A blazer and a skirt flutter in the wind at Pett Level beach in Hastings. On it are pictures of a man and a woman, across time, sown into the fabric and glazed with glue. Words travel through the garment in embroidery and the pink tulle skirt reads: my own darling (image right). As an image, it presents a ghostly figure, embodied by the movement in the wind and the stories woven into the textile.… Stitching over history, memory and collective joy – Stephanie Francis-Shanahan’s living sculptures
Ýrúrarí’s mostly knit-based practice see fragments of humour, body movements and the everyday meet in wool based, wearable objects.… Monster Sweaters: in conversation with Ýrúrarí
Artist and art historian Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie in conversation with artist Ben Caro.… Ben Caro on performative masculinity, activating objects, and excavating history
Finding out more about New’s series Aliens of Manila (2014-), a multi-disciplinary work that explores the experience of immigration and cultural displacement through costume, performance and installation.… Dressing the Aliens of Manila: Elisabetta Garletti in Conversation with Leeroy New
Nwando Ebizie is an artist, composer, writer, DJ, curator, dancer, ritual creator, Afrofuturist and musician. Working across media and genres, Ebizie’s artforms explore the neuroscience of perception, mythopoesis, alternate possibilities and sensations using experimental performance, ritual and sound.… Staging an Afterglow: Interview with Nwando Ebizie
Drawing on personal experience and folkloric myths, Anna Perach uses a traditional craft technique called tufting to create wearable sculptures that come to life during performances in front of a live audience.… A Creative Conversation: Stéphanie Ruth & Anna Perach
Leila Vilarrubi asks Christie Brown how lockdown has impacted the process of sculpting…… Ceramics in Lockdown: An interview with Christie Brown
Stitches in Time began as an experiment to see if sewing could start conversations between strangers – Lottie Whalen interviewed the team to find out more…… Sewing Social Histories with Stitches in Time
North London based artist and activist Rachelle Romeo’s work caught our eye with her powerful and poetic use of embroidery.
Through the Lancaster Dinner Service, Himid interrogates the city’s involvement in the slave trade, forcing the viewer to confront the dark histories of the British Empire and the ongoing legacies of this violence and oppression.… An interview with Lubaina Himid
LJ Roberts (b.1980) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and is known for large-scale textile installations, intricate embroideries, artist books, collages and sculpture. Their work investigates the overlaps of queer and trans politics, alternative kinships, narrative, and material deviance. Daniel Fountain speaks to LJ here about the relationships between craft, identity and queer theory, and how this manifests itself in their practice.
For you, what is inherently queer about craft? What makes textile practices in particular ripe for strategies of queering?
I find that issues of marginality I encounter as a queer, gender non-conforming and non-binary person, often mirror the position(s) of textile and craft within visual culture. The margins that queerness and craft inhabit are often mutually reflective. I engage in material deviance to illustrate this. There is something productive about working from the margins while simultaneously committing to a practice of de-centralization. Furthermore, I find my experience in the world requires flexibility, adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness as essential for working and living. I use tools and techniques such as toy knitting machines, single-strand hand embroidery, a sock making machine, quilting, and appliqué particularly because they are portable, accessible, and can adapt to a variety of circumstances; which is also how I aim to move through life. There is a congruency and a mirroring there; craft and queerness enable each other beneficially.
I know that we both share a love for texts such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999). Could you talk a bit about how the tactics of queer theory influence your artistic practice? Or vice versa?
Certainly there is an overperformance of craft materials and techniques in my work that challenge certain stereotypes of craft. I think that a lot of craft stereotypes are rooted in antiquated ideas and structures that people are stuck in – a comfort zone. A lot of these ideas, often rooted in binaries, are counter to the complexity of life, identity, material and experience. So perhaps the work I make is productively uncomfortable. When I look at what I do (such as attempting feats with children’s toys) there’s an absurdity and also a really earnest risk – every piece I make feels risky. I do not wish to make art that does not feel like I am pushing myself. I suppose a lot of the queer theory I am interested in is about the impossibility of simplification, the politics of risk and re-imagining the possible. I also think it is important to note that queer theory is intertwined and fused with all sorts of other identities and factors, so that plays into what I do as well. I think a lot about accessibility in my work and what is legible. I want there to be feeling in work and I want the work to be a conduit to entering conversations that are challenging, exciting, inspiring, and productive.
On a similar note, the use of colour, texture and scale is particularly striking in your work – do you consider it to have a camp aesthetic?
Honestly, for as much as I value camp, I don’t consider my work to be all that campy at the moment. Someone said to me recently that I construct ‘queer epics’. This doesn’t mean the work is entirely rooted in reality, of course. There is myth, history, speculation, possible implosion, and so on. Of course, much of camp is epic and some of it is not, which gives it just as much, if not more, power. I don’t consider what I am doing to have much irony. A lot of what I do is translating my imagination, my thoughts, my fantasies, my anxiety, my reality into material. I’m certainly open to other people’s opinions on that though!
