I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: The ruffle of a dress, a tendril of hair, a torn image of embroidered fabric juxtaposed with monumental architecture and winter trees. Your visual collages explore the swift cut between interior and exterior, nature and culture, the abstract and the pictorial. They thrive on expression through detail, reminding me of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s articulation of the poetic detail as “the situated, the historical, the fact now and not at some other time, tonalities of the current, sedimented and incipient.”
Your use of domestic objects and complexity of form create a feminist practice of archival work. Your collages stand alone and also richly accompany texts, for example the images you created for books in Litmus Press’s Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers series. In tune with materials, you also manage the metal shop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and find time to co-teach woodworking classes for women, introducing them to under-recognized female artists like Lina Bo Bardi, Charlotte Perriand, Mira Nakashima, and the Shaker inventor and tool maker Tabitha Babbitt.
Engaged with so many different materials—images and textures of collage, the grain of wood, structure of metal, traditions of crafting—I think of you as a walking archive of matter and technique. You remind me of the exciting decisions any artist has to make in terms of the raw, found nature of material and the object the material is slated to become. What is the value of leaving a material raw, obviously cut from another source? And what is the value of smoothing away edges? How do you—how does any artist—decide?
Ashley Lamb: Thank you for such a generous and thoughtful question and reflection upon my work as an artist and educator.
I have often been accused of staring. In the museum, on the train, in the grocery store...I am trying to read the image, the person, the object, in order to gain a greater understanding.
I love when I look at an object and can comprehend how it was made. It is satisfying to know an object in such a way, it fosters a deeper bond or appreciation, I believe. This is particularly true for me when it comes to wood or metal working – appreciating the skill it takes to create a complex joint, for example, or beautiful welds. The raw.
I have tried my hand at many art forms, but I have always (it feels like) made collage. There are so many things to love about the process. There’s always material, you don’t need much to work with, and it’s very mobile. Leaving such material largely unaltered, the viewer is able to guess at the life it once had, while examining it in this new relationship. When it comes to understanding how it was constructed, it’s fairly straightforward. There’s a humility to collage; it is the sum of its parts, which may include an old newspaper or a receipt from Target.
I like that the collages are somewhat self-possessed. I haven’t taken away the material’s thingness, rather I see my role as helping its voice come through in a different way. In my work, the raw found material is always in relation to what is not there. What remains of an image implicates the parts that have been cut away or hidden by another layer. So, life is like this, with parts we choose to show and parts we keep for ourselves, but they are none the less both there, always, in relation to each other.
How does anyone decide what to show? I think it’s mostly instinctual. If I am making a collage in direct relation to a text, I try to capture the feeling of the text through visual imagery. This can be through color schemes, specific images, the way a line intersects with another. I know that it is “done” when it speaks to me in a similar tone that the text spoke to me.
My work has always, in my mind, had a relationship to writing. I love poetry in particular, which so often implies what it means to be a person, in and in relation to the world. I try to hint at those notions as well, through almost-figures and suggestions of partial scenes, sometimes titles that implicate them. In fact, many of the collages submitted for the viewing gallery were created as cover art for specific texts. Karla has asked me specifically about how I found a resonance between each text and image, but I feel I can only answer that question for myself. That is, perhaps it would be more interesting to hear if and how the collages feel in relation to the texts from their original authors. I hope that they can identify something of their own work there, that it speaks in a voice harmonious with theirs.
As far my process goes, I usually read half-way through a text before I start making something in response so that it’s fresh and I understand the consistent tone. I highlight (literally) specific visual imagery that stands out to me as central to the text in some way as I am reading. When I revisit the manuscript, I re-read it through the specific visual elements that I’ve pulled out, and then try to craft something that accentuates them. Sometimes the details are very literal, but often they become abstracted through interpretation. It also depends on the materials I have at hand, and how they fit (also literally) into the bigger picture. If I am creating something for an unpublished work, as most of these were, I almost always offer the author/editor several options, and give them permission to crop the work if perhaps only a certain part really speaks to them. A text and its cover can often become associated in one’s mind, and I would never want an author to publish a work of mine unless they really felt they belonged together. I think both poetry and visual art can transport us to someplace that is both otherworldly and deeply internal, the way that spiritual experiences can also be.
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?
