Eliza Fernand

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ELIZA FERNAND

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About the Artist

 
 

Eliza is a visual artist based in Grand Rapids, MI.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

with D. K. Broderick, June 2018
 

What does it mean to live and work as a radically charged artist outside of the art world system?

Oh, is that something I said? I went to an art high school. I grew up always being interested in making artwork. My mom was in art school when I was a kid. I always just thought I'd be an artist. But the more I was in this art school system, the more I didn't like the direction in which the people in the system (myself included) were being herded. The attitude at my high school was basically, "Go to New York City and then get represented at a gallery in Chelsea." That was it, that was the only option you had.

That kind of thinking wasn't prevalent at the college I ended up going to in Oregon. But there also wasn't a lot of support. No one talked about what to do after you got out of school. No one there was encouraging students to go to graduate school. There wasn't a lot of conversation about how to be a person in the world after art school.

So I ended up going back to New York. When I talk to college students now, I try and convey that there's a lot of different ways to be an artist in the world. And that you don't have to hold yourself to the standards that were presented to me in my education. Which, as I said was basically, "If you're not in Chelsea you're a failure, if you're not in New York you're nobody."

I've lived in a lot of different places and made artwork in a lot of different spaces. I work as a teaching artist too which is a big part of my practice. I think that it's a hard decision, when you've been trained to work within the system, to unlearn that training. It's even harder to then be happy with what you're doing after you've made that decision.


Are you happy with the decision you've made?

Yeah. I guess I'm not totally divorced from any sort of commercial gallery world. I just don't see that as the pinnacle of success and it's definitely not what I'm striving for. I think that I have to make artwork. I was trained to make artwork within a structure and I got to a point where I had to unlearn that structure in order to keep making artwork and be happy. And not be measuring myself against these ideals that were presented to me.

I think a lot of what I do in my practice and in my relationships is pull other people into creative action. I think that everyone's an artist. I invite people to make work and dismiss their fears about making artwork. And I guess the same goes for me. I used to in my artist statement, a couple years ago, state that I wanted to demystify the practice of artists. Because there's this sense that we're these geniuses. Working with quilt making helped me to be more approachable and happier in my practice.

I was trained in sculpture and I was produced work in a situation where I was like, "I'm a genius, everything I make is amazing." And then when I started making quilts and fabric collage and using fabric materials I noticed that people would come to a show, that I would have in Idaho or Utah, and say, "Oh, well that's neat, maybe I'll make that." And it was such a strange experience for me because I was like, "No, I'm the artist genius —"


“Only I can make that.”

When it's really something that someone else could easily make if they had access to the supplies. And that's part of the point, accessibility. With these pieces I could be using gesso or other types of glue to make them firm but instead I make a pot of wheatpaste everyday and bring it to the studio because I want to work with just flour and water. My economy, my choices about economy, and my economy of materials, I'm sure they come from my own financial situation but they are also part of making work that is accessible. Accessible through the use of materials that are accessible and that are familiar and that have been in people's lives.


The history of quilt making is foundational to your work. How are the issues of accessibility, marginalization, collectivity, and individual authorship that you engage with in your practice informed by this history?

Quilt making became part of my practice once I had already been working with discarded fabrics using collage. It was actually really intimidating to me at first because it was a level of craftsmanship that I wasn't sure I would be able to succeed at. Because I'm not trained as a fiber artist. I think that the communal part of quilt making has made it really accessible to me as well. Using quilt making practices as both the process and product has been very generative. I make quilts that are about quilt making.

I'm trying to speak to the history of this craft that has been mostly exclusively practiced by women and marginalized as not art. Even though it's a process that involves a lot of skill, it's time-consuming, there are conceptual and aesthetic decisions being made it has still remained outside of the art world proper to a certain extend. The patchwork quilt is a uniquely American art form. It has been an important way for women to gather throughout history. Having a quilting circle or a quilting bee is a way that women have been able to gather throughout history.

Having said that, there is a misunderstanding that quilts were always made as a group and that there was not one person who felt authorship over it. That's just not the case. So those quilt makers that have made those quilts that have been preserved and are known as "Made by Anonymous" — those people didn't ever want to be "anonymous." The people who archived those quilts assumed that the women making these quilts were coming from a place of essentially doing it for fun or because they didn't have anything else to do, when in reality those women were artists and were making unique works of art that were often signed. A lot of the "anonymous" quilts were actually signed.

Women who had been previously marginalized for so many years were completely misrepresented and silenced again. Only when male abstract painters in the 60s and 70s were making the same imagery that was historically made in these quilts, only then was this practice celebrated. The other interesting thing is that a lot of times these quilts get hung on the wall like they're paintings. But if you've ever gone to a quilt show, where quilters hung the work, it would be hung out in space.


To see both sides.

