Editorial 8: Queer(ing) Craft

Queer(ing) Craft is guest edited by Daniel Fountain.

In 2014 John Chaich curated the exhibition Queer Threads at the Leslie-Lohman Museum to celebrate the ways in which artists have engaged with themes of queer identity through thread-based materials, techniques and processes. Within the exhibition catalogue Chaich states that ‘craft has been long considered the queer stepchild of fine art’.[1] But why so? What makes craft especially ‘queer’? What might queer craft look like? This issue deliberately takes a broad and interdisciplinary approach to explore these sorts of provocations, provide a platform for multiple voices and to showcase the breadth of exciting work taking place relating to these themes.

Such questions have also informed both my artistic practice and research for several years now, resulting in work that uses craft based-process to comment upon my own sexuality and identity. For example, Faggoting (2019) and Faggots (2019-20) are part of a series that delights in the slippages between faggoting as a form of needlework or process of bundling, and the derogatory term that has often been hurled at me. Through their embrace of the ‘low’ and aesthetics of ‘bad taste’, these works offer a camp, celebratory and unapologetic performance of queerness. As supported by the other contributions in this issue, the material nature and physical suppleness of such craft processes seem to offer particularly fertile ground in which to ‘queer’ narratives, imagery or materials. They allow for the adequate exploration of the ‘open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excess of meaning’ in relation to both gender and sexuality.[2]

Daniel Fountain, Faggoting (2019)
Daniel Fountain, Faggots (2019)

Although all of the submissions within this special issue are written by people self-defining as LGBTQIA+, queer will not necessarily be utilised here as an identity politics. Rather, when utilised as a verb – a process of ‘queering’ – it can offer a strategic ‘undercutting of the stability of identity and of the dispensation of power that shadows the assignment of categories and taxonomies’.[3] This approach is perhaps best demonstrated in our first article whereby Claire Mead discusses her work with local members of the LGBTQIA+ community who co-curated the exhibition Living Beyond Limits at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This exhibition sought to re-explore the institution’s collection and through various approaches Mead’s case study demonstrates the ways in which institutional spaces can be queered in order to disrupt traditional hierarchies and systems of classification.

After Mead’s article, our attention moves towards the work of two artists who both engage with craft-processes to explore themes of gender and sexuality. Firstly, through his abstract and often abject sculptures, Matthew Gale ruminates on relationships between bodies and ecologies. His practice is particularly interested in the alignment of art and science; their ‘shared purpose of describing human experience’ and the inherent queerness of the non-human world. Secondly, Sarah-Joy Ford then presents an overview of her practice-research into quilting as a methodology for revisioning lesbian archives. Through her meticulously embroidered quilts, she explores how ‘the loving attention and protective qualities of the quilt offer a reparative site for investing in lesbian archives’. In doing so, Ford delights in the potentials for re-defining quilting in contemporary practice, disrupting traditional associations of the quilt through both form and function.

Our first spotlight feature includes the work of award-winning American-Nigerian artist Adejoke Tugbiyele. We discuss the hybrid nature of her practice which encompasses drawing, sculpture and live performance, to name but a few. Often through performing with her intricately woven objects, Tugbiyele seeks to ‘queer dominant spaces and narratives pertaining to race, gender and sexuality’ and help us to ‘imagine new ways of perceiving and being in the world’.

Injecting a welcome dose of modernism into the issue, Jonathan King considers the queer legacies of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly as it pertains to queer home-making and the maternal experience. Lot Kessels’ Charleston Doll’s House (a miniaturised rendering of the historic East-Sussex home associated with the Bloomsbury Group) is used as a particular site for analysis. In doing so, King expertly demonstrates the queer lineages between the Bloomsbury group’s ethos and contemporary craft today.

Included in this issue is also an interview with the artist LJ Roberts, who’s first museum commission was recently shown in the critically acclaimed 2019 show Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewallat the Brooklyn Museum. The conversation emphasises how craft plays an essential part of many queer lives; that we often have to quite literally craftour own spaces, the homes we are born into, and even our own ‘chosen families’. Roberts therefore demonstrates how ‘craft and queerness enable each other beneficially’ and explains the influence that queer theory has had on their practice.

Our second spotlight feature is devoted to the work of emerging artist Osgood Bender who uses a variety of craft-based processes to explore themes of gender and personal histories of body modification. Working in a variety of material processes including ceramics, textiles and sculpture, Bender uses craft techniques in a subversive manner; not only to challenge the very associations of craft, but also to interrogate and deconstruct ‘the borders between the mind and the body, the self and the other, the original and the modified’.

Finally, we leave you with an excerpt of Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel LOTE (2020) which immerses readers in the pursuit of decorative aesthetics and queer beauty. The novel follows present-day narrator Mathilda’s fixation with the forgotten black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm and calls into question issues of erasure, whilst also celebrating opposing ideals of beauty. From art to alchemy, this novel has it all.

