2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

An Interview with GERHARDT KNODEL- Explorations in the Art of Textiles

Do you have an early memory of being creative? That moment that turned your head with excitement?

Early experiences stay with us in a variety of ways.  I’m thinking about even being a kindergarten student, making paper plates for our nutrition period or making paper turkeys in anticipation of the Thanksgiving celebration. Simple things that required the manipulation of materials, I always enjoyed. My most memorable experiences in relationship to my own education come in conjunction with the people who helped me to have new experiences, and that generated a whole process of discovery.  It was like traveling to a foreign place in the world and not being able to speak the language, and suddenly one thing after another opens up. It’s a wonderful experience.

I would mention my interest in opera that also happened early on. I loved the idea of seeing the opera Hansel and Gretel. As the witch flew across the stage, my own thought process was so active with the idea of, “How can I recreate this for myself?” And I did go home- I had a little puppet theatre- and a few weeks later I was entertaining all of the kids in the neighborhood. But I was a one-man show; I did all of the lighting, made out of the lights from last year’s Christmas tree, and all of the puppets and the scenery, even the stage curtains. And that’s the way it developed- one thing after the next.

So you were able to easily recreate what you saw, to synthesize it in a way?

Yes, I think it’s a matter of experience entering the field of one’s imagination. I feel sorry for the people who can face facts only at their face value. I think it’s fabulous if one can go through life taking everything with several grains of salt, and building a reaction that ends up being one’s own interpretation, one’s own response to the subject. That’s what arts education is supposed to be about. It’s to encourage new modes of thinking and experiencing.  In my life it’s been great, because I spent many years teaching, observing the discovery processes of my students over the years, which has also contributed energy to my own process of discovery.

Theatre has been a recurring element in your life. From being young and seeking the space under the dining table to your high school years creating scenery and being fascinated by the dark mystery behind the curtains to your evolving life as an artist building environments that ask the viewer to respond. Do you see this involvement as a unique language of your textiles?

I have always been interested in moving the past forward. I love listening to Mozart and Beethoven, but they are not living in this moment, so I also pay attention to what contemporary composers are doing. So it’s a matter of taking the stimulus and figuring out new strategies for it to be active and alive. For example, when I was involved in painting backdrops on a stage, I was painting canvases that were forty feet wide and twenty feet high. When one has an experience of painting on that kind of scale, and of transferring a small sketch to a large surface, all of a sudden it introduces a scale into one’s life. It’s what architects experience. The distance between what goes on at the drawing table and the final built project. It’s an enormous shift in scale.

At the time that I began working with textiles there were very familiar ways with using cloth, and most of those were utilitarian in orientation. What happened in the 1960’s was the grand explosion of investigation into what the traditions, the materials, the technologies, and so on could be if they were moved into a new sphere of operation. A new field of fabric sculpture began to develop. But rather than making sculpture, I associated the textiles with architecture.

The thought of defining space with pliable planes of cloth led me to investigate the history of tents and canopies and other such ceremonial or functional textiles, and to experience light and air as they interacted with the pliable planes. As time went on I began to see how many interesting resources existed within textile history that were really never evolved or developed outside of the purposes for which they had originally been intended. So that’s whole point. Starting in one place, and moving through a sequence of discoveries. And the theatre has been important, as you said, because of the kind of inspiration that happens there. I love the darkness, the magic that happens backstage.

Today, as a member of the audience, I can go to the theatre, go to the musical theatre, go to the ballet…recently I went to see the Metropolitan broadcast of Turandot, the opera. And I just get thrilled by seeing the innovation that takes place when common functionality is not the point. And so, as you think about the work that I’ve done in architectural environments, what I did was to take some of my theatrical inspirations into an architectural environment such as the Xerox world headquarters, which was a grand invitation, I was invited to transform a huge four-story atrium with fabric, and they trusted me with the process. I had complete freedom to do whatever came into my head. So that whole process is exciting. It starts in simple places and it evolves. In time, one keeps looking for the next point of departure.

You speak sensitively about the difficult journey of the developing artist from the cost of art education to the unknown landing for his/her career and the limited opportunities for success.  In your life, you seem to have gracefully jumped over these hurdles. What has been the most difficult time for you in pursuing your art career?

You’re assuming that I have had difficulties. But I have had the most wonderful life; I can’t deny that. Really, there were very few barriers along the way. For some reason, and I always attribute this to being born under the right constellation or whatever, opportunities evolved and I seemed to be ready to take advantage of them when they appeared. In the long run, what has been difficult, [is that] education in art is always dealing with the unknown. It’s taking the unknown and moving it through a series of filters in the direction of discovery. And what that accomplishes in one’s own life is to encourage a degree of patience. Sometimes we’re very impatient to make things happen very quickly.

