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Amy Meissner

Amy Meissner is an Anchorage fiber artist who uses discarded textiles to question societal roles and femininity. Her background includes clothing design, illustration and creative writing.

    2017

  • Project Award
  • Visual Arts

Pulling at Perfection: Mix of Meaning and Media in Fiber Art

Walk into an exhibit of Amy Meissner’s work like her recent “Inheritance”project, and you will immediately recognize familiar textile objects — quilts, doilies, handmade pieces of fabric used for generations to warm and decorate our homes. Yet as last summer’s exhibition at the Anchorage Museum revealed, they are anything but commonplace. When viewers see embroidered eyes staring back at them, or needles protruding from meticulous artwork, questions about femininity and tradition emerge.

Meissner’s home studio is clean and spare and well-lit with bits of apparently unrelated collections in neat piles. Here, scraps of vintage textiles. There, some objects collected from her family’s weekend forays cleaning beaches in Prince William Sound. On the wall, a work in progress: mooring lines from a boat beautifully manipulated to resemble something possibly biological. In Meissner’s creative world, hard and soft objects get stitched, sewn, twisted and dyed together in a meaning-making assemblage that can stun viewers with beauty, emotion, politics and history.

Meissner began work in the garment industry at 17, “an internship turned into a job.” She worked making couture wedding dresses for over a decade. Her start with textiles began much earlier, when she was 3 or 4. She learned to sew and knit from her mother, who was raised on a self-sufficient farm in Sweden. “When my mother taught me, she taught me the same way that she had been taught, which was by her grandmother and her aunts: ‘When it’s not perfect, you rip it out.’ And the back better look just as good as the front … because your teacher is going to turn it over. … So you rip it out and rip it out and rip it out.”

Meissner doesn’t reject perfection. “I know how to make it perfect. But I think the greater emotional opportunity is to make it not perfect and then make the decision about what is perfect and what isn’t.” She says she admires the work of artists who embrace raw edges but adds, “I want to turn every single thing by hand.” For her, the energy in the work comes not from abandoning perfection but from the tension between her source material of inherited handmade textiles and the meaning she layers upon it with embroidery, words and ideas.

Her first exhibited piece, “Spontaneous Combustion,” is made up of blocks of letters repeating the phrase, “Mama, what in this house can catch on fire?” When she saw it all assembled, it felt “too perfect.” She asked her children to use a disappearing fabric marker to draw on the border, and then she quickly embroidered their drawings to get them down before the ink disappeared, to capture the energy and chaos of working quickly.

“Spontaneous Combustion” began Meissner’s work in her current medium of thread and reclaimed textiles. At the time her children were born, she worked as a children’s book illustrator. She had completed her Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at University of Alaska Anchorage. “My plan was to illustrate children’s books and write books for children,” she said. She had hoped it would be the perfect career for motherhood. Instead “that whimsical spark was gone.” Postpartum depression, lack of sleep, and just normal mothering made being an illustrator impossible for her. “I hit a crisis point with being a mother and trying to be an artist and trying to figure out what that even meant anymore. Because it was vastly different from what I had envisioned.” When she turned back to sewing, it was to make art that, unlike painting and illustrating, she could easily pick up and put down. “I also realized it really put me in a place where I can connect to the long history of mothering and women and handwork because it was something I could do while they were sitting next to me, or they were doing their own little thing.”

Bumping up against barriers of tradition and motherhood became a new kind of spark for Meissner. She knew that using handwork entailed the risk of her work being classified as craft instead of art. She knew by simply being a woman artist, she had steeper hills to climb than her male counterparts, and all of that has informed her art. “I think women, mothers, artists who do work about motherhood are always asking where they fit in when they do this work. And it’s relevant work.”

Encountering a piece of Meissner’s, you notice humor and mystery, loss and tragedy, and once more, whimsey. You also find deep questions about boundaries and societal roles and a reverence for the generations of “women’s work” that has become her raw material. She says she’s not finished with old textiles. And along with some of the treasures from her beach explorations, she’s diving into a new idea. “I’ve started working on this new body of work, a path that I want to explore — these kind of birthing tools. Not forceps or blades, or anything like that. Those are men’s tools, right? Those are men’s surgical tools. I’m thinking, what are the tools that [women have] when giving birth, to pull from somewhere really ancient and deep inside to get it done?”

Meissner was up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago when a photographer was scheduled to come the next day to capture this new work in progress. She felt like she needed to call off the shoot, like the piece wasn’t ready, was premature. Then at 5 a.m., unable to sleep, she came down to her studio to be with the materials — marine lines, silk organza, bits of lace — and the title came to her: “Birth Rope.” With that, she massaged and finally drew the art and her ideas into being.

Amy O'Neill Houck is communications director for 49 Writers, and co-publisher of Edible Alaska magazine. Amy has a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's a teaching artist with the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

Image credits - Gallery images 1 and 4-6 are courtesy of the artist. Images 2, 3 and 7 are by Amy O'Neill Houck.