Amanda Browder in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Amanda Browder, Kaleidoscopic, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

This interview — which took place at Amanda Browder’s studio in Brooklyn, NYC on April 30, 2019 — comes from the Project 1 catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Amanda Browder produces large-scale fabric installations for building exteriors and other public sites. For Project 1 she invited members of the community to donate colorful fabric and work alongside her to sew immense striped textile pieces that wrap around multiple buildings and structures, resulting in Kaleidoscopic, an installation spanning all three Project 1 locations*.

*The installation which wrapped this lodge at MLK Park was de-installed on October 14, after 55 days in the community.

AB

Welcome to my studio.

KB

Thanks, it’s great to be here! So, what are you making for Project 1?

AB

I’m creating a large scale fabric installation. We’re covering numerous buildings in the city with fabric donated from people in the city. The project is put together during a collection of sewing days, sewing the pieces together to cover all these spaces.

KB

How did you begin this process of organizing these sewing days and donations and then having that feed into these massive works? Take me back into your artistic practice: where did the public art begin?

AB

I started sewing was when I was a kid. I grew up in Missoula, Montana and I learned how to sew through 4-H. I loved fabric because the colors were really rich, the patterns were really unique and I love the fact that each pattern had somewhat of a history. It felt like it had this mystery of who this person was that picked this pattern or what it was going to be. There were all these questions around each piece of fabric that was chosen.

Amanda Browder with Kaleidoscopic.
Katrin Eismann Photo.

So I just started sewing odd things like pillows, soft sculptures, and blankets—but they never really felt like they had to be functional objects. I really used the fabric as this structural medium. I would go to secondhand stores and at that time in the early ‘90s, the secondhand stores were filled with fabric from the ‘70s and the ‘60s and people just had tons of fabric they were getting rid of that was so beautiful. From there I started sewing regularly. I saw it as a mathematical process: I use planes to put together these large scale things. I was a math major for a couple of years, figuring out constructions and measurements, and fabric was a place for me to start working and it was a free material. After school, I started teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was making all these small soft sculptures. At that time people were not really giving me credit for doing it. I mean I was a female artist, sewing fabric pieces and so immediately I was thrown into this camp of the “lower” arts like craft or functional art, which I don’t consider myself doing. I was coming from a mathematical, structural perspective so it frustrated me.

The first piece that was on a building was in Chicago. It was called Rapunzel. I sewed all the fabric that I had collected in five years into one huge fabric piece and I threw it outside my apartment window and I just called friends and announced it. It was up for two days and that was the beginning of my career working with buildings. I realized fabric itself is structurally very sound. A lot of times we think of it as more of a private object because it’s connected to our bodies, or in this private zone of the home. When I put it on the outside of the building people have that sense of comfort and familiarity with the material but making it that large really gives that sense of awe and excitement. Being able to make these big fabric pieces encouraged people to understand why fabric is structurally strong and important and empowering. So after Chicago, I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn and started working with the community. I decided to do an art project that introduced myself to the community. I worked with the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, and we started having these public sewing days. All the fabric was donated, and it became the beginning of doing these large scale projects. That was the beginning of working with the community and learning how contemporary art can be expressed to larger communities of people beyond just the art community that we see are surrounding the institutions like museums and galleries.

KB

What’s the importance of the donation process? It seems like it’s a really key part of the whole thing. It’s not just collecting and culling fabric by any means necessary. You end up knowing people in the communities that they are donating these fabrics. Why are you working with this constraint?

AB

Amanda Browder, Rapunzel, 2006.

I think in contemporary art it’s really hard to encourage people to come and participate. We see fabric in our everyday practice but it’s something that’s close to us. It’s not like bricks; I don’t hug a brick at night. Fabric donations are a way for people to think about how they can physically connect to contemporary art and be a part of the project as well. When people donate they say things like, “Hey, you know this was from my grandmother,” and tell me the different histories that come with the piece of fabric. This project is an opportunity for people to release that fabric and also know it’s going to be paying homage to the people and the stories that were part of it. The pieces are a representation of physical community. The fabric, to me, is a representation of not only the person that donated it but also the people who are connected to that person. I love it when people come see the project at the end and try to find their pieces of fabric within the building because those are moments of ownership of the art piece. I think as artists we really need to remember that we need to appreciate our audience and thank them for participating and being part of this project.

KB

So yesterday we went to Pantone [1] in New Jersey, which was fascinating. They donated fabric they couldn’t use because it had minor flaws. For their purposes as a standard-bearer of color, they have to just get rid of this material because of slight imperfections, which you mentioned made it more interesting to you. It’s a different kind of donation from fabric with personal stories.