 I’ve learned over the years that exercising some patience can get me beyond what I perceive to be hurdles. What are those hurdles? In part it’s the lack of acceptance of the work. In fact, it still has difficulty in the art world because so many people accept cloth more in relation to its functional uses, the way it serves us on a daily basis within our living situations.

And to get people to look at textiles from a fresh point of view, not through filters of viewing paintings or sculptures, but as a means to see the work, to develop a body of knowledge about what is interesting, unique, and challenging within the medium of fabric itself is constantly a challenge. If you go back and look at the literature from the 60’s onwards, you discover that art critics did not have any education in my field at all. And what happened was that with a few very impressive exhibitions, well-known critics were asked to comment on those works- writers for Time Magazine or the New Yorker, for example. They were challenged, so they started going to some of the makers and asking questions- but it’s been a very long and slow process.

So when you ask me what’s been difficult along the way, I would identify that issue as a problem. I keep struggling with it- but it’s exciting, and sometimes it creates a nice, quiet space to work as well. You’re not so bothered by what the rest of the world thinks you are doing. We’re in a time now where there is a tremendous overload in information and art; I am sitting and talking to you from my studio where I am surrounded by materials and by bodies of work that I am making, and so on. I work here alone- I love this world- and what I am doing, the biggest payoff, is its relationship to me. That really is fabulous. It’s important, and I chart my growth through it. There’s no reason not to keep pursuing one’s dreams.

The development of your work appears to involve a triad of thought processes: Discovery, Invention and Adventure. Is this the mesh of your quest for WHAT IF? Can you talk about that?

“What if?” is a general question that drives most of my actions. In architectural work, when I was commissioned to do large scale work,  I was invited to the building, introduced to the space, sat in the space, thought about it, and waited until something was generated by energy in that location. That process was combined with expectations of new technology, or thoughts I was having about new ways of working. So “What if?” in relation to the discovery aspect is what drives discovery. “What if?” simply asks questions: “What is obvious, and what is not? What if I did this? What if I did that? What if I approached this space from a completely unexpected point of view- what would that be?” So the question “What if?” is relevant in that case.

Currently I am working with a project all based on small fragments of old Chinese textiles; I’ve done eighteen pieces based on one old Chinese textile. It’s a simple object that survived 300 years of life, it’s all worn out, there’s not much left of it, and I decided to ask the question, “What if this was the inspiration for my next six months of work?” I had never done that before.

The question relative to invention as well. To be quite honest, I get very impatient with artists who find a signature style and then become a slave to it. Often times, I know that is commercially driven, that the anxiety of making something new that is not recognized by the audience is a threat to the artist. But it seems to me that attitude works against the potential of art making, which is truly a process of discovery and art-making, the adventure of openness and exploring new territories.  

Finally, with adventure, I think that “What if?” is also interesting as one thinks about the cycle of one’s work. Take a broad view: often times, what is important is right in front of us, what we are doing. But standing back and taking the broad view of one’s work- one’s actions, one’s connections, one’s opportunities- and saying, “What is outside of that?” That can also generate many important developments. Fundamentally, it’s a kind of attitude; a way of life. I found the words “What if?” in relationship to my recent work and the book I produced. I thought, “What If Textiles…?” is a good question to put into print.

Having artistically traveled from classic fabric environments to your current work creating interactive games is a radical change of thought over time. It actively asks the viewer to engage and respond; it requires many different materials and techniques to join harmoniously. The challenge from inception to completion must be both exciting and enormous. Do you plan the details before starting each project or do you build slowly and let it take shape?

There has been a big shift in the process that I use. Years ago, when I was keeping sixteen balls in the air simultaneously, juggling many circumstances that happen day to day, I tended towards the direction of the way a designer works, that is, to do a lot of preliminary drawings, sketches, and models, and to solve a lot of problems in advance. The production of the work was a response to that process of working, of pre-planning. It was also necessary when one does very large-scale work. I’ve done pieces that were seventy-five feet high, and you just don’t muck around with it. A huge amount of labor is required to produce that work, and one needs to know where one is going with it.

