Thoreau's Cabin

Though sewing has always been a part of my life, it's undeniable that I've spent a considerable amount of my time engaged in the art world, in professional and academic contexts. While this blog is mostly for sewing and fiber, I'm excited to also use this blog as a platform to discuss other fine and applied arts and delve a little deeper into the world of craftsmanship, aesthetics, and ideas.

Yesterday I was finally able to make to over it to the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA. If you've never been, the DeCordova is an excellent contemporary art museum outside Boston, famous for its expansive sculpture garden.

Currently, they have an exhibition on view called Walden, Revisited. The Walden referenced here is both the well known book by Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond, located in nearby Concord, from which it takes its name. I thought it would be fitting to discuss this show, as Walden's story prominently features a cabin!

The show is divided into two discernible sections, two different 'Re's, that each break down into their own series of connections to the author and his canonical book: re-interpreting and re-evaluating. While some of the work in this show seeks to re-evaluate the mythical solitarian, the majority of the work re-interprets Walden through the aesthetic, ideological, or intellectual qualities of Thoreau's original project.

Most of the work on display seemed to be inspired by Thoreau's core project at Walden Pond: observing his natural landscape and documenting its many facets in a variety of ways. What for Thoreau came to be as journals and logbooks has been translated into imagery and objects by many of the artists. In the photo at the opening of this post, artists compare colors observed at the pond to Monet paintings and take aestheticized measurements of the ponds depth.

As I thought about the show later on, an unexpected theme emerged: A great deal of the works included achieve this re-interpretation through collaboration. One of the big themes in Walden is of course solitude, which seems to contrast the idea of collaboration. Though as I worked through these connections in my mind, the strict definition of collaboration started to unravel.

Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley,  Ice Out at Walden , 2010

Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley, Ice Out at Walden, 2010

For example, Marsching's work above, a print made using both digital and traditional printing techniques to create a visual representation of wind patterns at Walden. Marsching also collaborated with a dancer to create choreography inspired by these wind patterns.

Gina Siepel,  Re-Surveying Walden , 2014

Gina Siepel, Re-Surveying Walden, 2014

Gina Siepel chose to re-survey Walden Pond in collaboration with a few others in the spirit of Thoreau in a self-built boat. Her museum-within-a-museum included discussions of flora and fauna, colors, gestures, and a cross examination of a lake in Germany with a transatlantic collaborator.

Another collaboration, one of my favorites in the show, was a sound piece developed by Ana María Gómez López and Pamela Jordan. You stand on a circle of carpet under a directional speaker, listening to a composition of ambient nature and city sounds while looking at a small a snapshot of Thoreau's cabin pasted on the far wall of the gallery. Something about the sonic experience paired with the distance of the cabin as a snapshot on a wall seemed very intentional and effective. Additionally, what I thought was field recordings of telegraph wires turned out to be the rattling of a vent in the room. Unintentional, but just as effective.

David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

I suppose however, that one could also view many of these works as being collaborative with Thoreau, in an indirect way. Perhaps, thematically, this (and Walden) mirror the success or failure of collaboration with nature as a society and as an individual. Brook's work - he creates a lot of installations that cross examine nature and the built world - seems to dig into that space between failure and collaboration with nature. His Myopic Wall Composition infuses the iconic gallery wall with chunks of wood salvaged at Walden, but also chooses to reveal 'behind the scenes' of this construction.

Deb Todd Wheeler,  Searching for Imposters , 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler, Searching for Imposters, 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler's video installation takes a keen look at a failure of that collaboration. Her porthole videos show what appear to be jellyfish - apparently one spring brought mysterious freshwater jellyfish to Walden Pond - but are in reality, plastic bags. This is perhaps where we transition into where this collaboration with nature falls apart. This disharmony between man and nature is what inspired Thoreau's Walden project and arguably, the reason for its partial undoing.

Oscar Palacio, photograph from  Walden ─ then and now , 2013-14

Oscar Palacio, photograph from Walden ─ then and now, 2013-14

Corralled in a separate section of the museum are more directly critical works, like Palacio's photographs above, showing a different kind of human 'collaboration' with nature.

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

Also included in this grouping is Jennifer Sullivan's video One-Week Walden, in which her character, inspired by reading Walden, ventures into the 'woods' of suburban upstate New York and attempts to commune with nature while living in her dad's pop up camper. The result is a lot of funny introspective monologues and dance sequences, wigs, and images of garbage.

Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

Hillary Wilder dismantled - literally - the iconic notion of Thoreau by reconstructing the famous desk upon which Walden was written in painted paper.

Corner of James Benning's  Two Cabins . The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

Corner of James Benning's Two Cabins. The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

One of the few works that actively engaged the cabin itself could be construed as most critical and perhaps the creepiest. The two channel video by James Benning featured the window view from replicas of the cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Bennings study of the two cabin dwellers is loose and investigational, not a direct comparison. After having built a replica of Thoreau's cabin on his property, he created Kaczynski's as a counterpoint. However, it begs a reconsideration of the recluse when a known antagonist's ideology can find ties - if only a minute few - with one of America's sweetheart literary naturalists.