Words: Daniel Fountain (he/they)

More about Daniel’s work and research can be found here.

About the Editor

Daniel Fountain is an artist, lecturer and researcher based in Leicestershire. Between 2018-2021 Daniel is the recipient of a practice-led PhD scholarship at Loughborough University working on a practice-led project entitled ‘All That Glitters Is Gold: Queering Waste Through Campy Craft’. The research project aims to further establish connections between craft and queerness, whilst also exploring how waste as ‘abject’ matter might relate to queer identity. They have exhibited work on a national and international level, most recently the 2020 Queer Art(ists) Now exhibition at the Archive Gallery, London.

[1] John Chaich, Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community (New York: Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, exhibition catalogue, 2014) 5, 31 March 2015. Available at: <http://www.leslielohman.org/exhibitions/2013/queer- threads/QueerThreadsCatalogue_FINAL.pdf>

[2] David Getsy, Queer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), p.15.

[3] Ibid.

Crafting Queer Spaces: Living Beyond Limits

Living Beyond Limits (20 October 2018 – 3 February 2019) at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art was a queer re-exploration of its art collection. Assistant Curator Helen Welford and I (Claire Mead) invited members of local LGBTQIA+ communities to co-curate and queer it with us. Based on their choices of objects to be displayed, co-curators wrote interpretation labels based on their own personal experiences and thoughts around queerness...

Is an object queer in its authorship?

Adam Cooper chose Andrew Logan’s ‘A Modern Perspective’ (1998). He explained that he related to the distortion of his reflection in the jewels shattered mirror as a metaphor for exploring his bisexuality. Adam articulated the way in which he feels pressured to ‘perform’ a certain way and mask his sexuality depending on his social surroundings. A parallel label also sought to emphasise Andrew Logan’s own links to queer performance. The Alternative Miss World events he founded in 1972 celebrates non-conformity and the ‘bizarre’. It relates to the kitsch and theatrical aesthetic in his objects, that like many of the costumes featured in the contest, are made from found materials.

Photo courtesy of Middlesbrough Collection at MIMA, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Hynes Photography.
Photo credit Danielle Johnson, courtesy Andrew Logan’s studio.

Is an object queer in what it represents?

Stephen Allan interpreted Lucy Harvey’s ‘Melancholy Amulet’ (2009) as a representation of mental health issues faced by many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Through its pills in a chain link around a porcelain figure, queer feelings are distilled; linked to both the personal and the collective. The initial object may have not had a queer intention – yet it took on a new cultural meaning for Stephen. The amulet as an intimate hand-held object also contrasts with its wider social relevance, as Stephen interpreted. The artist, Lucy Harvey, expressed her joy at the fact the amulet was able to take on new meanings linked to queer identity when interpreted by members of her community – transcending the original intent of their work.

Is an object queer in its very form and medium?

A contributor who chose to remain anonymous re-interpreted one of Nicholas Arroyave-Portela’s vases. They saw the fluid, malleable nature of the vase as a reflection on the often ambiguous and shifting nature of gender and sexual identities. As part of his Throwing Lines series, the artist stated that his aim was to subvert an ancient proverb about water taking the form of the vessel it inhabits. Instead, he asked, how could a vessel take the form of the water within it? The subversion of the vessel’s form and its fluid nature reflects a subversion of the idea of gender and ‘fixed’ nature of sexual definitions when seen through a queer lens.

The experiences that these craft objects prompted are personal and powerful. The exhibition’s co-curators made these objects their own in reclaiming and queering the collection. Their intimate, domestic nature (vase, jewel, amulet) of many of these objects also subverted the museum space in new ways – making the personal public and the public personal.

These co-curated, (re-)queered and re-interpreted objects from the collection sat alongside other craft object linking these ideas around domesticity, queerness and craft. One of these was Angus Suttie’s Untitled (Unfinished work) (1991/92). Suttie’s ceramics practice had strongly referenced domestic life in its use of forms such as teapots and ladles. In ‘From Latent to Blatant’ in the 1976 Spring issue of the Gay Left, he recounts his personal navigation of gay identity since childhood. His recounting of the ‘feminine’ domestic sphere (symbolised by his mother) is intertwined with the toxic notions of misogyny and masculinity he faces in public as he discovers his own sexuality. The work on display, straying from the colourful Suttie pieces in the collection, was one of the last works he made before dying as a consequence of HIV/AIDS. It forms part of a series of work started following his partner’s death and his own diagnosis, exploring illness within his body. Two separate forms feel like interlocking bodies, tube-like channels and veins. The creases in the modelled clay, like skin, were made all the more visible by its partially glazed, unfinished state. The queer body becomes an object between the domestic and public sphere. It reflects an intimate expression of the body while linked with Suttie’s public voice as a gay activist. In turn, this voice was echoed by Barbara Kruger’s print Girl don’t die for love (1992) for Visual AIDS, an HIV/AIDS activist organisation. The poster which was initially conceived to be mass-distributed was pinned to the gallery wall – alongside her work Untitled (You are the perfect crime) (1984), which was framed.