In a variety of works (such as in The Queer Houses of Brooklyn, 2011) there is often a particular narrative about queer worldmaking, or a celebration of the alternative familial structures that members of our community quite literally craft. I wondered if you wanted to expand a little on the importance of that?
LJ: I’ve always been drawn to alternative kin structures, also sometimes called ‘chosen family’. My friends and mentors and lovers have been central to my formation and survival as a queer person who struggled with being raised in a conservative suburb of Detroit. In Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards (2007) she speaks of these networks, friendships, and relationships – these non-biological kinship structures – as one of the greatest achievements of queer culture and I agree. I personally struggle with what I view and experience as queer assimilation into heteronormative and now homonormative structures and frameworks. I suppose a lot of my work aims to grasp onto kinship ideas that are counter to assimilation and to imagine how these kinships can be re-imagined even further in the future as we approach unprecedented geo-political and environmental circumstances.
I also want to add that I’m really trying to explode ideas of queer kinships at the moment. For most of my life, and I started thinking about queer kinships at a very young age before I could even name them, I felt as though they did not include biological family. It felt like blasphemy. However, I’m reconsidering this as I have multiple people to whom I am biologically related to that I am forming queer friendships with – some of them queer and gender non-conforming and some of them not.
Some of your work is very representational, but others (such as Portrait of Deb, 1988-199?) seem to form abstract portraits of queer bodies and experiences – what do you think the advantages are of the latter?
I think one of the most useful tactics that the concept of ‘queer’ engages is that we can never make assumptions about a person’s identity and that people’s identities are not static, that they are intersectional, and that they can change. Abstraction doesn’t often allow for pointed assumptions based on a physical image of the body and I think this is useful. This is not to say that traditional portraits aren’t useful, in fact they are critical; for marginalized people images of people they identify with are often scarce in popular media, though this has begun to turn a bit I think. We need to see people we relate to and that provides reassurance that we are not alone and that people forge forward.
I’m aware that a lot of your textile works in particular take a painstaking amount of time to create. What are you currently working on?
My current body of work is centered around depictions of vehicles and vessels that have often harboured queer and trans people, allowing them to shape their lives counter to hetero and patriarchal norms. But I am also approaching this project with an awareness that the politics of migration and environmental collapse make movement fraught. I have a personal and specific anxiety around this due to being raised in Detroit in the 1980s where I saw the auto industry collapse and the city fall into ruins. Yet, life continued to flourish. There’s a lot of resiliency there for sure. Therefore, I am creating quilted and collaged post-apocalyptic vehicles and speculating about how they might continue legacies of resilience and kinship formation.
Words: Daniel Fountain (he/they) and LJ Roberts (they/them)
About the Artist
LJ Roberts has exhibited widely in major institutions including The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design to name but a few. In 2015 LJ was one of nine recipients of The White House Champions of Change Award for LGBTQI Artists presented by President Obama. Their first museum commission was included in the critically acclaimed show Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall at Brooklyn Museum in 2019. Recently they have been in residence at the Textile Arts Center, IASPIS-Stockholm, and Pioneer Works. Last year LJ won The President’s Award for Art and Activism from Women’s Caucus for Art and they are currently Faculty at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
More of LJ’s work can be found here.
All images are copyright of the artist.
Back in 2013, when it was announced that Hull would be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an Arts Editor at the Times tweeted ‘Hull for UK City of Culture 2017. *blank*’, adding, by way of an explanation, that they knew ‘nothing about Hull…nothing at all’. This attitude is, of course, typical of London-centric arts media, but it also speaks of a wider cultural contempt for a post-industrial Northern city that has struggled to find a place and an identity in the twenty-first century. Battling deprivation, economic decline and austerity, Hull has suffered from a lack of opportunities, hope, and vision. The City of Culture year gave its reputation a much-needed boost, as well as an injection of cash and a 365-day diverse programme of events that inspired confidence and creativity throughout the city. Yet some local artists criticised the organisers for focussing too much on big budget spectacles that brought in artists from outside the city and not enough on supporting long-established grassroots arts and culture organisations. Although the media might not know it, Hull has long been a creative city with a distinct voice. Poet Philip Larkin, a resident of Hull for thirty years, summed it up as a ‘a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance’.
Hull-based artist Ella Dorton’s fabric portraits creatively capture the unique spirit of the city’s residents, giving a voice to those who have been left behind by society and, indeed, by the City of Culture year. Using recycled textiles and a collage-based technique, Dorton pieces together images of people in their homes, captured as they sit on the sofa discussing their life stories, dreams, and fears. Through the use of discarded textiles and the depiction of marginalised, working-class people, Dorton challenges the conventions of portraiture; her work disrupts the gallery and picks at the boundaries between art and craft, private and public space.
