Methods & Muses Vol. 23
Chazen Museum of Art and Amanda McCavour
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don't Hesitate)— Mary Oliver Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
I love this prose poem for the direct honesty and flicker of hope. I agree with Mary that as a species “we are not wise, and not very often kind.” I also believe that joy can be a force, a “way of fighting back.”
Joy gives us the strength we need to fight cruelty in our world.
Visual art fills me with joy, and for this post, I sing the praises of the Chazen Museum of Art, which “makes its home between two lakes on the beautiful campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.” In this issue, I highlight the work of one the fierce muses currently within this space. Should you need more joy-power, I invite you to click around, or better yet, visit this impressive museum.
I learned about the Chazen through a bit of a happy accident. My friend Alicia and I were corresponding while I was still in New York, brainstorming things we could do once I moved back home. I searched something like: ‘textile artists Madison,’ and this led me to the Chazen’s site and an exhibit of Amanda McCavour’s work.
I was excited to discover an artist who not only worked with fabric and embroidery to create large scale installations, but who also focused on prairie wild flowers, one of my favorite aspects of nature, one of the reasons I came home.
Here’s the blurb that perked my interest:
“McCavour’s work is often described as drawing with thread. By sewing into fabric that dissolves in water, McCavour builds up stitched lines on a temporary surface. When the fabric is dissolved, the thread drawing holds together without a base. The crossing threads possess an unexpected strength that counters the appearance of fragility. To present these thread drawings on a monumental scale, McCavour has printed them on rolls of sheer fabric that hang from the fourth floor and terminate in Paige Court.”
Embroidered flowers of unexpected strength and monumental scale?
Fabric that melts?
I did not hesitate. I sent the link to Alicia, she loved it, and we made a plan to visit.
To see visual art online is great, but it’s much better to be in the same room with the work, to feel the artists’ processes and choices, to be close to the textures, brush strokes and colors, to feel time slow down.
All of this is obvious, but it’s worth repeating, honoring and contextualizing here.
Museums are essential.
Art is free speech.
Art is power.
On a personal note, the Chazen was my first museum post quarantine. It meant the world, a new and familiar world, to be in an art space again, like a reunion with a friend. I hadn’t been in a museum in over 2 years, and I hadn’t seen Alicia in over 20, so to wander with her, a Sewist who shares my attraction to fabric art, to walk with someone who is more skilled than I with a needle and thread was absolutely lovely.
Alicia and I stood under Amanda’s panels of fabric, her giant prints. We experienced the feeling of being small, perhaps like an insect on a prairie. Because the flowers were intentionally upside down, it also felt beautifully disorienting.
I respected how Amanda knew that viewers would want to touch the fabric-flowers, so she offered a sample panel on a nearby wall for just this purpose. Shyly, with intentional reverence, I touched it. The petals felt soft, raised and waxy.
I love it when an artist invites the whole body.
When I was a middle school teacher, I took a group of students to the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Many of my kids were immediately drawn to the gallery showcasing UNC students’ MFA work. One painting within this collection had a white background with a single black arrow pointing to the floor. James, a most thoughtful and energetic student, immediately laid down under the painting. I went over to scold him, to tell him that lying on a museum floor wasn’t really appropriate. James looked at me quizzically and said, “But Ms., the painting is asking me to.” In a split second, I went from teacher to artist. I scanned the room, no security guard in sight, and responded, “Ok, but make it quick.” James grinned. I loved that kid forever.
It’s tricky as a contemporary artist to create work that both invites interaction and asks for respect. In grad school, thanks to my advisors, Sherry Antonini and Suzanne Cohen-Lange, I was guided in this delicate process for my thesis project installations. For one installation, my goal was to visually and auditorily retell the story of Susanna from the Old Testament, to take back and change the violence she experienced. First, I wrote some lyrics, shared them with my band and we recorded the song-poem, “Makriva Susanna.” Then, using Xyline blender pens and embroidery thread, my colleague, Courtney Garron and I transferred and stitched the lyrics onto 3’x6’ panels or curtains of muslin. In a corner of a hallway within Gallery 312, I arranged a ring of rocks and concrete chunks. I hid a mini disc recording of our song within the rocks and hung the curtains over the circle.
To my delight, people parted the panels, poking their heads inside to listen to the song, and one little girl stepped all the way in to dance as she played with the fabric.
I visited the Chazen a second time with Benjamin and my dear poet-friend, Athene.
This time I touched the sample panel a little longer, my fingers lingering over the colors, lines and textures.
This time I took a cue from James and stood with Athene under the upside down flowers, laughing out loud like a joyful kid.
When I entered the space with Amanda’s vertical field of flowers, I imagined the delicate focus – to study and draw each flower, sew them onto magic fabric and pin each one, slowly, one at a time, to a wall.
I wanted to kneel before this creation.
Thank you, Amanda.
Thank you, Alicia, Athene and Benjamin.
And thank you, curators and staff at the Chazen Museum of Art.
I will return for another visit soon.