*Featured photo: Studio portrait, 2021. Photo by Joe Kramm
Liz Collins is a multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York; she holds a BFA and an MFA in Textiles from RISD. After graduation, she launched her knitwear-focused fashion label that went from the New York Fashion Week runway to international and media recognition for its innovation within a few years.
In 2003, Collins joined RISD’s textile faculty, moving into art creation, design consultancy and development for other brands.
Her fashion brand then became a project-based business, with occasional forays into capsule collections. In 2013, she left the faculty to further her path in art and design, Since then, she has taught at SAIC, MICA, Pratt, Parsons and Moore College, while also lecturing as a guest artist and critic at many schools.
Her research flows fluidly between art and design with a particular preference for the textile medium. Her solo exhibitions have been held in New York City – at the Museum of Arts and Design, Candice Madey, LMAK, Heller and BGSQD, and at the Armory, NADA, Collective and Spring Break art fairs – and in various institutional venues and galleries nationally and internationally, including Tang Museum (Saratoga Springs, NY), ICA/ Boston (MA), Knoxville Museum of Art (TN), Gallery DLUL (Ljubljana) and Rossana Orlandi (Milan). In addition, she has participated in countless collective projects from MoMA and the Drawing Center in New York to NoLAB in Istanbul, Kristin Hjellegjerde in Berlin and Luis de Jesus in Los Angeles.
Her work has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a MacColl Johnson Fellowship, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts & ArtistRelief grant and the CeCARtsLink Grant that enabled her to create the performance/installation KNITTING NATION in Zagreb, Croatia.
In 2021, Tang Museum published the monograph Liz Collins Energy Field.
Art, fashion, design and a plurality of materials and techniques: yet textiles are always present in all of this. What makes this medium so special to you?
I feel there is so much magic in textiles- an abundance of possibility that never exhausts itself….both in the materials and the techniques, there is the potential for both extreme intricacy and complexity along side free gestures and chaos….and to have malleability, color, and such a range of textures and forms all in this realm feels endlessly inspiring to me.
However, I suppose this could be said of anything really- every artist can say such things about their chosen areas of focus and obsessions that drive them to make. But what you are asking is about me working in different areas (art, design) and always with textiles.
I learned about textiles early in my life and I think one of the core truths for me is about my family lineage and an affinity for fabric being in my blood. I come from people who made cloth or things with cloth, so it’s part of my heritage. My grandmother used to knit at the movie theater when she was a young woman in the 1920s. My other grandmother had a dress shop. My dad made sails on an industrial sewing machine. I grew up with a very diy craft environment so got into making things with yarn, thread, cloth, and although I did explore many other art making methods from photography to ceramics as a youth, by my late teens what I discovered in textiles cracked open a truly magical world for me full of alchemical processes that would allow for a big full life of making in many forms.
In this fluidity of areas in which you have worked, what is the difference from the point of view of the expression of your creativity and your talent between fashion, art and design?
I have always had an affinity for creative people who moved from one area to another in ways that seemed expansive, natural and deeply intuitive and have always felt that in myself…that in art there is so much freedom- one can really do anything, and there are no limits. So then it’s up to the creator to find places that feel right for the ideas. Design often has requirements tied to use, to be sure, but there is so much grey area in that concept… so it’s up to the person who has the ideas to problem solve to address the needs of that object or experience. I use a lot of design thinking in my art installations because they are often social spaces and thus tied to use – it doesn’t feel different or separate in the work I do these days. What I do and have done are all elements of a long continuum of creativity that is beautifully intertwined with one thing feeding into another and ideas moving from one realm to another.
In New York we’ve just had a wonderful exhibition of Sophie Taueber Arp at MoMA, who along with Sonia Delaunay is one of the many people I have long looked at and admired for working robustly across disciplines in art and design, with a focus on textiles. I see in them what I see in myself, which is an ability to shape shift, to instigate and apply my ideas to whatever area I feel drawn to with passion, love and vision.
Color is undoubtedly the other feature of your works. What is color for you, what does it mean in your artistic practice and how do you choose the color palette of your works?
Color is something that is also deeply intuitive for me. I believe that color sensibility can be carried through one’s genetic makeup just like other traits, and I do think I have some of my mom’s sense of color.
Why do I love hot pink so much? Why does it make me feel so alive and give me so much pleasure when I see it? Why do I keep going to it again and again? Is it too much?… I ask myself many questions about color, and am perpetually curious about why I have these default palettes and fixations. The other day I ordered a bunch of new yarns for new works for an upcoming solo show, and there I saw the same colors I always go to: red, pink, grey, black, purple, blue. There they were again. I do work with other palettes and enjoy when a project forces me to go outside of my defaults, and have seen some of my best work come out of instances where I am limited to one color or group of colors that I would not ordinarily use.
I approach my works and projects from a place of feeling- what am I feeling right now (which includes what I am thinking about) and what does that look like? And the color comes from that. I saw a huge exhibition about color in Turin at GAM and Castelo di Rivoli some time ago that has stayed in my mind on the topic of color. The show was grounded in and started with Thought-Forms, the brilliant Theosophist project by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater from 1901, where feelings and emotional states were represented by abstract colorful illustration-paintings and tied to spirituality, metaphycics and the cosmos. That was my first time experiencing that project and those philosophies and it put into words and image many things I had always felt. For me color is spiritual and that includes being connected to nature and the experience of being alive. So then, to put it in simple terms, color for me is an expression of my existence and life force.
Your works range up to three-dimensional installations, even large ones, or articulated installations that completely change the perception of the environment. What relationship do your works have with space?
