Studio Visit: Heather Mackenzie

I first met Heather Mackenzie when she was a TA for one of the many weaving classes I took as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She gave our class a presentation about the time she spent learning to weave Kente cloth in Ghana. We visited her graduate studio, where she showed us a miniature punch-card Jacquard loom that she brought back with her from when she studied Indian silk brocade in Varanasi, India.

Heather left Chicago at the beginning of September to move Paris, France as a Fulbright-Hayes Scholarship recipient. Before she left, I got a chance to visit her home as she was packing. On the cool late-summer evening, she took a break to have a conversation with me in her backyard about weaving, her recent work, the process of applying for a Fulbright, and what she hopes to do while in France. One of the things that I was most excited to talk to Heather about was to hear her experience of applying for a Fulbright. The Fulbright Program was established over sixty years ago and gives funding from the United States government to artists, learners, makers, educators, etc. to study, research, and make connections around the world. I was curious to learn more about the application process from Heather’s first-hand experience.

The first thing that she commented on was how long the process was. When she applied, she was still in her second year of graduate school. For her, one of the hardest parts of the application process was coming up in detail with a specific project so far in advance of when it would actually take place – especially when the pace of grad school was so fast-moving and the work so immediate. It was difficult for her to consider and plan for something that may not actually happen for another year or more. However, Fulbright doesn’t require participants to actually complete the project that is proposed. Heather felt like this was very freeing – she isn’t bound to the proposal she wrote a whole year ago, there is room for her direction and the project to change.

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Heather is still deeply interested in many of the things that she originally proposed in her grant application. “I get obsessed with an idea,” she explained, “and then everything becomes about that particular idea.” This is something that I think many artists can relate to, an idea or vision that you just can’t let go of. It’s that feeling of being so consumed and intrigued with something enough that it permeates into the foreground and background of one’s daily life and then finds its way into the studio. I find in my own work that I’ll look back and see recurring themes coming back over and over again, even when I was consciously taking a completely different approach. For Heather, that idea is measurement. She has always been interested in the idea of measurement, though not always in a research-based way, and sometimes without even realizing that she was thinking about it. This interest expands beyond just her artwork, she said, “It’s something that I feel like drives me as a person around the world or, around my world.”

I remember her project proposal in a Jacquard weaving class we had together about two years ago. It was the first time I heard her talk about fathom as both a unit of measurement and a word for comprehension/understanding. Having only heard the word used as a term of understanding, I learned from Heather’s presentation of her work that a “fathom” is a specific measurement (a unit of length that equals six feet, most often used in nautical measurements). This technical definition of the word seemed inextricably linked to the affect of comprehension, or more specifically a lack of comprehension. I immediately imagined dropping a line into a dark sea, not knowing how far down it may go or what is below the surface of the water. It is a sense that is at once full of curiosity, fear, and romance. For Heather too, the idea of fathom is connected to a personal distance between herself and others, as well as to the attempt to comprehend (and yet often struggle to do so) the physical construction of the world, our human impact on it, and the ability or lack of ability to measure it.

Seismic Line // Moiré. Photo courtesy of artist
Seismic Line // Moiré. Photo courtesy of artist

Shortly after this, Heather first started creating her “seismic weavings” and she has been working through new iterations of these woven pieces since then. They are woven images of cross-sections of the earth that are taken from ultrasonic data visualizations of deep sea landscapes, 11,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean floor. The data images are made up of what are basically sound waves that reflect how this unreachable surface is measured and visually depicted. Heather’s weavings translate these images and re-materialize this landscape into expanses of gauzy woven cloth. The work is an exercise in making what is already unfathomable, as this terrain is both physically unmeasurable in human capacity and impossible to actually visualize, into a tangible abstract representation reminiscent of a gestural drawing or a map.

For Heather, the work has also been an exercise in learning and pushing the capacities of a digital Jacquard loom, which she had access to through her program at SAIC. The loom works by reading a pixelated image file line by line, each black or white pixel in the file corresponding with a raised or lowered thread. Heather translates the image that she wants to depict into weave structure through Photoshop and then physically weaves the cloth as the loom “reads” the file. Heather is able to respond to what happens during the weaving, make weft material choices, and alter the file for new effects within the constraints of the loom set-up.

