Sometimes the Internet does magical things. Sometimes it connects me with the most wonderful people and these connections go deeper than social media sites and instead they nestle into our private email boxes and text messages and then into our real life social circles and then, well, they become friends. So was the case with my friend and creative colleague, Abigail Doan, of Lost in Fiber. We met online many moons ago and then we eventually met in person and as Abigail put it, "It was less of a first meeting and more of a reunion". So true. And that spirit of generosity and warmth is something I absolutely adore about Abigail and her work.
I'm honored to share an exclusive interview with one of my most favorite contemporary artists, Abigail Doan. I adore Abigail's work for so many reasons but one of the many reasons is her visual voice. The way I can see her consistent aesthetic across mediums and the way her images, sculptures, and compositions have a language and an identity and an essence that is all her own. In each image I can hear her speaking without actually knowing her words.
I love how she uses fiber in her artwork but how she pushes so far outside of the typical world of fiber arts that her community building and social practice keep expanding her work well beyond the gallery walls. Pair all of this with her incredibly thoughtful approach, her particular way of seeing her environment, along with her insightful writing and it's simply a magical combination.
Emails from Abigail are one of my most favorite things to appear in my inbox. Each one is a combination of the voice of a curator, artist, activist, mother, and friend. All of these voices are all present in her work; It's the multitude of her experiences that come forward in her work. She resists a singular point of view and insists on complexity all the while welcoming us to stay a little longer.
Her work and her words straddle this amazing division of conceptual and personal. Her work is both intellectual and emotional. Hinging on academic it remains visceral with this incredible intimacy that offers the viewer a position that is less like voyeur--something that feels all too common in the contemporary fine arts scene--and more like invited community member. Abigail's work feels palpable and textural and, at the risk of my sounding naive, her work feels true.
True to what she's feeling, thinking, researching, reveling, uncovering and discovering on her daily journeys. A daily sketchbook, of sorts, told through the lens of a sculptor with deep roots in the textile and fiber communities but with a vision that steps outside these disciplines to embrace daily life as she experiences it in both urban and rural landscapes, alone and with her family, in the States and traveling abroad, in her studio and on the subway.
Her work transports us to a place that feels important. A place that feels mindful. A places that beckons we slow down just long enough to notice the objects around us but then allows us to go ahead with our busy modern lives. In many ways, Abigail's work feels like a very contemporary experience of being a working artist. But it also just asks us to look at things, regardless of our backgrounds inside or outside of the arts, just to look at things a few seconds longer. Her work asks us to notice. To witness. And once we start to pay attention we realize there is so much more than what we saw at first glance.
Without further pause... I'm honored to share this interview with you today. I considered editing our exchange into a shorter, more typical Internet-friendly length, but I ultimately decided to leave it just as it was. I didn't want to cut anything. I didn't want to condense all this thinking into smaller bites. I wanted to let the interview be exactly as it was, finding a strength in the depth of the answers and a reprieve in the collection of images. I hope you feel similarly. Welcome, Abigail.
Katrina Rodabaugh: Can you tell us about your journey to textile arts and if your environments might have influenced your interests?
Abigail Doan: I always love this question, Katrina, so I thank you for creating an opportunity to share stories about the evolution of my work, particularly as it relates to homegrown and local environmental influences. I grew up on a small family farm in New York State’s Hudson Valley, and there is no doubt that this region had a profound influence on my life’s journey and my interest in the arts.
My mother was a self-taught natural-dyer, spinner, knitter, and weaver, and even though I did not formally study textile techniques in art school or thereafter, these homespun practices were very much a part of daily life on our farm and the overall maker philosophy of our home life.
My mom, also an “Abigail”, taught me how to hand-spin and work with fiber as a young girl so that I could accompany her to craft shows throughout the Northeast. I honestly never really thought that these skills would be applied to or retrieved for creative pursuits later in life. (On the contrary, I was far more interested in conceptual art, contemporary design, and getting to the big city as a young art student.)
