Thursday, June 9, 2022

Further (final?) thoughts on your fiber ancestry

Sometimes you think you're done with a topic, but it keeps popping up again in conversation and in your thoughts.  This is the third installment and possibly the final one (never say never) of a consideration of  one's fiber ancestry.  By ancestors I mean teachers and also those artists whose lives and work have inspired you even if you've never met or studied with them.   You can find my previous posts on this subject here and here.  

In a Facebook conversation, Ellen Ramsey remarked that the artists who make you "swoon" (my term) are not necessarily one's ancestors.  She makes an excellent point.  One's ancestors are those whose DNA you carry, whose tradition and ways of working have deeply informed your own.  They are in your bones.  I was taught by those who work largely in the French tapestry tradition, so that's my "tapestry DNA."  Other weavers have come to it from Native, Southwestern, Central and South American traditions, among many others.  

My notion had been that artists whose work I deeply love have influenced my own artistic practice (artists like Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney and Silvia Heyden) and that therefore they are my adopted ancestors.  But, and here is where Ellen is exactly right, we can admire other artists and at the same time recognize that their work is not ours to do.  Not simply because it's wrong to copy, plagiarize or appropriate other's ideas and methods wholesale, but because our work is to discover and develop our own voices.  

When we are learning a new medium this can be hard to remember.  We want to learn technique and we usually want to learn it "the right way," at least to start.  When we see work that moves us, naturally we want to make work like that.  And this is indeed one important way that art moves forward, in all mediums.  

In my conversation with Ellen she reminded me that she had first come across the idea of fiber ancestry in Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist (which is a great and provocative read, by the way).  As you can guess from the title, his thesis is that all artists steal, by which he means take what they see and transform it to make it their own.  (Merely borrowing is plagiarism.)  Kleon has a chapter called "Climb Your own Family Tree."  He advises artists to choose one artist or role model and deeply study them.  Then study the people that person was influenced by.  And so on, "climb[ing] up the tree as far as you can go.  Once you build your tree, it's time to start your own branch."  Kleon has lots of great things to say about the difference between copying and "originality."  Get the book and read it for yourself!  Here's one page as a teaser:  

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist, page 39. 

As long as we're taking about books,  I recently learned about an exhibit that happened at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1978.  The exhibit looked at the mid-century trend among American artists of making work about previous artworks, often in a parodic or satirical vein.  Pop Art pieces by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein come to mind.  I've only just begun reading the catalog, called Art About Art by Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall, but the introductory essay by Leo Steinberg has already made it clear that stealing motifs and images from previous artwork goes back thousands of years.  (I found a very affordable used copy from an online merchant.). This promises to be an entertaining and informative read. 

Ellen shared a link to this 10 minute podcast on creating/discovering your own artistic family tree.  It's worth a listen.  Among the suggestions there:  don't just make a list of the artists you like, but go deeper and ask, What do the artists whom you admire and who influence you share with each other, and with your own work?  Don't limit yourself to your own medium in constructing this family tree.  Perhaps you are influenced by poets, or musicians, or woodworkers or architects. . .

This is clearly a deep and wide topic that gets at the heart of what it is to make art in a particular medium and tradition.  I hope these posts have helped you understand your own work and task as an artist a little better.  I'm going to close with another quotation from Steal Like an Artist:  "The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can't refuse you as an apprentice.  You can learn whatever you want from them.  They left their lesson plans in their work." 

PS.  I urge you to check out and follow Ellen Ramsey's blog, which is always enlightening and thought-provoking.  She knows her stuff.  Thank you, Ellen!  We are all, always, learning from each other.