Q&A with Rebecca Ringquist: A Narrative Fiber Artist

I recently visited the studio of Chicago artist Rebecca Ringquist, where she was finishing up her pieces for a group show Soft Life at the Hyde Park Art Center. Soft Life runs from January 20th to March 30, 2008 with the opening on Sunday, February 3rd, 3-5pm.

Rebecca Ringquist takes traditional domestic craft materials and alters them with imagery by aggressively stitching them and embroidering her narrative stories on them. What she integrates is one part artist labor and the other part done by unknown women who crafted the original material. Her pieces push the boundary between traditional craft-making materials and contemporary art.

New Project
Garden Gate. Courtesy of Rebecca Ringquist.

New Project Detail 1
Garden Gate, Detail. Courtesy of Rebecca Ringquist.

ArtStyle: When did you get interested in fiber art?

Rebecca Ringquist (RR): I found myself taking a very forward-thinking feminist art history class as an undergraduate at Cornell College. Women in Fabric, Fiction and Film explored the role embroidery played in colonial and Victorian times in the development of girls' lives and the inculcation of femininity. Further, I spent a lot of time studying the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

Before this class I was very reluctant to sew, but I became interested in embroidery as a conceptual way to represent ideas about femininity in a subversive manner. I was so excited by the idea that the material could convey its own very important history and meaning.

I then attended the Art Institute as a grad student in Fiber and Material studies and began exploring these ideas further.

ArtStyle: Where do you get your material and how do you approach making your pieces?

RR: I used to get all my material at thrift stores, but after hauling home bag after bag of ill-fitting clothes as a result of spending way too much time at the Village Discount, I have come around to using eBay. I can get a lot all at once and spend more time in the studio instead of traveling from thrift to thrift accidentally shopping for bad pants.

Usually each piece starts from a drawing or quick sketch. However, sometimes I will find a really cool piece of embroidery and get excited about working back into it, so it works both ways.

In either case it's important to say that this work is slow going. Garden Gate, which I just finished, took over a year to complete. So, often the imagery changes over time and I try to be open to working organically. From the beginning I am cutting up old cloth and I usually continue to add on layers and cut away other bits until it's time to send it off to the gallery.

Although I began working with embroidery largely for political or conceptual reasons, I continue working with fabric and embroidery and stitching for a more tangible reason: I like the way it feels. I love the thickness of cloth and the way I can make it drape and bend with intense repetitive stitching.

Untitled, 2003
Untitled. 2003. Courtesy of Rebecca Ringquist.

ArtStyle: Where does the imagery come from in your work?

RR: I look at a lot of books: old dictionaries, nature guides, autograph books, old valentines and fairy tales. I make a lot of drawings and gouache sketches and small studies. Big pieces take a long time, so I've always got a lot going on at once in the studio to keep myself interested and fresh.

ArtStyle: How do you come up with your narratives?

RR: A lot of beginning points in my work lately are coming from an old autograph book of my grandmother’s from the 1940s. I found things like “Don't make love over the garden gate, love is blind but the neighbors ain't” or “If in heaven we do not meet, hand in hand we'll stand the heat!” I've been interested in thinking about these sayings from different perspectives. I think they are weird for 1940's teenagers to have written and they are great suggestions of irony and innuendo when skewed and presented with my own imagery. I'm serious about what I do, but I am also interested in playing with language and with turning old notions on their heads in ways which make my audience think twice or chuckle a little.

ArtStyle: How does your stitching alter the cloth?

RR: I think the violent way that I have of machine stitching conveys a sense of speed and aggression that really alters the meaning of all this cloth that's been carefully hand stitched by others. Most of the embroidery that I collect has been stitched by women using iron-on transfers. These are decorative cloths used to spruce up the sofa, the dresser top, the bridge table. There is an overabundance of it in circulation. By stitching over it, I am really changing the meaning. I'm taking it off the table, off the sofa, into a conceptual place where I can begin to tell my own stories while referencing ideas about domestic contentment and decoration.

ArtStyle: What different types of stitching do you use?

RR: For a long time all I was doing was machine stitching over the top of found embroidery and other fabrics. However, last summer my sewing machine broke for a while and I started hand stitching and embroidering and got really excited about it. Two of the pieces at The Hyde Park Art Center are completely hand stitched.

Rebecca Rinquist Talks About Her New Embroidery Art

ArtStyle: When you start a project do you have a strong idea of what you want the final piece to look like or do you work more intuitively?

RR: I have an idea of what it will look like — sometimes even a really clear and concise idea — but it almost never remains exactly the same. The necessarily long time that is required to complete this work leaves it open to change. I really like that. I am most influenced by artists that the art world might label “intuitive” or “outsider” and I try to be open to working organically or intuitively — being willing to change or accommodate or shift is important.

I want my work to be the opposite of hesitant, the opposite of minimalist. I want it to go over the edge of reasonable embellishment or decoration.

ArtStyle: Is there a duality in your creations?

RR: I think especially in the big piece Garden Gate there is a duality of speed and time. The harsh difference between the rate of speed and mood with which all that old “fancywork” was stitched by careful methodical hands is a sharp contrast to the application of imagery over the top. Although the machine stitching is very labor intensive, it also conveys a sense of violence and aggression, which is perhaps reflective of the chaotic world in which we live. The thick orange flames, which lick up at the bed suggestively, are quite different from the sweet daisy imagery that lies beneath.

My work is at times careful, contrasted with moments of fast machine-stitched recklessness, expressing implicit and explicit intensities, and alternating between innocence and restlessness.

ArtStyle: What type of topics do you address?

RR: I am interested in addressing stories about my own life and my relationships. I am excited about telling veiled or fractured narratives. I use imagery that conveys a sense of a fairy tale or a fable. I don't want to give away the whole story; I want the work and the images to insinuate something, to complicate an existing idea. This recent work suggests something deeper than what the original quotes suggested.

While these projects could exist as short laughs or one-liners, my way of making art conveys a sense of authenticity. The obviously labor-intensive method that I use to create my work conveys that I am serious and invested in the subject.

Rebecca Rinquist can be contacted at rebeccaringquist@yahoo.com.

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