Talking with: Quilter Jessica Wohl

July 18, 2019

It Hurts More Than We Think, 2015. Found bed sheets, shirts, table cloth, dresses, embroidery and machine quilting. Art and photos courtesy of Jessica Wohl.

Tell me how art came into your life. Did you grow up with in a creative environment, or was it just something that called to you?

I don’t know if I can cite the moment art came into my life, but it was just something I was always interested in. My grandmother and my mom were always engaged in needlework; needlepoint and crocheting in particular, and I don’t think I ever saw my mom sit on the couch without a project in her hands. I learned handiwork from them, but was always interested in drawing and painting.

So much of your art seems to focus on domesticity and, as you say in your statement, trying to convey the idea that the image of the perfect family can be deceiving. Has having a child altered your view on the trappings of happy-family life? Or has it confirmed that it is even messier behind closed doors than you previously thought?

Having a child has altered my view on happy-family life, but not as much as getting married has, and perhaps not in the way you might expect. When I was growing up, my understanding of family life was complicated. Most of my family members were on their second marriages, and my entire family was a mix of full, half and step-siblings. The notion of Happily Ever After just seemed so clouded and unrealistic for me. That’s why I spent so much time addressing how phony facades can be. I think my fear of ending up in a broken family of my own caused me to put off marriage for so long that I was able to find the right person. Now, I don’t feel like that perfect family is unattainable. My life now, with my husband and son, is much less “messy” than my upbringing was. That fear is long gone now.

You’ve incorporated sewing and embroidery in your artwork for years. When did you decide to work with quilts as a medium?

I made a failed attempt at a quilt in grad school. All of the quilting was made with individual sutures, but I never finished it because the aesthetic impact wasn’t worth my time investment; it didn’t pay off, so I abandoned it. In 2014 I used a quilt as the background for a soft-sculptural installation. From there it morphed into quilted paintings that were stretched, and in 2016 I began making the actual quilts.

What does the utilization of found fabrics bring to your quilt projects?

The found fabrics bring with them a history that can’t be found in materials like graphite and paint. These fabrics have been worn, stained, slept in, dreamed in, soiled, and so much more, and retain the residue and energies of the people who lived with them. In many ways, these fabrics are stand-ins for their previous owners. When I put those fabrics together in a quilt, I’m physically unifying bits and pieces of households across our country. Through quilting, I can unify traces of the people of this country into one object that provides comfort and warmth. It’s a metaphor for what I’d love to see happen to the social fabric of America.

It seems like the advent of quilting in your work also brought about a more open political dialogue, with your work quite literally shouting to the viewer to Shut Up and Listen, among other messages. What inspired you to take the step into more obvious statements and why did you choose quilts as the messenger?

Since 2012, I’d been thinking deeply about the injustices in our country and could not get over how frequently people were being killed in America without anyone being held accountable through our justice system. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it; I still can’t. I spent four years considering how I was going to shift my work to address this, and it took that long for it all to come together. There is so much pain we feel as Americans, on both sides of the aisle. So much fear. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible,” and I think about that quote all the time. I have to do something. I may not be able to change the world, but man, I have to try. So these quilts are my way of trying.

The “Shut up and Listen” quilt comes from that sentiment. We are so concerned with telling each other what we think, what is right, what is wrong. We need to listen. Listen to each other. I recently read a quote that comes from the movie Arrival: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” Perhaps that’s why it was my inclination to start using text in my work; I’m trying to fight back in some way. Using text and expressing these written sentiments allows me to communicate to the masses. I have the privilege of getting these works in front of an audience, or getting a room of people to listen to me at an artist talk, so this is my way of communicating with people beyond my immediate circle and trying to make things better.

White America, 2016. Found fabrics, bed sheets, shirts, pillowcases and machine quilting. Art and photos courtesy of Jessica Wohl.

Why do you think it is that many people are using crafts, such as quilting, knitting and embroidery, as a form of social protest?
 
