STORY THREADS

written by SARAH HASKELL, textile artist
photography by ANDREW EDGAR

Through the making of my work, I dig into personal questions, often to uncover universal heartache, awe and delight. For some questions though, there just aren’t answers. But I keep asking, exploring big ideas, examining theories from new angles, pushing boundaries and hoping to figure out at least one answer for those big questions.

My studio is a laboratory for this exploration and research. The cloth I weave is the container for my experiments. For over ten years, I have examined the Buddhist concept of impermanence through narrative and visual imagery. More recently I have been investigating the process of metamorphosis, using my cloth as a platform for this exploration of change and transformation.

With the idea that matter never disappears, it simply changes, I experiment with bleach, fire, dirt and water to transform my cloth. I am curious about the effects of these elements, combined with the passage of time, on my hand-dyed and woven cloth. In observing the effects of time, weather and processes on my cloth, I observe the effect of the same phenomenon on my own aging body. I witness the process of metamorphosis within and without. The physical materials reveal the message. It’s one of the most difficult lessons that we humans wrestle with: all things change, nothing lasts forever.

Looking for Answers, 2019
42 x 30 inches
Handwoven linen, cotton embroidery thread. Rust printed, black bean and turmeric dyed. Painted, bleached and embroidered.

Looking for Answers was the first piece where I let go of the preciousness of my handwoven cloth. I put the linen cloth on a table outdoors, covered it with rusty objects and left it for a few days to become marked and stained. From there I continued to wash, paint with dyes and bleach, and embroider on the surface to reveal the unfolding story. By allowing my textiles to become vulnerable and exposed to the elements, I have become more tolerant, vulnerable and patient. Working with these organic materials in these transformative processes has transformed me. The dividing line between my materials, methods, message, and my physical/spiritual being have become blurred.

Since my work is labor intensive, methodical and measured, I have the luxury of time to explore the story behind each piece. While creating Looking for Answers I felt the awe and immensity of asking these big theoretical questions, I felt small. The tiny figure is a witness to these changes that are fundamental to all life. The flock of birds is a subtle nod to letting go, to flowing with the changes, the inherent metamorphosis of life.

. . .

For decades, the imagery of house/home was central to my work. Houses were symbolic for my role as a homemaker/artist/mother. House/home is a place where we learn our first values, our outlook on life and our cultural foundation.

Sinking House #1, 2016
40 x 48 inches
Hand-dyed brocade woven linen and rayon. Embroidered with hand spun paper, cotton threads and buttons.

Early in 2015, when I first I drew this image of a sinking house, I paid attention to the instinct that was pulling me towards this house drifting away. Something about this house bobbing away on the horizon kept tugging at me. Again and again, I drew it in my sketch book. When I finally wove it in 2016, I couldn't quite decide if the house was sinking, floating or just disappearing away on the horizon. When the title Sinking House emerged, it became clear to me that this piece is about abandonment.

Abandonment in the sense that I was letting go. Abandoning a visual metaphor that had served me well for years. This house/home imagery held space for my family, children, parents, siblings, love and loss.

But to grow, we all have to leave home at some point. And I guess this piece marks that point for me.

Once the narrative of this piece began to unfold, and the idea of letting go, being pulled away, or drifting away, there needed to be a body. A body that was separate from the house. This body became the new home for my story.

In this piece the body is submerged and being dragged under water. There is an invisible force pulling on her arm, while the rest of her body appears limp and unresponsive. I do not know if this is me, or another metaphor. Am I resistant to this change? Currently I am still trying to understand.

. . .

Secrets of the Infinite is composed of six indigo dyed handwoven panels hung side by side. My original intention was to create six separate small pieces, but in the process of working on them I hung the panels side by side like pages from a sketch book. I quickly saw that the straight line created by the common horizon, running across the width of all six panels, was visually compelling. So the separate units became one piece, one story that moves from beginning to end.

Secrets of the Infinite, 2017
28 x 90 inches, each panel is 28 x 15 inches
Indigo dyed, hand woven linen, embroidery floss.

The subtle gradations from the bottom to top of each panel are made from a careful progression of the indigo dyed weft. The human silhouette in four of the panels is the same body that was used in What You Will and Unhinged #1 (below). In those two previous pieces the body is reclining as in corpse pose—whereas here it is vertical and quite alive.

Each of the panels with a figure are like short poems. I make an overall note that the physical body is a temporary home for the human spirit and that some cultures believe that the raven is a metaphor for the spirit. As migratory creatures, birds are often seen as messengers for change.

Panels #1, #2, #4 and #6 illustrate a deep and inner connection between the bird and the human figure. Perhaps denoting the circle of life.

Panels #3 and #5 are simply a blue ground cloth. These seemingly empty panels represent a point of rest or contemplation. I believe that creativity begins in the stillness—this place of infinite possibility that extends beyond the horizon.

Secrets of the Infinite explores the thread of life … the natural changes from birth to death that we experience both physically and spiritually.

. . .

This piece is the second in a series that began after the loss of my beloved brother. His death tipped me over, spun me around and completely unhinged me. My way out of this darkness was to make art, to follow the bread crumbs of familiar patterns, colors and imagery. But as I worked, I found that the familiar and comforting was slipping away becoming tilted, askew and untethered.

Unhinged #1, 2015
40 x 48 inches
Hand-dyed, brocade woven linen and rayon with buttons and beads.

In the beginning I put my brother in a golden house, a shelter, or perhaps a tomb, as a way to keep him safe and give him refuge. And yet, this house, which had long been my symbol for safety and security, began to list and to slip away from earth … to become unhinged. Unable to do so at the time of his death, I became the house, longing to wrap my arms around his body, to keep him out of harm’s way. But as the reality sunk in, I became unhinged, aching to hold him safely as he drifted farther and farther away.

Not only is the house ungrounded in this piece and floating in space, but the body has become a negative space—a place where a body once was. All that was familiar had been cut loose, vanished. What was once known, was now transformed.

Over several months I continued this story thread with two more pieces: Unhinged #2 and Unhinged #3. Eventually the body became released from the shelter of the house, soaring into the ether of heavenly blue … a symbolic letting go, of merging with the stars and other heavenly bodies.

. . .

sarahaskell.com

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