Amy E. Elkins
I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: In your research you employ traditional academic scholarship conducted in libraries and archives along with an experiential approach, shadowing a bobbin lace-maker on the Isle of Wight as well as having yourself 3-D scanned and printed! This has resulted in several essays as well as your current scholarly monograph project, Crafting Modernity: Remaking Feminist Time from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present, which draws together literary craft and artistic craftwork, from needlework to poetry and the novel to digital-making.
While your approaches to research might appear to make use of opposite ends of the spectrum—the institutional archive on one hand, the archive of knowledge passed from craftsperson to craftsperson on the other—your writing proves otherwise. For example, your article in PMLA about the Ryerson Image Center’s new collection of six Bernice Abbott photos of Mina Loy’s Bowery assemblages, made in the 1950s recounts a fascinating story of research and recovery, showing scholarly work to be a collaborative, relational adventure. Editorial projects like the online journals Decorating Dissidence. And MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture extend an invitation to this interdisciplinary, collaborative form of archival scholarship to others.
In bringing together literary crafts and artistic craftwork, what usually catalyzes your process of investigation: the literary text, the craft, something else? On a parallel track, how much does the research technique that you use shape the kind of knowledge any given archive will reveal?
Amy E. Elkins: My process of investigation often begins with the text because I’m intrigued by the material basis of artistic metaphors. If, for example, I happen to answer this question by drawing on metaphors of weaving, you might be alerted to my artistic practice. I could suggest the ways in which a text and visual art are woven together, how they form the warp and weft of gender and politics in women’s work across time, how the idea of agency becomes the shuttle running between the threads of gendered making, and so on. These metaphors tell us something about how I make sense of the material world and how I approach complex intellectual or existential questions. Similar such metaphors drew me to taking more seriously the ways writers draw on craft in their work—as both figurative or inspirational but also a part of a material, creative practice across media.
In my own practice, art and writing enrich each other, and since I’m often writing about art-making, doing art is kind of like practicing a language, learning the accents and inflections of creative work—attuning my ear (or eyes, hands) to the ways in which makers think. For example, I’ve been writing about the relationship between Virginia Woolf, craft, and photography. Woolf set the typeface for many of the books published by the Hogarth Press, and because I’m a darkroom photographer, I understood the similarity between a photographic negative printed into to a positive image and the way Woolf had to set type in reverse, forming a kind of literary negative that becomes positive when printed. Or, as another example, I’ve been writing about painting and ink pigments in Lorna Goodison’s work. As a young woman, she left Jamaica to study painting in New York City with luminaries such as Jacob Lawrence. In her poem “To Make Various Sorts of Black,” she cites Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook in the first line! In the poem, she describes and gives tremendous meaning to five different pigments of black. I was able acquire a set of inks made according to these particular recipes, and the poem spoke to me on a completely new level. It is one thing to read about “the black that is scraped from burnt shells. / Makers of Atlantic’s graves. / Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach”—and another thing to fill a brush with Scraped Shell Black ink and see the way it behaves on the paper. Like Goodison’s words—printed in black ink for us on the page—the pigments carry stories and work to make us see in a new way. Critically, what all this means is that I’m able to write with attention to medium specificity, grounding my arguments, however transdisciplinary, in feminist materials and processes.
Your question about how my research technique shapes the kinds of knowledge an archive might reveal taps into the beautiful messiness of working both within and outside traditional archives. I make room for scholarly serendipity—by that I mean a balance of intense investigation and a willingness to let archives, objects, and narratives surprise me. I’d describe my research technique as willfully associative; I relish (and actively create) curious juxtapositions because they often reveal new dimensions of material culture and theory. Even in an institutional archive, I’m looking at the fringes, listening for the stories that might be waiting to be heard, attuning my eyes and fingers to traces of process rather than looking at the finished product as the primary source of knowledge.
