Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fabric Art on the Subway

     Kate asked if I could lead a family art project at Extreme Kids, and for once I knew immediately what I wanted to do: textile art inspired by the Judith Scott show at Brooklyn Museum. Judith Scott (1943-2005) was an internationally celebrated fiber artist who spent 30 years of her life in a state institution because she was deaf, mute, and had Down’s Syndrome. Her twin sister Joyce, who got her released and enrolled in an art center for people with disabilities, is now the guardian of the work she left behind.
     I am perhaps particularly drawn to Scott’s work because of Felix’s jingle-jangles. Felix’s jingle-jangles usually begin as key chains. Over time, they grow, acquiring new attachments: multiple key rings, ribbons, bells, beads, tangles of yarn. He can focus on these for hours, swinging them, frowning at them, creating knotted forms and unnamed shapes that don’t conform to conventional measures of beauty, but that nevertheless attain visual and tactile qualities that are mysterious and
Eliza's egg carton construction
compelling. I have long dreamed of creating an installation that would consist of enormous jingle-jangle-like forms that droop from the ceiling. People could walk amidst them, feeling them, swinging them, knotting them more. The dangling forms would be so large that the people investigating them and moving between them would be like unstuck insects within a bulbous and spectacularly irregular spider web. Leading a Judith Scott textile art workshop seemed to me like a first step in this direction.    
     Scott’s work is based on household objects wrapped in scraps of cloth and yarn, so a few days before the workshop, I began ripping up old tee-shirts and trying to figure out how to wrap them around an egg carton. My idea was to create a soft, woven object with twelve cozy fabric nests. But as I went about poking holes in the bottom of the egg cups, seeking passages through which the tee-shirt shreds could pass, the project took on new and strange dimensions. I soon found myself working with an intensity I had not expected, impatiently ripping more tee-shirts when my scraps ran out, fascinated and eager to see how they could be knotted, wrapped, twisted, and looped.
     I realized that I was late for an appointment in Manhattan. Unwilling to leave my project, I stuffed the egg carton, fabric scraps, tee-shirts and scissors into a bag and hurried out the door. I could do it on the subway! When I lived in France, a great number of people, men and women alike, used to knit on the bus. I had thought that they were terribly productive, but now I understood that it was just a compulsion, similar to the urge to whip out a smart phone and check email messages, but much more
Another finished piece
satisfying. As I waited at the 2/3 platform at the Atlantic Center, the digital sign informed me that my train would arrive in two minutes. But I couldn’t stand still. I put down my bag, found my scissors and started shredding a green tee-shirt from the clearance bin at Target. Felix had grown so fast that he’d never gotten the chance to wear it. It would finally be put to use.
     A 2 train arrived. I slipped the scissors into my bag, wondering for a guilty moment if scissors are legal on the subway. The car was sparsely populated. I surmised this was due to the homeless person encamped on the far end, his or her scant possessions piled in a dingy baby stroller. I was not sure of the sex of this person as he or she had draped a tattered, off white blanket over his or her head. I assumed that the blanket was for privacy. In my present state of mind, however, I could not help also seeing a living example of textile art. It was a good car, with enough room to shred tee-shirts without
elbowing anyone in the nose. I soon became engrossed in my work, surreptitiously pulling out my
Workshop participant
scissors to start a new tear, weaving and poking, delighting at the knots of blue and braids of green emerging.
     By the time we reached lower Manhattan, the car was becoming crowded, and the homeless person had revealed himself to be a man. He had not removed his blanket, but he had begun talking. I could hear the rise and fall of his voice, deep, affable, and masculine. The rest of the people in the car were very quiet. As I yanked and knotted, my immediate neighbors edged away from me. I realized that my pulling and twisting at the increasingly knotted-over egg carton might be more peculiar than the behavior of the man under the blanket, now busily debating himself in a pleasant and fully engaged tone.
     It probably is peculiar to be happy at the way a torn tee shirt slips through holes in an egg carton, to be utterly focused on creating an object that will not generate income or reviews. Perhaps, the silence of the rest of the car was due to the uneasy feeling of being caught in an underground capsule with two weird people, both unusually immersed in textiles, one wielding a pair of scissors.
     The silence broke at the next station when a woman of some years, who used a walker to get around, struggled to get into the car. “Excuse me,” she said to the homeless man with the stroller. “Would you please move this….this… thing so that people can get by?” The sentiment was evidently shared by not a few others, for there was a general murmur of assent. I am a professional friend of people with walkers and wheelchairs, and I am impressed when I see anyone dependent on wheels brave the chancy and difficult terrain of the subway. So I was pleased to hear this old lady, so mobile and assured of her rights, but I did wince at her tone. This thing, as she put it, appeared to be someone’s home. But the man didn’t take offense, so why should I? The train lurched on.
     The car was now too crowded for me to see the blanketed form of the homeless man or the lady with the walker, but I could feel them, their presence as insistent as my egg carton. We were points of an ungainly and ill-behaved triangle, connected for a brief instant deep below the prosperous streets of Manhattan. I do not always enjoy the subway, but when I do, it often is due to these unspoken alliances and allegiances that can pop into being, only to disperse when the train reaches its station. But do they disperse? Days after my train reached 14th Street, I’m still mulling over my triangle-mates, the three of us bound through fabric, wheels and disruption. I did not see their faces, and most likely, they did not notice me. Yet there they are, entrenched in my mind, making me grin, part of me now.

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