We wish. Last week, Brianna Tosswill and I sat down in our separate studios to have a chat about A Tactile Notion, and more broadly how our creative practices overlap.
Brianna Tosswill: Okay, first things first, can you explain to me, a non-weaver, the kind of cloth you made for volume 2?
Kim McCollum: Sure! This cloth (like all of the cloth in this series) is handwoven on a traditional floor loom. That means that in order to create the cloth, I first create what is called a warp. Each thread is measured out to the right length and put in the right order using a tool called a “warping mill”.
After that, each thread is put on the loom. This process is called “dressing the loom” and is very time intensive. Every thread must be put through an individual “heddle” which will raise or not depending on the desired outcome of the cloth. Once the loom is dressed, the weaving winds the “weft” yarn onto a bobbin which is put in a shuttle and thrown left to right on the loom to create the cloth, thread by thread.
When you are weaving a double weave fabric that means that you are weaving two layers of fabric on the loom at the same time. So as you are weaving you can only see one side of the fabric and the other one is revealed when you pull the fabric off the loom. It is tricky to weave because it is easy to miss mistakes on the underside of the loom. This is a three shuttle 8 shaft weave, so there are lots of moving parts involved. You also have to prepare twice as many threads to dress the loom for both of the layers, so it is a time intensive process.
BT: I think one of the really strong parallels between weaving and print is the importance of the setup. There is labour in the printing and in the weaving, certainly, but dressing the loom, carving the block, setting the press pressure, locking up your matrix, they’re all so time consuming that it makes a lot of sense to keep going once you’re set up! I’ve done projects (for example my calendar contribution at SNAP last year) where I had to do 100 copies for the official project and I was like, well, while I’m at it, I may as well pull 50 prints of this design for myself. Don’t want to waste the setup. And you wove both cloth for the samples, as well as a to-stay-intact blanket while your loom was ready to go.
KM: There are so many parallels between printmaking and weaving in terms of process. Another one is the fact that equipment is expensive and often shared. When we make a warp in the studio at Gather we usually make it long enough for several weavers to create something on the same warp. This means about half of the threads in a cloth I make could also be in a totally different project made by someone else in the studio. I really love that way of connecting my work with other makers.
BT: That is so cool! I didn’t realize you guys did that consistently.
KM: Yeah it is a huge thing at our studio because the time and planning it takes to start a warp is really significant, so having a team of weavers to help is a huge benefit. The most exciting moments for me in the studio are when I get to weave on a warp with materials that were not intended for that warp and really exciting things start to happen.
With your linocut set up, what is involved? I understand how you carve the linocut, but what happens after that is a bit of a mystery to me. How do the different colours come into play?
BT: So, as a linocut printmaker, I’m a little bit of an anomaly in that I ALWAYS print my lino on a self-inking letterpress (at my current studio, there is a Vandercook Universal and a Challenge Proof press). The… simplest (?) kind of press would be an intaglio press, which looks kind of like a rolling pin and a cutting board clamped together. A lot of relief (linocut, woodcut, etc) printmakers print on this kind of press or by hand with a baren or a spoon on the back of the paper, and they ink their lino with a brayer, or ink-roller.
On the presses that I love, there are 5 rollers and a tympan (large drum) on a moving carriage that travels across the press bed at the same time. This means that every time I turn the crank of the press, I am inking and printing at the same time, and I only have to add ink every 3-20 impressions. This kind of printmaking is also very accurate, in terms of placing the paper on the lino in exactly the same spot over and over again which allows me to design complex illustrations.
KM: Listening to you talk about this really makes me feel like we are in parallel “maker” universes. The language is so specific, and the process of needing to make a sample first is something that doesn’t happen in the same way in most other forms of making. Say if you were painting, for example, you might paint a “study” which you could then reinterpret on a different scale or in a different way. But with both linocut and handweaving, you really have to make sure that the equipment is doing what you want it to do in a very technical way. How does sampling (or do you use another word… proofing?) play into how you think about your practice?