I began tracking Berenice Abbott’s lost photographs, for instance, because I wanted to write about Loy’s assemblage artworks, and I kept running into problems getting access to the few pieces that still survive. The assemblages were created from ephemeral materials, and they seemed to both evade attention while also demanding it—much like Loy herself. I had read that even Abbott had lost track of the photographs and negatives, so I tried to imagine various scenarios for the material life (or afterlife) of those images. They seemed like the sort of thing that might get tucked into a file with other pieces of paper and shuffled around for a while. If someone encountered them, it is likely they wouldn’t know they were photographs of Loy’s artwork unless they were familiar with Loy’s work. A lot of my research depends on an understanding of the persistence of material objects, while also acknowledging archives as sites of power. By thinking in an active way about the borders of archives, I attune myself to the potential for shifting, challenging, and enlarging those borders to be more inclusive. In my experience, craft provides a model for this kind of intervention because it traverses the personal and political in powerful, unique ways, evading easy categorization and allowing makers on the margins to assert their agency—their survival.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Amy E. Elkins: Oh goodness, yes—the call of objects has shaped and propelled my work since the beginning. Once, on a college trip to Oxford, Mississippi, I got to see a private collection of William Faulkner artifacts. On a corner of the table was a stack of books covered in calico cloth, and I was instantly moved by them; they held a kind of tenderness I didn’t expect. I learned that Faulkner signed his first editions for his mother, and his sister-in-law hand-stitched these cloth covers for them. That was an early encounter with how craft and literature intersect in a very real way—and how women, often on the fringes of male writers’ archives, make themselves part of the larger story. In paying attention to the fragile edges of the archive, I began to notice how gender and literary history emerge through craft.
After that, studying book history gave me the tools I needed to listen more closely to archives, to hear the ways they call out. Often they don’t call so much as whisper. As I peered between the uncut pages of a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, for example, I discovered a variant table of contents, an alternative organization of her chapters that reframe the book as a Bildungsroman—that highlights the individual’s life over and beyond the huge historical periods covered by the book (see “Old Pages and New Readings in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 29.1: Spring 2010). In other instances, I look at how things are put together—gauging paper thickness and looking at how books are bound, noting the stitches or glue, thinking about what aesthetic mood the font conveys. So thinking about how archival objects call out to us, I often start with the book as a physical object.
However, I don’t limit my archive to the book, even in an expanded sense. For instance, the most powerful call came during my work on the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Although H.D. died in 1961, she left me a trail of clues, tempting me to follow the thread of her life for the past decade, ever since first reading her work with serious attention in graduate school. I started tracing references to textile crafts across her oeuvre, noticing how writing tools (pens, quills, styluses, parchment, scribblings) often intertwine with craft materials (thread, dyes, palettes, ink) in her writing. Institutional repositories didn’t include any objects made by H.D., so I began to look outside traditional archives, hoping there might be a way to learn more about her relationship to craftwork. In 2013, on a hunch, I wrote to H.D.’s grandchildren to ask if they knew of any craft supplies, embroideries, or needleworks in private collections, invoking in my note the often forgotten cardboard boxes that live in attics and basements. After a few email exchanges, a reply came that some old boxes had been located, and they contained four needlepoint canvases along with an assortment of craft supplies.
A few months later, I flew to New York City to be the first scholar to handle the collection. H.D.’s grandson greeted me and gestured in the direction of several boxes and a large, framed needlepoint piece I recognized instantly from Perdita’s writings on her mother’s craft practice during the Blitz. In the hour or so that followed, I carefully unboxed the collection, pulling out crumpled, unfinished needlepoint canvases and unrolling H.D.’s bundles of yarn. I read her notes to herself about plans for the various projects and imagined what it must have been like to create these pieces during a period of cultural catastrophe—World War II—and to cultivate a therapeutic practice through craft while, at the same time, crafting some of the twentieth century’s most bold, experimental prose and poetry. The needlework pieces were those of an experienced maker, one who could both work in very fine detail and loosen those conventions and experiment with her materials. The canvases convey a mood—at times, a painstaking absorption in the project at hand, while at other times, a hasty, urgent dash to completion. I peered under the long lines of yarn to see the hand-traced pattern on the base fabric, and I turned the pieces over to observe the massive tangle of knots and threads in the background. Looking at the flipside of these pieces, I couldn’t help thinking about the liminal spaces of craft, and I wanted to account for both the material and symbolic power of what I was seeing. The richness of process (over product) is at the heart of women’s craft, a fact that informs my own willingness to ‘listen in’ as a feminist research method. Wearing H.D.’s thimble on my finger that that afternoon, I was inspired to champion the liminal, the collaborative, and the dismissed archives of women’s creative work across media.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Amy E. Elkins: Tina M. Campt’s work has helped me recently reformulate the way I approach ignored or silenced archival objects and spaces. In Listening to Images, she outlines a new approach to photographic ethics that includes the “black quotidian,” arguing that encounters with visuality have the potential to foreground “an inherently embodied modality constituted by vibration and contact” (9, 7). I take seriously her call to the “practice of looking beyond what we see and attuning our sense to the other affective frequencies” that occur in the event of making an object or image (9). My interest in Campt stems, in part, from a long fascination with Audre Lorde’s argument that erotic joy offers a source of feminist power, a resource for challenging oppressive hierarchies. She reveals the potential of anti-patriarchal, radical joy—a way of sensing, knowing the world, and making meaning that inspires me to take more risks and follow my deeper impulses, as well as my intellectual hunches, as a feminist researcher.
