Using art to engage with society is a practice as old as the cave paintings inspiring early man to hunt, and as modern as the protest songs of Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot. In socially targeted art, often called “social practice,” the exchange between an artist’s work and an audience can be a powerful way of bringing awareness to societal shortcomings or failures. When these works spark conversation, they inspire separate reflective thoughts in the minds of everyone involved. As proactive as it is, the effectiveness of social practice rests heavily on the artist allowing their methods to grow and adapt. Otherwise, their work becomes an antique, and the message is lost.
The artist’s process of finding the best way to connect with an audience is a tireless effort, and something that San Francisco-based artist and Crochet Jam founder Ramekon O’Arwisters said begins with knowing your unique needs as an artist during his opening lecture for the VCU Arts “Queer Threads: Making and Talking, Fiber and Fashion” event series.
O’Arwisters grew up in North Carolina as the son of two cotton mill workers, and studied to be a minister before shifting his career to an artistic practice in drawing and painting. However, he felt a disconnect between the traditional use of these mediums and his own life, growing up Black and gay in the South. Inspired by his history and his memories of quilt making with his paternal grandmother, Celia Jones Taylor, he began to focus his career on the use non-traditional materials, including rag rugs.
“For the longest time, I [was] not prepared to accept my experience on my own terms…[growing] up in the South, or being gay, or being Black, it all had a negative connotation… now these things are there to help me,” said O’Arwisters. “They are there to inform my world view in a way that nothing else can…when I was growing up, the idea was you can’t be an artist unless you’re working in a traditional way…I can’t use traditional materials to tell my story, because for me, they’re not a direct correlation to my experience.”
While developing his career as an artist with an emphasis on craft making, O’Arwisters met more obstacles in the traditional art world. In his “Queer Threads” speech, he described the problem of some art galleries having a level of exclusivity that ends up alienating their communities, and how he founded Crochet Jam in response to this artistic dissonance.
Founded in 2012, Crochet Jam is a travelling, community-based art project in which O’Arwisters stands before a massive table of fabric strips and teaches anyone who approaches to crochet. As the strangers come together, their pieces are combined until a giant, free-form rag rug is made.
“I decided to give others what I need, and that would be my art. I need to be included, to be appreciated…teaching people how to crochet, the focus isn’t on me being the authority,” said O’Arwisters. “People aren’t being told what to do, so they stay…people come to the table, which is a saying I take from the church, they come to the table and they stay.”
Once completed, O’Arwisters transforms these rugs into sculptures by displaying them in exhibits as towering stacks, some so tall they need a hidden armature to hold them up. The effect is overt and psychologically heavy, recalling the amassment of overlooked labors and burdens of the marginalized.
“The whole idea of taking something that is considered so everyday…and staking them up, it gives them an entirely different presence that’s much more powerful,” said O’Arwisters. “I associate the rag rug making tradition with the idea of being marginalized. In the art world, craft work is marginalized, in many ways that gay people, queer people, people of color are marginalized. I, as a metaphor, have decided to combine those two elements and take it out of its domestic element, and make it large.”
While the range of O’Arwisters works incorporate many non-traditional materials—including a portrait series titled “Drawing You, Drawing Me” where O’Arwisters draws using brazil nuts dipped in ink—some of his most strikingly tender works are his woven pieces. In his work “The Trinity,” a three-paneled picture of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy floats over his grandmother’s sink bowl full of glass watermelons, while another piece displays a woven rope swirling around a picture of novelist James Baldwin and photos of O’Arwisters’ own family that had been kept locked in a safe by his father until just before his death. These woven works are intensely personal and give shape to the bitter and beautiful memories of generations, weaving simplicity, sadness, hope, disappointment, pain and joy into a thick, cascading string of knots.
During his speech for “Queer Threads,” O’Arwisters reflected on his earlier social commentaries as inaccurate, “too angry” representations of himself. If the saying that anger is a secondary emotion is true, then the softness of O’Arwisters non-traditional works are open expressions of something primary.
Their humanity is inviting and captivating, and O’Arwisters remarked on the visible eagerness of people to touch the Crochet Jam stacks when they are on display. As his speech came to a close, and before the audience was invited to their own Crochet Jam, O’Arwisters said the most important part of creating universal work is to “know thyself.”
“My experiences are my own, my job is to see how can I transform them…how can I make you as an individual, as a viewer of the art, to be comfortable to acknowledge your own feelings,” said O’Arwisters. “Be aware that your career as an artist is uniquely your own. I feel, as an artist, it’s your job to be aware of who you are and communicate that profoundly to others and make change in positive ways through your work.”
The “Queer Threads” series will continue until April 14, and will include more speakers, community-inclusive art projects, culminating with an event at Black Iris Gallery. You can click here for a broken down event schedule, and to learn more about Ramekon O’Arwisters and Crochet Jam, you can click here.
Images via Crochet Jam