Joe Brommel: The exhibition text talks about how these quilts invoke “timeworn agrarian ideals and a sentimental yearning for the past.” I think the surface-level impulse there is to interpret those two things as negatives, but I don't think you end up with quilts that look the ways yours do with a process steeped in irony.
Ron Norsworthy: No, it’s the opposite, I think.
So how do you relate to those timeworn agrarian ideals? Are you sentimental people?
RN: So I'm from the Midwest. And I was born in Indiana. And then elementary school in Davenport, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Iowa, and then high school in Illinois. My father worked for John Deere and my mother was a homemaker. So I was born and grew up in the Midwest — I couldn't help but to sort of absorb what some of those sort of salient values were.
And so I don't have a cynical approach to what we're making at all. It was, for me, a very natural way to find a common access point, and then look critically at that access point. There are all sorts of cultural signifiers that play into this idea of the American Dream: building your own house, working hard, working the land, deriving your livelihood from the land — all agrarianism. So it's not to say that there aren't real agrarian values, but as a Black person and as a gay person, that allows me to look at this agrarianism and see how America has used it. How, culturally, it is played out through the white gaze.
David Anthone: I am also from the Midwest, from Nebraska, from a very small town of about 1,500 and dying. I grew up in a highway town littered with gas stations and bars, so when we began this project we thought about the difference between Ron's family traveling this country and my family with six kids traveling this country. Getting in the station wagon, where we went, where we could stay — and the things we picked up were souvenir matchbooks. They were very common back when we grew up, and sentimental people still collect them for sentimental reasons.
I'm very much — as a person trained in historic preservation and architectural conservation — aware of pride of place and how that gets marked. Souvenir matchbooks were invented to promote a product, and to remind you of where you were and the experience you had at that place. That’s how the matchbook emerged in this project.
RN: And how do you expand the view of what a quilt is? How can we talk about things that people take for granted in a way that's substantive, in a way that's different? The quilt is a quaint thing, and it's ubiquitous, and it feels sort of granny. That notion of comfort is actually pretty comforting in this cultural environment that we're in. So, then, what do you do with that comfort?
David and I were joking about this: we all are used to a house being made out of lumber. If we decide to build a house out of cookies, it makes you wonder why, and that instantly sucks you in. That's a really excellent starting point.
DA: And as artists, that's what we can do. We can take something benign, change it, put it in a different context, and give it new meaning to a different audience.
RN: Context, meaning. When you change the context, you change the meaning. That is the starting point for our work. If we change the context when we're having a social justice conversation about the killing of unarmed men, can we have a different conversation?
Do you feel like that frequently the same conversation is had?
RN: Oh, sadly yes. I think that you'll find a lot of people are exhausted. Why the exhaustion? Because the conversation doesn’t go anywhere.
DA: Well, the conversation is always programmed through the same kind of vehicle: an educator or a social justice moderator comes in and leads a discussion. There's one person with a crowd, and they have this conversation, and they say the same things based on what they read or what they saw on television.
The quilts come from such an unusual place that they introduce new ideas. It's almost like a Dada thing. You're taking a symbol that has nothing to do, seemingly, with social justice, and you're introducing it to an audience that's somewhat interested in having this conversation. And they begin to find the commonalities, begin to pick up themes. A match can be used for this or for that — but if you strap it down, you've limited its potential, you’ve neutered it.
RN: You’ve usurped its function. That also is saying something, right? What does memory, what does a souvenir, have to do with systemic racism? Memory. Systems. How did we get here? Where did we start? Everyone's going to connect those in different ways, but to have souvenirs, social justice, and systemic racism in one conversation: we're starting to have a different conversation. We’re starting to look at it in a different context, through a different lens.
And it's not my lens, it's not your lens — it's a lens that we formed together. That's very important. We were speaking about these conversations and how difficult they are to have: I find them extremely difficult to have. It's weird that we've chosen to make this kind of work, because it forces the conversation. Even when me as a person — not me as an artist, but me as a person — doesn't want to have it. I'm tired of having them, and there's a different kind of labor that a Black person puts towards a conversation about racism than a white person puts to it.
To that point, our work takes the position that systemic racism is a thing. It's not, “Oh, is there systemic racism?” I think a lot of times the conversations are regressive around these issues, because you have to establish what is fact and what is point of view.
DA: It takes you so long and so much energy to get to that point with people. We start with that point. We’re not gonna waste energy convincing you that there is structural racism and white privilege —
RN: Or bias.
DA: That you have bias. It's a given. So we start with that, and then we unpack it.