Following feedback in our workshops, we also created a space in the exhibition for people to make work themselves, which manifested in small foldable zines. Workshop contributors and visitors to the exhibition used these zines to tell their own stories and build upon the interpretations given by the co-curators. The exhibition is finished – but the zine display remains to be added to. This medium is used by many queer activists and primarily emerged as a way to publish voices that would never reach mainstream publishing. Here, craft is a means to elevate activist, collective voices publicly through the process of making. Its potential in museum spaces is not only to challenge the way we classify craft compared to so-called ‘high’ art. Rather, it also becomes a way of queering and subverting this space through the interspersion of personal voices and experiences – via curation and making alike.

Above photos courtesy of Middlesbrough Collection at MIMA, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Hynes Photography.

Words: Claire Mead (she/her)

Claire’s Twitter can be found here.

About the Author

Claire Mead is a programme producer at Makerversity, Somerset House and an independent art and design curator. In 2018-2019 she was curator in residence at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art where she co-curated the exhibition Living beyond Limits queering the MIMA collection with Assistant Curator Helen Welford, and members of Middlesbrough’s local LGBTQIA+ communities. She works in collaboration with various museums and heritage sites around social issues with a strong focus on sexuality, gender and queer-feminist activism. In parallel to exhibitions, talks and workshops, Claire explores these issues via performance with her drag king alter ego Eugène Delacroissant.

Practice-Based: On Smocking, Science and Sex

In a Droplet, 2019

These works employ intricate hand-sewn smocked stitching onto hand-dyed fabric as a means to create structures and surfaces that are simultaneously decorative, organic and abject. Although they exist as individual sculptural pieces, they also function as interchangeable elements within larger installations that play with the idea of queer ecologies. As humans, we tend to oversimplify the complex and concentrate on the ways in which other organisms are similar to us, focusing on familiar mammals and birds that, superficially, conform toour notions of what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. However, the natural world presents diverse, non-binary lifestyles with organisms possessing the ability to changegenders (or without genderat all) far more frequently than we imagine. And if you’re wondering about the sex, that’s just as varied…

Once You’ve Seen One, 2019

My work examines systems and relationships, exploring unusual or unexpected pairings of partners as a means to reference the queerness of the natural world – that actually nature is far less binary than we might imagine.

Embroidery and sewing are particularly intriguing to me because oftheshifting perceptions throughout history regarding their use and cultural status. In particular, smocking was originally linked to clothing for labourers (often male) and yet is more commonplace in female or so-called ‘effeminate’ clothing today.

It is intriguing that within the contemporary art world there remains a sense of caution about work being perceived as decorative, perhaps compounded by anxieties that craft might detract or distract from the conceptual. It feels particularly problematic that we frequently continue to judge aesthetics on the polarised intellectual views concerning art and craft originating in the 16th Century and perpetuated by (predominantly white, cis, straight male) writers and philosophers since the 1940s. If the function of contemporary art is to reflect and critically examine culture then we should be queering assumptions regarding gendered materials and approaches to making.

Trembling, 2020

Artist Statement 

I am curious about the changing nature of the relationships we have with our bodies, other organisms and the environment. This often focuses on the human impulse to change, control and manage everything. It is the consequences of our actions and how we manage to accommodate the unexpected and, sometimes, unwelcome results that particularly attract my attention.

Although my work has strong visual references, I am equally interested in the implied tactile ones, intentionally creating surfaces that arouse curiosity and the temptation to touch. I am fascinated by the notion that the tension created by anticipation to explore through touching might be more compelling than the reality of the action.

My approach to making frequently borrows from scientific methodologies and an interest in the origins of materials founded on the notion that even manufactured materials are fundamentally organic. Recycling and repurposing work has become a recurring part of my practice, with sculptural elements continuing to evolve and form new relationships.

I am fascinated by how we perceive the natural world and use concepts of ‘natural’ as filters to critically examine human activities. My work aligns art and science through a shared purpose of describing human experience, whilst unhinging certainty and disturbing the familiar.

Words: Matt Gale (he/him)

More of Matt’s work can be found here

About the Artist

Matt Gale lives and works in Birmingham. He has shown at various institutions throughout the UK, most recently at the Coventry Biennial exhibition at The Row. Before studying and pursuing a career in the arts, Matt studied a BSc in Zoology and his fascination with the natural world continues to inspire him. He is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton.