Yeah. I feel like when I talk about these histories I can't help but think about my work as being gently political. In that it references these histories, and even if you weren't aware of these histories, I think that just bringing quilts into a gallery space is already subversive. Deciding to work in this form has nothing to do with being a woman, I'm doing intentionally and with awareness because I have the privilege as an artist to do so. This is the work that I want to bring into a gallery space. This is the work that I choose.

 
 

I was trained to make artwork within a structure and I got to a point where I had to unlearn that structure in order to keep making artwork and be happy. And not be measuring myself against these ideals that were presented to me.
— Eliza Fernand
 
 
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Recently your work has shifted from gently political to outwardly political while still inviting public participation. What are the differences between the work that you were making two years ago and the work you are making now? Have the shifts been in how you are thinking and talking about the work or have they been in the material form of the work? Is there any relationship between these changes and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election?

There's definitely a visual shift. The piece I just showed you that says "NO,” that was the first piece that I feel is outwardly political. I would say the the work I was making with fabric considering the history of patchwork was gently political and outwardly feminist while the work I'm making now is outwardly political and directly responsive. I've made a number of text pieces recently. I hadn't had any imagery or text in my work until after the election. After the election I felt like it wouldn't be responsible for me to keep making work that wasn't directly political given the circumstances. So making a patchwork that says "NO" felt like it was still open to a lot of interpretations but that it was also made for very specific reasons under very specific circumstances.

Originally, it was made for the storefront window of a gallery. So it was facing out of the window onto the street. It's called "No you do not have my consent.” After that, I made another piece related to "NO" as well. I was part of an ongoing series of patchworks that say "NO" that I used to make a video. A lot of times I'll make one piece with multiple formats. So it was a sculpture, and an instillation, and an animation. So there was an animation of these patches that say, "NO" kind of building themselves. I was filming them as I was building them and then made a strobing video sequence. I used that video online for to target specific audiences and events. If there was specific legislation being decided on and I wanted to draw attention to it I'd post that video as content on line and say like, "No to this."

But I also called the first piece "No you do not have my consent" because I had been talking to a friend about making work regarding consent maybe a year or so before the election. We were talking about making a quilt that said "NO" on one side and on the other side it had a clear and enthusiastic ongoing "YES." For however you want to define consent. Then, after watching the debates between the presidential candidates was really traumatizing to a lot of people. Whether or not you were a fan of Hillary or not, just seeing the way that she was being treated. I internalized it a lot. And the way that our president treats women in general. There are people that say, "Anyone who wasn't woke before the election wasn't paying attention and was being blinded by their privilege." I think that's true, but I think that it's been such a traumatizing period to go through the things that happened over the course of the election and since then and the way that in particular the president is a bully and a racist and a misogynist in the way that he goes after women. This piece was meant to talk about political strong-arming in the same way. Like the political strong-arming that was happening felt like non-consensual acts of aggression.

So yeah, that's why I named it that, because I wanted it to be open. When I had that piece in Cleveland, in March after the inauguration in January, on the opening night people kept coming in and asking, "Well what are you saying 'NO' to?" And I really liked talking to people about the work. I would respond by saying, "What do you think it means?" Everyone had different ideas about what it meant. One woman said, "It made me think of street harassment." Another person came in and he was like, "Yeah, we have to say no!" And he was really excited about it. And then there were other people that were saying, "Why do you have to say no, why is this so negative?" So I've had a lot of interesting responses to it and I want to keep it open. There are those times where I use the video piece to say, "No" to something very specific and draw particular attention to it and then there are times with the other work that I want to keep it open. I think, for the most part, it's always read as a female voice because it's made with fabric and it's patchwork. But I think it's open enough that a lot of people can align it with whatever they want it to say "No" to.

The interactive part of my, I've done projects where I've used storytelling and had people tell stories and made work with their stories. Or interactive work where people are physically interacting with the work. I made a piece that was exhibited this past March, a year after the first one, it was called "A collaborative No." I put out a call and made a zine that was instructions for how to make the patchwork. I wanted it to be an open source thing. Originally, I wanted it to be something that people could just make on their own and hang somewhere in their house to remind them and their guests of what they are saying "No" to. I put out an open call on social media to have people make a "No" patchwork and send it to me. And then I made a large patchwork, out of the 70 pieces that were submitted. I had each person write a statement about what they were saying "No" to. There's a video piece that accompanies the patchwork that is a scrolling text of all these statements. The statements don't have names attached to them but on the label for the work all the collaborators are named. Then I took all their squares and put them together in an arrangement that can continue to grow on either side. I intend to continue the piece through another open call and continue to show it. That's an example of doing something responsive and interactive but again, I'm really interested in inviting people who don't necessarily see themselves as artists to make work in order to demystify the figure of the artist and art practice and bring voices that might not necessarily be in a part of the art world into the space of the gallery.

