THE Gynocratic Art Gallery

value the brain & cut the priviledge

September 2016 – Anne J Steves


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Anne Steves: Q&A

Laura Schneider (of The REACH Gallery Museum, BC) and Anne Steves
for The Gynocratic Art Gallery
Fall 2016

Laura Schneider: Many feminist artists have incorporated media that have been traditionally associated with craft into their practices. We are seeing more and more male artists adopt these materials and processes as well, which is interesting. Do you consider your practice or materials gendered? Politicized?


Anne Steves: I find inspiration in the works of feminist artists as well as the women in my own family. I wanted to be a painter for a long time because I considered painting as a discipline to have more authority in the world. It took me until grad school to understand the power in what have been considered gendered materials. Craft based materials (such as wool, string, textiles, felt) have a unique ability to connect ideas and histories that are absent from many art forms. There are techniques like crochet or playing with string games that I vaguely remember but have no skill in. I was the worst student in sewing class; even the simple fleece hat that we were instructed to sew together ended up with a hole in the top but I have been able to turn those wonky stitches into character-filled line drawings on textiles. These areas of uncertainty and insecurity are the ones I am most interested in, that is where there is a possibility for connection with others and for art to become a two way street; a conversation.


Many handcrafts also have specific histories in particular places.  There is a connection between bodies, places and materials that I want to engage with in new ways, to be part of this continuum. The fact that male artists are engaging with these materials, I think, is evidence of a shift finally happening where (some) men are interested in the histories that have been denied to them too. The lineage of these materials and techniques have little to do with wealth or land ownership, and more to do with rich stories and a connection to community and place. I am constantly influenced by the gendered aspects of these practices, and the possibilities they afford us to not sit within stereotypes. Overall though, I wouldn’t say that my work is particularly political. It is more an act of looking back in order to move forward.


LS: In your artist statement you mention a mathematical principle that motivated this body of work. Can you describe it and how this plays out in Soft Truths?


AS: It was really a moment of realization in my research about making soft works, when I realized that the same kind of flexibility of thought and practice have a direct and analogous application in geometry.

If you draw a triangle on a piece of paper all of the angles will add up to 180 degrees every time. This is a rule, a fact that we assume will always be true. However, if you cut that triangle out and, say, decoupage it onto a globe, the angles will be distorted and no longer add up to the same amount. I find that fascinating; that something that seems so concrete is actually a matter of material application.

This applies to the Soft Truth works because I felt it allowed me to assign the same authority to stories and fleeting impressions as one would to facts and empirical evidence.  My work often oscillates between two-dimensional plane and three-dimensional form, and textiles are a perfect area to explore this. Materially it also meant that I could make a flat representation of the lake but in these soft felt frames they could equally be placed on a table and look like a boat. Flexibility is important to me.


LS: This body of work was realized during a residency. To what extent do residencies inform your broader practice?


AS: During my MFA I made a series of works based on maps of places I had been, and literary references to them. I was interested in the relationship between fact and fiction, the embodied experience and the mental impression. While I liked many elements of the work, I always felt a little hung up on the question of “Why that place over any other?”


Residencies have been an interesting turn of events for my practice. My work with place fit well into the residency mandates and so I began receiving acceptance letters.  Residencies have provided an answer to this question of “why?” I make works that relate directly to the place that I inhabit for a designated period of time. However there is a through-line with themes and material concerns regardless of where I am: temporariness, craft, community, the relationship between the verbal, visual, and oral. So this culmination of specific experiences and material studies becomes part of a larger body of work.


LS: To what extent do your experiences with each community directly inform your practice?


AS: There is always a proposal that I think I am going to follow and more often than not it gets thrown out in favour of something else.  However, I am finding that by the end of each residency, I can see how my initial ideas play back into the finished body of work. For example, my plan for Harrison had to do with connecting stories to found textiles through the act of embroidery. In my proposal, I connected it to the manner in which a parent or grandparent might have written your name in your clothes to make sure they came home. It is a kind of labeling or tagging. After arriving in Harrison, I began making daily observations of the lake and abandoned my initial idea. But then I found a desire to address each of the images by naming them in alliterative embroidered titles. It became a different kind of naming or labelling.


LS: What are your observations of the community that you have been working in (Harrison)?


AS: Harrison has such a small year round population that within a month or two you have met everybody who has any interest in the arts. This led pretty quickly into people telling stories and they most often were about the lake, more often than not about the scary parts of it. The lake has both a visual and mental impact that kind of takes over after a while. I quickly realized that the lake is the community in Harrison. They are proud of it and also proud that they know more about it than the visitors. The lake has secrets, and the longer you live in Harrison the more about them you hear. Whether they are true or not seems irrelevant, having those secrets revealed to you is part of gaining access to the community.

LS: Your practice involves some participatory elements. Often, as in An end where a beginning had been, you are not present when visitors engage with your work. There is an element of anonymity to this kind of collaboration. What role does this remove play for you?


AS: I am far more interested in what someone is not saying. Throughout my time at the gallery I left question jars for visitors and locals to respond to and found that I got some very evocative responses. The anonymity allowed people to share things they might never have said to a stranger in public. At times it felt like a message in a bottle. This allowed me a different kind of intimacy with the community. I did a residency as a canoe trip down the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and while we had no formal community involvement, our presence had an effect on the community.  This really got me thinking about how small gestures can have impact. There is a tendency to need to quantify community participation in the arts in order to fulfil grant requirements or justify our artistic actions, but I am much more touched by those unexpected moments of sharing that come out of just having an artistic presence. It’s like leaving a question next to a pile of papers. Even if no one collected those papers or ever read them, the affect, or moment of connection remains.


LS: You document your daily observations of the water in this body of work. Did you choose this method to record something personal or to make a larger, more objective comment?


AS: I recorded the surface of the water every day through a moment of change in the spring snowmelt.  I wanted to apply a structure to something totally unruly, to give myself a pattern to follow that would be impossible to fulfil accurately. Many crafts have an element of ritual or repetition in them.  External conditions shift the finished product (for example, material quality, tension of the body), even if, essentially, the same methods were used. That is something I have worked with in several projects; if I do this again and again in different conditions what results do I get and what does this say?  So, I painted the colour of the lake every day as best I could and layered the results until I had images that looked like a landscape. It’s record of the landscape, but contains no discernible features of said landscape. They are soft truths.


LS: There is a lot of text in this body of work, for example work in the Soft Truth series, poetic, alliterative titles have been embroidered directly onto the felt “frames.” In some cases the text seems explanatory or descriptive, in others it seems like a vague association. How would you describe the relationship between text and object in your work?


AS: Here is where you are going to catch me involved in a feminist, or counter-narrative, practice.  As I mentioned before, my interest in the act of naming or labeling was there from the beginning. Harrison Hot Springs is such a white, colonial, patrilineal name for a place. The name says little of deep history, Indigenous presence, or the shifting nature of the landscape. And so for each piece in the soft truth series, I dressed the lake in some form of clothing and named it. The names are alliterative like the rhythm of the water as it shushes the shore and also draw upon observations and stories I now associate with this body of water.  I wanted to name in the only way I knew how, poetically. It is definitely influenced by the writings of Helene Cixous and her confidence in allowing emotive words into academic texts. Text is tricky but I keep coming back to it. It is a primary way that I know the world and so I am constantly intrigued by what happens if I pair it with images, oral transmissions and embodied acts.  What falls apart or comes together when these things are considered?

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