Practice-Based: Quilting the Lesbian Archive, Sarah-Joy Ford

I stand in cold stacks. My hands run over the pale green boxes scored with pencil marks. I rummage. A syllabus, a letter and tangled endings. An under-stairs cupboard filled with pornography. S&M dyke night flyers with tea in the living room. Email trails: reaching out, and toward something…

My PhD research at Manchester School of Art is titled Quilting the Lesbian Archive. Yet, unlike the USA, there is no dedicated Lesbian Archive in the UK. The project has therefore led me on all kinds of adventures in the search for archival fragments; from institutions such as The Women’s Library (London School of Economics), to community focused museums (Glasgow Women’s Library), and into the homes and email inboxes of women who created – and still are creating – lesbian history, including Phyllis Christopher, Karen Fisch, Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright. Quilting gives me a thrifty strategy for approaching this archive; gathering fragments, re-arranging with tender inquisitiveness, and forming a new arrangement that might offer a different ways of knowing the familiar.[1]

Quilts have long been a powerful tool for women’s expression; a visual language within the home as well as creating networks of female connection through friendship quilts, quilting bees and even through public politics – such as the anti-slavery and temperance movements in the USA. Quilts however, have been marginalised as an artform and dismissed as an amateur pastime for women, used to keep idle hands busy in domestic spaces.[2] Since the 1960s feminist artists have used the needle in order to subvert and challenge temporal-spatial restrictions placed on women through the gendered division of private and public space, and the repetitive labours of domesticity and maternity. One only has to look to the work of people like Faith Ringgold, Harmony Hammond and Judy Chicago for this to become apparent.[3]

Rooted in this history of gendered marginalisation, quilts can also be a powerful material language for disrupting discrimination, erasure and marginalisation; such as in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Such themes still prevail in the work of other contemporary queer artists too, such as Aaron McIntosh, Josh Faught and Jeffrey Gibson who all continue to draw on the powerful politics of quilting.

Lucy Lippard famously argued that quilts were the prime visual metaphor for women’s lives; as a ‘diary of touch’ reflecting the repetitive and compulsive behaviours that are necessary for housekeeping and invoking over decoration and ‘female fussiness’.[4] The quilts that emerge in this project are also a ‘diary of touch’; acting record of encounters in the archive. They are cut and stitched into my own fussy, femme aesthetic that indulges in rich pink hues, satins, sequins and dense decorative embroideries.

The loving attention and protective qualities of the quilt offer a reparative site for investing in lesbian archives inherently bound to a history of injury and marginalisation. In their cumulative nature, quilts often have no centre defying conventional rules for formal, painterly arrangements – this non-linear, materially driven form can offer a site for exploring the unruly experiences of the lesbian bodies, temporalities and affects. Although quilts have traditionally celebrated the milestones of a heteronormative life – birth, marriage, children, death – this project subverts this tradition and proposes the quilt as a space collapsing linear time and encountering the unexpected affects of the Lesbian Archive.

Words:Sarah-Joy Ford (she/her)

More of Sarah’s work can be found here

About the Artist

Sarah-Joy Ford is an Artist, PGR and Associate Lecturer at Manchester School of Art. Exhibitions include Banner Culture, British Textile Biennale (Blackburn), Queen, COLLAR (Manchester) and Weaving Europe: The World as Mediation, Shelly Residence (Paphos). Projects include Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism, The Portico Library (Manchester) and Hard Craft, Vane Gallery (Newcastle).  Her work has been commissioned by The Yorkshire Year of the TextilesProcessions: a hundred years of suffrage and Beyond the Binary at The Pitt Rivers Museum. Her AHRC funded PHD research examines quilting as a methodology for re-visioning lesbian archive materials.

All images are of installation work ‘Time Binds’ exhibited at Proximity, Paradise Works, Manchester, 2019. Artwork by Sarah-Joy Ford, Photography by Anya Stewart-Maggs.

[1] Lindstrom, K., & Stahl, A. (2016). Patchworking ways of knowing. In J. Jeffreys, D. Wood Conroy, & H. Clark (Eds.), The Handbook of Textile Culture(pp. 65–78). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[2] Arther, E. (2012). Fiber Art and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft, 1960-80. In J. Hemmings (Ed.), The Textile Reader(pp. 210–223). London: Berg.

Fyre, S. (2013). Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

[3] Parker, R. (1984). The Subversive Stitch(2nd ed.). London: IB Tauris. 

[4] Lippard, L. (1983). Up, Down and Across: A New Frame for New Quilts,. In C. Robinson (Ed.), The Artist and the Quilt. New York: Knopf.

