A few years ago I was lucky enough to witness a performance by Wynde Dyer during my De-Consume show at Place PDX. In, I Know You Are But What Am I, Wynde invited participants to climb into a small sandbox with her and to share the worst thing that had ever been said to them. Wynde painted the words onto a taped paper, in a colorful, cheerful font, then asked participants to spoon brightly colored sand over the paper, allowing the revitalized message to emerge.
Last week Wynde finished installing a mega-show at Stumptown on Division. (The show runs until November 26th. Check it out!) For Utility Quilts she worked with a team of neighborhood children, aged 5-11, to design a series of colorful quilts channelling the practices and products of Gee's Bend quilters. Working with poly tarp in lieu of fabric, the quilts create a dissonance between one's expectation of a quilt--as something soft and warm--and the reality of these utility quilts, which are cold and hard but offer a water resistant barrier against the wet soil of the Pacific Northwest. Perfect for a picnic after the rain, when displayed with backlight they also conjure a stained-glass effect that will brighten any gloomy room of winter. The colorful whimsy of the utility quilts, however, belies the purpose behind Wynde's process, which involved a self-guided process of exposure therapy to overcome deeply-rooted childhood trauma-related aversions to tarp and young humans alike.
Catharsis is recurring theme in Wynde's work. But it's not at all the kind of cathartic, self-flagellating art that centers in on the artist's suffering and nothing else. Not at all. Wynde's personal stories come from a painful place (you'll read some of what I'm referring to in the interview below) but there is a lightness in the way she approaches those stories. Her works have a playful poignancy, something that is rare to find in an ever serious, elusive art world. It's socially impactful without being preachy and theraputic without being cheesy. Everything Wynde spouts from her brain is carefully thought out and meticulously constructed. I'm always intrigued to see what she'll come up with next.
What initially inspired the quilt project?
So, thing is, here in the Pacific Northwest, the weather is a little all over the place. Some days it's sunny, and maybe you want to go lay out in the sun, read a book, have a picnic, whatever, and you can't, because the grass is still wet from the last rain. And where I live, it's this HUGE HUGE HUGE low-income apartment complex, former military housing, with TONS of grass, which is covered in TONS of chemicals for fertilizing and bug killing, not to mention there's TONS of dog poo and pee because it's pet friendly, and they're always watering the lawns, constantly, even when it's raining, so the grass is always soggy. It's really frustrating because sometimes you just want to go sit in the grass, and you can't. So I invented the tarp quilt and, well, problem solved. I'm just kidding. That's the functional outcome of the project, but not what inspired it.
This project is actually a carry-over from another show I did called, "Things That Aren't Safe, Are," where I made a series of sculptures that combined something I had an aversion to with something I had a preference for. For example, my whole life I was unable to use bar soap. I could use shower gel, liquid soap, just not bar soap. So I made a 1,000 pound bathtub out of soap, because I love baths, and now I love bar soap, too. So that project was about neutralizing the negative psychological associations with certain materials, and tarp was one of those materials, for whatever reason. So I was going to make a quilt out of tarp, because I hate tarp, but as a kid I always felt really safe with my security blanket. That art show got a bit too big for its britches and the tarp quilt didn't make the cut.
I still wanted to investigate this tarp aversion. It wasn't as straightforward as the soap thing. I knew the roots of the soap thing. Somewhere around the age of 3-5 years, I confessed to my grandma that an adult had been touching me inappropriately. My confession came about when my grandma tried to scrub my girl parts with a bar of soap, and, given the abrasions I'd incurred during the abuse, the soap stung, and no doubt making the confession stung, too. After that, bar soap was a no-go for me. The tarp thing, though, I couldn't figure out. It was a muddier aversion.
Part of it was, I think, was that when I was a kid I was really poor and my mom and I were always traveling around, selling stuff at flea-markets, fairs, you know, outdoor vending places, and we had this canopy to set up and stretch tarp over. At the end of the day we'd have to wrestle down and fold up that big old dirty sometimes wet tarp, and I hated it rolling it up. Alternately, there's no telling what bad things might have happened to me on a tarp or under a tarp out at one of those sales. Then at home tarps were basically keeping our roof from leaking. They were keeping the rain out of the pile of beer cans and wine bottles we recycled to buy more beer cans and wine bottles. There was always a tarp under my butt in the front seat of the car because the skylight would leak and wet the seats. So perhaps my aversion to tarps was borne out of the shame I felt about my poverty.
