The first in a series of post from the Ramona Lindsey, Director of the KMAC Education Department.
What is art? Is art an object to be seen? Or is it a functional thing created with the finest workmanship? Can it be a combination of beauty and function? Or is it the sharing of ideas? This post does not answer this age old question. Instead it raises more questions.
KMAC recently closed Food Shelter Clothing, curated by Chief Curator and Executive Director Aldy Milliken. His show included Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project. The installation asked art patrons to bring in items of clothing to be mended or repaired by an artist mender. In 2009, The Mending Project debuted at the Lombard-Freid Projects (New York, NY). The New York installation resulted in long lines and hundreds of mended garments.
While KMAC’s reiteration did not draw hundreds of participants, we did bring in a faithful group of community mending volunteers. Many members of the Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists (LAFTA) volunteered as KMAC artist menders. During their September meeting, Kathleen Loomis, a noted textile artist, led the group in a discussion of The Mending Project experience. Kathy asked me as KMAC’s Director of Education and fellow LAFTA member to share KMAC’s perspective of the project.
Kathy described Lee Mingwei’s installation as relational aesthetics. I prefer the more relatable term participatory art. Both terms refer to the artist’s ability to create an environment where the viewers or visitors become a part of the art through an interaction or performance. Mingwei’s Mending Project created a space where two strangers shared themselves through an action (mending) and conversation (storytelling). In participatory art, the artist does not force a particular outcome but desires spontaneous, organic responses. Kathy shared with LAFTA members her disappointment in the number of garments that were mended. Actually, KMAC hoped for greater community participation. But is quantity an accurate measure of effective art?
Also during the discussion, Kathy shared entries from a communal journal kept by KMAC artist menders in which they wrote their daily thoughts after their volunteer mending shifts. Kathy started by sharing several entries, each mimicking statements similar to “No mending today!” Then she read a question left by one of the menders which read, “There may not be any mending, but what IS happening here?” Finally, Kathy quoted her response: “I think we are building a community— not with people in torn pants, but among ourselves! If you’re not mending, would you add some stitches to my swatch and make collaborative art?”
Proudly, she showed us a beautiful piece of fabric carefully embroidered using the colorful thread Lee Mingwei selected for his installation.
Her readings compelled me to wonder, “What is effective art?” Does effective art challenge people to push beyond constraints? Does it prompt new questions? Does it provoke creativity? If the answer is yes, then I believe The Mending Project is an example of effective contemporary art. It allowed a community of textile artists using traditional hand stitching processes to engage with the community. The menders’ journal and Kathy’s collaborative art are a real life display of KMAC’s slogan, “Art is the big idea, craft is the process!” You can read more about Lee Mingwei’s art at http://www.leemingwei.com/.