BT: Proofing is exactly the word. Because I’m working in reduction I am actually destroying the block as I go and I can’t go back and edit it after the fact. I have to have a clear enough plan that I don’t carve too much away if I still need information on a certain area of the block. Because of this, I can’t make a test print or sample where I check all my colours. I have to be able to visualize it very clearly, and that only comes with practise.
But I do always have to start with more pieces of paper than I need finished prints. Because it is almost impossible to get through the process without needing to make an adjustment of pressure, position, colour… I always have a few “proofs” that I mark with an X and know are the imperfect ones and I always start a new layer with those ones so I don’t mess up more of the edition than I have to.
KM: There is this element of “getting what you get” which can be frustrating but I think is also liberating in a way.
BT: The reconciliation of “this isn’t what I planned/expected/wanted but actually, it’s pretty good!”
KM: Yeah! For weaving there is this really exciting/horrifying moment in the process called “wet finishing” where you wash your cloth after you take it off the loom. The way that you wash it can HUGELY change the outcome of the whole project. It is 100% make or break. This after many many hours. It really takes a lot of experience to control the result. There have been many times when I have been initially really disappointed and then look back on the project later and really like it.
BT: That sounds so intense! I just recently shared a print to my “Linocut Friends” facebook group with this exact sentiment and you wouldn’t believe the response. So many artists feel this way when they finish a thing.
KM: Yeah I think it almost takes some separation to appreciate what you have done. So many weavers come into Gather sheepishly showing what they have made and everyone else loves it. Sometimes it just needs to sit in the “sample” trunk for a bit and then be rediscovered with new eyes. I wanted to bring up the way we are both working in multiples for this project because the process is similar but different. I am making one large piece and then cutting it up into lots of smaller pieces but you make each print one by one
There is a part of me that absolutely loves the cheesiness of having a piece of a larger thing. Maybe I shouldn't call it cheesy.
BT: Is that cheesy? I think it might be sentimental, or romantic?
KM: In the art/painting world that I am a part of the word “sentimental” is like a curse haha! It is seen as the antithesis of good art making. However… I think that is a bit sexist because sentiment is so tied to the feminin. It is because the sentimental is seen as art that is only relevant to that individual person, or their own nostalgia and lacking in any relevant content or new ideas.
BT: Haha sorry! I don’t think of it that way. Yeah… I think what these critics are missing is that creative work that is extremely personal, can resonate in an extremely personal way with more than one person. Especially in writing, you hear a lot about kids who felt alone in their way of being and who opened a book and found a character who “got them” in every sense and had the same hopes, dreams, fears that they did.
KM: Totally! Ok we are 100% cutting out this next sentence BUT it is sort of like how a Taylor Swift song resonates with a lot of people because of how personal the lyrics are. We connect more with a specific story with details than we do with a generalization.
BT: YEEEEEESSSSSS we connect with it but we don’t respect it. The freaking patriarchy.
KM: Haha RIGHT?
BT: Coming back to A Tactile Notion, I was thinking a little bit about our initial meetings and where some of the ideas for volume 2 came from. For example I think the first thing that we nailed down was the colour yellow. And then I also remember you mentioning a specific, local music festival and the way people laid out their picnic blankets and my brain just took it from there.
KM: Folk Fest! I was thinking about the object of a picnic blanket and what it means, how we could conceptually explore it and what it could mean beyond something to sit on.
BT: I love the notion (hah) of a hand-woven picnic blanket. Like, of course, early picnic blankets had to be hand woven but now it almost seems sacrilege to put such a lovely artwork on the ground. Do you ever have to persuade people to actually use the thing you make? With the books I make, sometimes I think people put them on their shelves and treasure them but don’t read them? But they’re meant to be read! One of my favourite things to say about my art is “put the book on the ground”. I like the idea of teaching irreverence to my collectors.