I’ve also learned that when your work angles in from a direction of joy rather than skepticism, it challenges hierarchies of what ‘counts,’ even in the sense of what counts as a primary text or artistic artifact. You’re likely to get push back from folks who stake their work on deeply entrenched knowledge systems and critical approaches. In response, I try to make visible the rigorous research methods that underpin my work and that link theory and praxis, and in the process—partly as a response to the ways in which my work was received early on—I feel a particular responsibility to articulate the ways in which a feminist archival research method is every bit as rigorous and robust as a more traditional approach. That’s to say, I’ve cultivated a rich experiential archive from which to draw both inspiration and knowledge, and these hands-on experiences have taught me to see in a way that continues to surprise me. As I developed my first book, I wanted to make sure I held space for these methodological contact zones. In a series of interchapters I call “Techne,” I combine theory with experiential research, memoir with maker/artist spotlights, object stories with intellectual experimentation. This work feels important because it’s a feminist design for a feminist book—a way of showing the seams between chapters, letting the reader in on the process.
As an example, I have been interested in lacemaking for a long time, so I shadowed and interviewed a traditional bobbin lacemaker on the Isle of Wight. One thing she taught me is that lace bobbins—the little wooden spools that hold the thread—carry stories. They are usually weighted with a small loop of beads, which may tell the story of a lover at sea or mark special occasions, and even the sort of wood or carved shape can tell you a lot about the meaning of bobbins as artifacts. The lacemaker—her name is Barbara Philo—also had this unbelievable wealth of knowledge about the similarities and differences of lace patterns and techniques across historical periods and on a global scale. One day, years later, I was in an antique shop in Galway, Ireland, and I noticed several jars of lace bobbins and thought, I think I’d like to have a few of those on hand, for demos or just to look at. The shop owner was surprised I had such an interest in them and asked if I’d seen the painted ones. The painted ones? I learned that in the 1970s and 1980s there was a pretty active traditional lacemaking group in Dublin. One of the guild’s members was a Chinese immigrant to Ireland, and she painted designs onto the bobbins, each one an exquisite story in miniature. I’ll save the full details for my forthcoming book’s “Techne,” but this example brings together several of my guiding research principles, from embracing serendipity and listening to what objects have to say to the powerful cross-cultural history of craft and the ways in which maker spaces and storytelling intersect.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Amy E. Elkins: This is a difficult question to answer because I’m entranced by so many different kinds of archives and potential archives, and I feel increasingly optimistic about the advances I’m seeing in how archival spaces are curated and constructed. Museums seem to be embracing more experimental designs, highlighting queer makers more, and becoming more interactive. And social media has provided a range of exciting curatorial spaces—my current favorite, for example, is the covid19quilt Instagram page started by Kate Just and Tal Fitzpatrick. Makers from all over the world send in images of their pandemic crafts and art-making, which form a grid of square tiles: a virtual quilt accompanied with stories.
While I’ve definitely had an interest in feminist archival preservation (see the online archive I built to house the work of the Potters, an early-twentieth-century women’s artistic collective: https://potterswheel.omeka.net), my current work advances a different set of goals. I’m more interested in forming new conceptual frameworks for interpretation that are based on discovery, recovery, and repurposing—sort of like an archaeological dig using feminist tools. My feminist-materialist, transmedia research aims to reposition the work of intersectional makers at its heart, undoing archives that have traditionally marginalized minority writers, artists, and crafters. Much of that work happens through anti-hierarchical, networked archives rather than “building” as such.
