deAnn tyler, fiber artist, gualala, ca

an interview with the artist

by sudie rakusin

what is your favorite medium?

i have always loved textiles.  from bunting to shroud, the creation of cloth and fiber has always had an important place in the life of women.  i would say that everything i have done since 1988 has been with the intention of infusing fabric with energy and intention for the person using it.

where do your ideas come from?

my ideas have always reflected some integration of the kind of textile i had access to and whatever i was preoccupied with during some period of time.  often it reflects a concept or learning experience that i am excited about and other times it reflects some unresolved question.  frequently, as i reach a resolution about a question, my work will morph or absorb some new fascination i have discovered along the way.

my mind never progresses on some linear path.  the thread that connects my thoughts is often questionable and appears random and disconnected to anyone but myself.  i think the same may be true of my body of work.  it may be less apparent to the viewer what the relationship is, but when i look at my body of work over time, i see exactly how it is linked.

right now, i'm combining recycled blue jeans and japanese boro and adding surface design with the stitching.  there are no hidden seams, all hand stitched, and i only use pieces of boro that are already in bits too deteriorated to rescue or have been previously deconstructed.

these are a series i've been doing that captures the spirit of the ancestor or family member that so clearly remains in both african american work clothes quilt and japanese boro.  the japanese have a long history of being recyclers and boro (rags) is the perfect example.

the phrase "boro no bi" translates "beauty from rags."   it is necessity patching on garments or futon covers that is often generational.  over time the garment or quilt-like futon cover became a riot of layered patches, and the pieces were often handed down and used from generation to generation.  unintentionally they became a way of honoring the generations before.  the cloth was infused with their spirit.  this initially struck a chord with me because of the strong resemblance aesthetically to african american work clothes quilts, made exclusively from denim overalls or jeans, frequently from a deceased husband or other male family member.  both african american work clothes quilts and boro resemble a very raw version of a mourning quilt, although neither was intended for that purpose. my fascination with these pieces is on many levels, but the most important is the feeling of the spirit of the ancestors in fabric.

my fascination with these pieces is on many levels, but the most important is the feeling of the spirit of the ancestors in fabric.

question how does the life of the original owner permeate the clothing?

question what remains of the last person when the next one owns and wears it?

question how do we build clothing over time that already contains intention both in the creating and in the infused cloth?

question what are we recycling besides the cloth when we mend and patch a textile?

question what do we own today that is as infused?

question how exactly do we "birth" our clothing and textiles?

i'm very intrigued with discovering my personal answer to these questions.

when is your favorite time to work?

it is cyclical, but i tend to work best in the late evening from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.  daylight hours seem to be more "idea" times and night time hours seem to be work hours.  maybe it's the ingrained habit of working after the children were asleep, although my children have been grown and away for many years.

where is your favorite place to work?

it never fails that even when i designate a special area to work in, a place where i could be undisturbed, i end up using that spot to store my supplies and then drag my work to invade almost every area of the house.  i suspect i actually benefit from the spontaneity of interruption in some way.  i think this actually changes the work as i go along.  i can't over-think what i am working on and that seems to ensure that i always enjoy the work more.  trying to plan things out just doesn’t work for me.  it's a textile version of natalie goldberg's "writing down the bones, freeing the writer within".  she notes that the best way to become a writer is to write, and similarly the best way for me to create art is simply to start creating.

when did you know you were (or would be) an artist?

there were many steps to that realization.  there was always a creative person lurking in me, but the region i grew up in, as well as the era, didn't allow for art as a justifiable means of expression for an adult.  you could have a "hobby", but it wasn’t to be considered artistic and it needed to be purposeful.  so a conventional quilt in a traditional pattern that reflected technical skills rather than imagination was fine.  anything else was selfish and strange.

the "artistic" woman created a lovely home and fulfilled creative urges with procreation.

the birth of my first child in 1976, which i had counted on to fulfill that creative urge in me, probably marked the first moment that i knew that was not going to do it for me.