RN: Right. So that we can have a more nuanced conversation. We're bringing you into our space, which means we get to define the elements within the space. Not in a diabolical way, but in a thoughtful way. Not to attack you, but to have you look at what we’re doing from another position, disarmed a little bit. If our work succeeded only in helping people understand that the killing of black and brown bodies by law enforcement was systemic, if we could attribute causation, we will have succeeded.
DA: We will have moved that needle.
RN: We will have moved the needle. A little bit.
DA: We’ve had people say to us, “Well, I don't know. My brother's a cop. I'm not sure how he would think about your work.” I'm like, “That's great. Bring him in. Because we'd like to have that conversation.” What we are representing in this body of work is not biased. I mean, if you ask us personally what our biases are, we’ll tell you. But it's factual that these people died.
RN: But we're also artists. So we’re not gonna lie and say that we don't have a point of view. Right? It would be disingenuous to say the work is neutral. I don't think it's neutral.
DA: Also, back to the idea of sentimentality: are we sentimental? Are we historians? Are we diving into the past to build off something that we truly admire? I wouldn't say that the quilts do that. The quilts are just a springboard. But what's interesting is there are certain things that we just take for granted that they represent America. Souvenir matchbooks commemorate good times. Well, what if a souvenir matchbook commemorated a killing? And what if a quilt wasn't comfort? What if it was discomfort, but it was also beautiful?
RN: Or a matchbook quilt versus a traditional quilt. They’re in dialogue with the quilting tradition and the form that quilts have historically taken. What happens when you make it out of matchbooks and reference Underground Railroad quilts? When you think of a matchbook quilt, the name is almost an oxymoron.
DA: It just sounds a little nuts. And that is one of the most often asked questions we get: “Why matchbooks?” Like, we can see it in their eyes when they come in: “Why matchbooks?”
RN: But that's a provocative question. We are making a provocative proposition. When we say we're making matchbook quilts, we are absolutely begging you to say, “Why matchbooks?” That is always going to be the question, and it is the right question to ask.
But if we posed it as, “We're making quilts,” we don't get to have that conversation. So then the idea of memory, placemaking — all those beautiful, nuanced little nuggets — don't become part of the conversation.
Because nobody asks why a quilt.
RN: No one says why a quilt, because that already exists.
My original, sort of jokey, question in my notebook was, “Do they actually have matches in them? Are you trying to burn down the mill?”
RN: Well, I mean, it's funny in an odd way. I think that the fact that they are incendiary is good.
So they do actually have matches in them.
RN: They have matches in them. But again, they're bound down, so you'd have to dismantle the system of the quilts to access the matchbook. Now, you could just light the whole thing on fire, but you could light a painting on fire too. So what they're made out of is very, very important to what they're meant to represent. When you put them in the conversation of a quilt, to be trite, this is not your grandmother’s quilt.
DA: An heirloom is usually something of positive value, that you transfer to your descendants. But what is a Black inheritance? The stigma, the biases, or the systemic racism: those are also transferred. The trauma.
RN: And can knowledge, can information be an heirloom? Again, we are critically looking at the language of our cultural institutions and our cultural memory. The language that we use to remember something. How we talk about things that in a nostalgic way are valuable.
For Black people, an heirloom might not be of monetary value. We might not have had access to our grandmother’s land. Whatever we had might have been — was — stolen from us.
DA: And, in fact, slaves were part of the land transfer. So that’s an ironic reference to heirloom.
RN: We were transferred. We were heirlooms. We were left as property in wills.
David, you mentioned earlier that your experience driving across the country on a road trip was different from Ron's experience driving across the country on a road trip. Can you say more about that?
DA: Well, this project — Another Country, the quilts — didn't just emerge. So as we hit upon an investigation, we began to talk about our travels, about the differences my family and your family had with stopping at souvenir shops. I would go into this souvenir shop, and there were t-shirts there that said “slave” and “master.” I just thought that was “girlfriend” and “boyfriend,” because I didn't have Black people in my world. I only knew Black people from Sesame Street.
RN: So here is a common experience. We saw these t-shirts in Tennessee, and I remember it because it was traumatizing. So here we are on vacation: I, just as a 10-year-old, walk into a souvenir shop, and was immediately confronted by t-shirts. Black and white. White type on a black t-shirt. One said “master,” another said “slave.” They're separated by an aisle with Confederate souvenirs in the middle.
My experience was: I don't know which one to pick. I know the one I'd like to have. I want the master one. It means I get to be in control. But am I supposed to pick the slave one because I'm Black? I can't tell you what a confrontation that was. And this wasn’t a long time ago: this is contemporary, this is right now.
