EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories by Friderike Heuer about Exquisite Gorge II, a collaborative project organized by the Maryhill Museum of Art to represent the lives, land, and cultures of a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River. Heuer, who also covered the entirety of the first Exquisite Gorge project, which culminated in 2019 in the printing-by-steamroller of a 66-foot-long communal “mural,” also will cover the current fiber-arts project from beginning to end on ArtsWatch and her own website, YDP – Your Daily Picture. All photos are by Heuer unless otherwise credited.
“A labyrinth is a symbolic journey . . . but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.”
– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Remember Ariadne? The labyrinth? The Minotaur, half man, half bull? Vague memories of vengeful Cretan king, Athenian hero, lovestruck princess and a ball of yarn? I could not help thinking of the myth during my first artist visit for this year’s Exquisite Gorge II project, offered by Maryhill Museum of Art. Thirteen fabric artists, in collaboration with community partners, will portray an assigned section of the Columbia River in three-dimensional form on frames. The sections will be linked in the end, forming an “Exquisite Corpse” during a public outdoor celebration at the museum in August. I hope to introduce all of them and their work with individual portraits during the next few months.
The Exquisite Gorge Project II
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project II, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
Artists and Community Partners
- Section One: Oregon Society of Artists. Artist: Lynn Deal
- Section Two: Lewis & Clark College. Artist: Amanda Triplett
- Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County, and Arts in Education of the Gorge. Artist: Chloé Hight
- Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library. Artist: Xavier Griffith
- Section Five: The Dalles Art Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library. Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
- Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library. Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
- Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art. Artist: Magda Nica
- Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts. Artist: Ophir El-Boher
- Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Artist: Jessica Lavadour
- Section Ten: ArtWalla. Artist: Kristy Kún
- Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson and Owen Premore
So much to take in at Kristy Kún‘s studio in Ashland, Oregon. So many associations to the Ariadne myth.
A short refresher: Vengeful Cretan king subdues Athenians in war, extracts human sacrifice every so often, feeding the youth to his hungry Minotaur, a monster conceived by the queen and an angry God because the king betrayed him with a cheap sacrifice. Half bull, half man, the creature is conveniently stashed out of sight in a labyrinth built by clever engineer Daedalus. Athenian hero Theseus vows to slay the beast. Clever daughter of the king, Ariadne, helps Theseus by providing a spun, woolen thread that allows him to navigate the steps through the maze for his return after the bloody deed is done. He takes her, as promised, away on his ship as his bride, but then dumps her on the Island of Naxos, as instructed by Goddess Athena in a dream. Marries Ariadne’s sister, no less. Depending on who you read (or listen to; lots of opera material!) and in which century, Ariadne either hangs herself out of despondence, or marries a God, Dionysus. Oh, no one lives happily after. Just saying.
There were labyrinthine works hanging on Kún’s studio walls or spread on surfaces, pathways ebbing and flowing with no discernible entry or exit.
There were threads pulled from materials, threads criss-crossing layers to be felted, threads waiting in skeins of wool to be pummeled.
There was instance after instance of the application of Ariadne’s thread, a problem-solving method – by definition, a logical method that traces steps or takes point by point a series of found truths in a contingent, ordered search that reaches an end position. You solve a problem by multiple means, keeping a record so you can see where you dead-ended or progressed.
It might sound strange to introduce artistic work with a focus on problem-solving, but the work at hand requires so many steps, so many intricate levels of processing, so much, indeed, engineering, that a logical, even mathematical mind is required.
The result, flowing, extravagant, holistic beauty, belies the tight construction that goes into the creations.
Kún works with felt. Makes felt. Shapes felt. Compiles and arranges felt, with a brain trained as an engineer and the eye of a visual artist.
