s journal.

This journal has revolved around my enriching experiences running a small textile/fiber studio.  Now more than ever I am revived and inspired to continue recording my reflections on those experiences.  After a year of health issues, I have returned to the studio to reunite the many strands of my practice and forge a path forward.  Here’s a recap/update of how things have unfolded/are unfolding so far this year.  My focus until recently has been my wearable work so I will start with it.

I have been spending more technical and production energy on developing fabrics for my micro wearable line, Petal-Una Collection (where you can also find my Petal Insta and FB page links).  Between dips in my indigo vat and direct application (painting and printing) of natural dyes, I am shifting my wearable practice to incorporate cloth enriched with more naturally sourced colorants. I have written in the past about my intention to integrate naturally sourced colorants into my work and to address sustainability in my own studio practice.  As a small textile and fiber workshop, I am arguably already producing a sustainable product but there is always room for improvement.  From examining material sourcing and supply chains,  to energy use, and material waste reduction and reclamation, I continue to look for ways in which I can be more sustainable as an artist/designer-maker.  It is a process.  A major step for me is the embrace of more conscious fabric enrichment practices in my wearable work. About Petal-Una: Every season I produce a ready-to-wear group (as well as commissioned work).  I market my wearable pieces through studio events and, when available, on-line.

Other Work:

Decorative/Interior.  I have focused primarily on felted works in the decorative realm but I am currently developing a new collection of textiles incorporating the technical groundwork I laid while creating cloth for the Petal-Una collection (as noted above).  These decorative works will include a new line of architectural 2-d pieces.  Images will be coming in the next couple of months. In the Atlanta area, his work is exclusively represented by Markay Gallery in Marietta, Georgia.  Links to the Kathy Colt Artisan Insta and FB pages are in the left sidebar on the homepage of this website.

Special Creative Projects/Artwork.  I am also in the process of developing new work pathways in this stream.  Of all of my work subsets, this is the most related to personal excavation, elucidation, and articulation.  Its development marches behind that of its more visible creative siblings but it is still alive and well. I will have more to say about this work in the future.

Teaching.  Finally, looking ahead, I will be reintroducing the teaching component into my studio practice and outreach.  Workshops will resume this Fall (2018).  Information and a calendar will be coming soon and will be announced in the usual locations.

Thanks for reading! 
Late Spring 2018.

Image: Mine; Ice storm “castings” in the garden (from a few years ago)

I am pleased to be writing from other side, more or less, of the health “challenge” I alluded to in a post last year.  I am back on my feet and have begun to reengage with my studio practice, which is already pulling me in various directions.  Some things I now know for sure: I am more in love than ever with this Work in its myriad facets.  I am more relaxed than ever about it, too.  Fear was at the root of so much of what I did before; fearlessness has moved in to take its place.

There’s nothing like a major illness (or other significant life change) to shake loose habitual patterns and force a reexamination of one’s motivations.  In that spirit, I am compelled to dive back down into my creative soul and explore my roots – teasing out the fundamental tendrils, breaking up the dense, knotty scar tissue blocking the flow, and loosening the soil a bit to unlock the deep nutrients .  (Nothing like a good botanical metaphor.)  I want to expand the on-going conversation I have with myself about what inspires, enhances flow.  I also want to understand more fully what expires, inhibits flow by taking a look at the influence of preparation and planning on finished product.  That is, look at, not for the first time but in a specific way, the tension that exists between process and product.  For example, is it really possible to fully let go of the planning, the pre-visualizing, and the expectations and just make art?  What does that look and feel like?  To what extent am I doing that already?  How much does it matter?  What is the nature of the resultant work?  Etc.  These are just a few of the ideas I want to investigate this year – both in this blog and through the work itself.

I thank you for following/reading.  This is not the first time I have relayed my struggles the blogging process – I love writing but I am hopelessly inconsistent.  Yet, something within values it and will not let it go… so I continue.  Maybe this year I will actually post more frequently and with regularity – stranger things have happened!

K.C.