“When my grandma let me change the fabrics of her quilt, I had this epiphany that I could be safe there – and that it was something I could be included in. So instead of being angry about the system, I started to think – how can I turn this into something positive?” – Ramekon O’Arwisters
Ramekon O’Arwisters is one of five artists whose work was highlighted in Virginia Commonwealth University’s event series “Queer Threads: Making and Talking Fiber and Fashion.”
To O’Arwisters, crocheting was an escape from the constraints of being told “who to be” and “what to do,” and allowed him to begin accepting himself on his own terms. His experiences were shared alongside those of fellow artists and curators John Caich, Cindy Baker and Jeanne Vaccaro, during the symposium’s collaborative forum on April 12.
Moderated by event coordinators and craft and material study professors Aaron Mcintosh and Erika Diamond, the forum was part of a series of events designed to promote discussion about the intersections between queerness, body image, textiles and the community.
O’Arwisters spent his childhood questioning how to exist as a gay black man living in the South and shared how his relationship with textiles spawned from his childhood hobby of sewing and quilting with his mother and grandmother.
“What I really wanted was to be accepted, heard and appreciated for my creative vision,” O’Arwisters said. “So I stopped asking people to accept me and started to liberate myself.”
The week’s events were funded by the VCUarts Inclusion Infusion Initiative and hosted by the Department of Craft and Material studies, but the Queer Threads initiative began years before arriving at VCU. The idea was originally introduced at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at an art show curated by panelist John Caich – an independent curator who says he is fascinated by the ideas of curation as a form of communication and of queerness as both a verb and an adjective.
Caich talked extensively about how queerness was threaded through his various art curations and addressed the concept of “the queering of materials” – like using thread to create a drawing, creating a painting with felt or macraméing with rip cords.
“Queering is something that can be done to art,” Caich said. “There can be a queering of practices or a queering of materials – so it’s important to consider the gestures and practices that the artist used to compose the piece.”
Caich explained that he envisioned the Queer Threads curation as a show that would bring new context to the word “queerness” and show it as an adjective that means “to see a material or an object in a way that goes against its intended use.”
For artist Cindy Baker, this means creating pieces that circumvent conventional ideas of how art should be created and understood.
“I wanted to make things that queered art and that people wouldn’t recognize as art because it was important for me to get people to think about the ideas that I was talking about before they put a label on it and dismissed it as art,” Baker said. “I want to take raw materials and turn them into things that make you ask, “what the hell is this?”
Through displaying queer content directly through the fiber craft tradition, Caich hoped to “curate culture into a haptic experience” while intertwining established and emerging artists together.
“I’m grateful that in collecting these moments and these artists at this time, we can keep a dialogue going and ask more questions than I ever could as one person,’ Caich said. “There is a sense of community formed among the artists, to encourage each other’s practice, ask questions, and boost each other’s confidence.”
The week’s events also included a crochet-jam where participants gathered at Diversity Richmond to create yarn from used clothing and collaboratively crochet a massive textile. O’Arwisters explained that through physically connecting people through yarn, the crochet jams foster a culture of social creativity, individuality and liberation.
“We are not focusing on the product,” O’Arwisters said. “We are focusing on telling stories and working together.”
O’Arwisters said hat crochet jams are a way to open up the art world and step away from the culture of exclusivity that is often prevalent within art museums and galleries.
“It is liberating to not be told what to do,” O’Arwisters said. “In a crochet jam, everyone is included. They’re not being told what to do and they are not being judged. So I decided that that would be my art — to give to others what I myself needed.”