Pandemic Projects: Susan Avishai
May 10, 2021
I Wanted to Bubble…
In a time of uncertainty, art is the first thing people think we can put aside. Who’s spending money on a painting when they aren’t confident about the economy, or fear their job is in jeopardy? Who’s adding to the beauty of their home when no one is visiting? Who is gifting art when celebrations are cancelled? We’re focussed on getting groceries safely, and debating whether to send our kids to school. As for the artists, many have kids at home and must direct their creative juices toward activities for them. Many, it seems, just aren’t feeling inspired. They are scared, or depressed, and if they can’t work they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.
But for some, the pandemic has provided days, months, and now over a year of undistracted studio time, and far more solitude than usual. In the beginning it felt odd to have nothing else to do–nowhere to go, no promises to keep--but my own work. How I had longed for this gift when my kids were little. But the uncertainty, the not knowing when we would go back to “normalcy” was making even me uneasy. This was going on too long. Too many people were dying, and while vaccine development was in the works, there was nothing yet we could count on.
So I decided I had to to provide my own necessary continuity. I needed structure-to go to sleep thinking about something big and wake up eager to return to it every morning. What the finished piece would be was only a vague idea in my head, allowing me to change course as I went, experiment, stay light on my feet. And that kept me engaged. At a time of deadly disease, social and political unrest, far too little contact with my kids and grandkids, my studio had become the only place I could feel I was in some degree of control.
My work for the past ten years had been made entirely from worn, rescued, and deconstructed men’s dress shirts and interior design swatches. I was interested in raising awareness about the paradoxical cycle of exploitive garment manufacture, coupled with our massive (and growing) problem of textile waste. We’ve spent years of inattentive consumption: we over-buy, and discard quickly. (An ironic unintended consequence of lockdown is that we are cleaning out our closets, resulting in more donations than ever for completely full warehouses.) Most of the unwanted clothing ends up in landfill. At this rate we’re quickly outgrowing our fragile world. The stream of garments I have personally diverted is infinitesimal to be sure, but its patina of life and wear, and its sense of the familiar, can spark conversation about transformation, responsibility, and mindfulness.
So, I cleared everything away from the largest wall in my studio, and covered it with cork, becoming my 8’ by 9’ canvas. Then I began pinning pieces made from the discarded clothing in my stash. They looked like little quilted bubbles, bubbles with holes that revealed swatches, tossed out samples from interior designers. It sounds banal, but the longer the period of time away from my kids and grandkids, the more significant the bubbles became. They seemed to personify all the people in my life that I couldn’t touch in person: the intimacy wished for and denied, except as created by me in this ever-growing, joyful medley of recycled fabrics. I thought it was Picasso who said, “an artist is like God, only smaller,” but then I couldn’t find the quote. What I did find on sites that gave his best lines was that making art is just another way of keeping a diary, and when the world doesn’t make sense, why make art that does?
I called it I Want to Bubble with Everyone. It was finished almost a year after begun, covers the entire wall with boisterous colour, and has helped me feel that, like a very tiny god, I have invented my own world, both in the focused dailyness of the work and in the resulting effort. It’s likely too big to meet the guidelines of most exhibitions, but I don’t really care. It gave me purpose and dedication during a hard time. It did its job.
—Susan Avishai lives in Toronto, Canada. She has mounted 15 solo shows, won prizes in national and international juried exhibitions, and has work in corporate collections and a museum. She has been profiled in Fiber Art Now, Australia’s Textile Fibre Forum, and included in Dimensional Cloth, Sculpture by Contemporary Textile Artists. Currently she is curating a show of ten artists who also work with up-cycled textiles to be exhibited at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, Ontario.
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We know that this past year has been very trying and traumatic for so many people around the world. While we want to spotlight the work our members have been doing throughout the year, I (Lauren Sinner, SDA Managing Editor) wanted to take a second to say that it’s also ok if you haven’t been making work. The pandemic is not an artist residency, and you shouldn’t be expected to make great work during this time. There’s so much to process and deal with and it never seems to end, so please remember to take care of yourself, both mentally and physically.