That said, a lot of my work emerges around questions of what women are willing to reveal about their transartistic practices...there is a real fear that to have multiple creative/critical practices dilutes the authority of their primary practice, or genre. So writers, especially women writers, will actively minimize their other interests in order to be taken seriously (in other words, admiration for the so-called Renaissance Man doesn’t usually extend to women writers). It’s a double standard that frustrates me—but that I understand. In addition to the writers I read and study, I’ve met a lot of scholars in the last few years who identify as makers, often covertly, and I can identify with their hesitation to represent themselves that way. Even in my own work, in which experiential practices are so fundamental and even political, I find myself navigating what it means to be a practicing artist. I’ve been saying lately, writing my first book is like making a patchwork quilt! And what I don’t say is that I’ve also been making quilts. It might be interesting to dream up an archive that highlights the craft work of women scholars—the projects that ignite our creativity, serve as therapy, lead us deeper into our scholarly questions, resist oppressive power structures, and inject radical joy into our lives and work. I know I’d love to see it—to draw inspiration from the feminist bravery of a collective like that, to see scholars insisting on the validity of their work in all its forms.
III: Exchange Question
Lisa Pearson: I’ve found that shaping a selection of works from an archive is the most challenging task. I’m interested to know how others think about the criteria, the frame, the presentation, the relationships of one thing to another as well as the accumulation of things, all the big and little decisions that ultimately result in what will become public.
Amy E. Elkins: This question fascinates me both as a researcher—nearing the completion of my first monograph—and as a teacher. Because I work at the intersection of texts and other objects, the archives I select often emerge as a result of my comparisons between a work of literature and a visual object. In other words, I’m looking at the potential exchanges between the verbal and the visual, which determines my scholarly curatorial focus. And I usually find myself thinking at least as much about access than selection per se—trying to recover craft archives as research sources and records of makers’ practices across media. In that way, I reassemble like an archaeologist...I like to dig in and see what I find and bring new things to light, and I’m not interested in thinking hierarchically about what counts or merits inclusion along traditional lines. Because my work embraces the fringes of art-making, I’m usually excited about linkages and circulation, networks that fascinate me because they are dispersed, queer, excessive, or secretive. I suppose another way of saying this is that I’m really interested in creative practices that are undisciplined. This approach to the archive is informed by craft scholars who have disrupted ideas of high and low work with responses to amateurism, DIY, craftivism, and hobby art. But it’s also an outgrowth of my fascination with the neuroscience of creativity, the ways in which writers often make things intermittently across media as a form of inspiration, the impetus to think in new ways with diverse materials (fibers, clay, panes of glass, recycled cardboard, found objects, etc.) and in ways that are more embodied—more haptic, more visual.
For me, assembling an archive becomes something loosened from linear approaches to selection, and I’ve worked that methodology into my pedagogy as well. For example, while I teach literature using an array of hands-on and multimedia approaches, I’ve been really intrigued by collage’s capacity to bridge theory and practice in the undergraduate classroom. I’m always looking for ways to deepen my students’ ability to synthesize, look closely, and articulate the far-reaching creative potential of literary texts. I sometimes ask students to create collage artworks that accompany their final research papers. And as they make their artworks, I encourage them to think about both the content of their essay (its argument, the primary sources, the critical context) and the process of academic writing itself (structure, integrating others’ perspectives, enchantment and labor). In making a collage, they find new and wonderful associations and write with more creative insight and critical rigor. This approach can be really important when I’m teaching courses rooted in cultural studies and global literature. In my courses on “Contemporary British Multicultural Novels,” collage, as an instruction model, becomes a medium for political and aesthetic critique, analysis, and public engagement. In my courses, my collage pedagogy asks literature students to theorize—through hands-on making—the ruptures and sites of solidarity in contemporary narratives of post-colonialism, xenophobia, border politics. By creating points of difference (cuts, tears, excision) and transformation (repair, assemblage, unity), students become more attentive to the power structures at work in multicultural fictions. In this way, they are selecting works from massive archives and assembling in the way you describe—the many big and little decisions that ultimately reveal a uniquely powerful mode of knowledge-sharing while also testing the limits and potential of kinship, relationality, and the borders of knowledge and experience.