Tarps were also a symbol of death, or murder. I don't know where I got the idea from, that a tarp is what you put a dead body in to dispose of it, but I've always had that idea. I remember driving with my mom or my grandpa through the canal banks, there were these irrigation ditches everywhere, and they always had wadded up tarps in them, and to me, those tarps were filled with bodies. Now, as an adult, I know the tarps were used by farmers to trap back-flow, to keep detritus out of the irrigation water, but to me, as a kid, the tarps were filled with dead bodies. I still don't know where I got this dead bodies in tarps idea, I must have seen some movie or TV show with a body in a tarp.
The tarp body thing may have just been a physical manifestation of a general anxiety. The area I grew up in was really poor, and there were a lot of pretty serious social issues. People were always getting killed, kids were always getting kidnapped. I grew up in the 1980s, when the "Stranger Danger" epidemic was on the upswing. My mother gave me a rape whistle. I still have it. It's sterling silver with a cat on one side, and on the other side she engraved my name, SSI# and blood type. My grandma gave me a pair of Kangaroos, which were really popular before Nike, and they were called "Roos" for short and they were these jogging shoes with a little zipper pocket hidden on the side. So my grandma gave me these Roos with all my identifying information in case I was kidnapped and/or killed, you know, the police would know who I was if they found me. At the time we were being inundated with after school specials about kids being kidnapped, raped, tortured, having their hair died and wearing glasses they didn't need to disguise them, being told their parents didn't love them, living false lives with the perpetrators of their abuse. So as a kid I was getting all these scary messages about the world, about how it was not safe, and then they were confirmed everywhere I looked. My next door neighbor was Aaron Sprauge, who became known as "The Jack in the Box Murderer" in 1991 when he suffocated a woman in the bathroom at the fast food restaurant around the corner from my house. The body of child abductee Traci Renee Conrad--a case that garnered national attention in 1996--was found months after her disappearance in a kiln next door to one of my friend's houses. So life was full of fear for me as a kid, and it didn't help that my home life provided the antithesis of a safe haven.
So these quilts are about investigating that fear. They're about looking at its roots, meditating around with that fear, sitting with it. They're about transforming my experience of fear into something else, into something beautiful and useful. What I've done with these quilts is similar to what the adults in my life should have have done with me, and what I now have the responsibility of doing for myself. They're about taking these piles of chaos, strips and strings of tarp as a metaphor for the overwhelming flood of internal and external stimuli I experienced as a child, and pulling them together into some coherent whole. It's about me saying to the scared little child inside myself, "Yes, there's a lot of stuff going on, and it doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'm here to help you sort it out, to assign meaning, and I'll put you back together again, don't worry, you're not alone, I'm here with you, you're safe." That's the way healthy attachments are formed. So I've been able to start making that attachment with myself through the process of making these quilts, to give that little kid inside of me some semblance of coherence, of safety, of order And now me and that kid can sit on the wet grass without getting dirty, which is nice. And now I'm totally obsessed with tarp, instead of hating it.
As for how the kids got involved, that was all very organic. I didn't set out thinking, "I'll have kids design quilts." Their participation sprung out of necessity. I'd sort of taken this pair of neighborhood siblings under my wing and as the deadline neared closer, my time to spend with them was limited, so in order to have them around and still be working I put them to work making their own quilts out of my scraps. I loved their quilts--and the process of interpreting their designs--so much I started asking other children to join in. I think I worked with 19 children all together.
Was this the first time you'd worked collaboratively with children. How was this process different for you? How did your relationship to children change over the course of the project?