Ashley Lamb: As a visual artist, I’ve used collage as a medium for as long as I can remember. Sadly, I can’t recall the first object that called to me, but I have always felt that discarded paper objects deserve a new life in a new context. It’s important to me that this form of making is mindful of sustainability. Over the years I’ve mostly sourced materials from secondhand stores and flea markets, the likes of which are not so common to encounter these days. But once, there were places with troughs full of discarded photos, papers, year books, card catalogues, postcards, even diaries. How did these objects, once precious enough to save, come to be discarded, acquired, and put up for sale for a nominal fee? And why would someone want to buy a stranger’s vacation photos or casual correspondence? I think something I delighted in was this experience of almost looking in on your own life through a window; most people can relate to having written or received a letter and the varying types of sentiment to be found therein, even if it was not one written precisely to you. Or perhaps it was written precisely also to you, but the writer was unaware of you as an audience.
Once, I found my own family’s photos in such a trough while I was on the hunt for new materials. The story behind the mystery of how they came to be there is not a pleasant one, so for you it will remain just that, but you can imagine my shock to discover my own grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, some of whom I had never met and knew only from our own treasured family photo albums. And how many were they? How many more? I bought the ones I could find, unable to convince the store clerk that this was indeed my own family, and redistributed them to those who would appreciate them most. It was too tender of a subject to make work about, but perhaps reinforced my care for the objects I acquired going forward. I try to be very thoughtful about cutting up an object and reframing it, as there is also an element of violence there. When recontextualizing found materials I often try to highlight parts of the object that may have gone previously unnoticed, a strand of hair out of place, for example, to emphasize the charm in every-day imagery and material.
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?
Ashley Lamb: What a great series of questions. To begin to answer them, I first need to provide a little background information about the work I’ve been doing the last several years. Presently, as you mentioned, I manage the metal shop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach students how to turn their 2D sketches into 3D objects. Countless times I’ve witnessed the empowerment, confidence, and pride that our students experience as they learn processes such as welding or wood turning. For people who have been conditioned in one way or another to believe that they were not meant to harness these kinds of skills, the experience can be that much more profound. This is unfortunately true for many people who identify in all kinds of ways, but as a woman I have felt and experienced both the growing pains and the liberation that comes with becoming proficient in an industrial shop setting. I believe I need not explain to you why this has been such a powerful experience for me, because you have likely felt it too, whoever you may be. There is a fear that has been instilled in many of us, coupled with a lack of information.
With these thoughts and feelings in mind, I set out to design and teach a beginning woodworking class for women with my friend and colleague Lesley Jackson, who managed the adjacent woodshop at that time. Our intention was to create a space for women to learn fundamental woodworking skills that was welcoming, nurturing, and made for them. After teaching our first session of classes, we decided we also wanted to use this platform to highlight female designers from the last century; It seemed like a great opportunity to honor their legacy, and for our students to draw inspiration from their designs.
But who were these women? In discussing our ambitions for the class, Lesley and I found our own educations on modernist female designers to be lacking. We had to do a deep dive into the subject, starting with the internet, expanding into library books, museum exhibitions, videos, films, journals, and so on. Eventually we decided to highlight the work of Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand, Lina Bo Bardi, and Mira Nakashima, some of whom had been overlooked during their lifetimes, or had their work attributed to their male peers. Lesley and I fell in love with each of them while learning about their life stories and exploring the cannons of their work, and were each in turn inspired to think about our individual practices in new ways.
I could speak to you about the discrimination and denigrations these women endured in pursuit of their greatest professional achievements, but my intension is not to highlight this part of their story, for their legacy is the magnificent furniture and architecture they brought into the world which helped shape the modern landscape as we know it. And this is also the point of the class, and the way we have presented our research when called upon to do so. To focus on the challenging aspects of working in an industry that was not created for you would be a missed opportunity to highlight the ways in which everyone can benefit from an education in the industrial arts. I have thought often of this quote from feminist author and activist Sarah Ahmed, from her book Living a Feminist Life,
But think of this: those of us who arrive in an academy that was not shaped by or for us bring knowledges, as well as worlds, that otherwise would not be here. Think of this: how we learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us. Think of the kinds of experiences you have when you are not expected to be here. These experiences are a resource to generate knowledge.
The advice I would have for other cultural workers looking to exhume and/or create archives of the overlooked is to see the opportunity that exists to bring these stories further into the light, and to acknowledge the gratitude you likely feel to be able to be a kind of conduit for this act of care. Doing cultural work can be challenging; acknowledge that though we may be teaching we’re still learning, will take missteps, may have to start over and try again. Check in with your intensions now and then to confirm that they align with your actions. These are some of the lessons I’ve taken away while engaging in social practice, especially as a white woman with varying kinds of privilege. I think I’m more in the position of accepting advice at this moment, however, and so look forward to what others will have to share!
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?
Wow what a question! To be honest, I have never thought of my work within the context of archiving before, nor have I spent much time thinking about the archive as an action, a political movement, a living space, but I am so grateful to be included in this conversation and to begin engaging with the notion of archives in this way.