As time passed, I realized, though, how much the depiction of agricultural landscapes and even ideas of the pastoral, prevalent in the Hudson River School, played into my consideration of the the tilled fields, historic valleys, and the very soil of my upbringing. This specific school of painters also inspired me to travel to the far east as well as the open spaces of the west. Let’s just say my art studies at the time were a fusion of frequent visits to Frederic Church’s Olana combined with soaking up the independent spirit described in biographies of Georgia O’Keefe and the feminist art writings of Lucy Lippard.
I really believe that my sensitivity to materials and my concern for how things are made was a direct outcome of time spent alone in a rural environment. I am also a tool fanatic, even as an urban dweller, as I associate tools with personal empowerment and respect for the processes involved in making an authentic object that lasts.
KR: From working as a sculptor and a textile artist I love how your work has expanded into what might be called “social practice” or working outside of the traditional gallery structure while engaging community and considering activism or advocacy. Would you agree with this terminology? If so, what do you see as the inspiration for this expansion or shift?
AD: Oh, thank you for helping me to frame or perhaps better describe what I do. I think that “social practice” is an ideal term as well as “visual archivist” to some degree. I guess that I knew early on that I was not really going to fit the traditional model of being an artist who was focused solely on gallery representation and a formal exhibition track. I did show works on paper and mixed media pieces with galleries in my twenties and thirties, but I always felt that I wanted to do and say more about the work itself and ideally find ways to make the art process more inclusive and organic.
I also think that my early experience as a researcher in documentary film as well as teaching at the university level ultimately gave me the confidence to find new ways for interweaving various disciplines for future projects.
As an activist, one cannot simply stand by and neatly plug into existing models, so I have always felt that if a story needs to be told, a exhibition or event initiated, or a platform carved out – one must take responsibility for creating this opportunity. I also think that we do not have the luxury of worrying about failing when it comes to launching projects or tackling critical issues – particularly where cultural and environmental awareness is concerned.
KR: I first came across your work by images of your fiber sculptures. I was instantly mesmerized. The combination of materials, the form, the thoughtfulness to the fibers you chose. I remember staring at the images for hours and highlighting them in one of my online classes. Your Instagram feed has this same affect on me—it’s transporting, drawing parallels in places I might not have considered like architecture and fibers, and also this sense of movement or travel or journey. Can you talk about how your work has migrated from sculpture to photography or storytelling or—I’m struggling to name it but this sense of thoughtfulness and contemplation that is present in all your work regardless of form.
AD: It’s a funny thing, as I never really set out to be a fiber or textile artist per se. On the contrary. I think that I was a bit intimidated about working with these materials as my mother was such an innovator on this front. I first began working with fiber as a site-specific drawing tool during an artist residency in rural New Mexico. I liked the way that fiber was easily transportable and also left no trace on the land.
After this transformative experience and returning to NYC, I began building small fiber forms and soft bundles during my daily walks and outings where loose “flotsam” became intwined and often recycled into my studio constructions. I have always thought of these organic forms as being 3-D journals and/or tactile maps/documents of sorts. They are a bit unorthodox in terms of technique and archival preservation (biodegradable organic and inorganic matter co-exist). I often unravel the pieces once they are photographed or used like a visual prop or tool. I do not focus very much on the preciousness of each piece as a fixed sculptural statement in the end.
I am currently focused on building a new library of materials from my 2016 travels and solo walks. Some of these found and handmade “artifacts” are fiber-based but others are simply textural finds of a botanical, paper-based, or refuse-like nature. This latest project, Walking Libraries, is my return to a focus on environmental art practice and a quiet lab-like setting. These observations might include drawings and notations about the climate and weather conditions in one’s own backyard (rural or urban), documentation in wide open spaces, or the visual poetry of objects arranged to show connection between one another and even disparate places.
As part of this study, I have also been researching art and choreography projects by dancers and movement based artists, specifically the work of Anna Halprin and Trisha Brown. I use walking as a slowing down method and also a way of immersing oneself over long periods of time. I am also drawn toward incorporating more movement into my projects as I am now fifty years old, and it is important for me to see my body as an instrument that I might work with rather than against as time passes.
