Pate Conaway interview Pt 2: Sculptural fiber art
Chicago-based artist Pate Conaway creates stunning mixed-media sculptural fiber art using unusual materials such as rope, wire and rubber. In Part One of our interview Pate spoke about the importance of exploration and explains how he “discovered” knitting while working in a retirement home.
In this second part, he shows us his unique approach to sketchbooks and offers invaluable advice to aspiring textile artists.
Honor the ideas
Do you use a sketchbook?
I like a loose-leaf sketchbook. Inspiration can come at the oddest times, so a lot of my ideas end up on scratch paper. My best sketchbook is a row of clipboards that I keep in my studio. I have over a dozen, hung floor to ceiling. I use this space to post sketches, material swatches, pictures, words, supply lists, or odd things that make me laugh. Part of the process of being an artist is to honor the ideas that go through my head, so I use these clipboards as an attempt to document the abundance. Not everything gets created; that would be impossible and not practical. Nonetheless, there is an importance in honoring the muse. I now keep clipboards in the car, at work, home, and in the studio.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Inspiration is such an important part of being an artist. I love the question “What’s calling?” It’s an important question that requires me to be authentic. Many times people will be quick to say: “you should do that in black” or “make that bigger, smaller, add trim, etc.” This is a reflection of what’s calling them. They are trying to be the artist through me. To be fair, the work may be better in black, larger, and with trim; but I believe I will get there if I am practicing my art and following what’s calling. It is about awareness. Walk into a second hand store and ask yourself “What’s calling?” I find myself attracted to old wool blankets and Victorian bird cages, what about you?
As for artists I admire, I am drawn to work that makes me want to pick up a paint brush, get behind the sewing machine, explore a concept, technique, image, etc. One such work was by Seattle artist, Bret Marion. He had created a piece for a Valentine exhibition which consisted of a Roach Motel covered with red-paper heart doilies; inside the viewer discovered an unfortunate pair of insects clinging together. Inspired by Marion’s work I created a Valentine’s piece using a mouse trap, the phrase “Be Mine,” and some lace and red ribbon.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
When I was first getting into crochet and making three-dimensional works, I created a piece that I hated then fell in love with. I was searching for alternative materials and found a synthetic rope in a farming/livestock catalog. I bought a large spool and when it arrived I began to weave this black rope into a large vessel. The rope was heavy and had a beautiful sheen, but stank of a petroleum smell. Nonetheless I wove it into a large tapered form, much like the shape a strawberry, yet the size of a small laundry basket. Later I was pleased to find that the chemical smell dissipated.
I loved the shape, texture, and size; but more so I think I was fascinated how I used crochet (or my modified version or the technique) to create a sculpture. Maybe this piece marks a juncture: before it I saw crocheting as a technique for making hats and baby afghans, but afterwards a means for creating sculptures. For many years I kept this sculpture in my home. I recently sold it to a fellow artist. Perhaps it is time to fall in love with a new work!
Show up, trust, and keep investing
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
The more I work the more connections I see. I am trained in both visual and performance arts. When I first started these were two separate disciplines. What excites me now is how these disciplines relate.
Last year I was invited to be part of the Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival in Chicago. When the organizers called me I needed to make sure they understood that I wasn’t going to tell a story or be a character on stage. What I proposed was Pate Conaway, as an artist, creating art in a space over time. Ironically they knew my work and understood that crocheting could be performance.
Though I still work in the studio, I also create in public as a performative vehicle. I like to set up store-front window spaces to mimic mom and pop hardware stores. I’ll cover a wall with spools of wire, laundry lines, garden hoses, window caulking, twine, rope, etc. My process is to put an apron, choose an item off the wall, weave it into a sculpture, and then put it back on the wall. People can stop and watch me do the work. I am not “acting” nor do I become some character. My audience finds me, the artist, and they are free to ask me questions, interrupt, make comments, etc. What I have found is that people are hungry to find out the why! They want to know my story and my process. They want to be on the “in.” There is also the viewer that walks by when I am not there. I always picture someone passing by before work, seeing my supplies, and then discovering a sculpture later on when they are on their way home. That surprise is what excites me!