The matted fabric we call felt is created by binding protein fibers (wool from animals like sheep, goat, yak or alpaca) to each other in a process that involves the physical tangling of the fibers by means of special needles, or by using water and agitation that pummels the raw materials. Ever accidentally shrunk your favorite sweater by two sizes in the washer/dryer? That is wet felting…. the hair in the wool consists of shafts that are covered by protein scales. The water and detergents open up the scales and the agitation in the rotating drum, or rolling and rubbing and tossing, binds them together, shrinking them up to 40 percent.
Dry felting involves barbed needles that you stick into the raw material over and over, weaving the fiber strands together. It can be done by hand or by machine, when large projects are involved.
Felting has been around since at least the 6th century B.C., predating spinning and weaving. It likely originated with nomadic peoples in Asia, and remnants were discovered in burial places all across Siberia and Northern Europe. It was essential for shelter (think Mongolian yurts!) warmth and durability in clothing and boots, and protection from saddle burn for animals carrying loads. Ornamental uses have found their way into beautiful blankets and carpets, now extending to 2-D or 3-D sculpture.
The fabrication of today’s materials has come a long way from being coarse, wet wool stomped by camels, or pummeled by the hoofs of horses. Kún, for example, varies the kinds of fibers going into the felt. The selection involves the density of wool: Wool is measured in microns, which describe the diameter of a wool fiber; the smaller the micron the finer the wool.
The artist also uses materials like silk that get entangled in the pressed fibers, and dyes the silks herself to achieve desired color gradations.
Layered wool and silk get run through the needling machine up to six times, then cut into strips, or fins, by a power cutter, wet felt aligned with cheesecloth, worked on surfaces that allow to water to pool.
Eventually the materials get shaped. That includes insane detail work of pulling threads out of the sides by hand to achieve a chenille-like effect that adds to the beauty.
Individual elements are stitched on, wet felt fibers shaved or torched to achieve the desired smoothness.
And then it’s time to finish the design, long planned and recorded to the tiniest detail. Some of the pieces are huge.
The artist with the clear face, beautiful eyes half-hidden behind her glasses, is the descendent of Hungarian immigrants who settled in the Midwest, establishing Presbyterian churches in and around Ely, Iowa, working hard to feed large families. She certainly has inherited that incessant, laser-focused work ethic, a red thread like Ariadne’s throughout the many changes along her professional path. Trained as a construction engineer at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, she found her first real calling in woodworking and furniture-making. She settled in Northern California, interned, and worked and learned the craft. A marriage to a fellow craftsman dissolved swiftly, leaving her as a single mother to a young daughter, trying to eke out a living in a male-dominated domain.
A sideline of supplying crafts materials to her daughter’s Waldorf School led to an import business of Italian wool, selling it to spinners and felters. She got increasingly drawn into the fiber arts world, attending biannual workshops and camps for craft artists, the Frogwood Collective among them. Inspired by artists like Janice Arnold and Jenne Giles, Kún turned to felting in a serious way in the last decade, shifting from roles as supplier to that of artist.
It did not make her economic existence less precarious. By then located in Portland, she was trying to support her family, while struggling with the illness of her new partner, who she lost to cancer in a painful battle to the end. Two years ago she moved to Ashland, leaving the familiarity and friendship network of PDX behind, to start a new life with a new love and a new studio, all during pandemic woes.
Life has felted Kristy Kún – my take, expressed with admiration. The various analogues of pummeling and stabbing, prodding and stomping have produced a tough, resistant core combined with (intellectual and emotional) flexibility like the fabric counterpart. Loose threads of flickering temper and intense empathy stick out here and there. As the matted material absorbs water, she absorbs ideas and visions, turning amorphous input into shaped Gestalt. In addition to her raw talent, her persistence and technical skill have registered with the art world. Her work will be shown at this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show, Future Focus, and large commissions from collectors and designers across the world are regularly received.