KR: Let’s talk about ethical fashion. And sustainable practices in textiles. Your work has an added layer of depth by your collaborations and curation. Do you see these projects as something that you create in addition to your own work or is this cross-disciplinary approach central to your creative process?
AD: My involvement with ethical fashion and/or sustainable textiles was basically quite serendipitous. During the early days of the eco fashion movement in NYC and beyond, several of my art/design friends were creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces for their own independent labels or simply as an exploration of textiles in relation to sustainability issues. We were all supporting each other in various ways, and it was a truly inspired time in terms of pushing the movement forward with slow and considered cross-pollination. I definitely learned a lot about what was and was not working, often by writing about green design as well as eco fashion shows and collections.
This was also the genesis of my realization of the power of textiles to ideally make sustainability a relatable issue. If some one was able to talk about their connection to a specific fabric, garment or even a fashion-related story, well, this was a way into opening up future dialogue about fast fashion, textile waste, and personal concerns or worries about the state of the environment.
I basically feel that I am always open to working with others in situations where materials might empower us to look more closely at our ingrained habits, surroundings, and views on the state of the world – particularly where consumption and resourcefulness are a factor. If fashion plays into the process, then I am open to it. Otherwise, I am just as happy to collaborate with an adobe bricklayer or a scientist – all for a good cause.
KR: I’ve been thinking about how fine artists are engaged in ethical fashion either as natural dyers, designers, makers, teachers, authors, or event organizers. I see this trend where these professionally trained artists are seen as “DIY makers” but I see it differently. I see the training in studio practice as very relevant to the work in sustainable fashion at the very least as it allows critical thinking, invention of new processes, and the built-in acceptance of experimentation and possible failure. I think my MFA degree taught me more about experimentation and failure than anything else. Can you talk about embracing the unexpected in your work? And about your own experiences at the intersection of fine art and ethical fashion?
AD: This is such a great question or series of questions, Katrina. Topics that I think about a lot, particularly as some one who navigates various creative realms and social media spheres.
Fine artists might be accustomed to experimentation (and failure with materials, if you will) as this is something that is encouraged in a studio practice during the pursuit of solutions. This might relate to sustainable fashion, more than mainstream fashion perhaps, as there is an urgency and transparency to the process that does not allow one to cut corners.
I am always looking for evidence of the unexpected, perhaps as a way to discover ways of identifying or addressing vital issues. What I mean by the “unexpected” is essentially to not assume that one way of doing something or reading a form is the best way or a clear strategy. Given that ethical fashion designers are constantly faced with both production and garment lifecycle challenges, it makes sense to me that they would often have to look beyond the frameworks of set design rules in order to fuse the strength of both concept and end product.
KR: Your work ranges from sculpture to photography to writing to what I’d call social practice to curation and beyond. What excites you the most as an artist? What holds the most potential for you as a creative?
AD: I love that being an artist allows you to creatively weave together a life and travel in ways that inform or re-jigger what you deem to be true. I like to collect things, all sorts of things, primarily as a visual database of sorts but also as a humble cultural preservationist. The more I am able to let go of certain labels about what I do, what I make, and how I must share this work, the freer I am to do better work and perhaps reach a wider audience. I never take for granted that I have a unique and rather privileged opportunity to express what I want to make and also care about. I am not so fixated on the art object per se but rather its dematerialization into something new and hopefully broader in scope.
KR: How do you see textile artists influencing ethical fashion?
AD: Oh, this is a loaded question. I basically think that textile artists are guides into a vocabulary and expansive sphere of working with materials that is constantly re-inventing itself. They are the risk takers, the storytellers, the critics, the Utopian idealists – exotically rolled into one. Mood boards for fashion as well as styling for look books are often influenced by bold acts demonstrated in the arts. Textile art might seem a bit conceptual or marginal to some, but it is really a way into what might be possible, more experimental, and visually compelling.
