Rachel Udell | Issue Nine Interview

December 5, 2019

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work 

 

I’m a fiber artist originally from Philadelphia, PA.  I studied art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and have a bachelor’s degree in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania.  Presently, I live and work in New Jersey. 

 

I make sculptures and embroidery collages from heirloom clothing, yarn, reclaimed fabrics, and other materials. The language of textiles is also that of connection, threading together identity, history, biology, and personal experience. The materials I use have their own histories, sometimes directly linked to mine, as in the case of familial clothing, sometimes not. Organic patterns in vintage laces and other textiles speak to one another, and seem to pulse with life.  

 

The environment is of major concern to me, as is the excess rampant in textile industries.  In my effort to minimize waste and maintain a sustainable practice, I bundle together the scraps and ends from my crochet and embroidery pieces, and use them along with my own worn out clothing to form the stuffing in new soft sculptural bodies. In this way, my work process literally begets new work, reproducing like a live organism— though one that can transmute its own waste into the substance of its future selves.

 

What potential do you feel artists have to help bring about change? 

 

I think artists have access to some incredible resources these days.  Today, it is easier than ever to share your work with other people- friends, strangers, kindred spirits on the Internet, family.  Some artists are very direct and explicit regarding activism in their work, which can be really intense, powerful, and illuminating.  They facilitate change by giving voice to, or amplifying viewpoints that have been historically marginalized.

 

In my practice, I think carefully about the materials I am using, where they come from and where they will go. The salvaged textiles and fibers hold their secrets, but I don’t need to know all of the details in order to honor them.  Just changing the angle of one’s awareness can be a catalyst for change.

 

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work 

 

In my work, I’ve focused on the very personal experiences of memory, family, trauma, grief, and mental illness, as well as on nature, organic and biomorphic forms, and my relationship to the wonders of the natural world.  As human beings, we are part of an interacting, breathing membrane, transmitting and receiving the stuff of life between social and psychological systems, ecosystems, solar and cosmic systems. We flow, physically and emotionally, into our surroundings.  On a day-to-day basis, I feel very connected to the natural elements in my immediate environment, such as the trees in my yard, the plants I tend in my garden, the river across the street. Spending time in, and contemplating, nature is important for my health and well being. Further, my time in nature is an integral part of my practice.  Currently, I am thinking a lot about environmental impact/dread, and what can be done to counteract some of the more devastating effects of climate change, and how I, as an artist, can engage in a sustainable, meaningful practice.

 

What art do you most identify with? 

 

There is so much work out there that resonates with me.  But I have a special affinity for textile work of all kinds, abstract, biomorphic sculpture, delicate embroideries, and large, immersive installations.

 

Is there something you couldn't live without in your studio? what is your most essential tool?

 

I’m pretty happy with a needle, some thread or embroidery floss, some fabric, and a pair of scissors. Or even just some yarn and a crochet hook.  If I have these things, anywhere can become my studio.

 

What place do you think artists have in the political sphere?

 

I think artists today are doing incredible work in the political sphere- from drawing attention to important issues such as climate change, political injustice, and socioeconomic disparity, to advocating for reproductive rights, exploring identity politics, and navigating how to create a culture of consent. Artists are often in a unique position to illuminate aspects of history or society that are not otherwise given their due. This is due, in part, to the ways in which an art experience encodes in an individual’s brain, allowing for cross-disciplinary understanding, and providing an opportunity to look at a thing, idea or problem from a different, somewhat unexpected perspective. Art has the capacity to speak to human experience more deeply than other modes of communication.

 

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

 

I would include photography within the larger category of art here.  Artists can play important roles as thinkers, pioneers of the imagination, facilitators of deep learning, and manufacturers of joy, or mirrors to society revealing pain, suffering, privilege, disenfranchisement, and the nuances of the human condition.  Artists can be observers, record-keepers, and custodians of ever-evolving cultures. Artists take part in political dialogue, enact lived and felt experiences, and engage audiences on an experiential level.  Art is integral to any human society.

 

Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

 

I’ve got a few things I’ve been working on.  I recently joined a great artist organization in Philadelphia called InLiquid.  I’ll be in their new members’ show in December. I have been dreaming up some installation ideas that have to do with childhood, nostalgia, magic, and fantasy. I’ve also recently returned to writing poetry, and I am working toward creating a manuscript of old and new works.

 

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