*Featured photo: Pellicle Cartography, 2021. Handwoven Jacquard. Cotton, Hand Spun Wool, Mohair, & Mill Ends. 36.5 x 80, photo cr. Robert Antor, copyright Rachel Hefferan
Rachel Hefferan is an artist originally from the United States’ suburban Midwest. She graduated from the University of Michigan and received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently lives and works in rural western Michigan.
Hefferan, a weaver, homesteader, environmentalist and fermentation enthusiast, uses the loom as a metaphorical tool between science and magic, creating tapestries. These interwoven abstractions represent and celebrate the beauty and complexity of microbial life and its process of decomposition and renewal of matter. For example, Honeycomb is an artwork consisting of three parts showing a woven image depicting the microbial community formed after culturing a small honeycomb section. The central part of the work reproduces stills of microbial life seen in the water taken from a container with moss. At the bottom part of the work is a drawing of the Petri dish with cell cultures of hair.
With their metabolic activities of transformation and deconstruction, Mosses, lichens, fungi, and moulds are thus the artist’s leading source of inspiration. Through the mediation of texture, she creates a new frame of reference, transforming the microscopic into the macroscopic.
How and when did you get into textile art, especially weaving?
I first encountered textile arts as an undergraduate student at The University of Michigan. A close friend of mine had taken a class with Sherri Smith, who at the time was teaching one course a semester that mixed introductory students and advanced students who wanted to continue in the medium(s). I think it was fall 2010, but maybe spring 2011, I was a sophomore. Sherri had no fellow textile faculty, and she quickly became the most terrifying and endearing mentor I had during that time – I think that sentiment was shared by all her students I have met. Introduction students had to make a three-yard silkscreened repeat, a woven textile, and an ‘off loom’ project which could be stitched, crochet, basketry, anything. Sherri was interested in science, and nature, and all things having to do with fabric. She was intense in critique and invited deep criticality and conceptual thinking. I instantly was fascinated by fabric processes as artistic expression and proceeded to repeat the course. After finishing the first semester you could repeat for credit as an advanced student, Sherri would let her advanced students pursue whatever their biggest interest was. At first, I did a lot of silkscreens repeat printing, actually… It felt more immediate and available to me, and I had always loved to draw so I think it was a natural progression from what I already knew how to do. When I graduated, I was making crochet sculptures inspired by seed structures and cell divisions. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2013, I felt a little lost in my artwork. I moved into a little apartment with my partner and bought an inexpensive, but large, four harness jack loom. I worked for a painter during the day and learned through trial and error on the loom after work. I wanted to figure out how to mix the crochet – sculptural work, with flat woven fabric. This is when I really started to learn how to weave. I began making huge, paneled works with tapestry slits which I would work back into with a crochet hook. I made works where I would stop and crochet the weft threads mid row and then continue weaving that same thread. I became more and more interested in pattern in the cloth as a sort of line drawing that could progress and change – like growth in a cell, or decay of a structure. Threading a loom and then weaving on it was always exciting, and I always had ten ideas for the next thing to make as soon as I started a work. When I had been weaving for eight years, I decided to get my master’s in fine arts – I really wanted to re-enter a group of creative critical art thinkers after spending so much time just making. I wanted to study somewhere with a Digital Jacquard loom and landed at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there, in 2018, the fall of my first semester, that I think I wove the first work in the body of work I keep developing to this day. That body of work emerged out of the same places as every other weaving I have ever made. Which is to say, my interest in the path a thread takes, development of pattern, growth, microbial process, and decay led me to where I am in my work. I think that’s really what has kept me weaving, I’m always learning how to weave.
What is your main source of inspiration? How does weaving allow you to explore the themes and concepts around which your artistic practice revolves?