KM: Weaving is a really humble craft in a lot of ways. The main thing people make when they are learning are tea towels. There is this push and pull which is a big part of my art practice that investigates this feeling. I edited this book called “Art in Ubiquity: The Handwoven Tea Towel” which explores the idea of a tea towel as an artwork. The craft/art history is obviously at play here as well, but I really feel that there is art (as in meaning and beauty that can translate) in these humble things. The fact that they are humble gives them a different kind of beauty.
BT: LOOOOVE. Yeah, I have always been interested in the idea of making the necessary beautiful. One of the coolest examples I’ve found lately is through Alex. He’s been researching early water treatment plants and the architectural design and embellishment of them. I want to live in a world a little less utilitarian, and a little more ornate (just a smidge).
KM: Yeah! I think maybe it's not just about “beauty” so much as care. I had a conversation last week with a jeweler who makes these really intricate hammered brass works. When I was trying to explain why I loved them I said “they look like you could have FOUND them!”. There was something about them that looked like they had been around for a long time, experienced something, had a history.
BT: I’ve always loved old things and it’s hard for me to say how much of that is history, how much is aesthetic, and how much is quality of construction.
KM: I bought an ice cream scoop at a thrift store this week. It is one of those that has a little lever to push out the iced cream. It has a solid wood handle and no rust on it and it has been sitting out on my counter because it is a beautiful thing!! (aside)
BT: Good aside. I think that observing the non-art objects that strike a chord with us helps us to make better art-objects. One of my favourite things to look at at thrift stores and museums are old cabinets. Maybe it’s the kid in me who wanted to go to Narnia, but something about them gives me chills. So much satisfaction? I don’t know.
KM: YES. I think there is something here about collections. Multiples. And part of this project involves that same satisfaction. It’s slightly there in an individual volume, it will be more present in the collection of four volumes, and especially present in the context of the volumes among the rest of a person’s art collection.
BT: This makes me want to take pictures of ATN with our own collections of print and weaving. Expand it out into a potential whole.
KM: Ooo yes. I meant to send you this photo that Adrienne sent me of ATN up on her wall. She put up the print and weaving separately with other art works.
BT: <3 I love seeing how artists display others’ artworks.
KM: I have a print of yours that is currently propped up in my living room. I haven’t hung it yet because i like moving it around. It is nice to have IN THE HANDS. I like to have it with a stack of books one day, and the next day propped on my shelf.
BT: HA! That’s amazing. Can I come back around to my mantra of “everything is a book”. A single print is a book if you treat it that way, by handling it and leaving it so that you can see the front and back of the page. This is why I love other printed matter that is more irreverent, like bookmarks and postcards. You’re meant to handle them. They’re meant to get scuffed and become imperfect. In the way of the velveteen rabbit they get more real.
KM: It's strange how it can be so painful to get something dirty… but it also makes it better? I remember this moment when I gave you the first sample of weaving for volume 2 and it had a blackberry stain on it. And you were like “ooo cute!!!” or something and it was hilarious.
BT: It did (it does, lol)! Um yes, guilty as charged.
I think what we’re offering through ATN is permission to experience art a different way. Like, if a gallery or museum is intimidating to you. Know that you can curate for yourself, on a small scale, with people you feel safe expressing ideas around.
KM: we are presenting an invitation to be a maker with us, in a way that sits between the arts and craft spaces. The “mystery” is different.
BT: I also think that we’re inviting people to play like an artist. Maybe we should make this more explicit but consider the draw-this-your-way challenge. We might encourage people to take our themes and the jumping off points of weaving and printmaking to build a collection around, either by making themselves or finding works that suit the concepts and aesthetics.
KM: I think the word connection is really important here. We are almost inviting people to join a club in a way. To have a part of a bigger whole as a way of connecting over long distances.
BT: Which is essential lately.
