Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
We live in this culture of endless extraction and disposal: extraction from the earth, extraction from people’s bodies, from communities, as if there’s no limit, as if there’s no consequence to how we’re taking and disposing, and as if it can go on endlessly. We are reaching the breaking point on multiple levels. Communities are breaking, the planet is breaking, people’s bodies are breaking. We are taking too much.
– Naomi Klein, This changes everything
GOLDEN SUN, EWES AND THEIR LAMBS dotting the landscape, swaths of mustard-seed flowers radiating yellow against blue skies, all after days of hailstorms and dark clouds – the drive down from Portland to a rural hamlet east of Eugene felt like a journey into spring. A red barn inviting, a small river gurgling in the backyard, blue wood hyacinths beckoning under shady trees – it seemed like I had landed in a fairy tale. Mind you, having grown up in a small village, I am under no illusion about the downsides of remote country living, but in spring there is no more enchanting place to be.
I was visiting with one of the participating artists of Maryhill Museum of Art’s Exquisite Gorge II project, invited to see her studio and talk about plans for a fiber art sculpture to be exhibited on August 6, 2022, together with multiple other ones, all aligned to celebrate successive parts of the Columbia River.
Ophir El-Boher somehow manages to combine a multitude of roles, all with a seeming serenity that makes you immediately breathe more easily in her company. She is an apparel designer educated in multidisciplinary design at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts in Israel, where she grew up. She received her M.F.A. in Collaborative Design, Sustainable Fashion from Pacific Northwest College of Art three years ago. She is also a studio artist, an educator and scholar, and last but not least, a social activist concerned with social justice issues in general and ethical-sustainable models of fashion in particular.
The artist embraces fashion as much as she is aware of the destructive aspects associated with the production of ever more clothes. In our form of economy the textile industry plays a huge role in pushing the economic core unit, the commodity, to keep sales up. One way to seduce people into ever-increasing consumption is to lure them with newness, and fashion delivers exactly that novelty, suggesting that your social inclusion and/or attractiveness will be enhanced if you follow the trend of the moment. Consumption stimulates production, and the other way round – so what’s to complain about?
Plenty, it turns out, certainly since the first Industrial Revolution, which introduced automated cotton, worsted wool- and yarn-spinning in factories in Europe, and where cheap labor (including child labor, with children exempted from compulsory education) was used to spin materials harvested by American slaves. Ten-hour work days six days a week, work-related accidents, and illness-inducing working conditions were the norm. Fashion, once a domain for the wealthy, was quickly discovered to serve profit interests quite well, directed at ever larger swaths of populations, ever more cheaply made for quick discarding, and ever more cheaply sold to larger numbers of people who got addicted to constant change.
This is not all in the past, of course. If you look at the conditions of textile workers in the developing world, where production has been outsourced, you find everything from workers being exploited and harassed, made sick by enormous environmental pollution, to coordinated efforts to drive wages down and minimize environmental consciousness. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, such as the German FEMNET, which I happen to be familiar with, are trying to observe and report on the conditions in textile production. They push for new laws like the European supply chain law, adopted by the EU on February 23, 2022, which establishes rules for compliance with environmental and human rights standards in global value chains, with more work to be done to combat gender inequalities and discrimination in global value chains. A sustainability movement, however, has a long way to go.
EL-BOHER’S FOCUS IS ON ANOTHER aspect of the problem, with fashion’s churn to discard the old and buy the new. Her concern can be easily visualized if you think of textiles (and really, most of the stuff we buy) as a link in a mode of linear production. The line goes from extraction of the resources needed to manufacture a good, to production, to distribution, to consumption, and finally, to disposal. Eventually the resources we extract will run out, and disposal of the ever more accumulating waste existentially harms the planet’s health. Here is a short, clever video intro to the concept. And here is a longer article outlining the many factors that need to be checked to see if clothing can truly be called “sustainably made.”
We can deal with some of this, El-Boher argues, by changing this system from a linear to a circular one, by reclaiming what already exists, and refashioning it into something that has more value: upcycling discarded clothes into new ones, or into different objects, or incorporating them into art.
Upcycle: transitive verb: to recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item : to create an object of greater value from (a discarded object of lesser value) – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I was somehow reminded of the old fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, one of the original upcyclers, spinning straw into gold. Remember the story? Miller oversells his daughter to the king, claiming she has magical power. She is locked in the palace, required to spin straw, best used to line the bottom of the bull-pen, to gold, desired to line the coffers of the king. She gets help by a little man appearing out of nowhere, having to bribe him with first a necklace, then a ring, and finally the promise to give him her first-born. King marries miller’s daughter, baby arrives, little man comes to collect and for some inexplicable reason gives her a three-day respite to find out his name, which would release her from her promise. Spies hear him, again inexplicably, shouting his name around the fireside, and he angrily splits himself apart when he realizes he’s lost his prize.