For a long time, my artwork has focused on the physical forms that occur on a cellular level during the processes of first, growth and then later decay. Most recently I’ve found that I’m interested in a state that is somewhere in between the two – this is the part of an organism’s life cycle that happens after decay to become new growth. Basic materials and compounds are recycled over and over in nature, usually by fungi. Fungi perform this transformation in many settings and spaces – most commonly people think of mushrooms, but the fungi kingdom also includes yeasts. My interest in yeast began eight years ago when my partner started homebrewing beer. As he started to brew more, it took up more of his free time, and I started to take an interest in what was happening as well. It wasn’t enough to just buy yeast at the store, because yeast is on every surface, you can ‘capture it’. Wild capture yeast became captivating as potential for unexpected flavors. Some of the beers would form visible yeast communities on top of the fermentation – these microbial communities captivated my attention. Thriving healthy bubbling bodies floating on top of the liquid, some of them looked like wrinkled fabric. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at and thinking about fabric, I wanted to touch them, though this is not an option as I would be introducing new bacteria from my hands and disrupting the fermentation – pellicles are extremely delicate. So I began to photograph them instead. I amassed an album of digital photos in my phone that I had no idea what I would do with. The first pellicle I wove looked very different from the translation they undergo now – I wove this pellicle so that I could touch it, or even wrap myself in it. After doing so I was hooked, the weavings began to change and the more I learned about the function of these microbial communities in transforming the material from one compound to the other, the more metaphors emerged. I would wobble back and forth in my learning and understanding of both cloth and the metabolisms of microbes to further my own
Local Cultures is a work you started in 2018 and constitutes, if I understand correctly, a kind of work in progress still in 2022. What does this work consist of and what do you foresee its future developments might be?
Yes, Local Cultures is an actively changing work that began in 2018, that I am revisiting now during my exhibition at The Saugatuck Center for The Arts in the first half of 2022. The work began as a way for myself to study through exploration with natural dyes and as a sort of visual diary of the colors that could be made by waste water from my own cooking or from food items I would normally compost. Some examples would be water from soaking dry beans, foraged mushrooms from the woods on my home in Michigan. The work includes both flat woven cloth as well as large crochet sections – it hangs on the wall crumpled, a very different presentation from my weavings of pellicles. I think of this difference in appearance as the entirety of a textile mimicking the visual language in nature as opposed to an image whose construction creates a metaphor for process. Since the opening of my exhibition here, within. | woven worlds, I have updated the work every two weeks and will continue to do so until the exhibition closes in June. The additions have included a range of things that have changed in my day to day life since 2018, one important example being a weaving that included yarn from my sheep, as well as the sheep of my friends – a community of animals and humans alike that have become of utmost importance to me. There is a weaving done with the center cobs on the corn I hung to dry in my house from last fall’s garden (after the corn had been removed). The purpose of this representation is to mimic my changing community as well as the inputs into my body. While helping my parents clean their freezer I found a walnut dye I made in 2014, I plan to use this as well. Once it is warm enough for me to use my outdoor dye studio I will start using the onion skins, avocado pits, and other food items I have been accumulating to make more colors to be woven into the work.
The titles of your works often consist of chemical formulas. Can you explain the reason for this choice?
The chemical titles are a direct translation of the species in my source images used for weaving but also a visual language that lets the viewer know where my interests are. Making abstractions is such a beautiful way to engage in metaphor and imagination and giving the names of the species of the yeasts felt like both the correct choice for identifying each work as a living thing that is named and distinct in the world… but at the same time it lacked the level of curiosity that I have about these organisms. The structures are polypeptide chains, each peptide is assigned a letter to use as shorthand, so that it can be referenced more quickly – A, D, E, etc. Because of this shorthand, the process can be worked in reverse – you can take a word and create a polypeptide chain to represent it, likely this peptide structure will not exist (but who knows!). Polypeptide chains are a chemical language that can be read without a guide by someone, say a chemist (like my husband) without googling. He would see a strange polypeptide and be like “hey, what is that?” and stand there spelling it out. My husband, Nick, has been an amazing constant sounding board and influence in my understanding of microbial process. Polypeptide chains are something I think of as a language (one that I need software to speak), weaving is a language too, one that can be written up in black and white squares called weave drafts, draw downs, and tie ups. So the Peptide chains are a nod to my partner, Nick, but also to those who can speak that language.
What kind of habits do you have when you start a new project/work? What does a typical day in your studio look like?
I’m definitely the hyper focus type of person, when I get into the actual making of an artwork it’s pretty consuming until I finish. Between times of making, I absorb images/thoughts/ideas like a sponge. I write them down and may never look at them again, but the act of writing helps me to remember. It usually starts with a source image, which I might be a photo taken myself, a drawing of something I see, a drawing of something imagined – sometimes it is something from other people with similar interests. The source images lately are yeast pellicles, a living microbial community visible to the naked eye, usually developed on top of a fermentation.
