Here I find myself with perhaps one of the most compelling, and in some senses most difficult, stories I’ve wanted to share, and I’m gratefully indebted to the conversations and experiences had over the past few months that have led to being able to share this amazing project — as well as a subtext that shouldn’t be ignored.
I first met Ricki Dwyer this past May in Black Mountain, NC where we attended the inaugural sessions of Black Mountain School, an artist-led experimental art school on the grounds of, and in the spirit of, the legendary Black Mountain College. If you’ve been following the blog over the last year or so, you’ll know that I was involved as a co-organizer (from afar) of the school, primarily because of my academic background and interest in the original college. It was an irresistible blend of exciting contemporary practices, people, and ideas that used the original college as a model, and aimed to transport its principles for today’s avant-garde artists. That in no way suggests any one sort of artist or thinker or maker, as the group of people who were drawn to the new school were talented in multifarious ways, and called from all over the country to see what the school could offer them, and, significantly, vice versa.
Ricki participated at the school as a faculty member, presenting a workshop which involved, in very basic terms, a giant loom. As I live far away from Black Mountain, NC, and had limited time in the spring, I managed to visit the school for two afternoons, and was lucky enough that one of them was the afternoon of the loom workshop. Ricki had spent a few days with friends in Asheville, constructing the loom in their back yard from repurposed wood that they had salvaged locally. It was then trucked over to a small clearing on the Blue Ridge Assembly campus just outside of Black Mountain, where it was prepped for the workshop, requiring six pairs of hands to steady and assemble, as it was given tension between two trees.
The loom workshop was, essentially, DIY — or perhaps more correctly DIO, as we did it ourselves, as a group. Ricki assembled the machine necessary to carry out the weaving, but as a community of learners, we were given only the direction we absolutely needed, and as a group we learned to weave — big. It was a marvelous experience, and Ricki explains more about the intentions of the workshop and the project in our chat below.
We met up again in Northeast Wisconsin, where we coincidentally have mutual friends. I was surprised to hear that the culmination of BMS, which ended with an art show, had, in no uncertain terms, been difficult for many people who had attended. It opened up a lot of questions about the responsibilities of artist-led projects, co-opting historic legacies, and forming a safe community space. On one hand, the experience was seen as an actually life-changing opportunity to connect with people and create work that required the kind of atmosphere that the coordinators and administrators of Black Mountain School wanted to offer. On the other hand, many students and faculty left feeling as though the space was not as open or safe as expected, or as needed. It’s a tough line to draw when one finds themselves having completed an amazing project, and created so many wonderful connections, yet the circumstances within which they were done have become problematic.
I followed up with Ricki recently to chat about the giant loom and her summer of projects.
We first met earlier this year at an artist-led alternative school in rural North Carolina, where you were presenting a weaving workshop on a giant loom! How long have you been working with weaving, and what inspired you to get into it?
Well, I guess I’ve been weaving since my last semester at college, at SCAD. I ended up in the textiles department because I would have had to change cities if I wanted to major in sculpture. I really thought at that point that weaving was an absurd novelty. I tried so hard to opt out of taking the course. Inevitably, I had to take it, and I’m so glad I did. It really changed everything for me.
That was five years ago, and I’ve been weaving on and off the loom, fairly extensively, ever since. My work is still fairly sculptural. Often weavings are talked about in relationship to painting or sculpture, but I prefer to validate weaving as its own conversation. Really, I say my work sits somewhere between social practice and craft, because I have such a drive for collaboration and producing objects as records of events.
At BMS, you introduced the workshop as an exercise in communication, which was interesting because ostensibly it was a giant weaving project, but it took several pairs of hands to make the project work. Tell me a bit about how that project came to be, what the process was like, and what you hoped to achieve.
I was mostly focused on stepping into a teaching platform that supported an experimental classroom structure. I wanted to see if I could realize an everyone teaches everyone learns environment that was anchored more in skill building than conceptual thought. Weaving was just the process I utilized to get there, but it made the most sense as weaving is generally the universal metaphor for building community; many individual pieces becoming a stronger whole. The loom was designed on the scale it was, at around 9 feet tall, so that it required many people to operate, but also so that it was visually readable as a machine. Most people walked up to it and could guess how things worked, it was intuitive on that scale. Which was the goal, it really became approachable and attractive, got attention.
Also in the back of my head I had a vision of producing a woven object that could be situated as architecture. The piece we wove really could be installed as a wall or partition, and it’s clear now that we could have gone even bigger. The relationship between textiles and the construction of space has been parent for a long time, and I thought this work could step into that conversation nicely.
What were some challenges that arose during the project? Any unexpected successes or other surprises that influenced how you thought of the project?