as much as i loved him, my perception was not a reality.  i was a very young mother and i found it a very intense experience that didn't reflect the kind of creative urges i was feeling.  so to mark the time between his short naps, chronic colic, bottles, and diaper changes, i started to piece quilt blocks and pin them on the walls.  these were tangible proof that one day was in fact different than the last.  although i had never sewn beyond the mandatory semester of home economics in junior high, this filled the necessary category of acceptable expression.  i got a book and read how it was done and set to it.  it was a "hobby", it was practical, and, if you used scraps, it was thrifty.

the next shift was probably not until the early 1980's when the question of what was art and what was craft first arrived in my consciousness.  the medium of fabric was struggling to be recognized as an art form.  i started using less conventional fabrics and getting a bit bolder in my expression.  i started drafting my own patterns and making "quilts" that were still meant to be slept under, but were no longer sizes that fit on a conventional bed.  the first time i entered a piece with cutouts in a quilt show, the curators put a piece of paper behind the opening because "holes" in the quilt would be confusing to the judges.  at that point i was starting to connect with female artists working in other mediums.

the final step was definitely when the nub in the cloth became as imperative and justifiable as paying the rent.

was there any one person who was instrumental in your becoming an artist?

my mother is a very creative person and provided my first exposure to art that wasn't conventional.  that being said, i think the person who was most influential in my seeing myself as an artist was vicki noble.

i studied women's spirituality with her in a circle of women in berkeley, which was a far cry from the community i had been raised in.  through her teaching and the other women in the circle i began to shift my concept of what it was to be a female.  slowly, i began to validate myself.  it was at that point when i finally began to experience that being an artist was not selfish and indulgent.  this was the point when my work became focused on quilts as intentional objects to receive, hold and release energy.  i became enthralled by words and books that started shaking my foundation.  it was a very magical time.

i also began assisting eli leon in his study of african american improvisational quilts and listening to the elderly women and, in some cases, their daughters talk about their work.  often they would talk about a piece having a specific intention and how they achieved it.  at that point my fascination with "mojos" and charms in textiles cross culturally really took over and i began to find a path that didn't necessarily copy theirs but incorporated the idea.

this is the point (1988) at which my work began to take on the intention of infusing the fabric with energy for the person using it.

what is the biggest lesson you've had to learn the hard way?

don't play to the wrong audience unless you want to flog yourself.  move if you need to.  connect yourself with like-minded people until you have enough confidence to play to a greater audience.

what structures do you have in place to preserve your creative time and/or encourage yourself to stay engaged in your art?

the only structure i can think of is to set a timer and work until it goes off.  then set it again and take care of other things until it goes off again.  maybe it's a holdover from the school bell ringing when you change classes.  one challenge of my choice to drag my stuff into the living space is that i can see what hasn't been done and it can drive me crazy until i take care of it.

are there any sacrifices you feel you've needed to make in order to pursue your art in a serious manner?

i had to be willing to have others be critical of my work and not take it personally.  i'd be lying if i said that doesn't still hit me in the face sometimes, but 90% of the time i'm willing to put it out there and be vulnerable.

what is your biggest struggle when it comes to being an artist?

paradoxically, staying focused.  my greatest creative virtue is also my greatest distraction.  i often have three or more projects going on at the same time so a concrete deadline works well for me.

what is your biggest joy when it comes to being an artist?

if i happen to create a piece that turns into a rorschach test for a person, that's really exciting.  i've had the opportunity to be at openings and overhear people talking about my work and interpreting it in some way that i never intended.  i find that intriguing.

perception can be as fascinating as intention.

how do you recharge your batteries?

well, the last five years i've been working with second and third grade classes on a series of projects in a very experimental way.  they live in illinois and i live in california and we do this through email and pictures.  we have fashioned some wonderful creations in our collaborations.  i give them space and permission to be creative and they give me the same.  it's a pretty even exchange.  we both experiment with new ways to incorporate "accidentals" and to problem solve.

we live in a time when we need to be increasingly able to think outside the box and scramble for solutions to serious issues.  often we know what not to do, but we do not yet know what to do.  we need to start to entertain all kinds of ideas, even if we think they might not be a workable solution and tinker with them as we go along.  spontaneous process art is a great metaphor for that.

i also find connecting with artists who work in other mediums is informative and inspiring to me and keeps me authentic.