It cracks me up, this word "collaborative" being used to describe my work. It's true, I often "use" people--volunteers, assistants, interns, even children--in my projects, but the word "collaboration" is terribly misleading. I don't collaborate. I "use" people. I try to "use" people in ways that are meaningful for them (e.i., developing a skill, honing a craft, getting exposure to the "art world," learning what to do or not to do based on my experiences, etc.), but there's no collaboration. I have a vision, usually a very clear vision, and I need people to make that vision possible, so I "use" people to complete that vision. I have rules about how I "use" people, like (a) there must be something in it for them, like compensation or experience, (b) never make someone do something you wouldn't--or haven't already--done for yourself, (c) be flexible in your expectations of others because they're not always going to have your skill-set, energy levels, work-ethic, etc., (d) delegate based on a combination of what people are good at, like doing, or really need to learn, and (e) always give credit where credit is due. That's why I use the "Wynde Dyer, et al." when I have a project that involves multiple "participants" or "contributors." The "et al." is a designation social scientists--the discipline I hail from--use when citing articles with too many authors to logically include in a citation. It's a way of saying, "Wynde Dyer is the primary author, but these other 19 people are also contributors." Seems like an aside, but it's really important to me that people don't see my work as collaborative when it isn't.
I've never worked with children before. I did a live painting performance once where I let the audience contribute to the piece I was working on, and mostly kids wanted to paint with me, because the adults always seemed too afraid to mess things up. But besides that little 2-hour performance, I'd never worked with kids. Kids literally did not exist to me before this project. Like, really, there were no such things as children. To acknowledge that children existed would mean to acknowledge that I existed as a child. The acknowledgement of the fact that I was once a child would be an acknowledgement of the fact that as a child I was abused. Of course, logically, I realize, yes, I was a child, and, yes, I was abused, but to sit with that pain was really overwhelming, so it was easier for me to repress it, and in order to repress it, I repressed the existence of all children. Like, I'm that asshole who doesn't go to baby showers and who blocks people from my FaceBook feed if they show too many pictures of their kids.
So the part where I went outside and tracked down stranger children in my neighborhood all, "Hey, you! You wanna come make a quilt?," style was unusual for me. Before this project I was the mean neighbor who was always yelling at the kids, "Go back to your side of the street! Where's your mother? Put your shoes on! Look both ways! We're having adult time! Leave us alone." Basically, I got sick of policing the kids, fighting for my peace and quiet, and decided I'd rather have them in my house, supervised, doing something productive, than outside rough housing and being mean to each other. So I started soliciting stranger children. Seriously, I didn't know more than three of these kids, my immediate neighbors, before this project. And once I had a few quilts, and all the kids were excited about their quilts, I felt compelled to get ALL the kids, because I didn't want anyone to feel left out. I was left out a lot as a kid, you know, picked last for teams, made fun of, bullied, and such, so I didn't want to contribute to that dynamic in our neighborhood.
My relationships with the children changed a lot because of this project. Now when I yell at them they listen. I'm kidding, well, partially, but really, now they know my name, and they listen, and they're excited about when the next art show is and if they get to be a part of it, or when we're having another arts and crafts day. They are constantly bugging me about if their quilt has sold, reminding me of when the opening is, literally counting the days for me. They're all really proud of their work. It's cute.
One kid cracked me up the other day. He came up to me and asked, "Hey Wynde, did you go to school for art?" I told him, no. And he tells me, "So that means you're more of a folk artist. You're like Grandma Moses." There you have it: a 10-year-old critiquing my artistic pedigree.
In more subtle ways, the process has tuned me into the neighborhood dynamics, and taught me not to judge kids at face value, and not to base my assumptions about them on neighborhood gossip alone, rather, to get to know each kid by meeting them exactly where they're at, all of which are things I wish adults had done with me when I was a troubled kid.
For example, we have these two siblings who are pretty much neighborhood terrors. They literally terrorize other children, other parents, and their neighbors. They spit on kids, spit on windows and doors, leave nasty notes telling kids they wish they were dead, throw poop at people, tie poop to doorknobs, hold kids down and stuff slugs in their mouths, make other kids do things they know they're not supposed to do and then go tell on them so they get in trouble, really bad stuff. Well, one day they spit on my window as a bunch of kids were running up my steps to get away from them. I walked them down to their parents and told the parents what they'd done, and I told the kids if they were good and nice they could make some quilts. While I was trying to have a learning experience about being nice with these siblings, their parents were screaming at them, just being so verbally abusive, and all of a sudden I had a lot more empathy for those poor little kids. It became very clear to me that they weren't nice to anyone because maybe no one had ever been nice to them. So I started being nice to them. I hope it rubs off.
