What have you been working on in Wassaic?
I have been working on a new tapestry, which I'm embroidering right now. I just finished grad school at UC Davis — I made my first tapestry for my thesis show, and so I'm making my second one here.
I make installations, and for my thesis show, I made a full-scale installation that was kind of mimicking a living room. Here, I just made this little tableau behind us on the wall. But I use those installations as a kind of still life to copy the two-dimensional image onto this embroidered tapestry. So I came with the paintings and I've just been embroidering for a month.
Wonderful. Can you talk about how, process-wise, you transitioned from painting to embroidery? And, beyond that, what that does conceptually for you?
A big overhead umbrella idea in my work is dealing with coping and healing mechanisms — especially as related to healing from trauma. I read this book called Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. He talks about the ways that animals recover from trauma and the ways that we as humans get in the way of our own natural instincts. We all know about the fight or the flight response, but he theorizes that there's actually a third response called the “frozen response,” and that's what we go into when we're experiencing a trauma. Although you're frozen and your body really isn't responding or moving, you're still producing energy, and then after you leave the frozen state, you have to expel that energy again.
Animals have natural ways that they expel energy, and usually it's some kind of shaking. Like when a bird crashes into a window: if it doesn't die, it'll shake on the ground for a while. That's the expelling of all the energy, and then it will be able to get up and fly away. But we as humans don't have anything like that. We think we can think ourselves into healing, and we don't go through that natural shaking procedure. So in my work, I've tried to translate shaking into repetition.
Another part of healing from trauma is testifying about your experience. So I make the paintings more intuitively, and think of them more as testimonials. They're based on my memory, or I pull scenes from folklore or mythology and juxtapose them with my own stories. Then, once I've kind of testified through painting, I make these tapestries as a repetition. Embroidering is so different than painting. It's so much more meditative. It's a test of patience, but it's also a way to really sit with a whole experience, rather than just getting it out really quickly and intuitively. So that's why I'm repeating the images again. It's just another way to say, Let's think really meditatively about this.
What drew you to embroidery initially?
I played around with it when I was a kid, but I don't really know why I picked it up again in grad school. I mean, I probably started doing it just because I could see in my mind's eye a way to translate the way I paint into textile work. My embroidery’s kind of half-quilting, half-embroidering, and the way that I paint is so pattern-based.
So that was kind of my initial draw, but I do think that there's an interesting complicity to embroidery. It's seen as so feminine, and it has such a long history of femininity, but wealthy women only embroidered because they didn't have anything else to do. So it's interesting to be working in this medium which is so inherently feminine, but it’s forced femininity. But then also kind of using it as a tool to heal, I find to be exciting and powerful.
To sort of expand on that thread — that one was an unintentional pun — of femininity, on your site you talk about the role of your “labor-intensive hand” in the work, and about addressing the female body and memory. Can you talk about the ways that you comment on and incorporate femininity and the female body in your work more broadly?
I mean, it would be hard for me not to talk about femininity as a woman. It’s funny — when I was in college, at one point I came home and my mom was like, “Are you making feminist work?” And it kind of dawned on me: I was like, “Well, I don't know how I could not be making feminist work as a woman maker.”
Maybe this is a roundabout way to answer your question: I’m really interested in storytelling, but storytelling for so long has had such masculine overtones, and it still dictates the way that femininity is understood. I'm excited about trying to retell a story from a more authentic perspective. I think when you look at the way culture has told stories about women healing from trauma, there are kind of two options: there's either a woman going into hysteria, or a woman going on a revenge plot and killing everyone who has ever wronged her.
Like Jane Eyre.
[Laughs.] Right. I hope that these tapestries are more of a realistic portrayal of what the labor in contemporary healing looks like, rather than me going into a hysterical revenge plot. It's more just really sitting in yourself, and understanding the world around you, and understanding what's happened to you. The labor in that is something I'm interested in telling.
I actually show the backs of the embroideries of the tapestry first — I hang them in space, and I always put the back forward. I do that for two reasons. I think that the back of the embroidery really shows the labor more, for whatever reason — it just seems like the hand is a little bit more present. But I also find interesting, after I've gone through all of these repetitions which I have control over, that I come away with this back stitching which I don't really have any control over what it looks like. It's almost like I found this new language through all of the repetitions.
How have folklore and mythology played into that?
What I think is so interesting about folklore especially is that it's not about the person telling the story. In some ways, it's not really even about the story itself. It's really about how the listener interprets and internalizes and passes a story along.
But also — I don't know — I'm just such a lover of the classics. Like this tapestry I'm working on now is kind of a riff on the classic folklore Bluebeard. And I just find it exciting to get to reuse old stories — I've worked with the story of Medusa before, and in art history there are all of these stories about women experiencing trauma: The Rape of the Sabines, and Lucretia, and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. So I've always wanted to work with these historic women who have been told from a masculine perspective, and retell them using a contemporary lens. I'm looking at contemporary dating, especially, and reframing those old stories through that perspective.