DA: And I also have a strong memory of traveling through Nebraska staying at my cousin's motel, which was called the Karny Kabin Kamp, all spelled with the letter K. Wasn’t until recently that I learned that was code for the KKK, for, “Black people, don't stop and stay here, you're not welcome.”
RN: And so those things that mainstream culture — i.e. white culture — finds quaint and nostalgic are encoded as racist symbols. These are issues that we have dealt with in our partnership — as artists and as a couple — since day one. We are actively grappling with the contradictions of experience. Where a road trip is not just a road trip for a Black family. We went on lots of road trips. My parents wanted the same thing that any parents want. So taking a trip to the Grand Canyon meant going through some areas where we might have driven by a Kozy Kabin Kamp, and my parents might not have said anything to us.
We've sort of been skirting around this for a while, but how do you think about the gap between personal memory, cultural memory, and historical fact? Like, you could have driven past a KKK cabin and you wouldn't have noticed, but your parents would have — so there's two different personal memories there. There's a cultural memory, though, that just shrouds the whole thing in nostalgia. And then there's historical fact that says, “No, this was a KKK signifier.”
RN: Well, I think that all of those things are valid: my lack of awareness as a child, what kind of environment my parents created so that I didn't have that awareness, and the intentionality behind creating that environment. My mother told me within the past several years — I'm a full-on adult, and she tells me, “There were certain things we didn't want you to have to deal with.” Now, how does that function? Out of a necessity to navigate our lives? Was that helpful? Yes. 100%. It was helpful. Maybe. As I grapple with it as an adult: wasn't all that helpful. What you thought, you have to re-run all of that.
So I think that these things can all function in their own lane, and have. And I think that an important component of our work is to make those connections between cultural memory, personal memory, historical narrative, and find out the whys. If there's a difference, why? And who does it serve?
You've also run workshops on the Another Country series.
RN: And hope to do more.
How do you seek to reframe the workshop format? Especially given your aversion to those kinds of “programmed” contexts for these conversations that you mentioned earlier.
DA: The workshops that we're doing now have to do with the power of symbols. So we show them our work, how we go through the process of our work, how symbols and patterns can be used to represent something, and then we have a workshop based on things in their world that they're concerned about.
So if it's a seventh grade class in Brooklyn, what does a seventh grade class in Brooklyn think about?
What does a seventh grade class in Brooklyn think about?
DA: They think about the Earth a lot.
RN: Current events, man.
DA: They think about media, they think about pop culture a lot, popularity.
RN: And, again, we start with the premise, “You know, this is a thing, right? You know that cops are out here killin’ people. And are you aware that it's Black people more than it's white people that they're killing?” Real question. Not a rhetorical question. And they want to talk about it!
DA: But we do it more subtly, I would say. We'll start with the very simplest thing, like Ferguson, and we’ll say, “Look at this matchbook on the screen. Have you heard of this place?” And they have. Somebody will say, “Yeah, that's where Michael Brown,” or they'll say, “That guy, that’s where he got killed.” And then we lead deeper and deeper into discussions that I never learned about as a kid in Nebraska.
RN: It's about connecting those dots. The matchbooks are encoded with information, and the front information is connected to the back information. So we show them the front: “What is significant about this?” Some of them are obvious, like Ferguson. Then there's another matchbook that's Bay Beauty Supply. Well, who knows what happened at Bay Beauty Supply? Nobody, because that story is not being told. Or, the neighborhood that that was in, and that it's a broken windows policing policy that caused Eric Garner to even be confronted in the first place.
DA: They also learn how to think critically or look for another meaning. So when we flip that matchbook over, there's that alphanumeric code of the initials of a person who died, and then their death date. Then we go broader. Then we back up and look at the pattern of the quilt.
So, for instance, in the Amplified quilt, which has a lot of Philando Castile, we talk about that, we talk about how the iPhone was used to record that in the moment and post it to millions of people. But as we back away and look at the pattern of the quilt, it's called Amplify — it's got the volume symbol, which they all know.
RN: Are we looking critically at the symbols that are being used to tell a story? For a seventh grader, that's important, because they're on their way to being ensconced in inherited language, inherited modes of behavior, that reinforce old modes of behavior.
So we facilitate ways in the workshop that they can make their own symbols, and that in itself is an empowering act. They learn how to read a symbol, and also how that symbol changes. And not only make their own symbols, but then name them.
DA: They name it, they present it to the class, and they have a discussion about how a symbol can mean different things.
