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.

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.