Adejoke Tugbiyele’s Hybrid Forms and Second-Skins

Adejoke Tugbiyele (b.1977, New York, USA) is an award-winning, queer, black artist. Her work often comments on human rights issues around the world, and her own identity as a queer woman of Nigerian descent. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she continues to make artwork and engage in advocacy projects.

Adejoke Tugbiyele, Photo Courtesy of the Artist

Tugbiyele describes her practice as ‘hybrid’; reflected in both her approach to making and the physical forms that manifest in many of her works. On one hand, her practice is multidisciplinary; continuously ‘presenting alternative forms of expression that can be universally understood’. On the other, hybrid forms quite literally appear in a myriad of Tugbiyele’s drawings, sculpture and performance works. She explains: ‘Hybridity frees the mind from the boundaries and limitations of gender and sexuality, and from the human body in general. It takes us into the spiritual realm, where we can begin to imagine new ways of perceiving and being in the world. Hybridity also makes us more aware of the two-spirit nature of humans and therefore the potential ability to tap into different energies, spontaneously’. Sculptures such as ‘Drama’ (2018) play with the juxtapositions between natural and man-made objects, with (often androgynous) ‘bodily’ features such as the use of oil funnels for breasts, or gas pumps for hands, which are interwoven into a contorted, twisting form.

Adejoke Tugbiyele, Drama, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist and Sakhile&Me Gallery.
Adejoke Tugbiyele, Kidnapped, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery

Some of Tugbiyele’s crafted objects enter into a performative practice which, she revealed, often operates as a way to ‘queer dominant spaces and narratives pertaining to race, gender and sexuality’. She further suggests: ‘Through performance the body can engage architecture with movement and begin healthy discourse on how space itself affects our psyche and imagination. Sometimes, the key to collective transformation is going beyond the first-skin of the body, into the second-skin’. Finally, she reminds us, ‘performance is rooted in the idea of transformation across cultures’.

This is perhaps best evident in a performance that took place at Somerset House in 2017 entitled ‘Shifting The Waves’. During this, Tugbiyele performed with the intricately woven work entitled ‘Love Boat 2.0’ (2017) which was bound to her back. In motion, the work comments upon ‘movement as a mode of survival’ and raises questions such as: ‘How are we affected by past and present migrations both physically and psychically, locally and globally? What lessons can the vessel teach us about resilience and courage in the face of threats to mind and body? How can we honor the strength it takes to shift, when transient spaces begin to feel more safe than the home itself?’. When eventually removed from her body, ‘the work is forced to perform as sculpture – the implication is not transient space but rather stillness – at rest, at home’.

Adejoke Tugbiyele, Love Boat 2.0, 2017, Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery.
Adejoke Tugbiyele, Same Sex 2.0, 2017, Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery.

As with ‘Love Boat 2.0’ (2017), many of Tugbiyele’s other sculptures are made from palm spines from West African brooms, which are often used across cultures as a symbolic act of cleansing negative energy from society. For example, Tugbiyele recalls that in contemporary Nigerian politics, one finds the waving of traditional brooms a significant symbol during an election period and in African-American culture ‘jumping the broom’ has often been used as a symbolic gesture at traditional wedding ceremonies to celebrate black love – and here, all variations of that.

Solo Performance, EagleBull, The Melrose Gallery

Words: Adejoke Tugbiyele (she/her), Daniel Fountain (he/they)

Tugbiyele is represented by October Gallery and more information about the artist can be found here.

The Charleston Doll’s House: “A home for whoever you want to be.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This well-known aphorism can be easily applied to Lot Kessels’ Charleston Doll’s House, a miniaturised rendering of the historic East-Sussex home associated with the Bloomsbury Group (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (profile of all rooms), 2019.

Charleston house was the domestic and creative project of the group’s artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916 until their respective deaths in 1961 and 1978. Famous for being the gathering place of Bloomsbury in these years, Charleston has become associated with the middle-class-bohemian frivolity of its feminine, pacifist and queer members; a place where homosexuality was welcomed and, in contradiction to more masculine ‘modernisms’ in the early-twentieth century, Arts and Crafts continued to be combined in their own version of the late-nineteenth-century movement. Stemming from the Omega workshops before World War One, Charleston showcases Bell and Grant’s lifelong collaborations of domestic craft and decoration. This domestic space has only been considered for its queer possibilities rather recently, accessed via the door opened by Christopher Reed in his critique of modernism’s scholarship which had suppressed the domestic due to its associations with the ‘lower’ status of ‘effeminate’ craft.[1] It is therefore significant that Kessels interacts with Charleston house through the crafty creation of her Doll’s House today, continuing Bell and Grant’s domestic endeavours in miniature. The meticulous detail and pastiche of Kessels’ project is evident (Figs. 2-3): there are mini hand-painted replicas of paintings, easels, walls, curtains, books, ceramics, furniture, doors, and room dividers; all in striking resemblance to their originals. Some of this miniature furniture was hand-crafted, while other parts were pieces that Kessels found from children’s toys in her attic, or cut by her son-in-law to her own design. Mini-paintbrushes were made from toothpicks and her dogs’ hair, and the sofa in the garden room was upholstered with fabric from the former-shirts of her husband. All of this sits within cardboard walls, made with this material so that she could cut them easily. Indeed, Kessels’ idea was to create as much of the Doll’s House herself for two main reasons: first, so that it was “less costly;” and second, so that she could “make it as I see it and want it.”