Amy E. Elkins: An Online Gallery
Amy E. Elkins, 2020, Mixed media quilt (cyanotype, embroidery, indigo dyed fabrics), 39 ½ in. x 70 ½ in.
This year, I’ve been writing about how women writers use craft in their writing as a way to survive crises, work through trauma, express queer feelings, and resist oppressive systems of time, politics, racism, and gender. This quilt started as a response to the Covid-19 global pandemic and in the midst of a period of intense academic research. As I witnessed unprecedented cultural events unfold around me in new ways, I found myself increasingly fascinated by the role of craft now. Using the iconography of the mask, I wanted to explore the ideas of connection, intimacy, and beauty in the context of cultural crisis, thinking about what it means to care for others—to invest in our collective wellbeing—by embracing distance, by isolating and covering our faces. I found myself confronting selfish disregard for human life all around me, while also appreciating new forms of connection and feeling encouraged by innovation, the uplift of craft economies, and the human ability to nurture one another in new and powerful ways.
I pieced together indigo dyed fabrics (I dyed the light squares in Atlanta in 2014, and the darker blue squares are guinea brocade hand-dyed fabrics from Nigeria), which for me tie together the local and the global and speak to this moment of global connection, even as we must examine our own local responses to a range of issues, from medicine and healthcare to capitalism and community. Indigo comes from a plant, reminding me to connect to the wisdom of the natural world, an especially important reminder in 2020, when the environmental crisis has become so urgent. I made positive drawings of masked women—my superheroines, I call them—and printed them on cyanotype fabric. These figures, appliquéd to the quilt, mark the shift in visual culture, especially in the States where protective and preventative face coverings became almost instantly—and destructively—politicized. But they also celebrate the beauty and strength of communities of women during this time, which includes the healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly and under difficult circumstances since March.
As I turned my attention to the back of the quilt, I knew I wanted to use it as a page—to write a seasonal poem that tried, in some way, to account for the four seasons of 2020. I got the idea from Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels, a four-year project culminating in 2020 that makes striking use of assemblage (a kind of quilt-in-pages), art history, feminist and queer ways of knowing, and political critique. In the middle of my quilting, Smith delivered a virtual, multimedia talk for the Hay Festival, and in it she puts forward “the opposite of hand grenades: it was an and grenade.” The maker’s hand, the intimacy of connection (that and joining two things together), and the violence of our cultural moment—these things resonated deeply with me. Therefore, my seasonal poem takes up Smith’s “& Grenade” bringing together a composite of lines from Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf (lines she wrote during the 1918 flu pandemic), Zadie Smith, and Toni Morrison. The black back fabric was purchased from a shop specializing in DIY mask-making supplies at a time when black fabric was in high demand and short supply. The quilt is quilted using a kiss stitch—little X’s that materialize kisses across the surface of the quilt and that mirror the figures kissing at the center of the quilt, my personal celebration of queer love and Pride.
The poem, embroidered on the back of the quilt, reads:
I am a book of snow,
A spacious hand,
Spring blotted out, but one must
Sacrifice spring to the war.
With the last of the dying summer...
When I think of autumn, I think of somebody
With hands who does not want me to die.
The & Grenade: what might we blow up with our collective compassion, our new forms of radical connection? My composite poem meditates on the ethics of care at the center of the pandemic response, but it also encompasses the emergent uprising against racial injustice and police brutality—a cause gone viral, made global, in the first week of June as I worked to complete the quilt in the Twin Cities, the very place where George Floyd’s heartbreaking murder occurred near my home. The masked faces of the pandemic resonated in a new visual register as protestors took the streets to demonstrate. This quilt is a testament, a love letter, an elegy. Like the quilt as a medium, its complexity surprised me as the materials and meanings multiplied amidst the folds and frayed edges of 2020.
Amy E. Elkins is assistant professor of English at Macalester College. She researches twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and feminism, as well as contemporary art, craft, and critical making. She is currently finishing her first monograph, Crafting Modernity: Remaking Feminist Time from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present. In addition to her scholarly publications, Elkins lectures on creative pedagogy and writes a series of author interviews that explore the intersection of visual culture and women’s writing for Los Angeles Review of Books.