When I first moved into working with space and had dropped making clothing, I felt as if space was my new body- that instead of making intimate experiences for people, that I was taking a step back to allow for a different and less personal kind of intimacy. When you put something on your body it’s so intimate and direct, so tactile and also so specific. In a room or a space, there is the possibility for a multisensory experience and for many to have it instead of one. The space becomes a container for so much. I love that idea of the container that holds energy and objects, and can cause layers of experiences for those who enter.
One of my first times really engaging with architecture in a way that shifted my perceptions and ideas was for an exhibition at the ICA Boston called Dance/Draw curated by Helen Molesworth for which I did 2 iterations of my KNITTING NATION project. The show was, broadly, about bodies making marks in space, and that really became something to me- I took that as a directive for my work there. I started to see the knitting machines and knitters as an apparatus and a sort of 3D plotting tool – that we could make material that could function as malleable color and be moved around in all directions.
I want my installations to feel like other worlds and for one to be both agitated and comfortable, seduced and mystified, curious, and relaxed. They are like dreams to me, fantasies that blend my obsessions and affinities for things that also reference domestic space, so that one gets a bit confused. I am interested in being disoriented and what happens to perception when you shift things so that one can for a moment feel free and experience wonder and see things in a new but incredibly familiar way.
Among the various experiments with techniques and materials there is the paper with which you have created very different artworks, some woven and others three-dimensional. Can you tell me about this project and about these works?
I was invited to produce an edition in pulp paper with the Brodsky Center, a paper and print studio now based in Philadelphia at PAFA, formerly based in New Jersey at Rutgers.
The Brodsky has been producing paper editions with artists for decades. This was a residency I did over 3 visits in summer 2021. For this work – a new process & medium for me, I decided to create a new version of a work on paper I had made in 2013 which was an important piece that was falling apart. The piece was a yarn and tape on paper piece that I had made to plan a woven textile that I was designing with Pollack for a collection called the Makers. The fabric was to be a drapery fabric with long floats that would be cut after weaving to result in long floats. I set up a situation on the wall with tacks outside the edges of the paper whereby I could wind yarn across the surface of the paper and adhere it as I went.
But never got back to that process and the paper piece slowly was disintegrating after I showed it a couple times and wasn’t taking care of it properly-rolling it up and not transporting it well etc.
this piece was a very generative piece for subsequent works, and I had long wanted to make it again. So the paper processes seemed like the right opportunity to create a facsimile.
Added to the new piece was an embossing of the yarn into the paper, so that makes a very special look along with the fusion of the elements due to the nature of the pulp.
I also wanted to expand into colored works where the pieces could be more like my woven paintings, so pushed the idea in that direction making 2 additional larger pieces with multiple colors.
The pieces are available through the Brodsky Center.
What is art, Liz, in your opinion? And what does ‘making art’ mean to you?
I like to look up definitions because they help remind me of what words are supposed to mean and sometimes are not neutral or objective, and thus somehow revelatory. In the case of “art”, the Merriam Webster dictionary says art means:
“something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings”
This is amusing because of the “or” between “beautiful” and “that expresses important ideas or feelings”, which implies that you can’t have both! And this gets at something I do grapple with as a person working in what some call the “Decorative Arts” and educated in a patriarchal system where beauty and decoration were less valid. I am in a process now of decolonizing my creativity, as I have discovered that there are things deep inside of me that I learned in school that impede me from feeling completely free, even though in essence I am and feel free on the surface. Art school was so powerful, transformative and essential for me, but also came with lots of ideas and judgements that I took on as a sort of thought police. It’s not something one would ever think in looking at my work, but the truth is I learned that I always had to have an IDEA that drove the work, and despite years of working with my strong and sometimes domineering intuition that leads me to make what I want, I still have traces of this that feel burdensome and impede my creativity.
Making art is so many things to me, but at the core is about making and the transformation of material. I identify with the idea of alchemy – that there is magic in this process for me and for so many others. It is about expressing my experience of being a being, of living life, of seeing things, of the realm of the senses, of the world around us. I feel as if I am a sponge and absorb so much and then squeeze it out and that liquid takes form and becomes my art. Actually, I have been so fixated on liquid and making things that look like cascades, showers, and other forms that spill forth liquid- I wonder if maybe this idea of the wrung out sponge is what I am trying to talk about.
Art is asking questions, having conversations, starting revolutions, going backwards, going forwards. Creativity is one of our best attributes- the instinct and capability to make and express.I was going to say something about humans, but I think about all the artistic expressions made by other species, and think again that it’s something beings do: create and express. I am here to do this, and can’t imagine living any other way.
A very dynamic artistic career yours, always crowned with success. Who is Liz Collins today and what are your plans for the future?
Thank you! Although I have had many failures and get rejected from many things, so the appearance of success has folded into it those realities every artist faces as part of putting one’s work into the world and competing for resources and opportunities. So today I am a working artist who is both driven and ambitious, yet humbled by the realities of the world in which I work.
I feel proud and grateful for the life I get to live as an artist, because there’s so much freedom and joy, and so many wonderful people involved in the field who are so engaged with the past, present, and future. It’s a very exciting and inspiring way to live, and world to live in, despite the financial instability of it.
Today I remain on the continuum I mentioned at the beginning of this interview- making new works that draw from past works and move things forward into bigger and more expanded versions of ideas that are evolving over time. Usually I am juggling multiple projects that span short to longer term, and this moment has me engrossed in a couple big things that will land later this year. I have a solo show at Luis de Jesus Los Angeles in June 2022 with new works called “Shapeshifters” and a big solo exhibition opening in October at Rochdale Art Museum in Northern England, guest curated by Julia Bryan-Wilson, that will be a sort of mid-career retrospective. Another very exciting upcoming thing in 2023 is Lynne Cooke’s new survey show about textile design and abstract art that will open at LACMA in Los Angeles, and then travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, in which I will have several works.