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AOTW #11: Memories in fabric with Diane Lavoie

In this week's 'Artist of the Week', I talk memories, lost friendships, aliens(!), plants, and much much more, with textile artist and friend of Pass the Crayon, Diane Lavoie.

Diane Lavoie has experimented with many different styles over her artistic life, creating a large and eclectic body of work which fluctuates from multi-media installations, to hand-painted silk. Whilst her subject matter and methods have changed with time, Diane has continuously used textiles as her preferred medium, developing a sensitive and powerful story-telling ability.

Using small pieces of fabric glued or stitched together, Diane creates intricate works which sometimes take months to finish. Favouring a 2D approach rather than sculpture, she uses a large piece of material as the canvas for her work, and then builds up from there, adding layers of fabric to create detailed designs.

One of my favourite pieces by Diane is 'Badlands' from her 'Park' series. The fabric provides a gorgeous textured effect which is well suited to the craggy terrain of Badlands National Park. The colours in this piece are vivid, and although this piece is actually quite small, Diane manages to create a wonderful sense of scale, with the delicate torn clouds in the sky contrasting beautifully with the cracked dry earth.

Adding layers of fabric to her work also reflects the multi-faceted nature of reality, a theme which preoccupied Diane in many of her earlier projects. One such project was her 'Ecotone' series, in which Diane studies the interaction between objective reality and subjective experience. She does this by layering fabric over video clips, with the fabric representing her personal impression of that environment, and the video providing a literal representation of it. By manipulating the original imagery, Diane succeeds in juxtaposing the "actual" with the "perceived", creating a commentary on human memory and experience.

Q: I loved your 'Ecotone' series, and the idea of trying to express both 'real' and 'perceived' experience simultaneously. Do you think this just applies to the eco-tourism locations you visited, or to places you have visited more generally? Depending on how you answer, do you think this means we, as humans, can ever fully connect with our external environment?

"Yes, everything is juxtaposed. I have a recent series of work that is 'life as hologram' and this series of work is found images covered with fabric. it think that everything we perceive is layered and also filtered through our own perception. Everyone's reality is perception."

Q: If you had to portray Berlin as a place, which fabrics do you think you would use? Which colours?

"I just did a piece- I found a giant photo of the Brooklyn bridge from Ikea. I dragged it home- it's huge! I cut it in half and covered one half in fabric. That was the beginning of my project, Life as Halogram, which deals with the idea that reality as a whole can be perceived in different ways.The colours are very New York, but for Berlin, I think grey and green stand out, maybe some red? I heard somewhere that 40% of Berlin is covered in either green or water... so I guess blue would also be appropriate!"

A similar theory was also expressed in Diane's 'Fabric and Video' series, in which she also employs this video layering effect. I was particularly drawn to the Yellow Hotel, which at first glance looks like an actual hotel room, but on closer inspection is a carefully sewn fabric panel. The yellowy-beige toned colours in 'Yellow Hotel' are also present in 'Yellow House'. 'Yellow House' was made as part of Diane's 'Far Away' series. Perhaps because of the name, I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia as I surveyed 'Yellow House' with it's slightly squeamish patterns and retro yellow-sick tones.

Q: Galaxy and Yellow house both appear in your 'Far Away' series, and yet they express very different types of distance... I am guessing the house has a personal significance to you. Could you tell me more about that? How does this then relate to Galaxy?

"I grew up in the house. I made the piece from a photo that was taken in the early Seventies. It's a really basic simple one. There's a car port on the side. Later in the 80's, they added an addition. The yellow signifies the colour of the bedroom wall I grew up in. It's all sewn onto a curtain. At the time I made it, my parents both still lived there- my mother still lives there, but my father passed away last year. The house now seems 'far away' in the sense that it has been a long time since my early childhood, and since the changes were made to this house. For 'Galaxy', I use the term 'far away' in a much more literal sense. There is light coming through the indigo-dyed fabric, with plastic sewn on top. I made the stars by punching small holes all over and then shining a light source behind so that the stars were illuminated."

Diane's next series of works is 'Rügen', in reference to the island off the coast of North Germany in the Baltic sea. Whilst visiting Rügen, Diane became fascinated by a strange building designed by avant-garde architect, Ulrich Müther. Diane made several fabric panels of Müther's building, named Die Schalenbauten ("shell buildings"). When I first saw Diane's Schalenbauten studies ('Coast Guard Tower'), I actually thought it was an alien sitting in bed! When I explained what I thought they were, Diane laughed and agreed that they did look like an alien. Funnily enough, the buildings themselves have been likened to UFO's on the beach, so I wasn't far off!

Q: The thing in the bed looks a bit like an alien. And the house looks haunted. How did you manage to achieve this spooky feel? In Mansion 1, for example, the house looks very foreboding, menacing almost. Did you take inspiration from a real house, or was this done from imagination?

"There's this famous modern German architect, Ulrich Müther, who built some buildings in the Sixties. It's not ET in bed, but now I see it! The old house was abandoned, which I guess is spooy in the sense that all abandoned buildings are quite spooky. You often wonder about its history.. about what memories it holds. I feel this particularly in some parts of Germany..."

After 'Rügen' there appears to be a change in Diane's subject matter. Where previously she had focused more on environments and buildings, Diane now becomes interested in faces. What follows next is a series called 'Stories Half Told', which feature some of my favourite works. One piece which really stood out to me was 'Summer in Siberia'. The gorgeous greeny-blue pallet, and the melancholy looking girl sitting surrounded by jungle. I saw the Siberian tiger straight away, but on further scrutiny, I also saw a bird sitting on her right side.