What archives! An archive of wave sounds, wind sounds, whale sounds. Archive of my favorite poems accompanied by readings of said poems by their authors. Archive of the sound of cats grooming to fall asleep to at night. Archive of hairs my former lovers found long after I was gone. Archive of moss smells. Archive of silly waters. Archive of best hugs received. Archive of songs described but never sung. Archive of Agnès Varda. Archive of CTA passengers. Archive of satisfying walks in every city or town, organized from shortest to longest. Archive of books unwritten but contemplated by Anne Carson. Archive of everyone’s accomplishments. Archive of Maira Kalman’s illustrations. After this particular storm passes, an archive of all the helpers and the ways they tried to help. Archive of PPE created. Archive of rainbows in windows, of signs of encouragement, of letters of thanks.
An archive of pedagogy would be most helpful. One I’ve looked to in the past is the book Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, edited by Paper Monument. In it, more then 80 artists and educators share exercises and lesson plans they designed and/or that have inspired them. To address the freedom part of this question, sharing the curricula one has created and culled over the years is a generous and humble act. The book itself is fairly inexpensive and doesn’t take up much space, and can also be accessed via Tumblr, where it continues to grow and evolve. There, one can browse by type of assignment, as well as original author, which include famed artists such as John Baldessari and Michelle Grabner, but can be added to by anyone with something meaningful to contribute to this ongoing dialogue.
I see this kind of knowledge sharing surrounding curricula happening a lot right now, as most everyone has moved their classes online for the rest of the semester. We face similar challenges and embrace new opportunities to discover what making in the virtual classroom can look like and produce, and it’s perhaps more important than ever to openly share with one another what we’re learning as we go. This freedom of knowledge has been made easier by Zoom meetings, allowing us to collaborate from wherever we find ourselves with peers we may never have met before.
III: Exchange Question
Mary-Kim Arnold: In writing about her work in 18th century French judicial archives, historian Arlette Farge observes, “One cannot overstate how slow work in the archives is, and how this slowness of hands and thought can be the source of creativity.”
Has there been a time in your own work where “the slowness of hands” or the body’s response to this slowness has provided unexpected insight or inspiration?
Farge goes on to say that because of the “inescapable” labor, “your patience will inevitably be tested.”
As an alternative to the above question, has there been in a time when laboriousness, tedium, or frustration with archival research has sent you into a different direction from where you began?
Ashley Lamb: I’m sure we’re all thinking about slowness right now, those of us who can afford to, and the way our once hectic lives have been contained within the domestic spaces we find ourselves within. I know I have benefited from the opportunity to use some of this hush to take stock, reconnect with friends and neighbors, with my own needs and wants, the good and the bad.
I’ve always been a slow maker, despite a desire to be another way. I am drawn to process-oriented work, which necessitates a clear order of operations. Metal and woodworking, printmaking, even collage – there is a very specific place you must begin most of the time if you want to arrive at your imagined end. I think there’s pleasure in each phase, and that the different steps help break up the monotony of the collective time a work may take to complete. Moving this way through something, be it an art object, a piece of furniture, an archive, whatever, allows you to get into the “flow,” as it is often described. The flow is for me a kind of spiritual experience, something I chase after. If I don’t feel it, then the work can begin to feel like a chore, a labor. Those projects often get cast aside into an ever growing pile of unfinished beginnings.
Slow work is flow work. To be fully present with neither an eye towards the past nor the future is such a wonderful feeling to have pass through you, and part of its pleasure may well be its fleetingness.
I enjoy the slow work of repetition, making an embroidery for example. This to me feels like going on a long walk you’ve been on many times before. You notice new things each time, but because you know your way you don’t have to focus so much on the immediate world around you, and can drift into your own thoughts while still engaging in the work at hand. When something begins to become familiar to you, even the motion of laying a stich down can be satisfying, much like the act of walking itself.
But I have perhaps not answered the question. I think what I’m getting at is that almost always when I have the opportunity to engage in work that is slow going I find it soothing, and if I’m lucky, inspirational. Especially in the present day when our attention spans have been lessened by digital technology and our fast-paced world feels like it’s only always getting faster, engaging in slow work allows me to once again hear my own thoughts more clearly. For me, it’s the difference between reacting and being really intention about what you have to say.
Ashley Lamb: An Online Gallery
Ashley Lamb is an artist and educator who currently resides in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the feminist collective Joan Desert, named in honor of Eileen Gray’s Parisian storefront, Jean Désert. She is passionate about the intersections of craft and social change.