I’m working very differently now, in my studio. I have a different kind of freedom. At present, I am not doing architectural commissions, but I am very excited about a process as it has evolved over the years wherein I come up with an inclination of something to explore, I begin to work with it, and discover what its possibilities are in that process- often times coming up with some real limitations along the way, and being patient to work through those. The new work is very open-ended. I am consciously trying not to design things before, so that I [don’t] get a complete idea of what the work is going be. I’m very open to tripping myself up along the way. I allow myself to make mistakes and to make discoveries, to go off on a tangent. I know that many people go off on so many tangents that they never come back to home base. Keeping goals in mind helps to move forward productively.

I used to draw very casually, and today I have a tendency to use nice paper and good materials and to draw in a way that I produce something that I want to hold on to. I put the date that I did the drawing, to keep track of my process. It’s a little extra step, but it works very nicely for me as a means of following my progression. That’s the other part of it- if one allows oneself the freedom in the building of the work, and you accompany that process with a documentation of what’s discovered along the way, it forms a history. Rather than forgetting all of the stuff that came before the end product, why not in the end look at that product, read one’s notes, look at the drawings, and remember how much complexity one went through to get to that goal. Often times you can learn a lot from that process.

What preservation techniques to you use? Do you utilize different methods?

When we spoke before, I was telling you about my concerns about making work that lasts. One of the big problems with textiles is that the medium is vulnerable. The dyes are sensitive to light, many of the fabrics are very sensitize to atmosphere. Fundamentally, I think textiles last as long as you take care of them. But it’s a mistake to use the medium carelessly, and pass that on to a consumer- a person who would like to live with the work- and then the work deteriorates in their hands simply because the artist did not pay attention to the quality of the materials or the processes, etc.

So what I do in my own work is always to have that in the back of my mind. It doesn’t drive everything, but I am careful, and I’ve learned a lot of techniques in time, how to clean the work, for example. A lot of textiles are so beautiful, but if you put them under glass, it creates a kind of barrier to the tactile experience with them, but if you don’t put them under glass, and they are in a dusty environment, how do you keep them clean? And that’s where I mentioned one process that I pass on to a consumer. Rather than running the brush of a vacuum cleaner directly over the work, put a piece of mesh, like netting, over the piece creating a barrier to suck the dirt up through the net, while keeping the bristles from touching the cloth itself.

It’s really important to tell people who want to live with your work how to maintain it. There are a lot of works that don’t do well in direct sunlight, and what I’ve found to be very helpful is to pass on suggestions relating to that problem. I have even gone to the extreme in architectural projects of writing into my contracts that I am available, should anything go wrong along the way.

Your received the First Emeritus Award from Cranbrook Academy of Art and the
2016 Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship from the American Crafts Council as well as other distinguished honors. Do these give you pause to say to reflect on your life journey?

I suppose that could be the case, but I rarely think my experience has been more matter-of-fact. I appreciate the recognition; we all do. It’s very special for other people to recognize our accomplishments. Yesterday I picked up a message on my phone from a student I had when I first went to Cranbrook, in 1970. I worked with him for one year. It was Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, who is at the University of Kentucky.

He had gotten my book, and he was reflecting on some of the work, and he offered the most wonderful sense of appreciation for the interaction we’ve had over the years. Nothing is more meaningful than that; that kind of one-to-one thing. It’s nice when institutions recognize you, but sometimes I wonder when one gets institutional recognition, who are the individuals who were responsible for generating that in the first place, and do they ever emerge out of the crowd? Sometimes it is a real mystery. But I have to say in the long run, it is a pleasure accumulating experiences over one’s lifetime, and to discover that there are places where that accumulation comes together and is recognized by other people as having been significant in one way or another. I certainly am very appreciative of it.

With a huge prolific and successful art career, at 76 years old, what is next?

That question takes me back to the question I addressed myself when I left Cranbrook seven years ago: “What’s next?” I cleaned the studio then I painted the walls. I hadn’t been using the space in the last couple years while I’d been director at Cranbrook, so it was reacquainting myself with everything that I had and the things that I had done. When the space was clean, I discovered I was in the same position that I was in when I graduated from UCLA. And I said, “Well, what’s next? What’s the future going to hold?”

I love that about my life right now, the fact that I really feel in many ways I am starting over. Everything that is past is past, and you’re only as good as the next work that you produce. And that is a driving force which makes the adventure of coming here to the studio a very exciting one. I am doing things now that I have never done before, and I expect that will continue. Besides that, I am involved in other organizations, and I love to travel, and my garden is absolutely spectacular right now. In the merry month of June, it couldn’t look more wonderful. 

 So there are a lot of things that provide satisfaction and a well-balanced life, and I am very pleased that I have that opportunity.

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