10’4″ wide x 8’4″ tall 4″ inches deep
Paper grocery bags, ink, pigment, glue, cloth, wire, thread
Keren Lowell uses discarded items and reinvents them using a range of techniques into three dimensional textile art. Based in Alaska, her work explores themes including erosion and translucence. Her work is neither solely painting, sculpture nor installation and yet takes elements of all three to create powerful and emotional art that has a raw beauty, depth and intelligence.
What is your background in art and textiles?
As an undergraduate student, I designed an interdisciplinary degree that integrated the history, theory, and studio practice of the arts of the 20th century – music, poetry and visual arts, through the lens of radical feminism. It made sense to me then to work with textiles as a visual art medium. I learned how to weave, make felt, coil baskets, print on fabric. After I graduated, I worked for a time as a graphic artist, but returned to graduate school, and earned my MFA in Fiber from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I used textiles and sculptural materials/processes to create large-scale installations. I moved to Alaska in 1994 and taught classes in the fiber program at the University of Alaska from 2004 until 2013. I am pretty grounded in traditional western processes, but because of where I live, I have become acquainted with Native Alaskan forms too – skin sewing, twining, basketry, gutwork. My own studio practice investigates the 21st century through worn fabrics, as a way of talking about repetition, infrastructures, anonymous labor and reclamation.
What is it about textiles that appeals?
I established early on that I wasn’t interested in tidy work or technically perfect work. I respond to visceral, feral, messy work. For the most part, I think and visualize things in three dimensions, but traditional sculpture mediums (wood, metal, stone, clay) are too rigid and absolute for me. Textiles operate the way that most organic and fluid things operate. I also appreciate the way that textiles evoke our own skin. I think of textiles as visual metaphors for the human (especially the feminist/queer/curious) condition.
How do you describe your work?
I have a hard time describing my work. I would say that my work is queer. It exists in-between, in so many ways – it is neither masculine or feminine, neither lodged in object or concept. It isn’t quite painting, and it doesn’t operate as sculpture or installation or performance. I see it as a membrane, kind of like skin. I’m not making literal or figurative or narrative work. But I’m not working with purely conceptual ideas either. My work is grounded in physical substance, full of texture and language and metaphor.
Do you have any reoccurring themes?
Yes. Translucence. Worn or eroded surfaces. Holes. Repeated shapes, like bacterial or viral colonies, floating or drifting in a field. Grid-like surfaces that reference woven structures. Stitches that make an effort to pull disparate fields together. Shield-like forms. Hair. Collapse. Repair.
Where do you source your more unusual materials?
I save and use discarded materials in my work. Envelopes from my day job. Hair from my kids, my self, pets, friends. Cloth scraps from sewing projects. I have collections of small metal objects – bottle caps, pins, bullet casings, found objects from parking lots. I have bins of linear material I use to weave unusual surfaces – film strips, burlap, seatbelt webbing, felt door insulation, chair caning. I also seek out and collect worn-out cloth – towels, rags, diapers, washcloths. I’ve been called a hoarder, but I see immense potential in these discarded things.
The traditional view of textiles is generally an item such as a quilt. How do you explain that a piece such as ‘Cell Bodies’ is textiles?
I have a pretty broad definition of ‘textile’. I am interested in surfaces, and most flexible surfaces are made from repeated gestures or motions. For instance, knitting is a process where one makes loops with a thread over and over and over. This is true of crochet, basketry, weaving. All textiles are made from repeated gestures and structures.
I take a small shape and cut it out of felt many times, then collage these shapes to a layer of cloth, and work the surface so it looks like a field of identical drifting shapes, with pigment and paint. This doesn’t seem all that different to me than sewing a quilt or knitting a sweater or weaving a scarf, or making a minimalist painting, except I’m talking about a lot more than just process. I’m hoping to create a small window into an atmosphere or suspended state of being.
Can you talk us through the process of how you create a piece such as Groundwork?
Groundwork took a couple of months to make. I can usually see things in my mind before I start working, and don’t do samples or sketches. I just dive in to the big work. Sometimes, I don’t even know what it will look like until I do the final assembly in the gallery. It usually works out.
For this piece, I had a collection of paper grocery bags, and I worked the paper by crumpling it then unfolding it, and scrubbed pigment into it to make it look like leather or hide, and then glued the chunks of paper together to make quite a large bit of yardage.
Then I cut the yardage into strips. All of the pieces in the museum show Groudwork were constructed using strip construction – narrow strips of cloth, stitched together to create a larger textile – similar to string quilts or kente cloth. It was the only practical way to make such big pieces for a large exhibit in such a small studio.
I had the idea of marking time like an animal in a cage would, or a prisoner, by scraping two or three or five closely-spaced marks over and over through the surface. I did this out in my yard, on a table, with a bunch of wire brushes. It was very methodical, purposeful and hypnotic – scraping and scrubbing through the thick layers of paper.
Then the individual strips were resewn together, using a traditional blanket stitch, connecting cloth pleats to the paper sections. The whole textile was hung using found cordage, and each cloth division was accentuated with clay claws hung in clusters.
Where do you work?
I work at home. I have a downstairs studio where I figure things out, make sketches and maquettes, assemble pieces. I do the messiest work in the garage. It’s a pretty flexible set of workspaces. If I need to, I’ll move the work into the dining room, living room and/or kitchen.
Where do you find inspiration?
Alaska is big, and I walk a lot, during every season. I look around and take notice of the landscape – the surface of the ground, the horizon, the textures and light, the ideas that surface while I am walking. These ideas and visual images all factor into the work I make.
I also look to the work of minimalist musicians and artists: Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Steve Reich, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Eva Hesse, Ross Bleckner, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Kiki Smith, Anne Hamilton, Agnes Martin.
Your work looks stunning in a gallery setting, can this translate to people’s homes or do you see it more as gallery pieces only?
I don’t ever know where the work might end up. Alaska is a strange place. I don’t ever think of a final resting place for the work. For me, my work operates in a conceptual space, and if it ends up in a gallery or a home or a storage space after the fact, that’s all fine.
You’ve had experience teaching at university. Do you have any advice for students looking to be professional artists?
Don’t be nervous about money, or asking people to pay you for what you have to offer them. Figure out what your time and energy is worth. Creativity is valuable to everyone, and too often, artists get tricked into thinking that exposure or experience is worth something outside of regular commerce. It isn’t. Make the work you want to make. But don’t give your work away, don’t let people talk you into devaluing what it is you do or have to offer. Dentists, doctors, plumbers, electricians don’t give their work away. You shouldn’t either.