Explore Fiber is a collaborative website showcasing and exploring fiber as a fine art material.
I had the pleasure of virtually meeting Ann Morton recently in a Dallas Area Fiber Artists Zoom meeting. I knew about her work with the Violet Protest (Explore Fiber has featured this project and it is still open to participate in), but until I visited her website, I was not aware of the deep commitment she has to organizing community advocacy projects. Here is our conversation…
What processes or techniques are you using for your fiber art?
Most always “fiber”-based, I don’t really focus on any one technique, but rather, I choose the technique that supports the concept of the piece at hand. I would say that I am more on the “structural” side of fibers versus surface design. However, I’ve done some of most all techniques because I teach a beginning fibers class at the college level, so I have a working knowledge of a variety of basic techniques.
I think I’m more drawn to the structure of textiles because I tend to be a control freak, so manipulating threads or yarns suites my work process more than dyes and print inks. But very important to my practice is a combination of my own hand-work and the work of many hands. A significant aspect of my work employs socially engaged projects that reach beyond my own studio.
Why do you think the fiber arts are a good medium for advocacy projects?
In teaching the various aspects of a fiber aesthetic, one tenet I talk about with my students is the idea of “accretion”. Meaning that in most textile techniques, one stitch after the other, one pass on the loom, one row of knit or crochet is repeated and built upon to create a finished work or object. I employ that basic idea when I engage many people that make their own individual parts that come together to make a much larger whole for the public projects I’ve organized.
But beyond this technical connection, fiber arts/textiles has such a deep tradition of community engagement and feminist tradition. Think about the hundreds of years that quilting bees and knitting circles have provided gatherings to make objects of use and design, to talk and to share the joys and concerns over family and community. Artists such as Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeois, and others have employed textiles within their art precisely because of the ties to the feminine experience. There is such a rich historic social/political underpinning connected to textiles if you take a broader look at stories of the Silk Road – one of the earliest formally recognized conduits for culture and trade between the east and the west with silk being the most prized commodity; or the story of Cochineal dye discovered by Spanish in their conquest of the New World and used as a source of great wealth for Spain for hundreds of years; signals of human hierarchy in many cultures and eras through textiles and their adornment; American use of slave labor to feed the cotton mills during Britain’s Industrial Revolution-thus building the US into a world economic powerhouse; or marginalized labor, (mostly women), that fuel the textile and clothing supply chains even today. Textiles are at once ubiquitous and deeply significant to the human story throughout the world.
There are just so many ways that for me, because of this rich and complicated history, textiles is the ONLY medium through which I can express myself in my own work, and is a magnificent organizing tool to employ in the social engagement work that I orchestrate within my practice.
Can you talk about individual or collaborative art pieces you have created that act as advocacy tools for various issues ?
Although I had been taught as a child to sew and embroider, I spent most of my adult career practicing as a graphic designer, when after almost 30 years in the business of design, I became restless. When 911 happened, it shook me out of my comfortable numbness and I began to find myself learning more about the US and its role on the world stage – for better or worse. Through an undergrad class I took called Social Protest – Conflict and Change, I found myself spending some significant time in South Africa and learning in-depth about Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
After the experience in SA, I could no longer find satisfaction in my design practice. At this time of inner turmoil, I happened to take a random basketry class from artist Lissa Hunter at Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts, and it was there that I discovered my path into fiber arts. All circumstances (albeit complicated), aligned for me to leave my design practice and return to secure my MFA with an emphasis in fibers from Arizona State University. During my graduate career, and although at the time I did not realize what was missing, I just knew that something was absent from the “soul” of my art practice. I was still not quite fulfilling my promise to use art as a tool for advocacy until I enrolled (somewhat by accident), in a course titled Art and Community. I eventually came to see the unique connection between the practice of fiber arts and the practice of socially engaged art.
I began with a project titled 13 Fridays where I designed a “mash-up” between homemakers and the home-less. The idea was for makers to come down to the local homeless shelter campus and knit/crochet woolen hats onsite over the course of 13 different Fridays during the coldest months of the year. Each Friday, we would hang hats up and residents on the campus could take a hat for free. This really started my connection to the homeless community and several subsequent projects grew out of this work.