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As a fellow weaver who is not only interested in using the Jacquard loom to weave designed cloth or photographic images but who is invested in understanding the structures of woven cloth and pushing the capacity of this tool, it has been exciting to watch Heather’s progress in her work in class. The loom’s initial set up gives certain constraints to what can be woven on it, but through her understanding of how the loom works and the structure of the weaving, she has been able to push these boundaries in ways I have seen few other weavers do. Rather than sticking within the 14 or 27-inch width of the warp on the loom, Heather has woven triple-layered cloth that can unfold into larger sheets of fabric or be gathered in sections that are structurally bound together and then unfurl and drape, adding physical layers to the landscapes that she is trying to depict.

In our conversation, we discussed not only the technical process that Heather uses on the loom but also the struggle she has had in the audience reception of the work. The craft and technical ability in Heather’s work is an integral part of the process and concept for her, but for non-weavers much of this is lost in the final object. She explained that in her seismic weavings where the woven layers are gathered and structurally bound together, she has been met with confusion from a non-weaving audience who doesn’t understand what is physically happening in the work. I have faced this same struggle in my work as well and it is a difficult and often disappointing predicament. For Heather, her technically and conceptually intricate weavings turn into gesture drawings when the folds are smoothed out and the work is hung in a rectangle on the wall.

This raises the question of what aspects of the work are most important. Even if the artist, and maybe other weavers, are excited about the layered folds, is that a necessary element in what the work is communicating? How important are the specific material choices that the weaver makes? It seems fiber artists are often asked to defend their material and process choices. For Heather, and I would venture to say most fiber-based artists, the answer is that these structural and material elements are extremely important. They are inextricably connected to the concepts that she is exploring and to her process as a maker. “It is funny, the question of why weave something rather than why paint it. I feel like painters never ask that,” Heather commented in the midst of our conversation. But for her, there is no question, “That’s what I do! I weave.”

Heather

So, what happens when an artwork remains most accessible to an audience if it adopts the form of a “drawing” or “painting” – a rectangular art object on the wall? When working in a medium that allows for other structural, material, and therefore conceptual possibilities, how can we provide an access point in a new form for viewers unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the medium? It becomes (and always was) the responsibility of the maker to translate the medium in an accessible format for any audience. Heather is still working through this. She mentioned some sketches for weavings that she hasn’t yet had a chance to complete that simplify the image so that the structure of the weaving can not only be prioritized but work with the imagery as more of a visual indicator to the audience about what is going on in the cloth.

In France, Heather will continue her work exploring the idea of measurement and the translation of this idea into new material forms. For her MFA show last spring, Heather wove a 100-meter long measuring tape that she said she would be bringing with her to France. She explained to me that the meter, now a global standard of measurement, is an arbitrary distance. Originally, it was meant to equal one forty-millionth of the circumference of the earth, but in the late 1700s when they tried to measure the Paris Meridian, they made some errors and we are left with what the meter is today. She envisioned herself exploring Paris with her measuring tape, getting to know the city with this arbitrary scale.

As a Fulbright scholar, she is officially affiliated with the Textile and Material Studies Department of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. She isn’t enrolled as a student there but is working with faculty through the school and at the time we spoke she still wasn’t sure what kind of studio or equipment access she would have. Her main focus, though, is the International Bureau of Weights and Measure. She explained that this is where the metric system first became a global standard of measurement and where it is currently still maintained. It is a living lab of measurement with ten different departments focusing on different aspects of what is measured such as time, length, weight, temperature, and ionizing radiation. The institution regulates and standardizes the comparability of measurement around the world. Heather hopes to access the Bureau during her time in France but explained that it’s not an easy place to get into.

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Part of that difficulty for Heather will come in the basic dichotomous interests between artists and scientists. While I have always felt that the process of creating art and the scientific process are very similar, both start with a question and then move through a series of trials and errors in the attempt to find some sort of answer or solution, there is a fundamental difference in the goals of art and science that can realistically create a gap between these modes of working. “I am looking for poetry all the time, and they are trying to figure out the solution to a real living problem,” stated Heather, “they are way past the poetry if it was ever there for them.” She described how at the time that the metric system was created, the boundaries between these realms were more permeable. The thinkers of the time were scientists, philosophers, and writers, they just did it all. She still holds onto the romance that as an artist she can bridge the poetic-scientific gap in her multi-faceted practice as a maker, weaver, thinker, and researcher.

Heather’s work will be on view in Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, November 7 – December 23, 2014.