UnWearable War (2007)
Sara Rockinger is based in Colorado and uses machine embroidery to create art and installations the theme of which is often based on social justice issues including war and gun control.
Tell us about your background in textiles
I started in textiles when my mother said she would buy me a sewing machine if I would make her a quilt, which I did multiple times. I soon realised my corners were supposed to match. That’s’ when I branched out on my own designs. After several years of making art quilts, I felt stuck in a rut. I have always loved art; I love figure drawing especially, and wanted to explore combining drawing and textiles. I discovered just down the road that Colorado State University has an excellent fibers program so worked my way into their program. I completed my MFA in 2008 and am still discovering lessons from those intense years of study.
How do you describe your work and what techniques do you tend to use?
I try not to describe my work. I find it difficult to put into words the many layers of thought and meaning that go into the work. On the other hand, I love hearing firsthand from artists about their work, so here goes: I consider myself a textile/installation artist. I use my sewing machine as a drawing and sculptural tool to create 2 and 3D fiber art. I tend to work with sheer layers of silk organza, sometimes layered on top of a base cotton fabric, and sometimes hanging freely to enable 3D viewing. My work is often figurative, and often based on social justice issues. I use visual art as a tool of being an active member of a democracy.
My favourite technique is free-motion machine embroidery, sometimes in the form of dense embroidery, and sometimes simply the beauty of a single stitched line. I also enjoy silk screening, photo transfers, painting and the beautiful act of fabric dying. I love to play with the nature of my materials, letting the dyes or a single thread surprise me and inform my work.
Can you explain how you create a piece from start to finish?
In some of my work, I research my topics heavily, gathering or creating many reference photos before I begin. I keep a sketchbook to work out ideas, hanging devices, etc. I often start with photos and sketches and I might then look in my stash for something to begin with, perhaps a piece of dyed or printed fabric. I usually create one element of a piece, then play to find the next layer or element. Creating my work is a process of discovery, and a process of trial and error. Because my work is often quite time consuming, I often make samples, trying out methods, layers, colours and imagery before committing to it on a large scale. Often, wrapping it up requires questions such as, “What does it need?” “Am I getting my point across?” or “Is it missing something?” sometimes posed to me, and sometimes to friends. Other times, however, I am clear that I have hit the mark I was going for and the work is complete. Again, my work is a process of discovery, rarely turning out the way I originally envisioned it, and usually we are both better for it.
And what about the title? It changes throughout the process, too. In one case, it was two years after the piece was completed that the true title came to me.
Your themes include war and guns, and your Hairline Trigger series is also about this. What are your views on America’s gun culture?
The ultimate goal of my work is to encourage compassion for self and others, and I try to avoid hitting people over the head with my often strong opinions about the topics I address. In the process of creating my work I often discover, and hopefully diminish, if not eradicate, my own prejudices and limited perspectives.
Perhaps because I have chosen to address guns from a very personal perspective, my views haven’t changed much. I find the “gun culture” in the United States extremely worrisome, to say the least. The plethora of media coverage, including news reports as well as TV and movies, almost normalises, and often glorifies, gun use, thus engraining that normalisation all the more in future generations. I am raising a son and it often feels like fighting a losing battle to rally against guns as normal. Keeping toy guns out of a boy’s hands today is nearly impossible, as is keeping gun imagery out of the movies, and the anonymous gun violence out of the TV teens watch.
Because I have struggled with these topics in my own home, the gun embroideries in my Hairline Trigger series are particularly personal. They started with photos of my sons toys. I then stitched them using my own hair to symbolise the worry and loss I, and likely many, experience as a result of guns and gun violence. Stitching with hair is a long, slow process. It has enabled me to contemplate these issues and demonstrate to my son how serious I take this.
In my Un/Wearable War series, the guns are as integral to the figures as are their arms and legs, so is not the main focus of this series. Still, guns and war are inseparable, and turning to war as an answer may also be a reflection of a normalisation of gun use and violence. War is a multi-layered topic of which I have many questions and opinions, but few answers.
Can you explain what your UnWearable War series is about?
As I said above, war is a multi-layered conundrum of which I have many questions and opinions, but few answers. Therefore, my Un/Wearable War series is also multi-layered. My main focus was loss and the psychological effects of going to war, both in choice and action.
Using hand-dyed sheer nylon organza, a petroleum based product, underlying one of the many reasons we were in that war, I created suitcoats (as well as panels) to represent multiple layers of meaning: sheer nylon suitcoats will not protect the wearer but reveal what is underneath, that which we think we hide but perhaps we aren’t able to; the wearer’s psychology is suggested by the war imagery appliqued on the backs of the coats; suitcoats may represent soldiers returning from war, trying to find a job, trying to integrate back into society; suitcoats may represent the decision-makers who got us into that war, and what they too may (should?) carry on their backs.
Cargo pockets found on soldiers uniforms came to symbolise what is carried psychologically as well. I made a series of dresses to represent all the mothers, sisters, wives, friends, women at home, not physically fighting but who carry great psychological consequences as well. Some of the issues that families have to deal with are indicated with photo transfer of news imagery of the war. Even for those of us with no direct friend or relative in the war, the news imagery and constant daily reports were a burden to bear.
What is your proudest achievement to date in your art career?
I’m very proud of my In/Visible series. My good friend and videographer, Mark Conkle and I spent two years putting together audio and video components to layer on top of my 50+ fabric sculptures. In/Visible has been well received and been successful in supporting people in sharing their personal immigration stories, whether their own personal journey or their ancestors. This work has opened up many opportunities for me, as well. In/Visible began its’ life at local shows in Boulder County, Colorado. It was then invited to the Mesa Art Museum in Mesa, AZ, the St George Art Museum in St George, UT and has recently been included in a collaborative exhibit organised by Studio Art Quilt Associates and The Textile Museum in Washington, DC titled Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora. https://museum.gwu.edu/diaspora and www.saqa.com/memberArt.php?cat=8&ec=3&ex=56
In/Visible also supported my successful grant application to the Sustainable Arts Foundation. The SAF supports artists who are parents in doing their artwork. They really GET how much of a challenge that can be www.sustainableartsfoundation.org/ or www.sustainableartsfoundation.org/previous_awardees
What inspires your work?
Politics definitely inspires my work, but it is often the human aspect that really motivates me. What is it like to be someone else? What do we have in common? How do our lives intersect? Do they? Do we?
My son also inspires my work, as a reflection of myself as well as a challenge to grow and change.
Nature inspires me, its beauty, patterns, colour, texture, lines.
My materials inspire me to let go of preconceptions and to work with them, letting them contribute their own nature.
The human figure inspires me; line, form, weight, awkwardness, perspective. I particularly love the combination of thread and contour line figure drawing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring textile artists?
Keep working! Trust your vision. Be brave. Look at other artists work, especially the masters. Join a group of other artists. Enter shows if you want feedback, if you want to share your work, if you want to learn at that level. When you enter a show, send the application and forget about it so you aren’t counting the days until you hear back. It doesn’t matter (so much) if you get accepted. You have done your best work, and you have applied, so forget about it. You have done what you can. If you get rejected, learn from it then. In the meantime, Keep working! Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from working. Even 15 minutes a day adds up. Two hours carved out once a week. Whatever you can do, keep at it. It DOES add up! After a month or a year, you will have a completed work! Keep working.
Sara Rockinger Fine Art