Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color
– W.S. Merwin, Separation
A couple of years ago, Maria Evans, Artistic Director of the Arts Council of Princeton, and I sat down at small world coffee to talk about our mutual interest in socially-engaged embroidery. At the time, I was living in Maine and had just completed The John McPhee Samplers — eleven fabric 8.5” x 11” three-hole lined pages stitched with his writing from The New Yorker — and she had just completed an embroidery project with Princeton Young Achievers. It was out of this conversation that Interwoven Stories: A Community Stitching Project grew into the longest residency in the history of the Arts Council. One hundred and forty pages have been completed and installed in the Taplin Gallery for a one-time group exhibition, opening this Saturday.
Some pages reflect the participant’s affection for a beloved local organization: Princeton University, Princeton Public Library, Cotsen Library, the Municipal Hall, Crimmins Center, Princeton University Art Museum, University Medical Center of Princeton, Dorothea House, Whole Earth Center, The Annex, the Mercer Oak, Arts Council of Princeton, and the list goes on. Other pages are reflections on life in Princeton and, well, life in general.
This project is about the materiality of touch. Being touched. Touching. The human touch. The common touch. The pages were handed out, stitched by hand, and handed back in. They will have passed through many hands before being hung on the walls of the Taplin gallery this week. There is a quality to the experience of viewing the pages that reminds us of the clothing we wear, our own relationship to textile, and the intimacy of working with our hands. Textile is embedded with a language, like Braille, that can be read by touch as well as sight. When working with memory materials like textile, the subconscious can be more deeply explored. This is a very basic recognition that comes from a place of comfort and humility.
Beyond the physical touch, the pages reflect the ways in which we connect with each other emotionally on a community level. We often hold memories and connections for each other without being aware of it. For example, a participant asked me about a technical issue while she was stitching her page. Her page is about the former Abel Bagel and the way the bagel halves were separated by a thick wedge of cream cheese – much the way hamburger buns encase a hamburger. Having lived in Princeton on and off during the past twenty-nine years, I immediately knew what she was referencing! The first bite always resulted in gobs of cream cheese falling onto the red and white paper wrapper. It wasn’t until I was at home hours later that I recovered a second, more deeply buried memory. The morning of September 11th, 2001, I was standing in line at Abel Bagel when I heard on the radio playing behind the counter that a plane had hit the first tower. Until now, I had always thought that I was in Continental Barber Shop — a couple of doors down and still here! — saying hello to a friend who was getting his hair cut when I heard the horrible news.
This little twist of memory is, perhaps, insignificant but without seeing the stitched page about Abel Bagel, that memory might have remained buried. We cannot help, when looking at the pages of what other people remember about living in Princeton, but come around to see ourselves a little differently. This is part of being in a community. By giving us a bit of themselves, the participants of this project remind us of what we have forgotten, connecting us to the greater whole of ourselves.
Socially engaged art is often thought of as being mostly about the process, not the product, and as existing in a more emotional landscape on the fringe of the commercial art world. I would argue that every page in this collection is a piece of art. I look at each page and it looks back at me with the same intensity, questioning, and vulnerability as a piece of art hanging in a museum. Why? Because when facing the touch of the human hand, we are facing ourselves. We are looking at the evidence of touch, caress, and skin meeting textile. And then, if we look more deeply, we see what is not on the page. The separation after the touch. By definition, touch is temporary. In one sense, the pages are about separation – from loved ones, memories, places, nature – but in another sense, they are just as deeply about connection to what and who we love. Who we are. They are also about collecting and recording the fragments that make up our lives. A forest. A beloved horse. A favorite place to eat. And sometimes they are about making the invisible visible. A defective heart. A broken heart. Human rights. Places, people, and pets who are visible in our mind’s eye. And we miss them. We long for them. I made the first hundred 3-hole lined fabric pages for this project out of inherited bedsheets from my Grandparents. I still miss them.
Each page in this exhibit is an affirmation of this community. To some, community is an abstraction. As we struggle, especially during this election season, to define community and country, this project proves that if individuals come together, they will create a community. It does not matter where they come from. It matters that they came here. They are here. These pages form a story that functions as a covenant. We must care and feel compassion for each other if we are to be interwoven.
I am deeply, deeply grateful for every hand that has touched every page in this exhibit and for the entire staff of The Arts Council of Princeton. They have given this project a home and made me feel at home. Please join me this Saturday, October 29 from 3-5pm for the Opening Reception of Interwoven Stories and let the pages speak for themselves.
2016 Anne Reeves Artist-in-Residence