I’ve worked in a cider house and some of the images have come from the cidermakers there giving me a heads up on where to look. But I also have helped make a lot of homebrew beer, pickles, sauerkraut, cashew cheese, kombucha. For a while I would put anything I could think of under Nick’s microscope. I make a lot of drawings and doodles. When it comes to manifesting these images on the loom, I usually have a goal with my tool – a ‘what if’ that arrives naturally from the previous experiment. I think of a loom as an instrument, a device that can be used and adapted for iterative learning – that’s what science research is too. ‘What if’ can be the size of the threads, the way the patterns meet, the way the weft threads meet (or maybe they don’t meet). My current studio space is an interior room that consumes about 1/2 of the barn on our property. I’ll usually bring one of my dogs with me, we walk through the garden to the back door. Right now, it’s winter so I’ll turn on a bunch of space heaters and change my shoes to keep the snow off the loom. I like to listen to books while I weave, all sorts of stuff both fiction and nonfiction. I like fantasy books like Brandon Sanderson’s Storm Light Archives and sci fi novelists like Andy Weir, but I also like to listen to Michael Pollan, or Clara Parkes. I often get asked a lot about the yarns and how I choose color. To me the color is not representative of the source, it’s a way to differentiate pattern and depth – because of that, it doesn’t have to be representative of what we see. The colors used can tell us more about how things fade, merge, or even repel, like oil and water. I’ve always used whatever yarns are around, I wind more bobbins than I need and line them up in an order or progression to see what is coming and to have a reference point for what is next. This is helpful because when you are weaving you can only see the small section of the work in front of you before it wraps around the front beam. When I’m in a situation where I have access to a TC2 – as in graduate school or at a residency, the patterns are preprogrammed in a file that I make for the loom to read. I can still stop and make changes, and I do, but the weaving goes so much faster that I will see it through and make adjustments in the next work. On a floor loom, I will make a lot of adjustments to my original idea as I am working, the process is slower for me and each movement feels more deliberate. I’m lucky to have been able to bounce back and forth between the two.
Are there any contemporary artists that you feel are close to your research and language?
I’m really interested in artists that have crossed the boundary from a metaphorical relationship to reality. I want to be clear that I firmly believe aesthetic/metaphorical art has value and importance as a way to understand and relate ourselves to the world around us, but I can’t help but personally crave to make something that becomes a sort of metric or bioinformatic in its own right. Those things that can offshoot actual scientific progress through collaboration with environmental or what I think of as ‘use practice’ science – a situation where the collaboration with engineers, biologists or tech is generative and applied on both sides to our surroundings. Whitefeather Hunter is an artist I have a lot of respect and admiration for, and her current bioplastics project, but also the micro-weaving project and the bioarts coven. Elisa Palomino’s sustainable fish leather tanning, collaborative research project to promote sustainability and the importance of this specific material through human history, and what it could mean for us today in the age of such epic waste in textiles. Isaac Facio’s research and collaboration on the representation of dark matter in ‘The Fabric of the Universe’ project as a three dimensional bioinformatic and displayed how textiles can display information and create understanding is something I aspire to. I’m also extremely drawn to the works of weavers who create dimensional and elaborate and sometimes layered textiles that demonstrate their understanding and relationship to the tool, of which there are too many to name.
Is there a project, a work of art that you care about and that you have not yet had the opportunity to realise?
I have always wanted to make a work of art that consists entirely of fibers from my own animals -I have sheep and hair goats. Using second hand and discarded yarns from others is also a sustainable option and an important part of my current practice … there’s just something hyper-special in my mind about making something that’s entirely from the animals I care for. I shear my animals myself and spin yarn by hand – I’m not sure what that artwork looks like yet and I’m not sure that it will be ‘about’ the animals themselves as much as it would just be something that felt like an accomplishment.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently weaving on my 12-harness floor loom using a cartoon (a reference image) that will have the other half of a pellicle that I already wove in a recent work. A sister piece to Firma Calva, this time woven with a dense double warp. It’s the warp that I had intended to use for the first piece but ended up with a large section of warp left over after another work so I jumped projects. In terms of research, I’ve been looking a lot at chromosome banding – and the translation of actual stained chromosomes to images of the bands (which is how we understand them as distinct). I’m particularly interested in the 27 Ovis aries (sheep) chromosomes – I’m not sure what I will do just yet but the banding as distinctive markers lends itself to the ease of the stripe on the loom. Much as the influences of fermented food and drink crept into my work and process I expect that the goings on of my livestock are about to make their move on my work in the studio.