Piles of unwanted used clothes destined for the rag dealer is where I found my voice as an artist.
I had just graduated from art school with a BFA as a Textile Major. My student loan money was gone and so I temporarily returned to the job I had left three years earlier. The job was that of working as a clothing sorter for a Hospice run thrift store. I worked in a small, dimly lit basement (which would later be condemned for asbestos contamination) with two other women. We worked around a table where we spent the day ripping open garbage bags of donated second hand clothing. It was our job to sort the good, from the bad, from the ugly. The sellable ones were hung and tagged, the unsellable were thrown into a large pyramid of a pile to be re-bagged for the midweek pick up by the rag dealer. Each week we moved thousands of pounds of clothing which was deemed by us to be no longer suitable to exist as originally intended. As a small, independent charity shop in Vermont I was very aware that we were only a tiny microcosm of what was happening on a global level with literally tons of used clothes. I was now an organism in the belly of the beast, working as part of the dark underworld, helping to digest, regurgitate and expel the unwanted waste. My daily responsibilities put me in direct contact with many of the reasons why I had originally chose to leave NYC and a career in fashion design.
Isn’t it usually said, that whatever it is you are looking for is right in front of you? More often though one must first travel far and wide or pay lots of money to go to school in order to understand the bigger picture … in order to better recognize that which is ultimately right there in front of oneself.
During my undergraduate degree I struggled to find meaning behind the technical skills we were learning. I had entered school knowing that it was not design or (traditionally speaking) craft that I was interested in. Specifically, I knew that I did not want to make products. As a textile major; weaving, dyeing and printing were the core studio arts taught and practiced. I enjoyed and challenged myself with the classes and assignments but knew that these methods and materials were not the ones which resonated with purpose for me. I remember questioning the process behind buying whichever kind of fabric or yarn to work with, mixing whichever color of dye desired, printing whatever image one created and wondered how these choices reflected anything bigger than the ego (or the pocketbook) of the maker. In the end, it was the textile history classes which illuminated contextual connections and helped me make sense of everything I was feeling, learning and searching for.
Each textile history class focused on a certain geographic region or indigenous group of people. During this time I was able to learn about how and why clothing held the power of cultural identity. I have always been awe inspired by ethnographic costumes, feeling some indescribable connection, a personal resonance speaking to me from the highest possible level of visual or material culture. From this place I learned how to read clothing, naturally observing the differences between the traditional, hand crafted garments representing a culture’s identity which we studied in class and the mass produced, factory made, generic clothing of today worn by people for purposes of function or fashion. I honored one and despised the other, but finished school still not knowing how to translate this into the making of my own textile art.
After a few months had gone by of sorting clothes in the basement of the shop I realised that the only way for me to be able to make art with no money for supplies was to use that which could be scavenged. I did after all spend my days working in the land of the discarded and that which could be scavenged sat in a huge pile before me and spoke directly to the ideas of 21st century cultural identity.