Figure 2. Lot Kessels, Miniature objects for the Charleston Doll’s House (including copies of Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach and Mrs St John Hutchinson), 2019.
Figure 3. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (the study bookshelf through the window), 2019.

The Doll’s House is “as idiosyncratic as is Charleston,” claims Kessels, using her own domestic and familial objects within the miniature space. This inter-domestic project is a particularly maternal act, carefully positioning Bloomsbury members (made from printing photographs onto padded fabric; see fig. 4) with associated objects in relevant rooms. Kessels’ desire was to create a familial narrative of Charleston for people who “don’t know the story of its inhabitants yet.” But essentially, her main aim was to also reflect the ethos and values of “Charlestonians:” to reflect “it’s warmth, domesticity;” to create a “home for whoever you want to be”. Her project therefore points to ways in which marginalised or ‘othered’ subjects can find refuge in the domestic space, remedied by craft-making and the decorative. Presented in the form of a Doll’s House, this conjoins the realms of motherhood and childhood; and for me, this speaks to the “odd lingerings” of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s concept of a queer subject’s experience of “growing sideways,” combining the adult domain of home-making with a child’s domain of play.[2] The idea of Charleston being a home for everybody is not only found in these facets of the Doll’s House, but also in the fact that it is small and mobile. As a ‘transportable Charleston,’ Kessel’s craft project speaks to a desire to make the Bloomsbury home more accessible, especially considering the home’s rather remote geographical location in the South Downs: “I felt an urge,” says Kessels, “to come even more close to the house and its inhabitants by making the house in miniature.” Currently on display in Amsterdam, there is clearly a desire for Bloomsbury’s ethos to be felt and extended elsewhere.

Figure 4. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (the figure of Virginia Woolf seen in the library), 2019.

As asserted by American scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, looking back and making cultural objects your own can also be a queer reparative act.[3] For Kessels, this can be found in her response to my question of what made her interested in Charleston and the Bloomsbury set to begin with: “A feeling of belonging. A recognition of being different. I’ve always been somewhat different than most. Always outspoken in tastes, dressing, way of living, being creative in all I do.” Her project may therefore point to the queerer aspects of maternal experience, and the way in which this can be expressed through domestic craft.

For more information on the artist and the Charleston Doll’s House project, go to the artist’s Instagram page: lotkessels. The Doll’s House is currently being displayed on the sixth floor of the OBA library in Amsterdam until March 27th 2020.

Words: Jonathan King (he/him)

About the Author

Jon is currently a second year PhD candidate in Art History at the University of York. His research, currently entitled “‘A bit frivolous?’ Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and the Charleston Camp” aims to reinvigorate our understanding of these Bloomsbury artists by exploring their collaborative work outside of the group’s literary canon, considering class, queerness, and the concept of a camp modernist aesthetic. Between March and June 2020, Jon will be embarking on an AHRC-funded research trip to the Yale Center for British Art, where he will be using their archives to examine specific collaborations of Bell and Grant.

[1] Reed, Christopher (ed.). Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996); also see: Reed, Christopher. Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004); and Clarke, Darren. “Duncan Grant and Charleston’s Queer Arcadia.” In Queer Bloomsbury, edited by Brenda Helt and Madelyn Detloff, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2016): 152-171.

[2] Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child,” Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, edited by Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); and also: Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2009).

[3] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 123-51.

LJ Roberts’ Queer Epics

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.

L: Portrait of Deb (1988-199?)
R: Detail From the series Portraits (2011-)

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.

Spotlight: Oz Bender’s Deconstructive Craft

Our spotlight this month is the emerging mixed-media artist Osgood (Oz) Bender who uses craft and material processes as a foundation to explore concepts of body modification. Bender reveals that he seeks to interrogate ‘the borders between the mind and the body, the self and the other, the original and the modified by exaggerating techniques traditionally meant to conceal imperfections’. This is perhaps most noticeable in his use of ‘visible mending, creation of illogical garments and use of bold aesthetics’.

Deconstructive Surgery (2019), Reused Textiles – Yarn, Wool, Muslina

Deconstructive Surgery (2019) repurposes fibers from scrap bins, an unraveled blanket, needle felted wool and muslin binding to recreate what the Bender’s chest looked like before his top surgery – ‘I was interested in the idea that all of the materials for my new chest had been there the whole time and had simply needed someone to rearrange them for me’.