For her recent exhibition ‘Journey to the Centre of the Couch (Couches & Other Good Ideas)’, she transformed the Humber Street Gallery into a living room: the stitched fabric scenes were hung to form a long circular wall, creating an intimate space which invited the viewer to get close to Dorton’s subjects and their stories. Cushions and lamps enhanced this atmosphere; Dorton wanted visitors to ‘relax, sit down, and feel at home’. Dorton is skilled at connecting domestic scenes to larger narratives of social inequality, late capitalism and ecological crisis. Her subjects voice their own sense of being implicated in challenges faced by the wider world, with one woman, a recovering heroin addict, explaining that ‘I can relate to the destruction of the planet because of my own destruction of my own body’. Many of Dorton’s subjects express ‘[grief] at the state of the planet’, fear, and depression but there is also a clear sense of hope, recovery, and care running throughout the work.
Building community is at the heart of Dorton’s practice: she is a founder of Ground, an artist-run workshop and community space, and works on a number of community arts initiatives, including Mad Pride (2017), a project that aimed to ‘talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell’ and ‘bring people together so we can help one another better navigate all this madness and build together a more beautiful world’.
I caught up with Ella to find out more about her practice, methods, and motivation…
Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
My name is Ella Dorton, I’m 28, from Hull. I’m a care-worker, and I co-run ‘Ground’- a community arts and activist space in Hull, with a bunch of friends. I am also an artist!
Tell us a bit about ‘Journey into the Centre of the Couch (Couches and Other Good Ideas)’, your current exhibition at Humber St Gallery – how did it come about? What inspired you to create this show?
In previous years, I’d been making large fabric portraits of people in my community, as well as fictional dystopian scenes of Hull flooded, an ocean of plastic etc. When Humber street gallery asked me to make some art for a show, I had an idea to combine these two ideas: I wanted to make portraits of people in Hull, and somehow incorporate some fantasy, slipping in bits of our conversations together and ideas they had about the world, in picture or word form. I found my sitters just by asking or being asked, often through Ground and ORTs (a sewing group for vulnerable women).
I started with a woman called Cassie, who comes to Ground. I went to her house a few times, and we drank tea together, ate a bit, and I drew her and wrote down snippets of conversation we had. Cassie wanted her life describing with 4 animals, which represent different parts in her life: adventuring, her victorious battle with heroin, losing her son. Other people were less pictorial and conversations were directly stitched or painted onto the work.
Climate change is on my mind, and I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about it through my art for a while. I didn’t expect that it would come out so naturally in many of the conversations I had with people I drew, so the work inevitably became a lot about that, as well as other subjects: motherhood, homelessness, addiction.
I planned to make 6 of these portraits, and sew them into a circular room that you could relax, sit down and feel at home in [the gallery].
The use of old bedsheets and scraps of material is so effective, what motivated you to use these textiles?
The fabric is all used. I like the aesthetic of using worn fabric; when someone gives you a pile of clothes there are loads of colours and patterns in there that I might not have chosen myself, which pushes the work in different directions and gives me a big range to choose from. The worn-out-ness of the fabric matches the worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives. I like to recognise bits in the work….there’s my dad’s shirt, there’s Sally’s scarf, a bit of so-and-so’s sweaty shirt armpit there – and I think other people enjoy this too.
It’s important to me to make art out of scrap instead of buying new stuff. The fabric industry causes something like 10% of all greenhouse gases, the making, washing and disposing of it, as well as loads of other harmful effects on the environment, and the people that make it.
It also means, of course, that making the art is virtually free (except for glue, thread, and machine upkeep), meaning I can sustain myself on a low wage.
What drew you to the concept of home and the everyday? Do you view the domestic as an inherently political space?
I like drawing people in their own homes: the home is an extension of someone’s personality, and you can get to know a person through their stuff, their taste in décor, their messiness. In the home, people are in their own habitat, their own territory, and are often more relaxed and up for chatting. They can also seem more vulnerable and exposed, depending on the person and how they feel having someone coming into their space. I make good friends this way.
I find a lot of beauty in the mundane, and enjoy drawing people doing everyday tasks, eating, cleaning, sleeping – we all do these things (or we should), yet we do them so differently.
I love the way you stitched the voices of the community into the fabric. How important are issues of class and community in your practice?