RN: Our quilts, in naming them, we tried to use very simple and idiomatic language that will allow a lot of interpretations. Because in their simplicity, they’re non-specific. That also is an intentional way of engaging the widest audience possible, and also a little bit of a nostalgic audience. So it's pretty interesting to get the quilters in this conversation.
Yeah, I was wondering about that.
RN: There’s a lot of people that are like, “We collect quilts!” Those people, we are confronting them with their nostalgia. We're asking them: ”How’s your nostalgia working for you, when you're looking at this? How does it inform how you look at this?” It just makes them think.
That's what's interesting to me about these workshops and your approach in general. I think many artists are very hesitant to put any sort of explanation on their work — they leave it totally to the viewer, and whatever they see in it is fine. But you're happy to explain parts of your work, which I think reflects a trust on your part that there's more to the work than just the explanation of the symbols.
RN: The work is a tool, too. It's not just art. And as work that deals with social justice, I think it would be irresponsible of us to be like, “So, what do you think?,” and be mute about it. I think that the audience will get more through our putting ourselves out there and offering a context.
And we have a very open, transparent process. I also think that that's a little bit of an artist’s narrative, that there has to be some mystery or vagueness around process. Why?
I think the mystery’s deeper than that.
RN: Yeah. We're not telling you our secret sauce, because we wouldn't be able to put it into words anyway. We're okay with sharing process.
What's interesting to us is to see how people place what we're making. That's very informative, because we can then engage with them where they're coming from. So if they want to look at our work as fiber art, textile art: why not? People want to look at it as design: they’re welcome to, because it certainly is. If they want to look at it as conceptual work or social practice, it’s that. It checks a whole bunch of boxes.
So we've been talking for a while about the ideas, but we haven't even touched on your process yet. How do you make the matchbooks? How do you construct the quilts?
RN: The process is something that we had to invent. We were like, How do you make a quilt out of matchbooks? How do you actually fabricate that?
The quilts start as a design, as a pattern, as a concept. Once we arrive on a pattern, it's digitized, it's broken up into panels that we could work on individually, then there's a work schedule, where you put the date that you completed the thing, so that we can work independently of each other and not do the same pattern. Each quilt is made up of different panels. Sometimes it’s really simple — A, B, A, B — sometimes every single one of the panels is a different pattern.
DA: But if we back up, the first thing we have to do after we have the digitized pattern is decide who it is we're going to put in this matchbook. Who are we going to commemorate and memorialize? Which people? And then we kind of think about the country, and where things are happening, and what's happened, and a good representation of all the killings that have happened.
RN: We didn't want it to feel, for example, all California-based, or all the headlines.
DA: Then Ron does a graphic logo based on where they're from.
RN: The idea is that it be as common as possible, so that people aren't like, “Oh, look at the graphic design on this.” It's not about the graphic design, so that has to be invisible.
DA: There's nothing on the front that really says anything about what happened.
Then these designs get sent out to a matchbook company — the only one in North America — down in Texas. Then, when we get them back, we have boxes, thousands of matches, and we begin production. Each big quilt is made up of 16 panels. We can't put them all together because we don't have the space to show all these quilts, so they get boxed until they're ready to be shown, and then the panels get sewn together, put onto a big eight foot by eight foot felt backing, and that completes them.
And that, in the quilting tradition, is common: you make the top quilt, and you do them in pieces, and then stitch all those pieces together at the quilting bee.
RN: We want each quilt to be as broadly representative as it can be, but the fact that Botham Jean is next to Philando Castile is utterly random. We pick by color. And the reason that it is random — that Botham Jean is next to Philando Castile is next to Trayvon Martin — is that all of these people are in a club that they never would have wanted to be a part of. They didn't know each other. There's no natural relationship between these individuals, so why would we create one?
DA: We have to be fluid, too, because what's happening is fluid.
RN: We had four victims when we started. Now we’ve got 20. And there will be more, sadly, before we’ve finished. If we had locked on the patterns, locked on the names, locked on what the matchbooks are going to be, can you imagine how static this would be? This way of working, this process, is responsive to the times that we're living in, and it shows in the work. The work tells us what it needs. We don't have to lead that. And, interestingly, being as different as we are, it's telling us sort of the same thing.
DA: It’s cool. We’re just kind of the manufacturing component of something that tells us what to do, at this point. The other thing some people ask is, “Who makes these for you?” We make them. We stitch every one.
