Pate Conaway interview: The dynamics of the medium
After discovering knitting while working in a retirement home, Pate Conaway went to study an interdisciplinary arts program at Columbia College, Chicago. He combines a self-taught version of crochet with alternative materials such as rope, wire and rubber to create his spectacular works.
In our interview with Pate he tells us why exploration is integral to his process and how his improvisational work as an actor plays a major role in his varied creative life.
Starting to play
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Pate Conaway: Knitting! I fell into knitting! Years ago I worked in a retirement community. My job was to help the residents with their creativity, so I went at it, teaching book-binding, paper-making, painting, and other techniques I was learning in college. I was very unsuccessful. The women were not interested in my projects, they wanted to knit, crochet, and do plastic canvas embroidery. I remember one day having set up the vats to pull sheets of Japanese kozo. I was very excited and the women hated it! Later out of frustration I asked a woman to teach me how to knit. She generously agreed and began to show me how to make a washcloth. I was hooked. I became fascinated how knitting had all the elements of art – line, texture, pattern, color, etc. – yet the women who taught me were clear that knit was not art, but a craft! I think their insistence moved me because I wanted to prove them wrong.
Once I had the basics down and could make a washcloth without holes, I really started to play. I asked one of my favorite questions: “What if?” What if I changed the yarn to string? What if I knit with twine… or fabric, rope, foil, rubber caulking, or wire? When I showed my wire washcloth to my mentor, I remember her face dropping. She was perplexed and tried to think of some practical use for what I had knit. She thought a pot scrubber. I proposed knitting 50 wire washcloths, letting half of them rust, and then putting them altogether to make a wall hanging. What my mentor did was to introduce me to unlimited potential! The experience was the start of an exploration that continues to this day.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I come from a working class family – policemen, nurses, butchers, and mechanics. The value was to be practical and get a job! Art was not in the equation. With that said, my family is a creative group. Take my paternal grandfather for instance; he was a motorcycle cop during the day and built dory boats in the evenings and weekends. There was always a sense of humor in what he did. He would paint his boats industrial gray and name them “Warthog.” I think he was thumbing his nose at the yachts on the other side of the harbor. I am sure he ruffled some feathers. I was also blessed with a father who has a wicked sense of humor and mother who is great at thinking outside the box. These gifts are staples in my work and practice.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
My art career was a backward journey. In college I attended many art openings, but of other people. I was surrounded by artists, but I became a healthcare professional. I got a job, did what I thought I was supposed to do, and then in my early 30’s I hit a big emotional and spiritual wall. I woke up and realized I had no idea who I was! Somehow I started asking questions. The big one was: “What have I told myself I cannot do?” My mindset was that I could never get up on stage, create art, take classes (no less go to art school), be in an exhibition, and alike. Fortunately I had wonderful friends that encouraged and challenged me.
I started taking classes and investing in myself as an artist. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and began to apply her principles. “What can I do for my art today?” became a daily question is now engrained in my life. I built up courage and started studying acting. I made it into the training program at The Second City, where I was taught improvisational acting. Little did I know that improvisation would become the foundation for my visual art.
After Second City, I got accepted into an interdisciplinary arts program at Columbia College Chicago. The director at the time, Suzanne Cohan-Lange, taught us to say: “YES!” Her construct was to let go of inhibitions and tell your story using multiple mediums. From the first day she had us doing self-portraits through visual art, performance, text, movement, and sound! I caught on because my thesis project included a gallery show, installation, and solo performance. I walked away with a body of work, but even better I understood my creative process.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
In terms of fiber arts I am called to alternative materials – rope, wire, recycled paper, twine, hemp, foam caulking, rubber, fabric, and caution tape. I love yarn but a lot of times the medium becomes too precious for me. Last year I bought some beautiful, thick charcoal-colored wool. It’s great yarn but somehow it became too special, so it sits in a box. I take it out occasionally and look at it. Hopefully I will do something with it one day, but for now I tend to find more freedom in cheap and abundant supplies. I find a lot of my materials in hardware stores, junk shops, and flea markets.
My preferred technique is a bastardized version of crochet, a sort of finger weave or knotting. The technique was self-taught and came out of the knitting. I liked knitting but it lacked a three-dimensional quality that I craved and I felt limited by the constraints of working with needles. One day I was goofing around and taught myself to myself to weave with my fingers. I remember my heart racing because I was so excited. I remember asking myself if the technique could be repeated. What I was doing was a reverse crochet stitch using only my fingers. I have shown this to crochet enthusiasts and they all tell me to use a hook. I prefer using my fingers because I can control the tension and in doing so I can make three dimensional objects from linear materials.
My work is very intuitive with the medium often dictates the shape of the object. A garden hose for example will take on a different feel from say weaving with a soft clothesline. I will use the same technique but the pattern and shape are influenced the dynamics of the medium.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I see myself as a conceptual artist who embraces interdisciplinary techniques. Basically what this means is that I give myself permission to play! I like to explore ideas, materials, and techniques – anything that’s calling.
My current work is a good example of this. I have been working on a series of sewn sculptures. The work came out of an artist residency I did in North Carolina at the McColl Center for Visual Arts. Part of the residency included a project where I went into a nursing home and had the residents teach me something.
Actually I was banking on the previous experience with knitting, hoping I could repeat it. As luck would have it I met a wonderful woman named Amelia. She had been a seamstress at a local fabric mill and she wanted to teach me to sew. Each day I’d cart in a sewing machine and she’d show me something new. We made a number of shirts and jackets. She taught me techniques but more so an appreciation. I started seeing sewing everywhere. In a thrift store I found an old orange life preserver, which I quickly bought so that I could take it apart. I figured out how they sewed it and the next thing I knew I had replaced the “international orange” with a simple cotton fabric with tiny blue flowers.
That was the beginning of my “This is not a life preserver” series. I have made over 50 of these sculptures. I explored different materials, sewing with old wool blankets, a FedEx bag, a twister game, leather, seed sack, old curtains and a like. Can sewing be art? Can I tell a story with a life preserver? What if I made a hundred? It’s a nice way to start dialogue.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I must admit I think I am always engaged in the process! The muse is everywhere and in everything if I am willing to open my eyes. Some of my best ideas come during the day job… I suppose that’s why I keep it (well, that and the health insurance). I have a lovely studio in an arts center, but my creative process travels and I am always keeping an eye on what’s calling. I see my job as an artist to honor ideas, be curious, explore, create, and then clean up!
In terms of my process, when I get in the studio I start by allowing myself to work with any medium, 20-30 minutes. I tend to come into the studio with a big agenda, so it humbling to play and make throw-away work. Many times my initial warm up will set the tone for the whole day and then I find myself finishing the bigger projects or doing the drudge work. I also find the free-flow opens me up for new ideas and exploration. At the end of the day I always clean up; I like the discipline and self-respect this entails.
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