During our week long residency at Spark Box Studio we met fellow resident, Amanda Rataj, Toronto based textile artist and educator. She shared with us her journey into textiles from photography, her current project for Canada's 150th Anniversary and her dream collaborator.
You went to OCAD for photography, can you tell us a little bit about your transition from photography to textiles after you graduated?
A: When I was at OCAD and making photographs I was very involved with the dark room and I was always attracted to the materiality of photography. I was also hanging out in the printmaking department where I was taking paper making classes - so I was making a lot of hands on work. I was really interested in the materiality and the tactility of the image making and how that could translate into a greater meaning in the final image - how a flat photograph is an object in itself. I had seen a loom for sale at OCAD and I don’t remember why, but I texted my mum about it - she bought the loom and after a few years of seeing what she was making with it I was intrigued and interested. I didn't think about the transition, it just sort of happened over the course of living life and I fell into it. There is some things that are similar to photography that I like about the process of weaving in particular. It's like when you are making your own photographs and paper, there are a lot of precise measurements and calculations and this element of time and tactility and weaving hits all the same points for me.
E: I've never thought about it that way before.
A: It just kind of happened and now I am totally invested in it. What is the current project you are working on?
A: Yeah, I am currently working on making a woven coverlet.
E: What is a coverlet?
A: A coverlet is a type of woven blanket that was very popular in settler era Canada. It's not really sure where the tradition came from but various bits likely came over from the different areas of settlers, so from Scotland, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, and everyone brought different techniques and the settlers wove these colourful, very patterned bed spreads to liven up their living areas. It’s a long standing tradition and it's an interesting process and technique to make one. The book that I been spending a lot of time with is called "Keep Me Warm One Night", which is a collection of coverlets that Dorthy Burnham collected. She was the textile curator at the ROM in the late 1930s to mid 70s and she and her husband collected hundreds of these coverlets from eastern Canada. The ROM is hosting a conference for Canada 150 this year and they were welcoming submissions by artists and makers as well as papers for this conference so I proposed to weave a modern coverlet inspired by one in Burnham's collection.
I proposed to do the project with a woman named Lauren who I met through Instagram. She’s a spinner, and turns raw sheep’s wool into yarn. Her background is in textile conservation, so she comes from a more academic, analytic background, which is bringing a really interesting element into my artistic practice. Our presentation for the conference is called "Two Sides of the Same Coin" and she will be spinning the wool yarn from American fleece and then I'll be using Canadian linen that I'm having spun by a farm out in Nova Scotia that is trying to reinvigorate the linen industry. Linen would have been a traditional material used in early coverlets.
The title "Two Sides of the Same Coin" relates to the idea that things can look very similar but be very different, or the idea of duality that fits with me being an artist and Lauren being more academic. We’re also exploring ideas of mobility, location, technology, connection and exchanging through the internet. Making sure we support local farmers and textile producers is also important.
Did you find the book, and that's what inspired the project?
A: No, the book is my mom's copy and I had seen it before and I had known about Dorthy Burnham's work and then when I had seen the call for papers for the conference and that they were willing to have artists propose projects as well I sort of dreamt up this idea. A coverlet is a challenge to make - they’re quite large and they were usually made in two pieces and then sewn together, so the pattern needs to match on both sides, making for a long and tricky process. So it’s for my own artistic growth as well as connecting with this tradition of making.
When is the presentation?
A: November 10th to 12th, so I have some time to work on it. Can you tell us about the work you show on your website, for example Barbara's Socks?
A: Well I like to knit and I basically learned because I wanted to have my own hand knit socks because they are so much nicer, warmer and comfortable than machine made socks, and I feel like they are such a luxury because they take such a long time to make too. My partner Marco had all these old holey socks at the back of his drawer that his mother had made; she passed away a couple of years ago, so he didn't want to get rid of them but he also couldn't wear them. I am very interested in repair as a way of understanding how something is made and having a continued dialogue about and with something. I started to repair the socks using different pieces of yarn while thinking about patchwork quilts and how they are made with different pieces of fabric from clothing that had disintegrated - the idea of waste not, want not. So giving these socks new life was the idea. I mended those socks and then he never actually wore them because they became too nice, they became artwork!
E: They are gorgeous! What about Foolscap? Can you tell us about the title specifically.
A: Yeah, that was some woven paper that I had made.
E: Right, it looks like a sheet of loose leaf!
A: Yeah, I remember being in high school and having to write exams and they would give you foolscap to write your papers on and then when I was learning how to make paper at university, I learned about how paper was made from cotton rags before it was made from trees. There would be a rag picker in your neighbourhood and once your rags were too far gone, the rag picker would come get them and they would go through the process of bleaching them and mashing them up into pulp and then turning them back into paper. I was listening to a podcast yesterday and they were saying that's how Benjamin Franklin made all of his money because he was born very poor and started a rag picking business and then went into paper making and eventually started printing US currency!
A: Right! And then of course Benjamin Franklin is now a household name! But yeah there was a great connection to cotton and the idea of paper, I really like to write, I have a lot of notebooks full of text, not so much images, and there's this great connection between writing and weaving textiles, so just sort of an exploration of those thoughts.
E: There are a lot of really nice parallels there. So you also have a section on your website of textiles, such as for the home, for the body, textiles with function. Can you tell us about these pieces of work?
A: Yeah, while in school, photography especially was very conceptual and it was almost more about ideas than the actual thing itself and so I was attracted to the idea of materiality and I am very invested in crafting things as well. There is not necessarily a difference between my artwork and the textiles that I make for sale but I just sort of differentiated them in that way to make a line between the work that is more conceptual and the things that are more practical. I really enjoy the idea of practicality or things being useful in a space.
Do you find it difficult to negotiate the two spaces of textiles? Sort of living in between both worlds?