I am not sure that there is a direct correlation between one influencing the other, but I do feel that the community building that often happens in fiber and textile groups might offer alternatives for how ideas and materials might be shared in ways that transcend existing fashion business models and production strategies. Specifically, innovation in textile recycling, be it mending, garment re-use, and/or legitimate up-cycling technology might first be visualized in a ground breaking textile art installation or materials experiment. This is where we really learn from one another and let categorical roles and thinking simply fade away.
KR: On your website you list your work in categories including fiber/ sculpture; enviro drawings; lost in fiber/ artifacts; performative; walking libraries; and work on paper. And in your bio your mention your work as an artist, writer, and curator. I absolutely love how your resist categorization and also how you complicate your position as an artist by including several forms. This makes me cheer! But I also always sense this continuity to your work, this recognizable voice and sentiment, and also this insistence that your work continue to evolve in any form necessary. Do you think this is something that comes with experience as an artist? Meaning, do you think this consistency across forms, this willingness to honor the work regardless of category, this understanding of complication as necessary to creative work… do you think that grew alongside your creative practice or was it always in your work?
AD: I recently looked back at early nature drawings that I did as an undergraduate, and in all honesty, my visual language has always there in terms of how I originally tried to link natural forms and organic architecture (my thesis), the attraction to micro-macro textures, as well as my interest historic events related to agriculture, labor, and landscape studies. There has been a lot of trial and error for me over the years (with numerous jobs wedged in between chapters of my creative work), so perhaps in the end, the consistency comes from a journey that came with a bit of toil.
I really never shy away from complexity or the prospect of needing to evolve, so this is probably what keeps things fresh for me. I also do not feel beholden to a certain agenda besides answering those questions that I feel are important or crucial for awareness.
KR: Who do you think are the most exciting textile artists right now?
AD: In no specific order, as there are truly so many that I could name:
• for textiles as topography : Alexandra Kehayoglou
• for heritage concepts and social practice: Crossover Collective
• for current events/economic topics explored in textiles: Kathryn Clark
• for color and ‘plant palette’ studies: Sasha Duerr
• for ideas about painting and textile (canvas) cross over: Victoria Manganiello
KR: Lastly, for anybody reading this who might not have a background in fine arts or the training in sustainability but who feels this insistent passion to be engaged in this work in slow textiles or slow fashion, what’s your advice? What would you tell somebody without access to a formal degree or without decades of training? Where should they begin?
AD: I would definitely hunt around for local resources, as this makes the most sense to me in terms of building a community for the sharing of events, workshops, and eventually expanding your circle. I think that it is important to connect with others (in person, that is) as a means to help sort out directions for your work and also access resources that others may have already assembled.
I always feel that saving textile materials and scraps that have meaning or special resonance will lead you to want to experiment with them at a later date. I have secret stashes of such things in the places where I live, and this keeps me inspired to play when I have free time – without an agenda or certain pre-defined expectations.
I do feel that it is important to make a zone for yourself in order to do your work, be this a studio, a bedroom corner, a nook in the garage, shed, basement or even a tote filled with your tools and supplies that you bring on the road. I still do not have my dream studio per se, but I always feel that I am working as I need to no matter where I roam.
I think that folks are too proud about ownership over creative practice, and even though I fully support artists and makers receiving proper credit, copyright, and pay for their work, I also feel that paralysis comes from certain territorial ideas about methods and skills that formerly might have been more open-source or standardized, i.e. in the era of the guild, for example.
In the end, it is important to value what you do, what you are carving out time to do, and also be kind to yourself about pursuing these interests to begin with. The good work will come, and most importantly, your projects will speak for you, particularly when you are able to document what you do with care and attention to why even a small slice of time dedicated to doing something well can make all the difference.
Thank you so much for joining me for this exchange, Abigail. It's an honor to share this space with you.
(Please note: All images are courtesy of the artist, Abigail Doan, and should not be reused without her written consent. To contact Abigail directly and/or for a more extensive view at her artwork, please visit her website: Abigail Doan )