Perspectives is an on ongoing series of interviews and check-ins with recipients of our Artist Research and Development Grant (ARDG). Today we speak with 2015 ARDG recipient Ann Morton of Phoenix.
Making this textile portrait reveals a person in grand scale that would otherwise be unnoticed, even invisible. By using this cast-off clothing to create the portrait, it is naturally imbued with the history of all those that once wore and touched this fabric. However discarded or abandoned, it still carries a collective energy from a broader community – a collective consciousness that one day may gather the will to decide that homelessness in our society is no longer acceptable.”
– Ann Morton
Phoenix artist Ann Morton received a 2013 Artist Research and Development Grant. Her proposal focused on the development of a large scale textile project centered on homeless individuals and homelessness in Phoenix. Recently, Morton was able to take a few minutes to talk to us about the inspiration, process and development of her project.
You stated in your proposal that you “hope to continue to bring further focus to the issues of homelessness to a broader audience in a unique way that only the aesthetics of artwork can.” Has your work always been concerned with social issues? How do you strike a balance between reflecting harsh truths while remaining accessible to a broad audience?
My area of emphasis is in fiber arts and it has proven perfect for me to use as a tool for engagement. There is a rich history of community surrounding fiber based making–knitting circles, quilting bees and stitch & bitch sessions–primarily women have gathered around the making of textiles as a way to connect and share. So whether I am engaging the public in the actual act of making to create the final work (as in the Ground Cover Project), or I am exploiting traditional fiber techniques in my own making, there is an innate attraction to textiles because they are such an intimate part of everyone’s lives. I employ that attraction to create interest, first in a visual or textural way, then hopefully the deeper message is conveyed through the materials used, the hands that have made the work, who the work is made for, or the story that it tells.
Your project proposal mentions “collected history” – can you explain what exactly that means and how it relates to the work you do?
As noted above, fabrics are truly an intimate part of our lives. We wear them, we sleep on them, we depend on them for a number of daily tasks. Because of this intimacy, the textiles used in this project have been held close to the body of the person who once owned the pieces from which the fabrics have been cut and gathered. Each small piece of cloth carries the imprint of this unknown person. As I iron this cloth, sometimes I can even smell the trace of these individuals. In the case of this project, on my visits to the shelter, I noticed large bins behind the CASS building that were noted with the words “textile recycling.”
On one day, these bins were overrun with cast-off clothing and other fabric-based items. (see image above) These pieces were not worthy of giving to the clients on the Human Services Campus and were earmarked for “recycling.”It is from these rejected pieces that I collected the fabrics for this project.
This was an unexpected discovery, but a source for the fabrics that felt especially poignant given the overall subject matter of this work and the irony of where they were found. I visited these bins on several occasions to collect the items that would yield the right colors for the portraits. Staff members of the Lodestar Day Resource Center were given a printed palette of colors and they also assisted in the collection of clothing matching the needed colors.
What I find especially meaningful for this project is that the portraits made of chronically homeless individuals are made up of the imprints of numerous members of our community. In other words, the subjects of these portraits are a reflection of ourselves–our societal willingness to accept the condition of homelessness in our community.
You previously worked with homeless individuals in Phoenix on your Ground Cover project. While you are using similar topics and some of the same textile techniques, how has this project differed for you? What lessons have you carried over from the earlier project?
The Ground Cover Project was really focused on work FOR homeless individuals versus WITH them. (I have done projects WITH the chronically homeless – Street Gems, the Caution Field Project, and Crime Scenes). This project employed hundreds of members of the local and national community to make blankets to ultimately give away to individuals experiencing homelessness. Blankets could be knitted, crocheted, pieced and quilted and a couple were woven.
The energy of that project came from making contact with all the “blanketeers” and watching them take ownership of bringing the project to fruition. I acted as a catalyst and organizer, but I barely made one blanket! Ha!
With this project, I returned to making myself, and obviously used the same pixelation technique that was used on the Ground Cover Project. The community energy in this project is inadvertently coming from the cast-off clothing and from my own intentions in making the work. Also, my contact with the subjects of the portraits is an important aspect of the experience and meaning of this project.
How did you select the homeless individuals featured in the textile portraits? Are there particular attributes or qualities that you look for in a portrait subject? Have you found people are generally receptive to your requests to photograph them?
This part of the project is the trickiest and I’ve modified my methodology in finding subjects. Although I tried it, I found it so inauthentic to approach an unknown individual and upon a brief meeting involve them in the depth this project requires. Would you impart your life history to a stranger you’ve only met a couple of times? They may chat, but I’ve found that the interchange is often crafted to portray a life they think you want to hear, not one that is true.
In 2011, I did an oral history project called “Hear I Am,” where I audio taped interviews of five participants whom I had gotten to know over the course of about eight months through crochet workshops I’d been running at a center near the homeless campus. Knowing those subjects was the key to mining the truth of their lives–the project was very poignant and meaningful to the audience.
In this project, the sewn portraits take about two solid months to make and I realized that I must have a meaningful bond in order to put my full intentions into the work. I did meet with the staff of the Lodestar Day Resource Center and ask for help in identifying participants–that proved unsuccessful.
I’ve also spent significant time on the campus, but as noted, it did not feel correct to delve into someone’s history, take their picture and spend significant time making their portrait unless I had an authentic bond with them. So, I turned to the people that I did have relationships with–the Street Gems team members.
These people are chronically homeless, but have recently been placed in supported housing. They are still members of our team–we meet once a week to make sellable jewelry and gifts from discard plastics. I’ve done two large portraits and actually one embroidered portrait of the Street Gems team members.
I’ve talked more indepth with them about their history. Having this connection has allowed me to act with full intention as I make the work because these are real people that I know and who know me. In September, Street Gems will be expanding its reach to a facility at 209 West Jackson–a supported housing complex that houses nearly 300 individuals, many of whom are coming from the Human Services Campus. We will be developing new relationships with new Street Gems participants.
My intention is to interview and photograph others in connection with this project as I come to know them, and they come to know me. This methodology for interaction feels much more authentic for me as an artist and a human being.
Ann Morton is an Arizona artist with over 30 years of professional experience in graphic and environmental design. She currently teaches at ASU and Paradise Valley Community College. She was the owner and creative director for Hubbard and Hubbard Design, a Phoenix print graphic design firm. She created The Arizona Portfolio, which is a directory of commercial illustrators, photographers, designers and other services in the advertising and design industry in Arizona. She founded a Phoenix environmental graphic design studio called Thinking Caps. Recent projects include The Collective Cover Project, Street Gems and Ground Cover which was commissioned by the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, and funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.
To learn more about Artist Research & Development Grants click here.
To learn more about Ann Morton visit her website here.
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