Pin, Stitch, Cut, Gasp, Trust, an essay by Jill Gordon
We met by chance. For twenty days, she spun into my life, and made it more colorful. I tell the story with great flare and awe, with my hands. Elisa Garcia de la Huerta is from Chile, lives in Brooklyn, freshly 30, exuberant. My life in Baltimore is steeped in children. I am 33, I am a single mother, I am a teacher. Created by Hyejung Jang, a 2013 MFA candidate in Curatorial Practice at MICA, Exchange: A Home Based Residency planted two international artists with host families in central Baltimore for two months. During their time here, both artists collaborated with individuals in the greater community in a socially engaged practice aimed to encourage positive experiences between the public and contemporary art. Elisa Garcia de la Huerta and Kityi Wong, the second resident from Hong Kong, each created a new, meaningful body of work in response to their experience and new environment. It sounded like a perfect opportunity for me to dig down to show up as an artist myself, instead of primarily a writer covering contemporary art.
On a rare evening to myself, I noticed Elisa’s flyer at Red Emma’s for an open invitation to a “Freestyle Quilt Gathering” in conjunction with Exchange at School 33 Art Center. As it turned out, I was the only person to respond to her flyer. I first met Hyejung Jang and Elisa Garcia de la Huerta at an open studio event in early March. I connected with the work, and found the curator and both artists to be so genuine and approachable. Elisa had set up a tent-like structure with sheets and linens with a place to sit inside. It reminded me of the blanket forts I create with my children. Random old slides collected from her hosts, family, and neighbors were projected on the wall along with video footage documenting the personal rituals and quiet moments in becoming acquainted with her new home. There were handwritten journal entries taped on the wall, and audio of Don Palmer and Beth Frederick telling their story at the Stoop Storytelling Series, about being an interracial couple travelling in the South. The sense of intimacy and vulnerability, the multi-sensory experience of memory and story all resonated with me. There was also an assortment of found needlework in large embroidery hoops on the walls, and other domestic textiles. The placement of the collection felt like a sketch or a collage. These felt familiar because I am also drawn to collecting cast off handwork that someone once spent time and care making.
While we arranged garish combinations of fabric in the studio those evenings, I told her how I got here, the artist-self I am trying to resuscitate. She threshed out her creative process from every angle with me in intervals of chattering and quiet in the studio, over tequila, over the loud music at a dance party, driving, walking, over a very long night. That space of quiet and contentment working alongside or across the room was beautiful. We talked endlessly. Our worlds are so different, but we were both so curious. Elisa and I worked together in the studio weekly, and I also sewed portions at home, feeling an energized pulse in my spirit.
When does someone else’s voice become familiar, their face? How long before you can sit in companionable silence? How do you learn to make each other laugh? When do you start to care, crack open… How do you know?
I can practically touch all of the moments when this collaboration became bigger and more important than expected. I never anticipated becoming so involved. Pin, stitch, cut, gasp, trust. I think we both chose to just whisper YES and remain open to the unfolding work and process. I brought a pile of rough burlap coffee sacks, novelty flannel, vintage tablecloths, and obnoxious calico that unknowingly complemented her pile of bright, floral dresses. The first time we started cutting and laying it out on the studio floor, we were very polite. Then took our carefully pinned portion home, and changed it all. When we brought our handiwork back to the studio the second time, we were smiling wide to see that the way we made our stitches was the same. Visible, uneven, human, unapologetic.
“Dwelling. Gathering Stitches.” is a collaboratively created extension of a series of ephemeral outdoor fabric interventions by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta. It functions both as a stitched quilt and a soft, tent-like structure that delineates between private and public space. It was first installed on the façade of a block of abandoned two-story alley rowhouses in the Greenmount West neighborhood, thoughtfully bringing color, life, and beauty to otherwise abandoned and discarded homes. The work also brings renewed purpose to the clothing, linens, and textiles that are both distinguishable and meld into the body of the piece. Visible through the broken windows are shelves, dressers, vanity mirrors. All of these objects and textiles hold memory, as they were once meaningful to the people who owned them.
In the School 33 gallery setting, “Dwelling. Gathering Stitches” was reconfigured as an architectural structure to create a space for the viewer to explore both the interior and exterior. It extended from the very top of the wall extended out and nailed to the floor. Silk nightdresses, tablecloths, burlap all intersect and overlap in a collaged exterior unified by thousands of earnest stitches by hand in brightly colored thread. The underbelly of the piece reveals a simpler, quiet, dim interior shelter where the viewer is tented in a private space to observe the effort of the hand, the lattice ribcage structure of ribbon, and an intimate reel of photographs and video documenting the artist’s personal daily rituals. This footage is mundane and alternately extremely personal. It challenges the viewer’s comfort from being a casual observer to voyeur, and pushes to emphasize the private nature of the interior. To document the process, place, and collaborative nature of the piece, a small television monitor was centrally placed on the floor. The viewer is invited to sit and watch the evolution of the quilt while listening to bits and pieces of uncensored, raw, and humorous conversation between the artist and myself. Revealing the unfolding ideas and chance friendship between us, two strangers twenty days prior, is an integral, intangible element of the piece.
I jumped into this project intuitively, wholeheartedly. Elisa’s spirit is radiant. Her fabric interventions felt like a colorful bandage to heal and uplift a handful of broken places in this patchwork city. I hold the vivid memory of standing on a precarious stepladder, reaching as high as I could to nail cloth into mortar, her cursing the staple gun, both delirious and happy. Finally, stepping back together, to exhale, and admire the colorful whirlwind of our time.
This is what we made.
Exchange: A Home Based Residency, created by curator Hyejung Jang features work by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta and Kityi Wong, on view in the Member’s Gallery at School 33 Art Center until May 25th.