What’s the story of Bluebeard? I’m not familiar with it.
It’s a little explicit. Is that okay?
[Laughs.] That’s fine. The website is PG-13 or R when it needs to be.
I don't think there's a lot of children out there sifting through contemporary artists interviews. And if they do —
Stop now! [Laughs.]
So the story of Bluebeard actually is not super well known nowadays. It's been told a myriad of different ways by many different cultures but, basically, there's this young, poor girl, and this rich dude comes in and is like, “Hey, marry me.” And everyone's like, “Don't marry him! He has two ex-wives!” And she says, “No, it'll be good for the family for me to marry this rich guy.” So she goes to his castle, they get married, they have sex, and then he's like, “I have to go take care of some business. You can have the run of my whole castle, except for this one room. Here's the key.” So obviously she goes in, and she finds the decapitated corpses of his two ex-wives. And then in some stories a prince comes and saves her, in some stories her mom comes and saves her, and in some stories she dies.
But I read this really interesting critical essay about the story — and this is actually what the quote behind you is based on [pictured in the background above] — where Suzette Henke theorized that because the girl witnessed the vulnerability of the man after sex, she has to be got rid of. When he has a deflated penis, that is peak vulnerability for him.
And I'm, uh, single. I'm having to deal with the dating world, which — I wouldn't qualify it as traumatic, but I would say that it's emotionally draining. And this summer I was talking to this guy I met online, and he kept on asking me for pictures of myself. And I don't think that there's anything wrong with sharing pictures of yourself, especially if it seems like a trustworthy person, or even if you just want to — like, do what you want, it's your life. So I did a little bit, and he kept on asking me, “Oh, what do you want? A video of me? Do you want a video of me?” I was like, “No, I really don't. Doesn't do it for me. It's fine.” And one time he actually, unsolicited, sent me a video of him ejaculating, and then ghosted me the next day. And I was like, “It's just like Bluebeard!” [Laughs.]
Almost exactly the same. Like, not a stretch at all. [Laughs.]
Isn’t that crazy? I was like, What is this? At one point he told me that he didn't want to have sex with me because he respected me too much. And I was like, “Uh, yeah. What are you talking about?”
I don’t know, it was just such a strange situation, and it emotionally affected me for several days. I was trying to figure out what I had just experienced. So I decided to make work about it [laughs], and tie together my story with Bluebeard.
This is a bit of a left turn, but a couple days ago you posted on Instagram that you've been excited about working with smaller embroideries. Can you talk about what it's been like transitioning from large-scale embroideries to smaller works? What that has done to the work? How has it been different?
Well, it's not a super deep, conceptual answer, but I just lost my grad school studio. I'm very lucky to have a studio here right now, but I'm not gonna have one for this foreseeable future. I'm moving to LA right after this, I don't have a job, I definitely can't pay for a studio yet. So, realistically, that just means I'm having to transition the size of my work. I've always been someone who works really large-scale, but when I was working on my thesis tapestry, it was like 60 by 70 inches. I had to sit on the floor to embroider it, and I really hurt my back while I was doing it. I was like, I can't ever do that again. From now on I have to be able to work on this on a table. [Laughs.]
Making smaller paintings has been fine so far. I traditionally am an oil painter, but you can't use oil paint in your apartment or in a space that's not ventilated well because it's so toxic. So I've started to use gouache. I love gouache, but that’s actually been the toughest transition so far. Just because with oil paint, you can layer the paint up and change as much as you want — you can layer and layer and layer and layer, and it's fine. But with gouache, you can only add so many layers of paint before it starts to crack off the surface. I just don't have as many opportunities to adjust and fix what I'm doing. So that's been a little tricky, but I'll just embrace it. That's what you gotta do.
Speaking of painting, you have also been doing some plein air painting while here, and recently hosted a plein air workshop.
I did, yeah. I'm the Education Fellow this month.
Can you say more about that?
Plein air painting is so fun. It's a way for me to turn my brain off and not have to think about the heady conceptualism of my work. I can just say, Wow, the light’s really beautiful over there, or, Look at that amazing color. I want to capture it.
And leading the plein air workshop was awesome. I love opening up art to people who don't think they can do art. People think that if you can't paint, like, a rendered figure that means that you're a terrible artist, but that's totally not the case. I'm really interested in shifting people's perspectives on that. You can be outside, and you get to look at nature, and you get to see beautiful color and light — it's just a nice way to introduce people to painting for themselves, and not painting because it has to be good in the end.
Like, what's “good” even mean? You know? [Laughs.]
Rachel Deane is a California-based artist, who was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a BFA in Painting and an MA in Art + Design Education from the Rhode Island School of Design, and an MFA in Art Studio from the University of California, Davis. She has been an artist in residence at The Chautauqua School of Art, The Vermont Studio Center, and The Wassaic Project. She has shown nationally in California, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. Her work has been collected by the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.
2019 Summer Residency