Let’s Felt Hands in a Mirror Maze in the Mountains — Or, My Experience at Arrowmont School of Art and Craft

My view the first morning at Arrowmont.

The week of May 22nd — 27th, I was honored with the opportunity to take a Fiber Sculpture class led by Tanya Aguiniga at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN. I was told that this would be a transformational experience, but I was not prepared for just how much I would learn; not only from Tanya, but from the atmosphere of Arrowmont and from my peers. (No, they are not paying me for this blogpost).

Learning from Tanya Aguiniga

I just spent a week learning fiber sculpture techniques taught by Tanya Aguiniga (Ah-Ghee-Ni-Gah). This actually happened. It’s been a week and a half since my workshop, and I still can’t believe my experience. I’m still fan girl-ing about this.

I had seen an interview with her on Craft in America; a week later, I was selecting Tanya’s fiber sculpture workshop as my top choice on a scholarship application with Arrowmont.

What little of Tanya’s work I was familiar with was her felted chairs, installation work, and community engagement through the arts. Since she has successfully found a balance between her gallery work and her community engagement projects, I felt I could learn a lot from her, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would gain from a workshop under her facilitation.

Our first class on Sunday night, she could tell a lot of us were tired from traveling and time zone changes, and decided she wouldn’t start her artist talk about her work until we had gotten coffee. After the artist talk, she would have us go around the table and introduce ourselves, what our primary art practices are, what techniques in the class we’re familiar with, and what we were hoping to take away from the class. She kept referring jokingly to this part of the class as “probing” or “support group”.

We wandered disreputably into the dining hall after hours and caused a brief disruption for the kitchen staff in requesting coffee. We were informed for future needs of night-time coffee, the lounge had a coffee maker.

After we got our coffee, we went to the auditorium for Tanya’s artist presentation. One immediate thing I picked up on was her philosophy models for what drives her as a person, artist, and activist. Tanya is one of those artists that you can’t divorce from their autobiography. So much of Tanya’s experiences as a U.S.-born resident in Tijuana have informed the work she has done in her career as an artist, and her passion for community-driven work. But her autobiographical experiences don’t shut people out of her work. It’s one of the things in her presentation that makes her stand out in a series of artist presentations. She describes one of her models for what drives her as a person, talking about the tension between the public and the private: “People will ask me what I am, and I answer, ‘Whatever you need me to be.’ I find the label tends to be more important to the ones trying to label me.”

Tanya demonstration off-loom weaving.

While this statement may have spoken more toward which ethnicity or nationality she identifies, it really sums up her philosophy as an educator as well. Though we didn’t really get to that part of her teaching until Thursday when she turned us loose to make whatever we wanted using the techniques she’d shown us, there were early signs of her generous spirit.

She had brought her book that she used when she taught at the university level as resources we could peruse for more in-depth visual references for the techniques she introduced. At one point, she had the idea of checking with the book and supply store to see if it was possible to make copies of the book for a fairly affordable price. It turned out it was possible to print them to be sold for $12. (I have a copy of Tanya Aginagua’s Fiber Sculpture coursebook.)

The final day of class, she was writing on the board information details on all of the supplies she had brought from her studio, making phone calls to her suppliers, and working out discounts if we tell them that we’re her students. She was answering all of the professional development questions that my classmates fired at her.

Central mirror room where the hand felting occurred.

That evening, a handful of us from the class went to the Ripley’s Mirror Maze with backpacks of wet-felting supplies. Once we got to the center Mirror Room (that resembled a Yayoi Kusama installation), we circled up and felted each others hands as Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” played on repeat. This is an activity that Tanya takes to different communities when she leads workshops, as a way to get us to learn to be intimate with our neighbors, talking with people around us.

Learning from the Class as a Whole

Monday was full of demos on hand crocheting, frame knitting, binding, light macrame, netting, and sewing organic material with Solvy. Our heads were full of information and it was hard to remember what all we had gone over in those few hours. Going into Tuesday, we were challenged to make and bring 3 samples to share in class. The thing about these samples is we all made them with the same care and tenacity as our final projects. I personally made more than three samples that evening, and was in the studio until 11pm. There were probably 8 or 9 of the 15 in our class working late on our samples that night. Between being given the freedom to just play with materials and new techniques, and having a large group working late with you, it was a really productive environment.

This set the tone for the whole week. Tuesday and Wednesday were full of rapid-fire demonstrations, trying them out on our own, and making crazy samples. We often felt like all we did was break for meals. That was the only marker for any passage of time was when lunch or dinner interrupted our time playing in the studio.