Démodé and Decay, 2019, Driftwood and Textiles

Using the languages of furniture and amateur craft, Bender questions notions of comfort and corporeal permanence in Démodé and Decay (2019). ‘Why do I feel so deeply alienated from my body and how have I crafted the appearance and function of my body to try to remedy this? Why have the craft practices of culturally alternative body modification [piercing and tattooing] and the conventional decorative arts both been so persistently devalued through history?”

Furthermore, reflecting Bender’s personal ‘exploration in both materials and gender’, some works remain intentionally unfinished – ceramics go unfired, threads remain loose.

Démodé and Decay, 2019, Driftwood and Textiles (details)
Header Image: Queer as in Fuck You, quilt

Words: Oz Bender (he/him) and Daniel Fountain (he/they)

About The Artist

Oz is currently undertaking a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and has recently shown work in the queer craft exhibitions Slippery and Subversive (The Wellington B. Gray Gallery, USA) and Shades of Lavender (The Anderson Gallery).

More of Oz’s work can be found here.

Excerpt from LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE is a literary novel which follows present-day narrator Mathilda’s fixation with the forgotten black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm. Lush and frothy, incisive and witty, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscurement of Black figures from history…”

You can purchase LOTE from the publisher here.

An Excerpt from LOTE

This section takes place halfway through the novel. Mathilda has come to an unspecified European town known as Dun having applied to a residency purely for the stipend. When she arrives however, she is unable to tell whether it is a theoretical artist’s residency or a corporate business retreat. In the town she meets Erskine-Lily who like her is obsessed with an interwar modernist cult known as LOTE. Members of LOTE believed that the mythological Lotus Eaters were in fact a very real mostly queer proto-communist society located in West Africa and organised around pleasure, luxury and the decorative arts. The founding members of LOTE were the writer and artist (and professional beauty) Stephen Tennant; Hermia Druitt, an obscure Black Scottish modernist poet; Richard Bruce Nugent the Harlem Renaissance writer and aesthete, and the poet, publisher and activist Nancy Cunard.

I demanded Erskine-Lily take me on a tour of Dun, something I’d never properly been given.

At night we swanned all about the town, which had become more palatial, more of a pleasure-ground than ever, amplified by Erskine-Lily’s painting of it as much as my own will to envisage it as such – he seemed to be an astute historian of the place and rendered a context so thrilling I wondered if he was making it all up. This was hard to tell since it was as much a folkloric history as any other. In his company, the town, already a place of alternately consoling and faintly distressing beauty, became an extension of his flat, which was in turn an extension of his attire, physical person, persona.

We visited the square with the grey obelisk.

“This obelisk is where the two so-called angels are said to have been chastised. The town is unnamed in the story, but it says in The Book of the Luxuries that the citizens sealed two winged beings within a pillar. Hermia, Stephen and the other Lote-Os believed this was the very pillar and town. What certainly is true is that the book dates to around the early sixteenth-century and it’s not unlikely a small number of people read and practiced its teachings, as was the case with numerous other contemporaneous mystical treatises. And, as you’ve gathered, Hermia and Stephen sought to re-establish this practice in their own way. There’s a sort of allegory in the book – have you managed to read any of it?”

I told him I didn’t even know there was a translation.

“There isn’t. I managed to get some bits translated. The person doing it lost interest. Then I hired an academic but I could only afford so many pages, including a sort-of-allegory, it’s extremely charming.

“It follows a section on the nature of the Luxuries: Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers, we might well think of the Luxuries as sensory ones, communicating with the aesthetic aspects of the soul. They are described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstrip any peacock. They wear immensely gaudy-sounding robes (not unappealing) and outrageous jewel- encrusted slippers (tremendously appealing).

“The book also says these same Luxuries once came to the Lotophagi – the Lotus Eaters – and revealed the lotus fruit to them, showed them how to make wines from it and how to weave and carve innumerable delicacies from its other parts. Ornaments, jewellery, marquetry and so on.

“When the Lotus Eaters beheld the Luxuries, whose mouths were something like ruby, they also stained their nails and cheeks and lips that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit and flower. (Varnish, rouge and lipstick, Mathilda!)

“Of course, everyone knows the Lotus Eaters from Homer. The Book gives another account, saying when dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. He could not distinguish man from woman. They insulted his sense of goodness, this effeminate people who loved nothing more than to dine upon the lotus and decorate endlessly. To lose themselves in the holy act of adornment, which The Book calls volution.