RN: And it's important that we do. Otherwise this process wouldn’t work as well. There’s a Zen-like focus that is required to know not only that you're using the front or the back, but also the color. As we're working, you can't watch TV. It's not like knitting. You're following a pattern with 2,800 pieces. So, like, imagine making ladders in the case of the Go High quilt pattern, and it needs to run under or over: you get that wrong, you might have just messed up hours of work.
DA: And we do that. And then we have to take it all out.
RN: The focus it takes to put one of these together is part of the process.
DA: I want our DNA to be in each one.
RN: And we know that we want 13 quilts. We came up with 13 patterns when we started, but we call it a series-in-process because we still have six quilts to make.
RN: The 13th amendment, 13 colonies, the fact that 13 is good luck in every culture except for this one.
DA: We also didn’t want this investigation to go on forever. We need to have this well-defined so that we can investigate it, call it good, get it out there in the world.
RN: It didn’t feel overwhelming. The quilts take, I would say, 150 to 200 hours each.
I was gonna ask.
RN: It's a lot of time. So, like, last year we finished one quilt. It was just a really busy year. Some years are much more productive, and each quilt is different. Some just go together, and others take a little bit longer. I think any art is like that, but also these are in conversation with each other. They're working together to make a bigger statement.
How long do you think it will be until the series is completed? And what are you going to feel like when it is done?
DA: It ebbs and flows. I think we’re on a real flow right now.
RN: There's an eagerness to get through it, also. We don't have a deadline for when they're going to be done, but we are going to stick at 13. And they're done when they’re done.
We do know that the last one we want to do will be a pattern called Kool Aid, which will incorporate all the matchbook designs and colors that we will have accumulated in this process. Even if somebody is killed hours before we're completed, we can press pause, get a matchbook, and include them in the process. So that is the way that we can make our process most responsive to what's happening in the world in which these things are being made.
The other thing, too — and this is for me, less so for David — but for me, it's cathartic. It's healing. I get to spend time with members of my community that are no longer with us. I get to take care of them and tend to them. I get to meditate on them.
DA: But if we do the 13, and they land well, and a pattern emerges in our head, I think we have the obligation — I don't know if we can stop.
RN: I don't know if we'll stop. Yeah, that’s true. I think what I meant was that this first series for us will be special and unique in terms of process. I will never say never, but if there are other quilts, they will not be part of this series. We’ll just be in a different place.
DA: And it’s sad. We had a moment where we were like, We gotta hurry, because we're going to miss this finite thing that's happening in this country. How naive was that?
RN: I didn't really have that. But we did think that there was going to be a zeitgeist. We were concerned that we were gonna miss the conversation. How stupid, right? Like, first of all, it’s not why we were making the work anyway. If we’re doing it so that someone will think we're clever and like us, then we're doing it for the wrong reason. So if we do indeed miss the “national conversation,” does that preclude us from finishing this work?
DA: And that would be a good thing, if this whole killing thing ended and these just became artifacts. Praise Jesus!
RN: They’re still timestamped. They would still represent a certain period of time where this was not addressed. So if it preceded a moment in our history where it was addressed, and people in the Black and Brown and other marginalized communities stop being killed in disproportionate numbers, then it marks something. So it will have relevance in one way or another. Hopefully in a good way, but it exists regardless of how history plays out.
And that would maybe, in some sense, make it an heirloom that you feel better about passing down.
RN: Right. And we're also marking a time in history where this conversation could be had. I swear: in 2010, it couldn't have been had. So thank God we're having it. Again, what is an heirloom? Maybe that's the gift? We're not here to determine what the heirloom is, we're just asking, “What is an heirloom?” That's an important distinction to make. We're not giving answers. We're asking questions. We're searching for answers the same way, hopefully, our engaged audience is asking for answers. And we will arrive there together, the same way David and I arrived at making these quilts together.
DARNstudio is a collaboration of artists David Anthone and Ron Norsworthy. Our work investigates the built, designed, or otherwise manifested world we live in, breaks down its components and uncouples them from their implicit and inherited meaning(s). We then re-assemble in a way that disrupts its original function. Our work encourages alternative ways of understanding objects, ideas and structures through a process we refer to as “re:meaning.” Through reassignment, remixing, inversion, or juxtaposition DARNstudio’s work examines the purpose of things. These things may range from the macro and intangible (cultural institutions and norms) to the micro and concrete (mundane objects, words, expressions or phrases). We glean new meanings from these things in their disrupted reconfigurations which triggers new dialogue on the commonplace, the happenstance, and the “extraordinary ordinary”. Our goal is to cast the familiar in an unexpected context so that it can be seen in an unfamiliar and new way.