Q: These pieces are really beautiful. Can you tell me what links them all together and why you chose the title 'Stories Half Told'? Can you tell me about the girl in 'Summer in Siberia', and also tell me what the tiger and parrot symbolize?

"I remember I was between projects and I was feeling like, "what now?". I was watching a documentary about underage models who were scouted. There was this american woman who found these girls and made them lie about their age so that they could get modelling contracts. The model scout was convincing herself that she was doing a good thing for them, sending them off to Japan. A lot of them end up in prostitution. The girl in 'Summer in Siberia' is the model, Nadya Vall, and she was Russian (possibly Ukranian though- important distinction!). She was taken from her home town, sent to Japan, and she ended up having an okay career. They all think they're going to be famous. It was really hard for her. She was 12 or 13. She was miserable, she came from a very poor family. She grew up with her grandmothers and mother, who were very loving. You were really touched by her story and it made you wonder, 'what is the reality?' Was she given this amazing opportunity? Or was she exploited? The lion croaching in the corner symbolizes danger. The paradise bird, freedom. It was a really large piece, and took me maybe 3 months to complete (I was having troubles with my sewing machine!) My husband owns that piece, and likes it so much that he won't sell it!"

'See You Again' is one of Diane's most personal projects and, I think, my favourite series over all. You can tell when looking at the faces in the portraits that these were people that Diane had contemplated a lot, the finished result displaying her deep connection to all their stories. Diane explained that some faces were made from year book photos of children she used to go to school with. There were some famous faces in there too, including Virginia Woolf and Amelia Earhart, both of whom had been lost in tragic circumstances.

This air of sadness seems to be amplified by Diane's use of textiles, the fabric helping to create a sense of nostalgia, it's layering mirroring the fragmentation of memory- attempting to be pieced back together but never achieving full clarity. Three portraits that especially intrigued me were 'Yasmin', 'Brian' and 'Dina'. These particular ones seemed somehow more intimate than the others, and it turns out that Dina, Brian and Jasmin were all long lost friends of Diane's.

Q: These portraits made me feel quite emotional. They somehow seemed to capture a sense of loss. Was this something you intended? Can you tell me the stories of some of the people you have depicted. Jasmin? Brian? Dina?

"The half faces are children that I went to school with, from photos that I have from my school photos collection. Parts that I remembered about them. Then there are some famous faces- Virginia Woolf, the first woman in space, and Amelia Earhart, who wanted to fly around the world and who disappeared. Feelings of loss, and mystery and missing somebody. Then Brian, Dina and Yasmin were all friends who I had lost contact with- wondering about them, missing them, thinking if they remember me, or care that we have lost contact."

Diane and I talked for a while about lost friendships, the transient nature of relationships, and how strange that some relationships survive whilst others do not. Diane revealed that she had contacted Brian after she finished his portrait, and now they are friends again. The portrait of Brian now belongs to Brian, given to him by Diane. :)

Diane continues to explore faces in her next project, 'Salvage', which refers to the materials used to make her artwork, and also to the relationship between Diane and her subject matter. A bit like an archaeologist, Diane attempts to salvage the personality of the people behind the portraits, copied from famous paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Diane explains that in the Renaissance period when artists made large works depicting biblical scenes, they had human models who sat for the artists. This was something I didn't know, and it made me imagine who had sat around the table as Da Vinci painted 'The Last Supper', or posed for Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus'. Diane contemplated these questions in 'Salvage', preferring to muse upon the people who posed for these famous works, rather than typically focus on the finished product itself.

Q: 'Angel' stood out to me. Where did the inspiration come for this? Is this somebody you know? Does Salvage refer to the material you have used?

"Yes, they are made from salvaged pieces of material. I was going to the Gemäldegalerie and this is copied from a Botticelli. I made this a project and I went there on a regular basis. I was sitting there and sketching, and thinking about who the people were who were sitting for the paintings. I was thinking a lot about the Botticelli painting- the Madonna with the cherubs around her. Who were the cherubs? Also, Jungfrau looks like an alien. Who was this person? What is their real life? What were they thinking?"

For the remainder of our discussion, myself and Diane spoke about her future projects, and her main current interest: plants. Diane is currently visiting the Berlin Botanical Gardens on a regular basis, using the plants as inspiration for her work.

"Right now I'm focused on plants. Botanical garden plants and house plants. Before that I was doing some other things. I did the piece of New York, I explored different subject matter. I did a series of castles. In a way, the plants are portraits. The plants are seemingly interacting with eachother or their environment. The plants are placed together, but perhaps wouldn't normally grow that way. It looks like they are interacting. With the house plants, it looks like they're synchronized, all growing towards the light source. The simple state of being alive, captured. Right now I'm working on the plant pieces, and I'm trying to stick to that for a while. I want to make some large pieces again- there are a couple pieces on my Instagram that are really large- a lot of tree pieces-- specifically birch trees. I did trees for a year, and I think I will go back to it. I planned to stick with it for a while- I explored it, and then thought- What's next? I feel like there are a lot of artists who stick with something for large period of time- but I find this very difficult, or, perhaps I just haven't yet found something which makes me want to stick. The house plants series are the same size as the house plants. I am going to make some very large wall pieces of house plants- a botanical series, or perhaps a tree series."

** Thank you for reading our latest edition of 'Artist of the Week'. All of the pictures used in this post were with permission from the artist. They are, in order of appearance, 'Badlands', 'Brooklyn Bridge, 'Yellow House', 'Coast Guard Tower 3', 'Summer in Siberia', 'Dina', 'Brian', 'Jungfrau' and 'Sisters'. To see more of Diane's work, please check out her website and Instagram page! **



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