Another way this project has transformed me is its given me a lot of confidence around kids. Prior to this, I was certain I would never be a parent. While I'm still sure I never want to be a parent, I've learned that I'm actually really good with them, and I've learned that I do want to contribute positively to the lives of children. Now I spend my spare thoughts dreaming up affordable "high art" projects I can do with kids. I love the idea of turning the old "my kid could do that" adage on its head by doing art with kids that looks better than art adults make. I pretty much hate the snobbish-ness of the art world and nothing would bring me greater pleasure than to discretely inject some kids art into it ;)
I say that partly tongue in cheek, and also with complete seriousness. I learned so much from these kids about what's possible to do with a quilt, and many of their constructions--just little details here and there--will end up in my future quilts. I never would have thought of certain designs if the children hadn't encouraged me to see their possibilities. They aren't encumbered the way adults are by "doing it wrong" and they don't take into considerations things like seam allowances, color theory, or anything. They'll just throw down whatever in this seemingly random way, but in their minds it's very precise.
For example, one girl kept wrapping up these rolls of yellow tarp, like little cinnamon rolls of tarp. This is, of course, impossible to translate into a quilt. So I'd ask her if I could unroll them and she'd be like, "No, that's my castle." Likewise, I can't for the life of me discern a top or a bottom to any of the quilts, but those kids know if they're upside down. They know.
This piece is really captivating Wynde. I think there are loads of people out there who would also want to collaborate and see their patterns brought to life into something tactile. Do you see this as an ongoing project? If so, how would you like to develop it further?
In addition to repeating the process with different kids, there are two ways I see this project expanding. One is commercial, and the other is the the exact opposite of commercial.
Having never done commercial work before--I primarily work as an installation artist and a performer--it's a bit scary for me to think about making the jump into the commercial world, but I see the potential here. I'd love to design some quilt awnings for events, because, you know, corporations could afford to pay for them. To me, they're so much more interesting than those generic stretched fabric triangles triangle awnings you see everywhere from Burning Man to fundraising galas. When light shines through them they're like stained glass windows. It would be great to get some commissions to make outdoor shade covers for businesses and events.
On a smaller scale, I like the idea of working with families to have every member of the family design a square, and then piece them together into a quilt. It's a very quick and easy process, that anyone age four and up can do in 20-30 minutes. I have these bins of scraps sorted out by color, then I show up with the bins and some foam core squares and some sewing pins, everyone digs through the bins and pins down the scraps, and I sew them up. I love interpreting other peoples' designs, and it's such a great way to bring together the collective creative vision of a family, and here in Portland, and other wet areas, a way to keep dry.
And that's really where it's at for me: this keeping dry piece. What I really want to do is set up a tarp quilt sweat shop in downtown Portland where I invite homeless individuals in to design their own quilts, and then with a team of volunteers, we sew them up and gift them to the homeless. I was homeless for nine months and I really want to give back to that community in some way that is personally meaningful to me, and I hope this might be the way. It's going to take a lot of logistical planning, grants, Kick-starters, and a team of people to pull it off, but I'm starting to plant the seeds now. Maybe in a few years I'll get around to that.
The thing people don't get--I didn't get it until I made these quilts, that's for sure--is that quilting is a very time-intensive art, and the prices reflect that. So it's kind of a bummer to try to sell them, because if you price them what they're worth in terms of time and materials, they're too expensive, and if you make them affordable, you're undervaluing yourself as an artist, and, other quilt makers who might be charging more. So it's a slippery slope, one that I'm trying to get my balance on.
How do you explain what you do to people who may not have the best grasp on process-based art?
