Haircap Gregarious, 2009. Monoprints on various fabrics, collaged and fused, machine and hand embroidery, approximately 42” x 38”. (Click image for full resolution)
Artist, educator, and natural steward Holly Smith’s work, Haircap Gregarious, is part of her series of large, mixed-media fabric works responding to the intricate connections and pathways between the land and the creatures that live in it, scribed in many scales and in many ways upon and under its surface. As she says, “these pieces reflect an interest I have in bryophytes or mosses--the impossibly fine stemmed plants that thrive without a root structure. Still, they combine in great quantities to color a forest floor, and I’m interested in the way the strength of the tiny parts combining to create an impact on the whole could be a metaphor of individuals in a community.”
Holly espouses a deep reverence for the natural world as a gift from the Creator God, and her re-presentations of natural forms and systems are an invitation to reflect on His characteristics and the character He desires for us as the Church in the world—a single Body made up of millions of individuals each with their own hidden stories to tell. “It strikes me that the microscopic, enclosed, underground or hidden elements are closely connected to the larger more overt images of nature. I can’t fully see the seeds within the pod’s protective shawl, nor the connecting trails of underground invertebrates. However, with close inspection and imagination, I suggest the shape and color, texture and trajectory of these agents of change. The concept of interconnectedness—of the minute and monumental elements of nature, and of different plants and species along with humankind—inspires and informs my work.”
But Holly’s process of making is as much an insight to God’s engagement with the world—and our bearing of His image—as is the ostensible subject of her work. She begins with heavy fabric scraps that are then painted, dyed, stenciled, often with her hands and fingers. She describes the method as being marked by “a generosity of energy and movement.”
In that first stage there is already the essence of the give and take between the maker and what is being made, what may even be described as a freedom in the material to respond to her movements and decisions, to participate in the master plan that she has in mind. But in the next stage of the process, the marvelous tensions between brokenness and communion, between individual part and the whole comes to the fore. Holly cuts the larger pieces of fabric into smaller strips and her work space then returns to a seeming state of chaos as she begins to re-order and re-assemble the individual pieces into a coherent but not uniform whole. “My work surfaces would often be covered with a spread of many fabric pieces, which ‘scattered, might come together,’" she says, citing the poem Letter by Wendell Berry.
Now textural and visual relationships become central to the work. Fusing the pieces that were separate into new communities of color and texture, even these smaller rhythms become part of the larger sequence that caries left to right as well as top to bottom. Next though, what were at first provisional connections becomes permanent when the pieces are stitched together both by machine and by hand—joined by being pierced. Early on in her work this stitching served a more directly functional purpose of holding everything together, but gradually Holly began to use the stitching itself as part of the pattern-making and expressive plan of her work. Process became expression, in short, and now leaves its evidence both on the visible surface of the fabric and buried in and between the layers, all the way through to the unseen supporting fabric that serves as the foundation for the whole creation. The materials are both responsive and resistant, but Holly’s deliberate and purposeful hands and eyes establish a frenetic order nevertheless—or, rather, all the more.
In Smith’s work, the medium is not incidental to the end product; it is not merely a means to give a representation or picture of the artist’s intentions, but is integral with the meaning of the work. The way it is created—the give and take, the loving embrace of the limits of the parts, the ennobling that comes from the breaking and piercing required to bind them into whole—is itself representative of the intentions and engagement of the maker. Thus, this work reflects back to the Lord His own complicated interaction with the whole of creation, from earliest “raw materials” to us. Holly’s intentionality is both the foundation for the work (it did not in any way pre-exist her exercise of her will) and what sustains the process at every step of the way. Yet it is an agency that also chooses to bestow honor on what she makes as something apart from herself. And in that aspect we get a glimpse of God’s engagement with the physical universe and we, the foremost of his creatures. May we worship Him for the way He shared our brokenness and is even now calling us to be part of his work or re-creation.
All citations from Smith’s essay “Places on Earth,” submitted as part of the degree of Master of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. December, 2009.
Detail, Haircap Gregarious, 2009