Our class was a tight-knit group of various backgrounds and preferred media. There were several undergraduate scholars from Arizona and Colorado, two other graduate students from 3-year programs, and several ladies in various stages in their non-art career paths. This mix of life experiences and the super-encouraging and enthusiastic facilitation from Tanya made our class noticeably the best-bonded class.

Our classroom, in preparation for the studio crawl. Tanya was hanging our works “salon-style”.

Ours was the studio that people would pass through when they decided to take a break in their class. I don’t ever recall any of us taking a break from our class to walk through anyone else’s class, but maybe that was just my tunnel-vision.

Personal Breakthroughs

But more than having the opportunity to learn from an inspiring, accomplished artist like Tanya, (whose philosophies on teaching and making I wholly identify with); more than being in an environment where everyone’s geeking out so much over what they’re making that everyone loses track of time; more than being in a close-knit group that feeds and borrows off of each other — the thing I gained most from my week at Arrowmont was affirmation.

So much of the MFA candidate experience can be high-stress, competitive, and leave you second-guessing your every decision to the point where you are afraid to make anything just for fun. Being in an environment where you’re not expected to have an explanation for every decision you make, ironically (or not-so ironically) enough, made it easier for me to start drawing connections between each of my works.

It was a meal-time conversation with Linda, a self-taught handbag/fashion designer (who was a news anchor in L.A. in her pre-marriage life), that helped me start to make sense of the underlying method that drove my decision-making.

It was Tuesday, and we had shown our samples in class. I had been a little embarrassed about the work I was showing because my work looked absolutely nothing like anyone else’s in the class. I had brought 4 or 5 instrument “dead bodies” with me to transform, and decided to just dive right in on the violin and a saxophone. When it was my turn to show them, I quickly made a crack about there being some fish-story relating all of my pieces together.

My netted instrument “dead bodies”.

When we broke for lunch, I sat at the same table as Linda. I latched on to conversation with her because she had mentioned her work in the news industry, and my brother is currently working as a news producer. But conversation went from journalism to her experience in getting her Master’s in Philosophy and Journalism. Finally, she mentioned that there was something deeply philosophical behind my work. She had also noticed that my pieces were vastly different from the rest of the class, but she said it was great. She encouraged me to do some reading in philosophy, including Kant’s Categorical Imperative, in the hopes that that might give me a vocabulary that would empower me to talk about my work. Then our conversation progressed to homelessness, and our experiences with the homeless population. This conversation with Linda opened my eyes to see my work’s strangeness as a strength.

My felted trombone bell.

Later in the week, I had a piggy-back epiphany. By this point in the week, my favorite piece I had made was a rainbow-colored felted trombone bell. Then I was trying my luck at an off-the-loom weaving. I was tearing up a business skirt that I had brought in a bag of clothes I’ve been holding on to for art-purposes. I also had a bit of American flag twine I had made before the Arrowmont trip. Somewhere along the line, I decided that these two needed to be woven together. Everyone in the class were responding positively about this weaving, and simultaneously were commenting on how dark it was.

What I wound up doing with the above-mentioned off-loom weaving.

And this began the conversation with Jen, a woman who currently does not need to work and is pursuing expanding her skills in fiber arts with various workshops and residencies this summer. I told her about how this piece juxtaposed with the rainbow trombone is the perfect demonstration of the “bi-polar” quality of my art-making. I regularly make these aesthetically pleasing, somewhat hopeful or whimsical pieces, and then I have a really heavy-handed, political piece. And I can’t choose between the two — they’re both equally important to me. And honestly, I want to find a way to play up this “both/and” aspect that keeps showing up.

In further conversation with Jen, she encouraged me to use the word “dialectic” as a reference point. Which led me to a word association search via Wikipedia, which led me to “unity in opposites” and a whole list of different words, phrases, and theories for me to look into more.

My week at Arrowmont was the salve my soul or ego or what-have-you needed following the conclusion of my first year in graduate school. And since my return from my week at Arrowmont, I’ve been working on frame-weavings non-stop, and all-the-while, my mind knowing exactly why it’s selecting what materials it’s selecting; why it’s gravitating toward weaving, netting, twining, spinning…

For that connection, we have to go back to something Tanya said when we were covering weaving in class. She was talking about the numerous things you could do to create variety in your weaving, just so long as you kept in mind to do the opposite motion to lock things in place.

“It’s a great metaphor for life really — the pendulum swings both ways.”