Upcycling, reusing in general, is an important first step toward sustainability. (I wrote about the Buy Nothing network earlier here.) However, just like our own decision-making as consumers to buy less or buy mindfully from acceptable sources, it puts the burden of changing an unsustainable system onto the individual. It cannot be the whole story. The necessary systemic changes are a different, more complicated matter, requiring a close look at capitalism as a causal link in fashion.
EL-BOHER IS TRAINED AS A COLLABORATIVE ARTIST and revels in her work with other creative minds. She found the perfect match for the Exquisite Gorge II project in her community partner, the Desert Fiber Arts organization in Kennewick, Washington. The nonprofit guild was founded in 1974 and has served as a center for teaching and experiencing weaving, spinning, knitting, basketry, felting and more. Its goal is:
- To promote participation in and appreciation for fine craftsmanship related to the fiber arts.
- To encourage the development and interest of the craft field within the arts, in education, therapy, marketing, and the community as a whole.
Workshops, equipment, and individual and community support have made it a flourishing environment for creative expression. The artist told me that the members of the guild who committed to working with her on the river project were supplying brilliant ideas and practical solutions to the plan that they developed as a team. She is this week engaged in a series of in-person workshops at the Guild that help in creating the varied materials needed for the design.
The design grew from early conversations about the history of the land and the people around the upper parts of the Columbia. Entire populations were displaced due to damming the river, disrupting existentially and culturally important salmon runs and access to the river also for Pacific Northwest tribal nations (I had previously written here about the effects of dams on Native American life). The landscape was changed and wildlife corridors disturbed with the erection of endless electricity towers, and later, wind turbines. Countless container freight trains arriving from all over Washington state these days are filled to the brim with trash, destined for landfills in Northern Oregon, Eastern Washington, and Idaho, which use the emanating methane gas to produce electricity.
There is a need, then, to tell of the harm, and the scale of it, related to the landscape and its inhabitants – harm done by human agency, best represented by human hands. However, and this is part of El-Boher’s vision, those very hands can be involved in healing as well, crafting an alternative future. Her favorite color, blue, just might reappear in unsullied skies, less polluted oceans, and a healthy planet when viewed from above.
The team decided to have natural materials depict the intact natural past and possible future of the region, and to contrast them with a view of materials and objects that introduced so much environmental destruction. It does so in a way that, in my view, incorporates ALL aspects of the word “to spin.” The original term referred to the act of spinning a thread from raw materials, a fundamental task of many in the Fiber Arts Guild. A different way to understand “to spin” is to think of it as spinning a yarn, telling a tale, which the team does with visual cues. The very last meaning of the word, rotating around an axis, is intended to be represented as well. The fiber-art design contains six panels that represent harm and healing on alternate sides, spinning around a center axis if there is enough wind and the mechanics can be figured out.
LIKE MANY HEBREW WORDS, the artist’s first name, Ophir (אופיר,) has different roots, with some sources claiming it refers to gold, wealth, or riches, and other roots denoting a connection to ashes and being exhausted or depleted. “That means that the name Ophir would probably have reminded a Hebrew audience of the fleeting virtues of wealth, or at least the corrupting qualities of material wealth relative to the eternal wealth of knowledge and wisdom.” (Ref.)
Which brings me back to the previously mentioned fairy tale, most famously presented in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm. The story has a much older provenance, though, believed to have emerged in the Bronze Age (4,000 years ago!) and can be found across varied cultures from Europe to Asia. Much to unpack, and who knows what is right? But one theme is certainly greed, on behalf of all of the men involved: the father, the king, the goblin. Greed for material wealth that can potentially lead to disastrous outcomes.
Another theme is hubris, or overconfidence, cross-culturally often embedded in tales that teach and warn.
There is the issue of sacrifice, often stressed in interpretations of the tale as one that instructs us to appease the gods if we want a good harvest or things to end well in general.
And then there is naming. The goblin offers a way out of the disastrous loss of the child by tying it to something he thinks is unknowable: his name. The tale suggests, though, that you can acquire knowledge, with motivation, due diligence, perhaps a piece of luck contained in Rumpelstiltskin’s overestimation of his own power. What you know, what you face, what you name, will allow self-protection or protection of others. Naming potential evil is the first step to meet its consequences.
This is what this art does: It names. It alerts us to a story, gives us perspective, potentially warns. It spins a tale and offers visions of mending. An indispensable tool in the fight for a more sustainable future.
I know I have cited this particular author a lot lately, but the words apply here as well, and seem a fitting pointer to El-Boher’s and her colleagues’ work:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
– James Baldwin As Much Truth As One Can Bear (1962)
“…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.”
Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
Section Two: Lewis and Clark University–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: Chloë Hight
Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
Section Five: The Dalles Arts 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 (project artistic director) and Owen Premore
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on April 11, 2022.