I was brought up on North Bransholme, which is a council estate in North Hull. It had a bad reputation but it was a great place to grow up, because there was a lot of green space and not many cars. My parents are middle class from the South, and when I was younger I felt embarrassed of that, not wanting to be seen as ‘posh’ (there’s a lot of reverse snobbery going on). I’ve always found class a massively interesting and difficult subject to talk about, I find the diversity in people’s taste and culture in the UK a wonderful and interesting thing. However, I have seen pretty horrendous poverty in Hull, and a whole host of social issues that arise from that poverty and startling inequality. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it through art. The way I’m doing so at the moment is by talking to people and sharing peoples’ stories and ideas about the world. I started by asking my neighbours if I could go round and draw them, as a way of getting to know them and feeling part of a community. People usually seem to quite like being drawn, being seen as ‘art-worthy’ and interesting when often they don’t think they are. It’s exciting to be able to make and show work about these people and their ideas.
Finally, could you describe the work of Ground and what it means to you to be a part of an arts collective & community space?
I set up Ground with some friends about 4 years ago, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We found out about a building that hadn’t been in use for a good 5 years and needed a lot of attention, and we loved it back to life. Thankfully, a lot of people were up for helping us out, and a pretty solid community around Ground grew.
It’s situated on Beverley road, which is the main street into and through Hull, a street drinking hot-spot. Ground is opposite a methadone dispensary unit and a giant mattress shop, and next door to a Kurdish shisha bar. It’s an unusual place to have a gallery but we like that as we get a lot of different people through the door.
Ground is a space for art and activism, we run workshops, gigs, exhibitions, talks, and have studios upstairs. I love being part of an arts collective but it’s been hard work, it’s emotionally demanding and the organisational and admin stuff can be heavy at times. The best thing about it is teasing art out of people who think they can’t draw or make things, and collaborating together – the walls and ceilings are jam packed with peoples’ art and words.
Interview by Lottie Whalen
Could you give us a little insight into the ‘Homework’ project – who are you and what do you do?
Homework is a research project that I am undertaking with independent curator Clare Sheppeard . Our aim is to twofold, firstly to highlight some of the less visible women artists, designers and architects working in the Modernist style eg Eileen Gray, Lilly Reich, and Charlotte Perriand, and secondly, to work with artists who have been inspired or informed by the ideas and work of these women. Our ultimate aim is to commission new work that highlights how artists respond to architecture as a social space, a place for daydreaming, and as a subjective and creative space.
We are interested in exploring an alternative view to Modernism’s, and specifically to Le Corbusier’s, concept of architecture as a “machine for living”, instead offering a more personal take of the role of architecture and reflecting on Eileen Gray’s notion of architecture as a “protective shell against the world”.
History suggests that the great male heroes of International Style and the Bauhaus had little time for women yet a few voices supported the emergence of women who excelled and were innovators in the field of architecture and design. These women have not always received the credit they deserve and are less prominently featured in histories or exhibitions about this period
Why do you think it is important to tell new stories about women designers?
There have been exhibitions that highlight the work of Gray (Pompidou, Paris 2013) Reich (MOMA New York, 1996) but women’s stories are still relatively underplayed compared to their male contemporaries and colleagues such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The contributions these women made say something more complex and goes beyond the mere fact of their gender; they offer a whole way of thinking – about scale and the use of materials and functionality. The idea of having built-in furniture, for example, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s was novel, was developed in part by Le Corbusier at the Villa Savoye which has built-in wardrobes, shelves and tables. Yet at E1027 Eileen Gray took this idea in a different more multi-functional direction, making built-in cupboards that are also part of the wall, and a three quarter room height rounded partition wall that is divided horizontally at eye level into white and blue sections, this partition is simultaneously the entrance to the room and forms part of the hallway. Her furniture is light, portable, adjustable and was designed to be moved according to need. She offered the inhabitant autonomy over the placement of furniture. Her famous adjustable table, designed for her sister who liked to eat breakfast in bed, was made of tubular steel and plexiglass, which seems unremarkable today, but if we consider the weight, solidity and volume of nineteenth century furniture, this use of lightweight materials was particularly innovative. It is interesting to note that Aram uses heavier chrome and glass in his reproductions of the adjustable table making it more solid and therefore more worthy of serious investment by his clientele!
The point here, I think, lies in the historical roles assigned to many men and women until the post war period. It’s also important to recognise that these houses and buildings were designed by and for wealthy people, people who were educated, informed and fully immersed in the modernist project of forging a new rational world. Making progress in a world of increasing industrialization, mass production, evolving new technologies and materials, they were interested in creating better more rational, transparent housing and by extension a more utopian society. But these men (and few women) were often out in the world and absorbing all it had to offer, and many women were not, their social role and function being tied to the home. When some of these women got the opportunity to gain an education and work, they already had first hand experience of being in the home and an understanding of how a house ‘worked’ even though it is unlikely that they were involved in anything that we might call housework. Even so, their attitude to and understanding of interior space, furniture and the functioning of a house/home would have been very different to that of men.