INTERVIEW WITH AMY USDIN
Amy Usdin in studio with Withers, a work in progress, photo Molly Nemer
Minnesota artist Amy Usdin reclaims vintage fiber nets as armatures for sculptures that speak to memory, nostalgia and the meaning of objects. Her work has been shown in gallery and museum exhibitions throughout the United States, including prestigious surveys representing the diversity and breadth of contemporary craft and fiber art. Recognition includes the 2019 Surface Design Award from the Surface Design Association’s International Exhibition in Print, a 2020 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the 2021 Award for Excellence and Innovation from the Textile Center of Minnesota.
Anymore, 2020, cotton, linen, silk and wool on rope/canvas horse fly nets, 56″ x 42″ x 5.5″
The nets – used, old, worn out – are the basis of your work. What are the reasons behind this choice?
When I first began weaving on vintage nets—fly nets for horses and, more recently, fishing nets—I’d been caring for an elderly father in significant decline. In that, I felt an abstract parallel to the careful but imperfect tending of worn objects that had outlived their use. The slow process of weaving within and across their fixed borders allowed me space to begin to process the layers of my own history. As I continue this work, reclaiming worn nets through a personal lens of compliance, erasure, renewal, motherhood, and eldercare, I consider my own changing use.
Beyond my own connections to the life of these ropes, I’m interested in their function as objects. My sculptures explore the tension between protection and entrapment and the often-blurred boundaries in between. In this way, they question the meaning of objects and our own conceptions of security.
The Weight of It, 2020, cotton, paper, silk and wool on rope horse fly nets, 75” x 24” x 7”, photo Ellie Kingsbury
How autobiographical are your works?
I begin each fly net sculpture with a specific impulse, informed by the familial moments and unexpected associations that its previous life evokes. Horses are social creatures capable of joy along with loneliness, anxiety, and fear. Their frayed nets elicit a sort of empathy that invites personal connection.
The fishing nets, reminiscent of those made and mended for thousands of years, are more a metaphor for themes that weave past to present. My recent series, initially inspired by generational trips to the headwaters of the Mississippi, invoke not only shores I’ve walked along but land once buried under ancient sea. Rather than my own stories, they speak more broadly to histories and ecologies.
Dismount Left, 2019, cotton, linen, paper, silk, and wool on rope horse fly net, 31″ x 15″ x 6″, photo Molly Nemer
Sewing, mending, embroidering are textile techniques that require slow time and repetitive gestures. Is there a meditative, I would say almost curative, component in your artistic work?
Absolutely. The slow process of needle-weaving allows room for epic stream of consciousness—or room to think about nothing at all. It’s cathartic, not only in the mindfulness of the moment but in the space it provides to sort through the past and contemplate the future. The motions of weaving have definitely provided solace, calming me during the fear of the pandemic and through the grief of losing my parents.
Thoughts and Prayers, 2020, cotton and sisal on rope horse fly nets, 64” x 23” x 20”
In the creation of your works, are you more guided by a detailed project at the origin or by the work itself in its work in progress?
Though I begin each piece with a specific memory or association, I work intuitively, allowing the nets freedom to determine their ultimate direction. Each piece begins with a world of possibilities but due to the nature of the nets, every part I weave inevitably alters the way I’ve envisioned the next as I coax the work into three- dimensional form. It’s a constant negotiation to accommodate the ever-narrowing options as the work moves toward its final shape.
Length Behind, 2021, cotton, linen, silk and wool on rope horse fly net, 52” x 18” x 8”, photo Ellie Kingsbury
There is always a specific moment in which we become aware of what we want to do in life. When and how did you understand that art – and specifically textile art – would be your path?
My current practice is seeded in self-taught explorations with textiles as a teen in the 1970s, with great influence from the now-iconic artists of the burgeoning fiber movement. When I turned to commercial art direction as a more practical path, fiber art slowly seeped from my consciousness. Finding myself at Shelia Hicks’ retrospective at the Pompidou some forty years later, I knew overwhelmingly that I wanted to reengage the work of fiber art.
Portrait of A Woman in Love, 2021, wool on rope/canvas horse fly net, 54” x 17” x 6”, photo Ellie Kingsbury
Three-dimensionality, tactility, volume, malleability: what relationship do you have with space and with the public? What would you like your works to convey to the observer?
The dimensionality of my work, even when hung on the wall, offers multiple viewpoints. I weave mental and physical landscapes. Though they often began as autobiographical meditation, I like that they exist in other realms of interpretive possibilities. It’s gratifying when viewers recognize or relate to my intent, but I hope the tactile qualities inherent in the threads draw them in to make associations of their own.
Strand 01, 2021, silk and plant fibers on fishing net, 84” x 31” x 4”
Strand 03, 2021, silk and plant fibers on fishing net, 60” x 29” x 6”
Strand 02, 2021, silk and plant fibers on fishing net, 38” x 24” x 3”
Strand 04, 2021, silk and plant fibers on fishing net, 64” x 32” x 5”
We all definitely lived a difficult year. How did this affect or change your work and your artistic vision?
Though isolated, I felt more connected to the greater world and my work became more outwardly focused. My fly net sculptures began to carry themes of collective frustration, loneliness, and separation. These were balanced by a new fishing net series which provided escape, even hope, as I thought about changing landscapes and the regenerative power of water.
Untitled, 2020, silk and plant fibers on fishing net, 36” x 22” x 6”
What are the main difficulties and challenges you face in your artistic work?
Old nets, particularly horse fly nets with their oddly spaced and broken ropes, provide unlikely structures on which to weave. They behave unpredictably depending on age and condition and their fixed structures are difficult to manipulate, which creates waves of uncertainty as I move through each piece. The types of nets I use are increasingly rare. Finding them is an ongoing challenge and, though I have a small inventory, I never know when my last will be my last.
And Through the Wood, 2021, cotton, hemp, leather, linen, wool on leather horse fly nets with hames, 90″ x 56″ x 17″, photo Ellie Kingsbury
Is there a project you would like to work on or that you would like to carry out in the future?
I have a large-scale installation in mind that synthesizes many of the ideas I’ve been circling around. It involves a series of multi-layered, draped weavings on vintage nets that hang ceiling to floor—a three-dimensional abstract painting in thread.
Down Canyon, 2019, wool on rope horse fly net, 32.5″ x 22″ x 5″, photo Molly Nemer