While Kún and Lou Palermo, Maryhill Museum’s director of education, brainstormed over technical details of construction and placement of the frames – now stashed in her showroom – within the Exquisite Corpse design, my thoughts wandered back to the tale of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth has inspired countless works of art, from tellings by Catullus 64 and Ovid’s Heroides 10 in the first century B.C., to paintings spanning more than 1,000 years (here is a link that provides 73 of them!), to musical compositions, from Monteverdi in the Baroque period, to Richard Strauss in 1916. And let’s not forget the modern version of myth-telling – most recently seen in Dark, the German sci-fi thriller available on Netflix, that makes heavy use of Ariadne’s story and symbolism. A smart review of Dark in The New York Times pointed out the particular theme’s relevance to contemporary history.
One of the reasons for the myth’s ongoing popularity, I believe, is that one can apply so many different perspectives to any one of the characters or actions involved. Across time you can see how interpretations of Ariadne focused first on her passivity, her abandonment by yet another fickle male, then on her possible emancipation, her cunning in helping her lover, her ruthlessness in sacrificing a half-brother to a hero she saw as her ticket off the island – you name it. All links to shifting perceptions of gender roles.
Theseus has had his share of fans and critics too, understood as a self-sacrificing hero, or simply power-hungry. His wandering in the labyrinth has been appropriated by psychodynamic approaches in psychology, an archetypal representation of the psyche and a path to individuation, the authenticity you reach when you’ve made your way through the convoluted maze of feelings.
Comparisons to creativity have been offered as well. Serpentine windings to a goal without knowing the way, many a dead end, unclear what fates await – you get the idea. It looks to me that Kún’s creativity has not at all been impeded by labyrinthine obstacles. If anything, her work has blossomed from tightly constructed, somewhat rigid, representational beginnings to more freely flowing abstractions of natural forms that are willing to stand on their own. To link back to Rebecca Solnit’s quote at the beginning: Kún has created a bridge between map and world, walking along in its folds.
This leaves us with one final contemplation, how shifts in perspective define the Minotaur. The creature could either be seen as a bloodthirsty monster, depraved and deserving of slaughter, or as someone who in his deformity had to be hidden away as to not offend the sensibilities of the viewer(s.) Is he an enemy to the outside world? Or is his confinement an act of brutality against him? Do we project our fears of power, aggression, rage, disability and death onto this misshapen creature? Avoid the Other? Classic takes rejoiced forever in his slaying.
There were a few compassionate voices, Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s among them, expressed in a posthumosly published volume of essays, Labyrinth on the Sea, which described his visit to Crete in 1964. Elaborated in a later prose poem, The history of the Minotaur (1974), he sees the misshapen prince as a victim of those who insist on political, social and religious norms as defining who does and does not belong. Which – and yes, we were getting there eventually! – also applies to women and textile art.
I will talk about the history and politics of textile arts in depth at a later point in this series of essays. Let me just say here the very basics: Not only were the arts and crafts divided into domains, with gender roles assigned, for centuries. Different arts also were linked to different values – male painters and sculptors scored higher than their female counterparts, the latter for the most part chained to their textile universe behind the embroidery frame. Hidden away in a maze, for all intents and purposes, forever invisible and unnamed even if they created stunning works of art – just think Bayeux tapestries. Only in the last 40 years has textile art been given a platform, previously reserved for the male-dominated, traditional fine arts field. With the help of some pioneers in the early 1920s who opened the floodgates, women have emerged to show the world how true art is independent of medium, and how neglected media add novelty to the traditional canon in ways that are intensely beautiful.
Kristy Kún has to be counted among them.
It was a cold night in Ashland, sky shimmering with stars. I would not have found the Corona Borealis even if it had been present (I looked it up; it appears in July) – I barely can locate the Big Dipper. The small constellation of stars is said to represent the crown (corona) that Dionysos gave to Ariadne after she had been abandoned. It comforted me to think that, even if connected to a consolation prize, a woman with a thread is visibly remembered.
Here’s an alternative outcome!
Earlier in the “Exquisite Gorge II” series
- Exquisite Gorge II: It Begins with Sheep. The bellwether: In Maryhill Museum’s second collaborative art project along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River – this one by fiber artists – sheep and their wool lead the way.