My work with the homeless community set me up for larger orchestrations of public participation. The first such project reaching for broader public participation was Ground Cover which was commissioned by the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. A simple call, artists could propose any project as a temporary installation along the light rail line. As I left the pre-submittal meeting held in downtown Phoenix, I saw those experiencing homelessness gathering for the night nearby. I knew that my project, whatever it would become needed to bring a broader awareness of the issue of homelessness. So, Ground Cover became the response. 300 blankets were made (knit, crochet, quilted, woven, sewn) by an estimated 600 people from 22 US states and Canada. Each blanket had 28 squares, each square being a pixel in a 50 ft. x 116 ft. image of desert flowers when laid out in a vacant downtown lot. Once displayed, the blankets were then distributed to people experiencing homelessness through 11 different Arizona agencies. During the course of the project, a number of gatherings of makers were organized to build community and to provide information about homelessness.
For more info, you can still access the project website where there is a grid of the overall image, with acknowledgement for each maker and a picture of their individual blanket.
Commissioned again by the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, I was selected as one of two artists for an artist residency at the 27th Ave. Solid Waste Management Facility (aka “the dump”). Over about 5 months, we were free to roam about the facility in search of fodder for our art. Although I did make objects from the trash I found there in a series called Warning Signals, what really captivated me was seeing the human beings that spend everyday collecting, sorting and bundling our recyclable trash. My charge was to inform the public about the city’s recycling initiative and I thought what better way than to shine a light on these people and say thank you by using the public’s own recyclable trash to make flowers – a universal symbol of acknowledgement and gratitude. We estimate that nearly 1000 people from small children to elders, classrooms to private homes, and from participants all over the US made over 3,100 flowers. Each flower carried a note of thanks to these workers. The display formed a huge cascade of trash-turned-flowers and graced the entry of the AZ Science Center. After the exhibition, select flowers were prepared and taken back to the garbage truck drivers, and MRF (materials recovery facility) workers and presented as tangible gratitude for the job that they do everyday to keep our lives in order.
As you have been working on your projects, and listening to the news, what thoughts or feelings have bubbled up for you?
Oh my!!! How to answer this?! Much of my individual work is politically motivated. From my entry back to school in 2006 until today, my work has reflected the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump administrations. I continue to think everyday about how and why we’ve come to the point that we are in – at any given time – in our country. Because of the current public project that I am orchestrating right now, the Violet Protest, I have actually taken down some of the work I’ve done in response, to especially, the current administration. The point of the VP is to express our support for NON-divisiveness, so I have attempted to keep my personal opinions to myself. But who knew that when this project was launched in January (and conceived much before then), we would find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic that has laid bare the racial disparities in our country. It is hard, and honestly, irresponsible not to respond to these issues of basic human rights within the platform of the Violet Protest. So, through regular communications with what is now over 1000 makers from all 50 states and Canada, I am beginning to discuss these issues of vital importance while maintaining the commitment of the project to stay focused on the core values of Respect for the other, Citizenship, Compromise, Country over party and corporate influence, Courage, Candor, Compassion, Creativity.
Lately, in my own work, I’ve been considering the roots of my own personal racism – invisible, insidious, and seemingly innocent cues that I’ve experienced in my own up-bringing. Not surprisingly, I’ve turned to my own family’s heirloom textiles and unearthed some pieces on which I’ve overlaid embroidered messages that I hope convey the confusion mixed with the misguided cues many of us grew up experiencing. Here are two examples.
US | THEM
Vintage Morton family tablecloth, acrylic paint, new embroidery
Many times, for a summer meal of hamburger tacos, my mother would use this tablecloth on our dining room table. We thought nothing of the American-made references to Mexican stereotypes depicted on this cloth as we ate our American version of “Mexican food”. We thought nothing.
Vintage Morton family embroidery sampler, new embroidery
This cloth was most likely a lesson in embroidery created by my mother for me. I vaguely remember embroidering this Lord’s Prayer, but it is also likely that my mother finished it for me. Now it’s my turn to finish this work to modify this solemn prayer with another reality that many of us who have recited this verse since childhood must accept and address.
How does working with fibers make you feel?
It’s hard to describe the depth of feeling I have about textiles and textile traditions. It both excites me, and chokes me up with anxiety when I think of the long, complicated and even violent history all tangled up in textiles. But again, this is precisely why I employ these techniques. At times, it may be hard for me to verbally express my thoughts and intentions. But through my work, I feel I can be brave and let the work talk for me. This is the gift of being able to use these traditional techniques, and turn them upside down to convey my feelings about “a society that we are all a part of as bystanders, participants, victims and perpetrators.” I hope that through the stories I’ve told in this interview, the resulting work from my practice begins to connect these rich textile traditions to issues we all confront today.