Participating in a community-wide art project hasn’t been this much fun since the creation of “Happy World,” the mural in the Princeton Public Library made by artist Ik-Joong Kang and comprising square tiles embellished with artifacts contributed by area residents.
For “Interwoven Stories,” under the direction of Diana Weymar, the Arts Council of Princeton spring artist-in-residence, participants have been invited to embroider a cultural map or a personal page that Weymar will compile into a larger body of work. It is a version of a project Weymar did in Nicosia, Cyprus, last year with Build Peace. “I wanted to create a project using an ancient technology in a contemporary setting,” she says.
Participants can pick up their “pages” — an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of cotton muslin stitched and punched to look like a page from a loose-leaf binder — at either the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts or Princeton Public Library until May 15 (at press time there was a waiting list).
Want to participate but don’t know how to sew? Now is your time to learn! Weymar will be available to work on your stitching or discuss your ideas on Friday, April 15, from 2 to 5 p.m. at Princeton Public Library; Saturday, April 16, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Robeson Center; and during Communiversity on Sunday, April 17, from 1 to 6 p.m. at Robeson Center. The deadline to submit the finished project to the Arts Council is Wednesday, June 15.
The entire body of work will be exhibited in the Arts Council’s Taplin Gallery November 5 through 23, before it is transformed into smaller installations around town.
Looking for inspiration, or just want to get an idea of what it’s all about? Weymar’s 8-by-2-foot embroidered banner is on display behind the help desk at Princeton Public Library through Monday, April 18, and “Every Fiber of My Being,” a textile exhibit curated by Weymar, is on view at the Arts Council through Sunday, April 17, with stitchery by Maira Kalman, Amy Meissner, Cassie Jones, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, Danielle Hogan, Katie Truk, and Weymar.
The exhibit was organized by Maria Evans, who learned sewing from her grandmother and has curated past fiber art exhibits. Evans created one of the first sample pieces, about one of her first memories when moving to Princeton — eating at the (former) Annex restaurant, where the waitresses all dressed in nurses’ uniforms. “I found this fascinating … and oddly comforting,” Evans stitches the words. “If I choked on my spagetti [sic] I was in very good hands.”
The theme of nurses and waitresses — stereotypical roles for women — completed in a traditional woman’s craft is played off with the humorous last line.
Sewing has become something of a lost art form as our culture devalues the work, once considered women’s work. Ironically, as women perform more of the work formerly performed by men, laboriously produced handcrafts, made with love, are often remaindered in thrift shops and yard sales. Of the few who can still sew, many learned from their grandmothers. Others learn from YouTube. It should be noted that the seven artists in “Every Fiber of My Being” are women.
“Men are more than welcome to participate in the community project!” Weymar states emphatically.
“In a time of instant communication, disposable objects, and an abundance of manufactured materials, what does art — if made with every fiber of our beings — say about who we are?” posits the Victoria, British Columbia, resident with Princeton roots. “Stitching, or drawing with thread, is a practice that imprints and records the hand’s movements. When hands are occupied, the mind is more open to both textile’s external qualities and the artist’s inner knowledge. When looking at handmade objects, the viewer often wonders, ‘How long did it take to make that?’ The answer I give is that it takes years. This kind of work comes from a deep sense of wonder, history, caring, joy, community, loss, and transformation.”
In her own work Weymar uses family photographs, textiles, and artifacts as memory materials, reworking fiction and poetry into the work, “documenting the impermanence of our unfolding lives.” She interviewed author and Princeton professor John McPhee for a John McPhee sampler. Also taken from his New Yorker writings and a TED talk on creativity, it includes an embroidered clock with a schedule of the writing day, beginning with making tea, exercise, sharpening pencils: “9 am All I have to do is write/ 4:30 pm PANIC/ 5 pm I start to write/ 7 pm I go home (even if I’m in the middle of a sentence)”
Weymar, Princeton University Class of 1991, studied English and creative writing with McPhee, as well as Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, and Paul Auster. She met her husband, Matthew Weymar, a Princeton native, and after graduation worked as a set production assistant for a small independent film company in New York City. As a board member for Princeton Young Achievers, she established the Creative Friday Program in art instruction. At the same time she was taking art classes at the Arts Council, where she met Evans.
After the birth of three of her four children — now 22, 16, 14, and 12 — Weymar and her family moved to British Columbia. She has given up creative writing, but she is still drawn to words. “I write really long e-mails,” she says. The embroidered works are another outlet for telling stories. “I have been balancing family life with my lofty ambitions,” she says. “Film was consuming, but sewing is consuming in a private way. I can go to a tournament and stitch while parenting.”
Both film and embroidery are visual languages, she says, beginning with a sketch or story board. “For me the stitched word and the handwritten word are intimately related. The typed word is vastly different. It’s about looking and watching but not about creating a shape. Both the written and stitched word reveal so much about the author. All typed words look the same; all stitched and written words are different.”
Children are no longer taught cursive in school, she observes, and many of us never see the handwriting of those with whom we correspond frequently.
Weymar tells her own story of growing up in a cabin in British Columbia through embroidery on vintage textiles, inherited from her grandparents and including one with a little girl on a swing stitched onto a child-size cable-knit sweater. (The John McPhee sampler was stitched on her grandparents’ bed sheets.)
“My mother didn’t want all these textiles. She’s very active and travels,” says Weymar, as if it’s necessary to explain the use of this trove of material. The love of handcrafts often seems to skip a generation. “I was looking at Louise Bourgeois’ work, and at clothing worn by victims of Hiroshima at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. Through a light box you could see the stains and the burnings. It was so evocative and changed the way I looked at this clothing. It is a canvas for telling a story, but it took a while before I could work up the nerve to change the garment.”
She used photos from her childhood that had been deliberately staged and constructed to tell the story of how she and her family were living in the 1970s. Her mother, a collaborative divorce counselor, and father, a lawyer, raised their children in a primitive log cabin with no plumbing or electricity. “My father was tanning hide and my mother was washing outside. I was intrigued by the lifestyle, the adventure — they wanted to live off the land and be self-reliant. They each tell a different story, and it evolves over time.” Weymar quotes writer Alice Munro: “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.”
Because of the rugged terrain and because of the medium, the embroidered images of a father with a little girl and her wagon, or a father with three children in a sled, seem from a time far more distant than the 1970s.
It was only five years ago that Weymar taught herself to sew. “I studied art, was flirting with it, and sewing is drawing with thread. If you do enough your hands just know what to do. Because it’s a craft we think it’s accessible but like anything else it takes time and practice. Trying to find meaning in it is tricky — it’s not valued today as studio practice.”
Every stitch is either a line or a dot, and she focuses on color, layering, and pattern.
Weymar also works from photos from the New York Times. “We consume images and quickly forget them,” she says. “These are such beautiful pictures but so disposable; I wanted to spend time with them in a way that makes me pause and slow down.” In one work she has stitched on her great grandmother’s hanky an Ebola patient covered in a beautiful blanket while a man in a hazmat suit — a doctor? — works with him.
The sampler Weymar created for the community project is of the Mercer Oak. Three of her children, her husband, and her mother were all born in Princeton, she stitches, and five generations of her husband’s family have called it home. “It is a place to which I often arrive and leave.”
And when she leaves, she takes her portable art form. “It’s very hard to put down a piece once I’ve started.”