The future? That’s a surprise. All I need to do is show up, trust, and keep investing in my art. The rest will make itself clear.
Share your work
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Dear aspiring textile artist:
1) Listen to yourself! What’s calling? What material, technique, word, sound, movement, concept, emotion, story, or other muse do you want to play with? Then go play with it! See where it takes you. See what it does to your textile art! Keep doing this. Don’t stop.
2) Clock hours: Create time to do your work. If you have a day job like a lot of us, find time on your lunch break. Find creative projects that travel. Carry a camera with you or a note pad with colored pencils! Fifteen minutes a day adds up!
3) Invest in yourself as an artist. Attend classes, lectures, openings, and demonstrations. Read articles and check out do-it-yourself videos. Talk to artists; ask them how they do it.
4) Share your work: galleries, museums, coffee shops, libraries, exhibitions, etc. Put yourself out there.
5) Learn to take criticism. If someone says something to you that’s not helpful, just smile and say: “Thank you!” True criticism honors the artist and their process. It usually will help one see their work better. If it feels mean, it’s ego. Again, just smile and say: “Thank you!”
6) Practice gratitude.
7) Clean up when done!
8) Congratulations, you are on your way!
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
For those building an art practice I would recommend Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She has great exercises for establishing routines and stimulating creative growth. Cameron also identifies internal and external blocks.
As for other books I recommend checking out any of the number of books on the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. One such book is The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (Arnett, Wardlaw, Livingston, and Beardsley); it gives a nice history plus many example of the work. For someone who is intrigued by the boundaries between craft and art, the work of these quilters is very satisfying. One reviewer defined the work as “improvisational quilts!” There are also a number of documentaries on the Gee’s Bend artists.
A final muse would be to do an internet search on Angus McPhee – a Scottish outsider artist. McPhee used grass and wool to weave costumes/sculptures that he would display on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital where he resided. In 1977 his work was discovered by art therapist, Joyce Laing. Laing wrote the book Angus McPhee: Weaver of Grass. I am still looking for a copy of this book. McPhee has inspired a number of visual and performance artists.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I have some terrific equipment: a self-sharpening rotary paper-cutter, a 1958 Pfaff sewing machine, an industrial corner rounder, and more. They make my life easier and add a certain quality to my work. However, my best tools are my hands! There is a real power in working with raw materials and one’s hands.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I am asked at least twice a year to give an artist lecture. I always say yes! I see this as part of my duty as being an artist. I think it is important for artists to break down the myths of what it means to be an artist. People are hungry for this; my impression is that they want permission to be creative. I say yes!
People can learn about my events on my website: artiststatement.weebly.com
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I have been blessed with a number of great shows! I have shown work in museums and galleries, schools, universities, and churches. Years ago I went through a period where I was going to go out there and procure the right shows and exhibits; I was going to make it happen! It didn’t. It was the worst season I have ever had! Since then I have chosen to focus on doing the art. Occasionally I will apply for a juried show, but most of the time I am invited. Someone recommends me or finds my work online and then I get a call or an email. The shows keep coming.
Where can readers see your work this year?
For 2014 I will be doing a performative installation in April at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb. This will be followed by an artist talk. Those interested can keep an eye on my blog for more information: artiststatement.weebly.com
In September I will be doing a month-long installation at the Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago. My goal is to take everyday objects – a chair, ironing board, etc. – and encase them in woven cotton. Again, check my blog for the schedule.
October I will be opening up my studio with 40 plus artists at the Greenleaf Art Center in Chicago. There will be a gallery show and open studios. The exact date will be posted on their website: greenleafartcenter.com
For more information on Pate check:
If you’ve enjoyed the second part of this interview with Pate Conaway why not leave a comment below. You can read Part 1 of this interview here.