“The volute, you see, is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, the corolla, the curl, the twist, the whorl, the spiral and so on, are all related in their volution, convolution, revolution. Volution is the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation, just as the phoneme is the smallest irreducible unit of sound in language. Locked into each coil, each curl of ornament, just like the coil and curl of your hair, and my hair, darling— Afro hair, as we call it—is the secret salvation of us all.”

He had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance.

“We are, you know, fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. And the Lotus Eaters were the arch-decorators of myth. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised the importance of ornament. They called the universe “kosmos”, meaning decoration, surface, ornament: something cosmetic. Like make- up. Like lipstick! Like rouge. The cosmos is fundamentally blusher. But then the Greeks probably got the idea from somewhere else. They could never stick to it. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Plato was quite the basher of ornamentalists. He had it in for what he called philotheamones – sight- lovers, spectacle-lovers. Framed them as veritable trash next to his kingly philosophers who loved the true beauty of ideas, not the decorative beauty of the world. Long after the Greek’s seriously puerile demotion of the ornamental, the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann, Hegel and all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. “Inessential ornament”, they called it. Quite hilarious really: if you ever need evidence of someone’s brutishness, it’s deeming ornament inessential!

“They humiliated our ancestors for adorning themselves in flowers and beads and gold and tattoos and braids and jewels; they’re still at it. The universe as decoration, of course, comes from Black people, and the idea survives even after the ransacking and incineration of our libraries and palaces – the same very precise fractal geometry, unknown to Europeans for centuries, can be found underpinning ancient forms of adornment like millennia-old Black hairstyles, but also in the architectural organisation of whole kingdoms, most famously the medieval Benin city and palace.”

“Oh but the allegory! – The Book of the Luxuries says that the Greeks wiped out the people they called the Lotus Eaters and tells us that Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.

“The Luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have disappeared with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.

“There was a woman known to visit this pillar, having observed the punishment of the Beings from her rooftop. She returned nightly, whispering to the interior spirits.

“On her rooftop one morning she noted a strange flower, growing from a crevice, something like a lily – or a lotus – but as hard as shell. She plucked this flower and took it to the pillar where she cupped it against the stone and put her ear to it and could hear a form of music inside. The music described a system. In this way, the inhabitants of the pillar dictated to her the Book.

“In accordance with their system she grew a secret lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses. The End!”

He was vibrating.

“I’m quite devout you know.” “Devout how?”

“Religious! About the Luxuries. I’m a modern day Luxurite, just as She was, some ninety years ago – Hermia.”

I wanted to ask if he honestly, literally, believed in the winged beings. Did he, for example, think they were stuck inside the obelisk right now? I presumed Hermia and Stephen had possessed what amounted to an aesthetic interest in the Luxuries, that their reconstitution of the Enochian Order of the Luxuries (which may never have existed – Griselda had suggested the book was possibly a work of nineteenth century charlatanism) was a matter of taste, and even of principle, but without any serious theism being involved. The great interest in all things occult that sprung up in the period had always seemed largely affected to me, except for some of the post-war talking to the dead: Stephen had grown up in an atmosphere of séances and mediums, his mother often trying contact his father.

The glee Erskine-Lily exhibited as he related the story of the pillar persuaded me not to ask him, just in case. I would not have minded, did not mind. Whereas some individuals’ credulity was entirely off-putting and terrifying, in Erskine-Lily it could never be. Would instead be a corrective to the much scarier fanaticism of the Residents.

No, what was off-putting was the way it reminded me of my own flights of grandeur, which would come when I thought about my Transfixions in the wrong way. It was clear just now that those flights had never stopped. That all this time I had been figuring out a way to augment myself, to mythicise my Transfixions and then slot myself in. And now here it was. They were all part of this, and now so was I. So was Erskine-Lily, who struck me once more as a Transfixion, a living one.


On the reverse of a miniature portrait in violet letters.


(Image on frontside: portrait of Erskine-Lily in the style of an oval miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, sporting what might be a silver pinked doublet or androgynous Elizabethan bodice and hooped skirt (the portrait cuts off at the waist); a high collar with a voluminous, gauzy lace ruff that reaches the limits of the image; matching lace sleeve cuffs; emerald earrings; brimmed black sugarloaf hat with a jewelled band, cheeks glazed orchid. On the flat azurite background, a heraldic device depicting a fruit on a branch like a white-pink raspberry, faintly translucent with an opalescent lustre, leaves half green and half yellow, the branch emerges from a cloud; some gold letters below read ΛOTE. This fruit is simultaneously an allegorical device and heraldic as the figure reaches to pluck the fruit whilst gazing towards the viewer.)


Memorabilia: Obscure aesthete-quaintrelle and amateur painter resident in Dun. Revived LOTE, a minor society of the ‘20s founded there almost a century earlier, said in itself to be a revival of a Renaissance society.

Sensation: Moonlight sighing up and down the tube of the spine, and through hollow bones.