I'm not sure I have the best grasp on what process-based art is myself. People always want to know what kind of art I do and I'm always a bit at a loss for words. I tell them, "Oh, all kinds." And they're like, "So do you paint? Sculpt?" And I'm like, "Yes, that, and I make big environments, and I preform." I usually try to give examples of the kind of stuff I do, like, "I built a half-sized model of my childhood home. I covered the gallery walls with my first name and the last name of every boy I've ever had a crush on. I shredded all my childhood photos into a pile and sorted them out by color." People usually get it from the examples. But then they're always like, "But how do you sell that?" And when I tell them, "You don't," then they get really confused about why I would do it in the first place. This confusion is my "in" to explain process-based art. I try to tell them I'm less concerned with the product, what it looks like, whether it sells, etc., and more interested with what comes up or gets out during the process. I'm very honest with people about why I do art: it's therapy for me. I have a trauma history, and, as a result, I have a lot of mental health issues. I work those issues out with my art. I try to give people observables, like, "I can use soap now that I made that bathtub out of soap." They usually get it. Maybe not my grandparents, but everyone else. And if all else fails, everyone knows the old cliche, "It's not the destination, it's the journey." They get that. But they still don't understand why I would make something that's not for sale. Five years into making process-based work I'm beginning to question myself, in fact.
When are you most productive?
Productivity for me is an ebb and flow. I used to hate that about myself, but I've accepted it. I'm a project artist. I'm not a studio artist. I don't work daily. I don't plug away towards completing a show, I do it all at once. Then I do nothing for months. Then I do it all at once again with a different project. I made 20 of these quilts in the last month, and nine of the little ones in the last two days before the show. I'm very machine-like when I work. I do everything like its a production line. It increases efficiency and gets everything done at once.
I am also much more productive when I have someone to be accountable to. In this case it was the children. I was literally sewing 10 minutes before install because I didn't want to leave any of the kids out. I tend to need someone--maybe it's a curator, a friend, a frenemy, a deadline, someone commissioning me--to kick my butt into gear.
How and why did you make your way to portland and how has the city influenced your work?
I've been here since 2001. I'd always wanted to live in Portland, ever since I was a kid, before I ever knew anything about Portland. When I was a teen and the Internet was first coming to be, I met a bunch of other kids from the Internet and my mom let me go on a road trip to meet them. Portland was a stop on the map. I fell in love with the city and moved here when I was 21. If I could afford a house, I'd stay here forever. As the reality of owning a house seems farther and farther away, I think my heart is moving farther away from Portland, too, which is sad, but true.
I'm not sure how much the city has effected my art, except that I hate the sun. I find it very triggering, it reminds me of where I'm from, where its ungodly hot nine months out of the year. So it's nice to not have to see the sun too much for nine months.
In addition to being a stellar artist, you're also a cab driver. How do you balance art and work lives? How does driving a cab influence your practice?
I have never been good with work-life balance, and I've given up on the hope that I'll ever be. Just like I've given up on being a proper studio artist, I've accepted that I will never be an effective work-life juggler.
Cab driving is the closest I've come to finding a profession that allows some modicum of work-life balance. I like it because the expectations of me are very low. Basically, if I'm reasonably punctual, reasonably polite, and reasonably safe, I'm a good cab driver. That appeals to me. I've always been in high-pressure professional situations, and cab driving is the opposite of that. It's also great because I'm a terrible procrastinator and there's no way to procrastinate in a cab. There's next to no paperwork to fill out, no meetings to plan, no presentations to stress out over, no homework to grade, no lesson plans to prepare, no rigorous performance metrics to meet. When you're done, you're done. You turn the car off, lock the door, and it's back to your life. So I don't feel like I have to take my work home with me. When I'm at home, I'm at home. When I'm at work, I'm at work, but I still have the flexibility when I'm out in the road to take care of home stuff, or art stuff, like sourcing tarps from discount stores around the city. And the time to think is unparalleled. All day long at work-work I get to think about my art-work, to flesh out ideas, play around with language, be inspired by my surroundings. A lot of people might go crazy with that much time to think, but I love it.
