The shelves at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery appear to be lined with cute and cuddle-worthy figures made of cloth. But as we draw close, we see these creatures are not the sock puppets we may have mistaken them for. Rather, they echo the piles of rags on the street. Cloth mounded on a subway bench or a hot air duct that suddenly moves. Little eyes peer out, a reminder that there is life inside the carcass, a person keeping warm or otherwise sheltered.
“Sidewalk Sightings: People Without Homes,” mixed media works by Brooklyn-based artist Fanny Allié, is on view at the Bernstein Gallery through April 12, with an artist reception on Friday, March 2, from 6 to 8 p.m.
The little cloth figures are made from gloves and other fibers the artist has found on the street. They represent young and old, figures tall and squat, upright and hunched. Gender is no barrier.
These miniature piles of humanity remind us that street people were once lovable, just as the materials they are made of were once new.
Allié stitches together their lives — literally — on paper, on fabric, even on plastic garbage bags. Two walls are filled with black canvas-stuffed silhouettes, like shadows, carrying their sacks, their bundles.
Works on paper depict these figures in a more intimate way, showing faces, fingers, and toes. The works on paper have dangling threads, as if to show their lives unraveling, coming apart at the seams.
“Flying Creatures,” collage and mixed media on fabric, presents these figures as angels, temporarily visiting the earth. In another, a figure becomes a knight. The homeless are shape shifters. “Man Butterfly,” a large figure made of hand-sewn trash bags, is a temporary visitor getting ready to take flight. “The Climber,” with two walking sticks, seeks yet another form of ascension.
“My work shows traces of a fleeting moment, an ephemeral existence, and most of all a narrative that links us to each other in our daily life,” writes the artist. “A city is made by all the individuals who inhabit it; the ones that we see every day and the invisible ones who merge with facades and sidewalks and who become the street itself. My practice is based on my own subjective experience of the city through the people I cross paths with on a daily basis.”
Her materials include found paper, fabric, strips of plastic or scraps of wall paint, and little objects found on the street. “My imaginary characters inspired by underground and unseen human figures often carry and develop alternative economies in an urban context.”
Several works on display were made during and after participation in the Engaging Artists Residency, a project organized by Artist Volunteer Center and More Art, New York City, which focused on homelessness. The fellowship helps to develop the artist’s socially engaged practice through partnerships with advocacy and social service organizations. It aims to harness artists’ abilities to solve problems and use public art as a way to talk about community issues.
Born in 1981 in Montpellier, France, Allié earned a master’s degree in visual arts from Ecole Nationale Superieure de la Photographie (the National School of Photography) in Arles in 2005. After meeting her future husband, an architect from Japan, in Paris, she moved to New York City to be with him. The two live in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and are now parents to a one-year-old. Allié’s studio is in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
Having trained in photography and videography, Allié decided she wanted to work more with her hands, with materials. She played around with clay and papier-mache, and some of her earlier works addressing homelessness were done in steel and neon. She made an actual bench for the homeless to sleep on near MoMA PS1 in Long Island City.
Allie knew she wanted to use the sewing skills she had learned from her grandmother and ingeniously developed a technique that begins with photography and works into sewing.
“The hand-sewn pieces were inspired by my observation of people inhabiting specific hangout locations” in such New York neighborhoods as Union Square and Washington Square. “I was taking various pictures of people in a particular site and re-assembling the outlines of their body doing various actions to create a new narration, sometimes by blurring the lines between figurative and abstract, movement and stillness, individual and collective. The people that I photograph are usually considered to be in the margins of society and create their own alternative way of spending their time.”
From photography she learned observation. “There are always people in photography; it’s about my relationship with other human beings. It’s the same idea behind what I’m doing now but using a different medium. It’s always me behind the lens.” She is also experimented on the other side of the lens, with an earlier degree in performing arts. “I’m interested in daily life and people and objects around me.”
That interest has led to exhibitions in New York and Paris, and her work highlighted in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Hyperallergic, Le Monde Diplomatique, DNA Info, Marie Claire Italy, and Artspace Magazine.
In France Allié had lived in villages, so “being in a big city environment had an impact on my work. There were homeless people in big cities in France, too, and you feel helpless. There’s nothing we can do to help them, yet those are human beings lying on street, making it their home.” A childhood fear of not having a home “stays with me.”
For the Engaging Artists residency, she worked with formerly homeless women teaching photography and collage workshops. It was a way to gather weekly and talk with them, but it was short term, she says, and it would be presumptuous to assume lasting impact. “It was a moment to relax, to do something creative.”
From these clients she learned about being transient, about the idea of life as a journey, and the connections people make along the way. One client had been a fashion photographer before losing his home. The roots of homelessness are complex, resulting from loss (a job, a loved one, a treatment, a home that burned in a fire), to mental illness and disability.
In many ways the homeless are not so different from you and me, Allié points out. “That’s why I’m affected — it could very much be us. We are the same. It’s frightening; it’s life, who knows what could happen. It could be you on the other side. I don’t feel the difference. They work and then something happens — they’re out of luck.”
For the plastic trash bag figures, Allié begins by photographing people on the street and then hand stitches their silhouettes onto canvas using the plastic bags. “I’m interested in how the line of the body and the weight they carry become one and create new hybrid shapes. The bodies merge with their surroundings and people become a part of the environment they live in.”
In addition to the trash bags and materials recycled from the streets, she embroiders on found fabric. “I like to reuse what already has a soul, such as the gloves I find on the streets.” How they take on a life is “kind of a magical thing. I bring the materials to the studio, clean them up, then start moving and stuffing and distorting and they take on character. The fabric, the color, the materials may dictate the results. They just become, I can’t explain it.” With a process so elusive, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose it, it’s not going to happen anymore.”
At age 16 Allie started staging and photographing her two sisters. Though not art, she says, she considers it her first creative foray. “It was free and intuitive.”
Her parents encouraged her art career. Allié’s mother worked as a hospital secretary, and her father held an administrative position in the hospital’s blood donation program. As a child Allié sewed with her sisters, mother, and grandmother and made her own clothes as a teenager. “I was very comfortable with sewing. I never learned drawing.”
Sidewalk Sightings: People Without Homes by Fanny Allié, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. On view through April 12. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Artist reception on Friday, March 2, 6 to 8 p.m. Free. wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery.