The “Crazy” exhibit at The Nic sent me to my room to find out where my clothes come from.
Dress shirts from the Dominican Republic. Pants from Cambodia. Sweaters from China. I have drawers filled with T-shirts: Made in Haiti; Fabrique au Vietnam; Hecho en Bangladesh. There are blue jeans from Mexico and sweatpants from Guatemala. I look at clothes labels when I shop. I hope one will read “Made in USA.” It’s a rare find in the 21stt century. Our apparel industry went offshore decades ago and is not coming back.
“Crazy – A Contemporary Quilt about Fashion’s Pressing Problems” opened at Casper’s Nicolaysen Art Museum in September and will be up through Dec. 27, 2020. It is one section of a solo exhibit, “Layer, Fold, Unfold,” that features Georgia Rowswell’s fabric art pieces made from thrift-store clothes. Also on display are her “Hot Yellowstone” series and several Wyoming landscapes in “found drawers and boxes.”
The hallmark of the exhibit may be the artist’s “Leap 366 Life Ring,” which Nic patrons saw in the Wyoming Arts Council’s 2017 visual arts fellowship show. Museum staffers told Rowswell that her huge ring (5 feet in diameter) became a “selfie hot spot” during the 2017 show. During this Year of the Pandemic, it may become a 2020 hotspot for “Masked at the Nic” selfies.
At 70 feet long and 19 inches wide, the “Crazy” tapestry takes up an entire wall in the museum’s McMurry Foundation Gallery. While the brainchild of Rowswell, it has been a group effort, with quilt-like patches and embroidery contributed by artists from Cheyenne to Casper, Mexico to Istanbul.
The title comes from “crazy quilts,” the wildly popular, intricately decorated quilts of many a great-great-grandmother’s era in the U.S. Those quilts are less about troubled minds and more about the homespun creativity of women artists of the late 1800s. American Patchwork & Quilting says this about crazy quilts: “Irregular shapes, haphazard fabrics, and meticulous embroidery compose these beautifully busy works” that were very popular “in the last quarter of the 1800s, becoming icons of the Victorian era.”
Rowswell’s show originated with an item of clothing made on a distant Indian Ocean island. She bought a thrift-store item with a label that read “Made in Mauritius.”
“I thought, someone in Mauritius is making my clothes,” the Cheyenne artist said. While widely travelled, Rowswell said she knew little about this “tiny island.” She wondered how many countries she could find represented in the stack of arts-ready clothing in her studio.
“Within minutes, I found 20 countries,” she said. “I can make my art because we have such a glut of used clothing. I asked, who are these people? Do I own clothes made by workers who do not get paid enough or who died in the process?”
Sobering questions. She researched the clothing industry. She watched documentaries on the subject. She discovered the clothing industry is the world’s second-worst polluter after the oil industry. As a socially conscious artist, she wondered how, through her art, she could raise awareness of the human and environmental costs of the international apparel business.
“You hear a lot about blood diamonds,” she said, “but I don’t have to have a diamond. I have to wear clothes.”
Rowswell selected swatches of used clothing from 36 of the top clothes-exporting countries for the “Crazy” piece. They are embroidered in layers, arranged so that the viewer can read the labels.
Rowswell first thought of it as a table runner, but it grew until it was no longer practical. She cut it into sections linked by zippers. That way, it could be displayed in sections or as a tapestry. While she conducted a workshop in Buffalo, N.Y., a participant suggested that it could be displayed like the Bayeaux Tapestry — a 230-foot-long fabric art piece (a bit longer than three-fourths of an American football field) embroidered sometime in the 1070s in England.
Rowswell’s “Crazy” is not nearly as long as the Bayeux tapestry, but long enough to extend along one wall of The Nic’s McMurry Gallery. Long enough to require it to be transported in pieces when Rowswell brought the work to Casper.
In 2020, you can’t talk about art and not address the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID affected my project and of course garment workers everywhere,” Rowswell said.
Apparel is generally made in crowded, enclosed spaces, some in countries most affected by the pandemic, places like Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines.
COVID-19 outbreaks have also had a huge impact on the global arts world, affecting how artists can work with one another and the public’s desire to attend museums or exhibits.
Lethal viruses, it seems, are not the only thing that affects attendance at arts events. Some stay away from exhibits because they think they won’t “get it.” For any exhibit, Rowswell insists on detailed labels for her art pieces.
“Some people are hesitant to go into galleries of museums because they are afraid they won’t understand it,” she said. “How can I lead them into my world? I would hope that someone would do that for me at a basketball game.”
She explains her vision for the work “and then they layer in their own meaning.”
Rowswell is joined by other women artists in The Nic’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Artists in main floor galleries include Florence Alfano McEwin, Karen Henneck, Sharon Merschat and Kelsey McConnell. Aubrey Ellis’s work is in the third-floor gallery. All exhibits run through Dec. 27 except for McConnell’s which continues through Jan. 12.
Visit the thenic.org for more information.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.