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Community Fabric

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Sonja Swanson

UNLV art professor Ashley Doughty (right) and her mother, Tanya Hairston

“It’s like flossing teeth,” artist Amanda Browder (standing below) says to the group of volunteers surrounding her sewing machine. She slips the bright orange thread through the machinery and shows them how the needle catches the filament as it moves up and down. And then she puts them to work, settling a handful of them at the sewing machines, while others start cutting and pinning the colorful swaths of donated fabrics piled in the lobby of the Barrick Museum. The space quickly fills with the hum of machines and the chatter of friendships forming over fabric.

This crew of volunteers at today’s public sewing event — one of many — is just a fraction of the 150-plus people involved in completing Browder’s installation, The Land of Hidden Gems, a massive fabric sculpture that will encase the east side of UNLV’s Grant Hall from April 2–12. The Department of Art will host a public celebration on April 6 from 1-4 p.m.

Some of the volunteers come with no sewing experience; others, like UNLV art professor Ashley Doughty, bring a sewing machine. “It’s therapeutic to actually sew, because you don’t necessarily have to be thinking about anything,” she says while pinning purple rectangles together. “It can be kind of a meditative process.” Doughty brought her mother, Tanya Hairston, who owned a sewing business for many years.

Pat Murphy, a science writer who recently moved to Boulder City, was looking for community arts events when she found this one through Facebook. “I’m terrible at making clothes, but I know how to sew a straight seam!” she says with a laugh.

“What I like about having the public sewing days is that people feel they're participating in the art process,” Browder says. “It's not just: They go to the museum, they see the end product, and then hear about the artist.” The resulting work is a physical manifestation of the community. Our fabrics, she explains, taken from intimate spaces like our beds and closets, become part of a bigger public architectural conversation.

“Many of these projects are about scale-shifting,” Browder says. “We see that shift between something personal and private on the building, which is so big.” When viewers take photos and post them to social media (hashtag #landofhiddengems), Browder collects them and prints a book of the images. “Then, making a book, I feel like it kind of brings it back to that small space, that kind of private, personal experience that happened at that time.”

A few more gems from our conversation with Browder:

 

On calling yourself an artist:

I made this one project called The Flag Project. I sewed the flags from scratch and I got into the serger machine (a larger form of sewing machine), but that was also about incorporating other people into making the work with me and interviewing them about what it was to make art and to be part of the process and what that experience was to them. … If you call yourself an artist or you say, I'm an artist making something and someone comes to help you — how is that experience different than you just going and making stuff, or helping a family member without thinking of it as a capital-A Art? So to me, it's always been an interesting conversation about what happens when you call yourself an artist.

 

Why her work is not “women’s art”:

I mean that's a big leap, just to say "women's art.” That all of a sudden tropes me: You're a fiber artist, and you're a female, and you make this! I'm really just an artist who is making this stuff. I believe in the history of women in sewing. Yes, I am a feminist, I have been a hardcore believer in women's rights forever. At the same time, I think there’s just a misjudgment on the greater community of contemporary people who not only were like, listen, this is high art and you are making something that's not, and the two tropes that put you in that camp is that you're a female and you work with fabric. And so the stereotype was just like kind of ... socialized sexism. So that's why I don't really like the word "women’s art," because it's much bigger than that.

 

How sustainability intersects with her work:

I come from a sustainability side as well. So much of this material is getting thrown out, why wouldn't I use it — it's free! We got huge donations from industrial groups and they were just letting it sit, doing nothing, or they were just going to throw it away. And here it has the potential to be put into the project. And also it helps when they're donating feel like it's going toward something positive, it's not just being to nowhere land or going to the garbage. Fast fashion… is one of the many things that has contributed to our garbage lifestyle. I think it's important even for people to understand how to sew and remember that every piece of clothing we wear, even if it's from Forever 21, is sewn by a human. Even though it looks not-handmade, some person actually sewed those parts together. They're not all done by machines. You have to have a human that does this. So it's just a kind of reminder of the labor that goes into that, and an appreciation for the clothes that you're wearing. We don't have that appreciation anymore.

 

On bringing the community into museums:

Part of this project, like 80 percent of it, is getting to know people, and having them feel accepted as part of the creative practice. (The museum) is seen as elitist, it's seen as separatist. I even feel nervous walking in museums, and I'm in the system. I mean, I've been shushed so many times! So I like suggesting to the institutions who work with me that these practices of sewing days are also a way for them to physically do a call and response. Okay, so the kids come to the museum, but the museum never comes to them.

Museums have been struggling so much to get audience members to come, and for me I'm just like: Make it more accessible. Don't just say, “We're making it diverse.” You do have to change the (work) that you have in your collection. Number one, it has to be a more inclusionary collection of different races, different genders, all different backgrounds, it can't just be all white dudes. And two, the viewers just have to feel that they're part of that everyday art experience.

 

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