Ten Questions with Eliza Fernand
Eliza Fernand '06 travels the country in search of stories about quilts and quilting.
Eliza Fernand ’06 has been traveling the country for months collecting stories about quilts and quilt-making. Quilt Stories is a linked series of interactive performances and temporary installations. The Quilt Stories tour was divided into three legs: the first through the upper Midwest, from Washington east to Michigan, the second along through the East, from Michigan to Massachusetts and back, and the third down the West Coast from Washington and down through the length of California. As Fernand traversed the country, she stopped in small (and large) towns along the way, turning her trip into a quilting pilgrimage. Fernand visited significant quilt collections and invited locals to join her in convivial quilting bees. As she drove, she photographed a small, patchwork tent in the changing landscape. Most significantly, however, Fernand invited visitors to join her inside the quilted tent and to tell her stories about their memories of quilts and quilt-making. Fernand is currently working on transforming the recorded stories into songs for an upcoming album.
I connected with Fernand just before she flew to Oakland for the Quilt Stories closing show. We exchanged a few emails back and forth, the result of which is the email interview below. In her responses, Fernand shares a few of her insights on collaborations, about prioritizing her creative work and about living life on the road and between residencies.
- Killeen Hanson, MFA ACD ’12
An Interview with Eliza Fernand
Killeen Hanson How would you describe what it is that you do?
Eliza Fernand I am an artist. I work in installation, performance, interactive projects, sculpture, costume, animation, video, and sound.
KH Why quilts? Why textiles?
EF When I first started studying sculpture, I worked with more industrial materials like wood and metal and plaster, but I had been playing with being a seamstress ever since my home economics class in seventh grade. While I was at PNCA, I started to make sculptures from reclaimed fabrics, things I collected at The Bins or found for free. I am dedicated to recycling materials for art, whether it is metal or wood or whatever, but the fabrics really speak to my interest in sentimentality and memory. I like the idea of a familiar print triggering a specific memory in one person, and a very different memory in another. I like my audience to draw on their own associations and don’t want to shape their experience too much.
In school I struggled with my level of craftsmanship and with the ideas I had about “real fiber artists.” I pushed ahead with ideas perhaps before I had the technical skills to execute them convincingly. Since then, I have been working on building these skills through practice and experience. After making a series of collages with reclaimed fabric, piecing quilts seemed like the next step. I have been obsessed with quilts for about two years now, and they are exponentially interesting to me as a subject to study – historically, sociologically, and sensually.
KH Tell me about the tents. What are they and why are they important?
EF All of my sculptural work has been about objects relating to our bodies, and I have several times made spaces to enter into. The first patchwork piece I made was an 8-foot wide circle, pieced in varying fabrics in concentric circles. After showing it stretched flat on the wall, I experimented with running a string from the very center up into a tree, to make a little tent. As the patchworks I made kept getting bigger, and extending into space as installations or temporary structures, I formed ideas about making a patchwork house. I had a few different ideas about constructing the frame, and ended up making a pyramid – a simple structure to build and a form I often use in my imagery. The tent serves as a meeting space, where people could tell me their stories. It also creates a narrative of a nomadic dwelling – the series of landscape photographs documents this. My ideas about enclosure, pattern inundation, traveling, familiarity in the unfamiliar, storytelling, and play all came together in this project.
KH Collaboration seems to be central to your current art practice. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like to work with and depend on other people in your work?
EF I am always jumping at the chance to collaborate with other artists and musicians. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I think I am interested in separating my ego from the work. I would like to refer to we instead of me, so much so that Quilt Stories has become a kind of entity of its own in my mind.
Collaborating with my audience in this project, or what we might call the public, is different type of collaboration because I have so many chances for interaction. I like to be careful about using other people for source material – I want to do it in a way that gives them something valuable, engaging them in a reciprocal relationship.
I am very interested in artwork that changes with the audience, and therefore the work is subject to happenstance. I have to stay open to what people will bring to the project, and follow those directions within my own framework. One challenge in working with participants is that everybody wants to get a chance to participate, so Quilt Stories events often go overtime, or people ask me to come to their town and I can’t because of funds or logistics. I guess the next step would be to make a project that people could do without me.
KH What do you bring to the table that others don’t?
EF I can’t say others don’t bring this, but I think I am distinctly interested in involving everyone in the creative process, in giving people the liberty to be artists, and in encouraging an environment of sharing and education. I am extremely open-minded.
KH What advice would you give current students to prepare for a life of sustained creative practice after graduation?
EF I am not sure that my advice is all that healthy, but it is true to what I have done in the last six years: Hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else does, and prioritize your creative practice over everything else in life.
That means always maintaining a studio, applying for food stamps, giving up your house/job/relationship to go do a residency, taking jobs that don’t pay well but enrich your practice, never taking jobs that take away from it, submitting work and filling out applications on a regular basis, seeking out communities that support your work in friendly and intelligent ways.
I would also advise students, before graduation, to take advantage of the facilities and technologies at hand. Learn as many processes, methods, and programs as you can while there are people willing to teach you, because this gets a lot harder when you are on your own, and you can always be industrious with a skill you never thought you would use.
KH You’ve been traveling for a while now. What is it like to be an artist on the road?
EF Touring has been both exhilarating and exhausting. The things I have gotten to see, the people I have met or re-met, and the reach my project has had is amazing, but it is also very overwhelming and leaves me feeling displaced. Before I took this project on tour I was already traveling pretty regularly to do residencies or shows around the country. This can be pretty disruptive to maintaining a stable life at my home base. Going on tour meant that the project took over my whole life for six months. Being on the road is bouncing between two extremes – the extremely solitary hours I spent driving in my car, and the extremely social times I spent being hosted by kind people and exhibiting an interactive project. The benefit of traveling is making connections in places that you can go back to. At this point I have so many places I would like to back to, but no energy to keep traveling. I am still absorbing all of the information I took in while traveling. I feel like I should take another six months just to sift through what I learned, what inspired me, and what to do with it all.
KH If, for whatever reason, you are unable to practice your craft, what will you take away from having done it?
EF If I didn’t have the time to live as a working artist I would still live in a creative and experimental way. I don’t see making things as an option – it is something I will always do, in whatever domestic or occupational form that might take. I have a little sister who is in art school right now, and I tell her that the most important thing to learn there is how to talk about yourself – that is a great skill in life and any career.
KH What’s next?
EF It feels like a relief to be wrapping up Quilt Stories – the tours started over a year ago and my solo show in Oakland this month marks the end of it. I am shifting roles for now, focusing on serving as the residency coordinator/facilitator at the community art space my mother and I opened in Pentwater, Michigan this past summer. I am excited to bring together a group of artists I admire and to work with them and with the small-town community there. I will surely continue making quilts. I have just begun a new series of quilted blankets with compositions derived from patterns I find on the sidewalks, and I have a solo show here in Boise in September that I am planning another large scale patchwork for.
I would also like to publish a catalog that documents the Quilt Stories tours. I have so much photography from this project and would like to put it together with a few essays I am working on. Now that I think of it, I am also releasing the Quilt Stories Songs this summer, through Art of This in Minneapolis, so I am still working on the project and on all of the tangents I have taken it on.
KH What’s your quilting technique of choice?
EF As I have been working with quilts, each new series seems to take the craft to the next step: I started with patchworks that were not quilted or even properly pressed at the seams, and now I am quilting everything by hand. I would say my technique of choice is sitting in bed, with the quilt spread over me as I lap-quilt, no frame, no thimble, no pattern.
You can follow Eliza Fernand on her blog at ElizaDraws.blogspot.com and on the Quilt Stories project page.