AB

What I love about this industrial donation is that it becomes a sustainability conversation too. How do we manage all of this material and not just throw it in the garbage? I really love that we’re including that into the project. One part of my aesthetic choice is to make things vibrant and colorful. In our urban spaces, we are inundated with greens, browns, and grays. I love including reds, oranges, everything that you wouldn’t expect. I love color so getting these pieces from Pantone was really important because it incorporated the contemporary art aspect and technical aspect of what Pantone is, which is high-end color construction and the scientific nature behind it. We can use that conversation about what the story is of Pantone within our community by including it into the piece and putting it next to the humans and community of Grand Rapids. I mean Pantone is in Grand Rapids: they employ people who live there. So that’s a really important part of this project. All of the pieces that I make are site-specific to the town. I think about the history and where people are employed. I think about the places where fabric is coming from, and the buildings that we’re putting them on. It’s all taken into context. So when I’m finished, it is an homage to Grand Rapids. It is part of ArtPrize’s Project 1, but it also is for the town and we have to always remember that.

KB

Tell me about building selection. What makes a good site for one of these installations?

AB

The first thing I think about is scale –that’s a big part of my work. I grew up in Missoula, Montana, where mountains were a big part of our lives. And so, you know, first there’s humans, then there’s buildings, and then there’s mountains for scale. With these works being so big,

I REALLY WANTED PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT SCALE AND HOW THEY RELATE TO THEIR ENVIORNMENT.

One part of the work that we’re doing for Project 1 is on the skywalks. My favorite part is that we’re really opening up the landscape by doing these pieces in different locations. All of a sudden the city doesn’t create this bubble around you, but rather it opens up a little bit more and encourages you to feel free to think about where you’re standing, and where you need to go. People are able to walk underneath it, or even see the piece from the inside out. Traditionally, if you were just walking through the sky bridge it might be just another view of the street, but now it’s going to be completely enveloped within this colorful stained glass magical experience and change what it looks like when you walk from point A to point B.

In the Martin Luther King Park space, what’s great about that site is the green space around it. This building’s going to be this really nice sculpture in the middle of this big green space.

KB

We spoke earlier you mentioned your admiration for classic Disney comics. Talk to me about the influence of comic books on your work.

AB

Totally. As a kid I collected Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. It was a big part of my life. My dad collected the R. Crumb, so I had this unique blend of counterculture and Donald Duck as a kid, which made me feel more comfortable questioning how we alter our everyday experience. Kind of like Gilbert and George, everything was an opportunity to make something, life was art. It’s a little cheesy when I say that, but I love the idea that any space is available for making something and that’s where I want to infuse comic books in our everyday lives. So I started making soft sculptures and bright things. I was wondering, how can I make this weird character, but in our world, not just in the box of a painting. The portal of a painting seems too restrictive to me. I want fantasy and reality to intermix. One of my favorite experiences is when you’re about to fall asleep and you have this dream-like moment but also a touch of reality, and that’s the space I want to intersect. I want to be the kind of experience that people have when they see my work. It’s not in this isolated white cube where they’re like, ah, this is art, and I can solidify this as an explanation, check. I always like when reading comic books when there would be an explosion but everyone would be fine afterward [laughs]. I make explosions out of fabric.

KB

Let’s return to the idea that people have a different sense of fabric because of its familiarity. It’s a common interior material that you’re putting outside. This gets at something that I think is running through a lot of the work in Project 1, which is the relationship between those concepts.

AB

The public-private conversation in contemporary art has been shifted a little bit with fiber. Fiber is something we’re familiar with, so more audience members can connect with it, in my opinion. Painting has a deep history, which is great, but it definitely has an exclusionary element to it because it is about the white box, it is about the museum. What’s exciting about fiber being included within more contemporary art practice right now is that it’s opening up an audience and saying, this stuff that you have at home can actually be contemporary art, and maybe even opens up opportunities for younger people or anybody to kind of see what they’re making as important.

One of my favorite moments is when people come to the sewing day and they say they’re not creative. I really enjoy encouraging them to feel more ownership about being creative, because I think that’s a problem in our contemporary art world. If you’re an artist, you are supposed to sequester yourself as contemporary artists—and everybody else who makes stuff, eh, they’re kind of there but we don’t really care. An important part of the process is to get community members to feel more excited about being creative. I want them to know that their process is important. The people coming and volunteering is an important part of this project. It makes them part of the community of contemporary artists.

KB

You’ve set up a process of production that can’t succeed without them.

More than 600 volunteers contributed over 2,000 hours of work to complete Kaleidoscopic.
Bryan Esler Photo.

AB

Exactly. It’s all based on the people that show up, and the fabric that is donated.

KB

There’s a kind of vulnerability in that, isn’t there?

AB

Totally. Exactly. It’s based on the people that show up. It’s based on the fabric that we get. I mean all my designs are really just templates for what might happen [laughs]. But we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so things change and they alter and public art is not stable, you know. It changes over time but we just push forward to the point where it’s finally finished. ■

Footnotes

[1] Pantone’s parent company, X-Rite, is headquartered in Grand Rapids. Amanda Browder’s work was underwritten by X-Rite and Pantone.