BT: Oh! I have another question for you. How does the aesthetic of your process affect you/what you make? (Does that make sense? Like weaving on a loom, in your sunny studio is a dream?? From an outsider perspective)
KM: Oh it totally is a dream and I feel crazy lucky to be in a situation where I can spend a lot of my day making things. It's interesting to think about because a lot of the planning process where I do most of the more concrete “thinking” work doesn't happen in the studio. It happens on a walk, in the bathtub, on the couch, lying in bed etc.
BT: I started realizing pretty young (maybe 19ish) that my skill as a draftsperson didn’t only improve by drawing. It improved drastically through active looking. Everyone else would see a person and visually quantify them like you’re playing Guess Who (glasses? Facial hair? What colour eyes?). I have always been bad at remembering whether someone has glasses or facial hair but I can visualize the precise angle of difference between the slope of their forehead and the slope of their nose. I will often describe an actor I’m trying to remember with descriptions like “the woman with the heavy eyelids”. Being an artist doesn’t turn off when you leave the studio.
KM: Yes! hahah I had a conversation recently with Jeff and my sister and brother in law about something similar. They were giving me a hard time (jokingly) about how I always leave my stuff everywhere. Like forget my bag or my phone or whatever. And I was really earnestly trying to describe why that happens and that it isn't that I am “absent” minded, I am just “differently” minded haha. I’m not thinking about NOTHING. I am thinking about what the waiter said or the tablecloth or whatever else.
BT: The tablecloth, haha. YES. Your mind is very active, just not present. I think that’s how I understand absent minded.
KM: This can be a huge asset to creativity but it can also be a huge detriment. Two sides of the same coin. Being able to be both present and mindful but also introspective and thoughtful at the same time is kind of impossible. There is a great episode of This American Life I’ll link to here all about this.
BT: I think about that, being present and also off creating. I really hugely value in-person conversation and sometimes someone will say something and a word will trigger an idea that solves a problem in something I’m working on and I just zone out. It’s so rude. I’m really embarrassed about it.
Part of both of our practices is the act of making once most of the creative decisions have already been decided (turning the press, and your equivalent). But I do find that I am influenced by the physical patterns of making. For example if I’m printing a poem, I involuntarily read it every time it rolls past my eyes. I internalize it more than I would if it were statically in front of me. And there is something so blue collar about using industrial machinery (even to make art) that keeps me grounded in a place I’m happy to stay in. I don’t necessarily want to become a person who loses that groundedness, even if I can become more financially stable, lol, which I do want.
KM: Yeah removing the “artiness” takes pressure off somehow. There are parts of being in the art world that I absolutely love. I really like to have deep conversations about the work of other artists and the work that I am making.
BT: I love even having casual conversations with strangers at an art gallery. Something that used to terrify me, and now I miss it a lot.
KM: I think you are onto something there about the industrial nature of things. Working with big machinery that requires a lot of manual labor leaves space for thinking. The thinking and making become one and the same in a meditative way that allows for nuanced changes and ideas to develop.
BT: Yes, it’s kind of interesting that the persona of an artist is so much about abstract ideas and mystery and inspiration, when most of us are aesthetically minded skilled trade people. I wonder how many skilled trade people wish for a creative outlet and don’t realize they might already have one!
Brianna Tosswill: I want to come back to what you said before, that art and craft the way we do it is less about beauty and more about care. There is something about owning, or witnessing an unnecessary object quality that makes you feel like you’re living life fuller. It’s the difference between civility and care in a human interaction.
Kim McCollum: I think if people feel anything when they receive their ATN in the mail, it will be care. It is so obvious in the construction of each envelope that a lot of care has gone into the project. The recipient's address is handwritten, the contents are each individually made, cohesive and thoughtful. When we wrap the envelopes up in string I picture the recipient enjoying the unwinding with anticipation. I hope it evokes a similar feeling to getting a letter in the mail from a long lost friend!
BT: A long lost friend with really cool taste.