Unfortunately, the hours are long. I usually work 10, 12, 14 hour days. So there's not much left in me at the end of the day. There's no hanging out after work. There's no going to the art walks. There's no art making. When I'm working it's just work, sleep, work, sleep, work sleep. But that's fine, because I don't multitask well, and I don't balance things well, I have to focus, focus, focus. So I focus on working-working for a while, then I focus on art-working for a while, and go back and forth between the two in big chunks, because I can't seem to squeeze them into the same day together. It's either one or the other.
Plus, there aren't many industries where you where you can take days, weeks or months off at a time for art and still have a job waiting for you when you get back. I really appreciate that about my job, you know, that I can be in the game, then get out of the game to work on art, and come back. At other jobs I always felt a lot of pressure if I needed to take time off, like I was letting down my boss, co-workers, customers, whatever. As a cab driver, when you take time off the only one who's losing out is you.
What are your thoughts on the Portland art scene? Do you feel like there are enough venues and interest in Portland for process based/relational artists?
At the risk of sounding negative, I probably shouldn't say too much. I've got my friends who do work I respect, and there are spaces I like. My work and I don't seem to fit in too well here. I don't know whether that's because it's process-based, and largely non-commercial, or because my personal narrative is so deeply embedded in the work, or because the work maybe isn't that good. All I know is I like what I'm doing, the non-art-world public seems to like what I'm doing, and whether or not the art spaces and other artists do, well, I can't concern myself too much with that. I just have to keep on making it and let the cards fall where they do.
What is your idea of happiness?
This question feels to me like the time I took a 1-credit elective course on Love & Conflict Resolution. The final project was this piddly-diddly little thing--write a 1-page paper, make a collage, do a painting, put together a mix-tape--about my definition of love. I couldn't do it. I could have turned anything in. But I couldn't do it. My concept of love had been so fractured, I just couldn't do it. I feel the same way about describing happiness. I just can't do it. It's beginning to take shape, and there's a dog and a house and a man friend and a certain kind of light, but it's still a bit too blurry to make concrete.
I have a pretty minimal knowledge of current or historical artists. Since I've started working, people in the know have exposed me to some people I like. Michel Francois. Sophie Calle. Rachel Whiteread. Mamma Anderson. Chris Burden. Marina Ambrawhateverhernameis. I like them enough, but mostly I am inspired by my life and trying to make sense of it.
These quilts, however, are definitely inspired by the quilters of Gee's Bend, who I'm grateful to my friend Diana for exposing me to. Just google "Gee's Bend Quilts" and go to the google image search and prepare to have your mind blown away.
What are you reading and listening to right now?
Usually I listen to one album on repeat for the entire duration of a project. I've done Cat Power, Antony and The Johnsons, the Lovers, a few others. This time the soundtrack was silence, punctuated by an every now and then dance party to Wild Beasts. I don't read anything except Vanity Fair. I read enough in graduate school to feel justified in never reading anything other than Vanity Fair for the rest of my life, thank you very much.
What do you do on the internet?
My internet activities are fairly limited. Mostly I take screen captures of residencies, grants and show opportunities I'll never get around to applying for. I waste time on FaceBook. Every now and then I google myself and then I do a little cyberstalking on the art careers of people I don't like. I find the comparison of results of the latter two be a very motivating point of reference. Petty, but true.
Tell me about your partner in crime.
You mean Daisy? Or Ian? The latter says to tell you simply that he's a very handsome mid-40s chap. I'll go one step forward and say if it weren't for him none of those quilts would have binding/trim. I sliced off the tip of my left ring finger with the rotary cutter two days before the show. I could still sew with the injury, but I couldn't pin anything. He did all the pinning of binding, about two days worth of work, not to mention he did all the errand running and frantic girl soothing.
Tell me about your dog.
Daisy is my Great Dane. She is my shadow, my Velcro-dog. She weighs 130 pounds but thinks she weighs about 13. She sleeps with me, under the covers, curled up between my legs, and she gets surprisingly small. I don't think I've ever known love like the love we have for each other. My old therapist once told me, "Talk to yourself the way you talk to your dog. And when you are having bad thoughts about yourself, ask yourself, 'Would I think those thoughts about Daisy?'" So she's a part of my therapy, too. Her, my art, and Ian are making up for the first 30-something years of my life being kinda sucky.