It's definitely related again to marginalization of female voices. So many women are socialized to not say, "No." To be agreeable and do things for other people. I've definitely had that experience, not feeling like I could say, "No." Whether it was someone asking you to do them a favor or someone asking you for sex. I think that that is part of our gendered socialization, women aren't supposed to say, "No." So inviting anyone, not just women, to make this piece where they are saying, "No" and really defining what they are saying, "No" to is trying to make a space to reflect on these conditions. Sewing can be a really meditative practice. Having that physical process and meditating on what that "No" means to you can be really healing. A lot of the statements were about peoples’ journeys in not being able to say, "No." The things that they were able to say, "No" to and how empowered they felt in saying, "No." I think this work has been for the most part misunderstood by men who are like, "Well why does it say no, why don't you make one that says yes?" And I'm like, "I'm allowed to say no. You don't like it because essentially some base part of you doesn't want me to say no. And it's disturbing to you."


Saying "No" is an affirmation, it's saying "Yes" to not doing something. What does it take for someone to realize that "No" is not just a negative or reactionary formation?

Exactly. I had a women who runs a space in California tell me that she didn't want me to teach a workshop on patchwork around the "No" project. She expressed that she didn't really know what I was trying to get at. She felt like it was shutting down a conversation. Saying, "No" is not being open to other possibilities. So I explained it to her in the same way that you just said it. Saying "No" to something means you are allowing yourself to say "Yes" to other things. Saying "No" isn't necessarily the end of the conversation. I feel like in conversations you can say, "No" and keep talking. It's not the end of anything. In the patchwork it is underlined for emphasis and I think that some people definitely cannot relate. It's always great to explain to these people that some people have a very hard time saying "No." It's for one reason or another and them being able to say, "No" is a really good thing for them.


Can we return to a comment you made earlier in regards to quilt making and working with fabric as gendered activities?

Yes.


I don’t want to over-project, but when I come across the materials and processes you've been discussing I don't think of them as gendered other than in a historical sense. In your experience, does a binary and divisionary understanding of these materials and processes persist? Are these activities still perceived in this way?

Before I saw my work as having to do with gender I saw it as sensual. I am interested in the sensuality of materials. Fabric and ceramics lend themselves well to that. We all have relationships to these materials on an everyday basis. They touch our mouths and our bodies every day. The way in which these materials are tactile without needing to be touched necessarily has always interested me. These are the things I thought about before understanding fabric as relating to a gendered craft. Working with patchwork and quilt making in particular is more related to this notion of a gendered craft. The fabric in and of itself isn't gendered in the same way.

There are a lot of artists using fabric to produce a wide variety of work. I see a lot of fabric work by artists of any gender. But I think, in particular, when it comes to male artists using quilt making in their work, I think it would be irresponsible for them to be working with that craft without acknowledging the history of it. It's particular to quilt making and also to the art world. If you look outside of the art world there still is a lot of gendered ideas placed on who works with fabric and who sews. The general public still has a sense that sewing is a female craft.

Another interesting thing is that modern quilt making is so much about consumption whereas the history of it was about necessity. People didn't have much fabric and they needed to reuse it for as long as they possible could. So they often made blankets out of scraps. Now that modern quilt making is very much about consumption and new fabrics are coming out all the time. Jo-Ann Fabric plays a huge role in this. Crafting is directed at middle-age women with expendable income, and it's all about consuming and buying the new this and the new that. I really don't like that, for me I'm all about using discarded fabrics. Casting women as consumers and creating more and more products that they need to spend money on, and it might be their money that they're earning at a lower wage than men or it might be their husbands money, but it's all about getting women to spend money. Often women buy all these quilting products and never actually make anything with it because they're so overwhelmed by how much they have.


In regards to your intentional use of discarded fabric remnants, what is it about something being discarded that is of significance to you and to your work?

I often actively assert that I do not buy new fabrics for my work. I am really invested in recycling materials, not only because it's true to the craft of quilt making but also because I care about the amount of waste that we create. There isn't a lot of conversation around how much fabric waste there is in the world, especially in the United States. We talk about cans and bottles and paper but we don't talk about fabric. Some of the fabrics I use are from cut and sew factors and from dumpsters in Los Angeles in the fashion district. Intercepting the waste stream for art materials always brings me joy.

The nostalgic quality in fabric and its potential to trigger memories is also a part of it. If someone's looking at a piece with all these different pieces of fabric in it potentially one of those pieces of fabric is gonna be familiar to that person and it's going to remind them of something. Maybe it'll be a really happy memory. And maybe the person next to them will see that same fabric and have it trigger an awful memory for them. The potential of fabric to open up different divergent narratives for every viewer is really meaningful. These fabrics really have a life of their own. There's no direction on my part over what the feelings are that people are getting from them.

 
 

Saying “No” to something means you are allowing yourself to say “Yes” to other things.
— Eliza Fernand
 
 
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Photos by Walker Esner