A: I sort of just figure it out. Sometimes when I give someone a tea towel they think it’s too beautiful to use and that's the worst thing possible, because really you should be able to use things - things should be aesthetically pleasing but also functional. I'm kind of a no frills kind of person and luxury to me is having something very simple or well made and long lasting. Do you have a studio or do you work from home?
A: I work from home! The opening image on my website is my home studio.
E: Wow! So you have a loom, what else do you need for the studio setup you have?
A: Basically just the loom and a number of smaller tools that you use too, like a warping board to count out the threads to put on the loom, shuttles, scissors, etc. When you come to a space like Spark Box and you cannot bring your loom, what are the advantages of a residency for your practice specifically?
A: Well there are a couple of coverlets that Lauren and I are particularly interested in trying to weave and thankfully the book has the instructions on how to weave them! I have been drawing them down and writing them out in full and making drawings to figure out how they are actually constructed and the ways they are made.
E: Preparing yourself to make one!
A: Yeah exactly, just so I have a thorough understanding of the technique and the way it is constructed. The coverlets are a block design, so i’m learning to understand how the blocks work together and can form these complicated patterns. There are two different ways of weaving them and you get two very different patterns when you weave them each way. So being able to come here and get away from my everyday where I'm distracted by what is on the loom and whatever else I have going on is great. Its difficult to have a home studio at times. But being able to come here and have a whole day to just draw something is something I probably otherwise wouldn't do at home.
E: The time is a luxury!
A: Yeah the time away from the normal life is a luxury. Being able to dive in, read about the history, consider what the various ways this is an important an interesting project for us to do. The final coverlet isn’t just hanging on a wall, there’s also a presentation, so a part of what Lauren and I are preparing is documentation of the process.
E: Its not just the final product that's important.
A: Yeah it’s the journey of getting there. Can you talk to us a little bit about being an artist in Toronto? Do you see yourself being in Toronto long term?
A: Who knows, I mean I'm not really terribly connected to the Toronto art scene necessarily. I work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the education department so I am very connected in some ways, but I am very solitary.
Where do you see yourself heading, do you have a vision?
A: I want to be able to have my artistic practice but also sell some textiles and continue to work in arts education, because the three kind of feed one another - I don’t feel the need to just focus on one. I don't need one capital C career, just more sort of a holistic, moving around to different things. I have written books reviews, exhibition reviews and dabbled in lots of different things and I like that.
N: I'm sure its more fulfilling to be involved in more than one thing.
A: Yeah definitely!
How long have you been working at the AGO?
A: Five years, its great! I love working there. I am a Adult Education Officer so I lead tours for adult groups who book them, so sometimes it's senior travel groups, lawyers and their clients or English Language learners coming from a university. It requires me to know a lot of very different things about very different kinds of art, because groups will book tours of certain areas of the gallery, like Canadian Art or Medieval Art or different themes, like food and art and women and art. There is always something new to think about, and being able to interact with people about art and culture is so much fun - everybody has a different interpretation and you get these really great conversations going. I always learn something from the people that are on my tour. If you could collaborate with any artist in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?
A: The person would be Rebecca Solnitt, I love her books! I have read all of her books and a couple of them a few times! I don't know if we would collaborate on something artistic but I think it would be interesting to sit down with her and talk because she is has such an amazing perspective on things.
N: What type of books does she write?
A: Non-fiction, my favourite is The Field Guide to Getting Lost - it’s about loss and the unknown, kind of about losing and finding things. They are very meditative reflections on a variety of things, from art to ritual and memory and different experiences she's had, and they are fantastic.
E: Sounds lovely!
A: Yeah, I would love to sit down and talk with her. Otherwise I love the idea of collaborating with an unknown craftsman. I would love to discover an old lady out there who’s been doing something for 50 years - who knows what you would learn from her! The great thing with textiles is that there is such a long history so who knows what’s out there. There's not necessarily one person, but collective knowledge. Could you recommend a book or movie that you have read or seen lately that you would recommend to our readers?
A: I read a lot of books. I would definitely suggest Rebecca Solnitt, The Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I read for the fifth time recently. Books I’ve read that I’ve loved are:
Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis
Lines, by Tim Ingold
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett Do you have a studio routine with your studio being in your home?
A: Because I have two part time jobs, I have a semi regular schedule and I usually have three or four days a week that I have free to work at home. I don't have anything special necessarily but try to get out of the house in the morning and run some errands so I feel like I've commuted or participated in the world. I work either at my desk or spend some time weaving, depending on what I have going on and I get up every hour and move around, change it up so that things stay interesting. I listen to a lot of podcasts as I weave because I don’t necessarily need to be 100% focused, I can let my mind wander and my hands do most of the work. I try to work 9 to 5 when I'm at home, it doesn't always work out but I try to stick to that so that I have a work day. Are there any challenges with weaving in terms of your body? You mentioned it’s a very hands on process.
A: Yeah I've given myself tendinitis from knitting to much and I got it the year that I was taking pottery classes for fun, playing tennis everyday and playing other sports that require your arms and then weaving and knitting way to much and I overdid it! My right arm has never been the same. There are challenges with weaving because it is a physical process, I'm using my arms and legs and whole body in repetitive ways. I try to get up and make sure to stretch and not be too focused on one thing or one repetitive motion. There's also quite a bit of mental exercise in order to get the pattern of the weave going. Have you worked on anything with your mother as a duo?
A: No but I think she would really love to do it, I think it would be super fun. It's great when I can get together with my mom and our friend Christine and we can show and tell, talk about what we want to make and "Oh how did you make that?" and have that exchange and sharing techniques.
Thank you Amanda for sharing with us about your practice! You can find more of Amanda's stunning work at www.amandarataj.com .