Well, the biggest challenge for me was to take a step back as the creator. I had spent so long developing this piece in my head, but ultimately I had no idea if it was even going to weave. That first class I was holding my breath for most of it, trying to be available for participants if they had questions about mechanics, or weaving vocabulary, or whatever, but mostly trying to stay passive. I had constructed the loom on site, and warped it in the weeks leading up to class, it was a challenge not to have my hands weaving.
But really the class was more successful than I could have even imagined. So many different people were interested in being involved, throughout the class the weavers circulated steadily, most people at the school weaving at one point or another. It was seamless, people who had just learned to weave moments ago were teaching the next group that approached it. I was very impressed; it certainly was a success in terms of establishing communication.
Your interest in artist-led spaces and projects seems to drive a lot of your work. In many ways these opportunities open up other doors to other opportunities. How did your experience at BMS, and with the giant loom, influence your projects throughout the summer? Do you feel that they have had an impact on your entire practice?
Yes, this experience was really a game changer. Those attracted to BMS were a very special group, I met a number of incredibly inspiring people. I found collaborators there, peers, mentors, idols, crushes, all the things. I think artist-led spaces strengthen the communities we’re building for ourselves, and this one attracted people who were interested in expanding theirs.
Black Mountain also directly shaped rest of the summer for me because so many personal projects came out of it. I met Joe Riley and Audrey Snyder there who I ended up collaborating with during our residency at Front/Space in Kansas City. We built an incredible Rail-Sail vehicle to sail through the city on abandoned tracks. I also went on tour for the second part of the summer, up through the Mid-West, with an embroidery project documenting and distributing people’s text based tattoos. That project was mostly inspired by Tim Kerr and his drive to push visual artists out on tour the way bands get to move around and establish their communities. And next week I get to have a show here in San Francisco with two artist I really admire, Ian Vanek and Shea Cote, who I also met at BMS. I think the effects that space had on my life and practice are going to felt for a long time.
BMS certainly came with its struggles, though, and ultimately it was not a very mindful or safe space, which was a shame, as there was so much potential; how could there not have been expectations when co-opting a legacy like that! But the lack of awareness in the formation of the school did prompt critical dialogue about what an artist-run space should look like, and created a certain intimacy between those who valued this discussion.
BMS ended on an upsetting note for many people due to some controversial artwork shown by one of the primary organizers, and a response which was not handled well.* You’ve expressed some very mixed feelings about BMS, which myself and many other attendees share. Is there anything you would like to add about this?
Yea, there is a very important conversation to have about how many voices, heard or unheard, did not feel like BMS was a safe space for them. I wasn’t there at the end to see Chelsea, the executive director of the school, show her personal art work that was received as extremely racist. I’m not sure how much I can really say about that controversy, but [artist and arts activist] Faythe Levine wrote some public words I am very grateful for her to have put out there.
I think most struggles, or ignorance around how to cultivate a safe space for a diverse group, came from a very small administrative board. I have a hard time understanding how a space could ultimately be that radical or inclusive if the power is concentrated in three people. And co-opting the legacy of Black Mountain College by appropriating the name–I don’t understand why that was thought to be appropriate or necessary. It took me a long time to separate my frustration with BMS’s administrators from the overall positive experience I had, and I’m still trying to find the space to talk about my time there while honestly reflecting that.
In spite of this unforeseen challenge, the giant loom influenced your work throughout the summer. What were those other projects like?
The success of teaching weaving collaboratively and building a loom on that scale was huge for me. I’d never felt comfortable taking up space in that way. Everything that followed was sparked by collaboration, facilitating space to establish inspiring relationships. I just can’t imagine the life of a studio artist, working alone and isolated day in and day out, really ever being fulfilling for me. I met a lot of people this summer that gave me permission to be a more honest version of myself, and through working together we can really create new realities.
Finally, you live in San Francisco, but love to travel, make art, and collaborate as you go. Do you have a favorite place you’ve been so far, or a favorite experience?
I just like to go check up on my friends. San Francisco is having a hard time right now, it’s challenging to find any real freaks here that aren’t feeling the weight of things crushing in. My favorite experiences are always when my worlds collide, past lives layering over each other, friends on friends on friends.
Kansas City was pretty magical this summer though!
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The tapestry from the giant loom is currently on display at Savannah College of Art and Design’s Gutstein Gallery through November 5 as part of the group show Cross Pollination. The opening of Three Freaks at Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco, also featuring the work of Ian Vanek and Cherry Pop 5, will open on Friday, September 23. And you can follow Ricki’s latest projects on Instagram.
*The BMS administrators have since released a public apology on their website. And although I value the experience and the lessons learned through my involvement with the BMS project, I am no longer a co-organizer.
All photos are copyright Faythe Levine, except for the header image and #3 & 4 in the stack.
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