Saturday, May 13, 2017

Romantic Buttons

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't suffer from low self-esteem.

Okay ... I know there are many people who don't believe the statement above.  They think that because I create a lot of art, travel, have gallery representation, teach workshops, and have solo shows scheduled that I must be full of self confidence.  Funny!  These are generally the things I do and the logic I try to employee in order to "feel good about myself and my artwork."  If the truth be told, I'm propelled by my own fears of inadequacy.  I am in a constant battle to improve ... to be "good enough".

So ... last week my Button Proposal was reviewed by a local arts administrator.  Paraphrased, I was told that I romanticize my material and do not push the limits of my studio practice. 

I was stunned.  I cried, of course.  My ego took a plunge ... because I believed it.  Sure, I know that this proposal was much the same as the one accepted at Homestead National Monument for an upcoming art residency with the National Park Services.  Yet, my mind immediately entertained the notion that I am just a middle-aged, white woman who stitches and has nothing worthwhile to say through buttons and vintage household linens.

My biggest problem was with the word "romanticize".  I do romanticize my materials.  Frankly, I rely on the fact that viewers identify with objects from the past.  So, that critical comment really stung ... again ... because I believed it to be true (which it is) and believed it to be a serious flaw.  But is it?  After the hurt began to subside, I wondered.  What exactly is wrong with romanticizing a button? 

I've read too many Internet threads written by art quilters who complain that jurors, judges, museum curators, and others in positions to make value judgments "don't get my art".  It all reads like sour grapes to me ... and if I dismiss the critical evaluation I received, I'd be no better.  Besides, I already assumed the criticism was just and that my work really sucked.  So why not approach buttons from another point of view?  Why not really "romanticize" the button, research the word, and work out my insecurities at the same time?  Why not make art to fly in the face of the hurt?

The critical review included this suggestion:  "Think about alternative uses, displays, content... different ways you could use this traditional material within your craft to translate your meaning to the audience."  Okay, I tried it.  This is what resulted. 

All of these vintage (yes ... in keeping with my usual studio art practice) public domain images are smaller than 10" x 8".  They've been printed on photo paper and fused to fabric.  This allowed me to do a little free motion machine embroidery and add buttons.  They've been matted to 20" x 16" and I consider them "low art" as opposed to "high art" (a distinction that is full of grey lines).

 While creating this work (which was sort of done between cutting mats ... my day job ... and finishing up other artwork ... not as a serious pursuit but as a sort of therapy to eliminate my feelings of inadequacy due to the criticism), I thought about artists whose work I admire.  I thought about how most truly investigate a concept, material, and/or approach.  I thought about my own studio art practice ... and how I might push the boundaries even more than I have in the past.

From words that stung, I found ideas for the future and ways to improve.  I guess that's why I opened myself to the critical review.  I will use the advise for my own advantage.

Now ... were these words truly issued as insight, advise, and wisdom?  No, not completely!  While I'm prone to self-recrimination, I'm also aware of the context and person behind them.  Life is not black-and-white.  Just as there are grey lines with regards to art, romance, sex, and even the politics in my local arts community, the critical review I received is not black-and-white either.  I'm just choosing to use the part that is in my best interest ... and making the work that helped me get over the rest of it. 

Will this week impact my future plans for buttons?  Probably!  Will it make my work better?  Probably! 

After all is said and done, there's nothing really wrong with romanticizing my materials.  After all, I am a middle-aged, white woman, and I do rely on viewer's identifying with an ideal from the past.  That doesn't mean I have nothing to say. Far from it! In fact, I probably should embrace all of this!    

I should dig deeper, speak louder, fight harder, and stand up for myself and my artwork ... while taking the criticism and investigating how it might assist in my efforts for self expression.  Buttons are in my future.  I will be using them in my art residency.  Plus, I welcome critical review of my proposal ... because other ideas might make for even better work.  Below, I've copied and pasted one of the several versions of my proposal.  Have at it!  Send me your ideas, critiques, suggestions, and thoughts!

As a visual artist using found objects, I collect various items intuitively. Among them are nails, keys, wooden spools, skeins of unused yarn, anonymous vintage family photos, embroidered household linens and old thread and buttons. Most have been transformed into artwork expressing the accumulated memory inherent in these discarded things.

Yet, I haven’t done anything with the buttons.

My button stash is embarrassingly large. One might say I collect buttons, but honestly, I just amass them. While it is true that I use some to edge my art quilts, I really haven’t made a dent in the collection. It is high time I do. I propose to use my buttons to surround images transferred to fabric. Some work would take the form of a quilt. Others would be fashioned on stretched canvas or mounted to heavy paper for custom framing. Conceptually, the work will make visible a line from my TEDx talk called “Precious: Making a Plan for Your Precious Possessions.” In that presentation I say:

So … what is precious? Let me give you an example. A young professional wanders into my studio and exclaims, “Oh my gosh! My great aunt had a jar of shirt buttons just like yours!” Well, of course she did. So did mine. (Then addressing the audience). So did yours. This is ordinary … extraordinary. This is precious.

Conceptually, my residency work would focus on images of anonymous but universal figures (everyone’s “great aunt”). The figures would be carefully selected from scans of old photos. They would represent a collective sense of “ancestors” but come from different walks of life, racial backgrounds, social status, and age groups. Buttons would totally surround these fabric images. The work would challenge viewers to consider their own, long gone relatives, the ways ordinary objects are saved or discarded, and the simple objects that occupy everyone’s life.

I am inspired by the words of Peter “Souleo” Wright, curator for New York City’s Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation’s 2016 spring exhibition, The Button Show. Describing the show, Souleo wrote, “I am proud to help highlight the medium of clothing buttons in visual art. Clothing buttons occupy a familiar but seemingly insignificant presence in our lives. Each artist forces us to reimagine this everyday object as a viable tool for communication and self-expression through visual art. In these works, buttons become signifiers of issues of class, politics, race, beauty and personal narratives in ways that are visually stimulating and highly engaging.”


Roxanne said...

Susan...Most of us have those "they don't get me" and insecure moments. We've all cried a little when we are not embraced wholeheartedly by the art community. We are all risking rebuke with every proposal, every piece of art we put out there. I admire your openness to use this situation as a positive, a place to propel your next button as far as you can. I also admire the curator for not being afraid to say her piece...regardless of your stature as an artist and all you have worked for. She brought that one word to your attention to unpack and consider the layers of its meaning, to conjure the fire of your passion. I can't wait to see what comes of this!

Cynthia Boiter said...

I took it upon myself to share this post on Facebook. Hope that's ok.

Anonymous said...

Buttons are a portal to past memories, present journeys and future imaginings. Buttons hold us together, sometimes burst open-I'm thinking pregnancy here, are an expression of our creativity. I love buttons and will always relate to them.

Sandy said...

Sometimes having our buttons pushed is a good thing. You were faced with a PhD in Artspeak and it is up to you to chose to ignore it or let it destroy you. I'm glad you picked the third more creative option and punched her in her button nose by taking a giant slide into soft porn. The newer pieces are hysterically funny, especially when viewed as a series. Keep 'em coming- sometimes what we see as art misses what other people see as art. And that's a good thing or you'd be sewing little white satin buttons up the back of wedding dresses instead of these Statement Pieces. I love your mind!!!

Sally Lindsay said...

I cannot believe what was said. You bowl me over with your creations, you come up with the most profound, wild, and wonderful ideas, that leave me speechless. I think I have seen it all and then a different direction shows up. Don't read reviews, they are written by people who cannot create. And I have to say, I love the way this project is giving the naysayers THE FINGER!

Sally Lindsay