There’s a number of reasons, and I certainly don’t pretend to know all of them. I suspect it may have to do with a quiet revolt against technology and the hyper-accelerated pace of contemporary life. Crafts, by nature, require a slowing down. This can be its own form of protest against a pace of life that almost forces us to be swept away with the current if we want to stay involved and relevant. 
 
I also think that the events leading up to, and the results of the 2016 election, play a major role in how this movement has gained steam in the last two years. In particular, when the Access Hollywood tape was released, many women felt energized to embrace their femininity and womanhood; notions that, that in the light of this tape, were presented as objectified and in the service of a man’s desires. This impulse includes the reclamation of women’s work that might otherwise be associated with domesticity and submissiveness, which was then transformed into a vehicle for empowerment. With the pussy hat, for example, the craftiness of this object resonated because of the access it provided; any woman who could knit could make one; they were small, affordable, accessible and with the fluorescent pink color, visually allowed for their vast and unified numbers to be seen. And that tends to be the case with craft media in general; you don’t need a lot of money to produce an object that can be used for social engagement, particularly in a visual way.  
 
You do, however, need time, and this is where I think the conversation gets interesting: Who are the people who have the interest in craft and the time to make slow work? Time is a precious commodity, and many people from lower incomes simply don’t have time to spare. This means they’re likely not putting works of craft into the world, so those voices are often diminished in the world of “Craftivism.” I think it’s vital to recognize this factor and how it impacts the voices in the craft movement that get heard. My feeling is that with regard to the craft movement, particularly as it connects to Contemporary Art, the people we’re hearing from are still coming from positions of privilege–myself included. This needs to change. Initiatives like the Social Justice Sewing Academy are making important progress and waves in this capacity, as are many others, but there’s still much more work to be done. 

Human hair as an artistic device seems to have played a role in a number of your pieces, what do you think the addition of hair adds to your work?
 
The addition of hair in my work allowed for the work to feel alive. For a while, I was fascinated with how the home itself was like a member of our family: It keeps us safe, hears everything, witnesses everything, and seems to be this omniscient part of our lives. We acknowledge that homes are haunted; that the spirits of those who lived there can permeate the walls long after their gone, and we hold emotional ties to the homes we grow up in. By using hair, I can imply that an inanimate object has a pulse; that it’s still somehow alive. That allowed for a certain level of darkness, and the presence of the uncanny, which was a driving force in my work at that time. 

After having your son you turned your Instagram account into an Artist Residency in Motherhood, as a way to help balance your creativity with the time spent as a mother. Can you tell me how you approached this?

I discovered the Artist Residency in Motherhood through the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Lenka Clayton, the founder of the residency, prompts residents to reconsider how parenthood and studio practices can inform one another, and not be in opposition to one another, so viewing my practice through that lens was game changing. The split-image digital collages came about because I could take a photograph very quickly, and make the collage in a matter of minutes. I simply don’t have the time to spend in my studio that I did before becoming a parent, so working in this way put my studio in my pocket. By pairing these mundane moments of parenthood with significant works by contemporary artists, I’m able to place rather meaningless moments and snapshots of daily life into a broader historical context, by mere association.  

How do you balance finding time in the studio with your job as an assistant professor and your family life?
 
It’s very difficult. More difficult than I imagined. I figure I lose about 30-32 hours a week to parenthood and family time, (which I choose to do!) on top of my full-time job. But by changing my practice, I’m making progress. It’s slow; much slower than before I became a mother, but it’s okay. I’ve amended my process by incorporating the digital collages, and also utilizing media that allow me to start and stop on a whim. Quilting is clean, and I can sew for a matter of minutes and then stop, picking up and putting down as needed, and I switched from oil to acrylic paint so that I can do the same thing. I’m also trying to incorporate my son’s physical drawings and paintings into my work so we can work collaboratively, rather than having to try to isolate my time in the studio from him. It’s all a work in progress, but I’m excited about what is coming from it.

You can follow Jessica Wohl’s work on Instagram @Jessicawohlstudio. Also, check out her full library of work at JessicaWohl.com.

White America, 2016. Found fabrics, bed sheets, shirts and pillowcases and machine quilting. Art and photos courtesy of Jessica Wohl.

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