Gina Siepel   After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study ,   2010

Gina Siepel After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study, 2010

Another work by Gina Siepel shows a more humorous critique of the 'solitary man in nature' trope. (FYI - The backdrop of this shot is a cluster of decorative fake birch trees in a high-end suburban mall outside Boston)

In this show, the connections are many to the world of craft and society, beyond the 'naturalist' perspective. Thoreau's cabin is the original 'Tiny House' (we missed the lecture on Tiny Houses, unfortunately) or summer artists residency. Many other works took opportunities to work with nature positively as inspired by Thoreau. But I'll save that for your visit to the museum, or at least the website.

In a sense, Thoreau's work in that cabin - writing, surveying, his very form of living - would, taken out of its obvious influential context, be right at home in this show.  As I think about it, the dialogue between the artists exhibited in the show and Thoreau himself becomes more and more interesting.

One quote from Thoreau that I felt best exemplified my experience of this show (and it was included in several places) is the following:

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

One chair: Thoreau, Two chairs: Thoreau and the artists in dialogue, and Three chairs: trans-generational conversation between the three - our role as artists in society.

The theme of the show appears to me more dynamic than that of pure inspiration. After shedding all aesthetic and critical framing, we find another contrarian 'artist,' observing the world around him and responding in a variety of media. And, like many of his young artist/writer non-contemporaries, he often did laundry at his mother's house and had dinner with his mentors.

Thinking about personal style

One's personal style is constantly evolving (I've talked about this before) and before you know it, you need a whole new wardrobe to accurately outfit who you are in the present, feeling as though you're only left with articles of clothing from the past. This is particularly challenging when you are embarking on a new chapter in your life. This, however, is not a terrible conundrum to be in, my friend. It is one of the major reasons I got into sewing. I have always felt that there was something special, spiritual, and intangible to me about clothing. As I grow older, I slowly unfold these mysteries. I have realized that quality of materials explains in part the depth of tactile feeling I experience. For example, feel a nylon knit slip and a silk charmeuse chemise- you'll know what I mean then. As a lifelong patron of the used clothing trade, I have always felt the histories of the clothing I wear, though I have learned the rich stories behind different styles, materials, and wear&tear. Overtime, my personal history of learning clothing effects how seriously I take wearing clothing now. It is because of this that I find the challenge of outfitting an ever changing style to be so complex. Not only do I take it seriously from an aesthetic perspective, but I feel it when my outfit is not quite I'm subtly misrepresenting myself. It also makes it INCREDIBLY hard to get rid of clothing, especially things I have made. (The Coletterie has done some great posts on this topic, check out their wardrobe architect series as well!)


Holding up some lovely fabric

My style is constantly changing. I discover new sides of my aesthetic personality. Though these new feelings tend to take center stage, parts of my short-in-comparison personal history still cling. In my teens, I was very active in the punk scene and was particularly enamored with the diy aesthetic, iconoclast imagery, and performative costuming. The art school punk scene of the early 70's had a spirit of experimentation that to this day is a component of my personal stye.


Me and my high school station wagon (and platinum blonde hair)

After college I also worked in a Vintage clothing store and amassed an excellent collection of vintage stuff. The craftsmanship of the pieces, as well as their aura of time, drew me to them.

Screen shot 2012-03-19 at 7.09.31 PM

Posing for a goofy ad campaign at 'Mercedez Benz Fashion Week'. 1960's wool dress and coat, 1930's handbag, shoes

Finally, some bits have crystallized - I always maintain a touch of vintage and punk - but others remain fluid. The more I read and research and experience life, the more history I have to draw from. As my life and lifestyle changes, I find new ways to incorporate these old loves into a style that feels right in the present.

One thing I've thought a lot about lately is being 'understated'. I've been very visually flamboyant in different times of my life. Nowadays, I'm interested in dressing more 'conventionally' for lack of a better term, but with something strange or special to set it off. I find these nuances more compelling at my age than 'making a statement' like I did when I was younger... though I may be so deep in a weirdo fashion bubble that my dressing 'conventionally' still looks weird to most people. I have been especially curious since moving out of the city.

These days, I am a pretty utilitarian dresser. (One of the things I have been negotiating lately is how to relate to athletic activities. I've never been big on the aesthetics of athletic clothing, and frequently make my own running gear. There's still a learning curve for me there, but it's progressing. ) The problem comes for me in how to dress simply while still maintaining a unique style. I'll tell ya, it's pretty tricky. I'm not a jeans and tshirt kind of gal, but that tends to be the uniform in rural New England and I've found myself gravitating in that direction. I actually bought a pair of stretch jeans, which I have been adamantly opposed to in the past (BUT OMG they are so COMFORTABLE and make your butt look awesome). If you'll ever find me in a Patriots/Red Sox/Bruins jersey is yet to be seen...

This month I wore some of my Cabin samples around and found them to work well with my new lifestyle. I see myself making a few in different fabrics to update my wardrobe for my 'new life' in the country. I know, the suspense is too much to bear. Hang in there! Cabin comes out in October!

How often does your style seem to evolve? Do you have a solid uniform or do you like to mix it up? Do styles of your past still find themselves in your present look?