“Pushing the limits is the only way to challenge complacency in design.”
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Julia Wright is a textile artist and designer currently living in Los Angeles. She received her BFA in Textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Jaeger: In “Structural Understanding,” (above) appearing in this month’s issue you explore the diagrammatic image, small studies of woven textiles, through embroidery, but also mediums other than fiber, such as pastel and collage. How did this project begin and evolve to include these other mediums?
Wright: For a long time I had been trying to figure out how to paint through the process of weaving. I have been weaving fabric for several years now. With each piece I made I felt I was searching for a way to use the language and structure of woven cloth as a means to create a painted image. One day I realized it could work the other way as well: creating woven cloth through the process of painting. I have always loved traditional weave-drafting, and tried to push it further with any medium I could get my hands on, which lead to pastel, embroidery, found fabrics, etc.
Jaeger: In your artist statement, you comment on the direct correlation of woven cloth “to personal and social identity.” How does your study of structure and color shed light on this correlation?
Wright: The process of weaving has become something almost sacred to me. When I think about textile history, which has been around for thousands of years, I imagine myself at the loom being a part of that history. As I thread each strand of yarn through the heddles of the loom (the primitive binary system that led to the invention of the computer), I feel like I am a part of the long line of women and men who have done this work before me. In terms of social identity, it is impossible to ignore the fact that every single person is wrapped in cloth the moment they are born to the moment they die. Fabric surrounds life and its history is embedded into our culture in so many ways.
The “Structural Understanding” studies were a part of a larger work, including hand-dyed woven pieces and digital prints of diagrammatic drawings under the collective title “Graphic Notation.” I had started thinking about color specifically in relation to textiles through the most literal form- flags. The identity of entire peoples, nations, and cultures can be triggered through as few as two colors and with the most minimal composition, such as Japan’s red dot on a white canvas. I wanted to marry the two: the importance of color and my understanding of the significance of the textile process.
Jaeger: You also wrote that “working within a strict set of rules” was crucial to the creation of “Structural Understanding.” What were the rules for this project and how did they influence your process?
Wright: The rules consisted of the loom’s limitations. I see the loom as working inside of a planned box. While you can’t necessarily go outside the box, you can do whatever you can think of on the inside. However, while I initially saw the loom’s limitations as strict rules, I tried to push against them as well and ended up somewhere else. The general idea of the box stayed.
Jaeger: Many of your studies in this collection are reminiscent of the color-theory obsessed paintings from Black Mountain College. Were these works an influence for your project? Could you talk a little more about the role of color in this project?
Wright: It’s funny you mention this actually. Before I started this project I took a visit to the Albers Foundation in Connecticut (which I highly recommend to anyone able to go—it’s pretty incredible) as well as the show then at the ICA in Boston, Leap Before you Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Black Mountain and the Bauhaus were definitely huge inspirations for me. Thanks to Anni Albers, they were part of the first wave to understand weaving as a way of creating fine art. I took a color theory painting class in school as well. It all led me to think about colors that have been represented in my life through my personal histories, from which I derive my color choices.
Jaeger: In a previous project, “I Am My Mother’s Only One,” (left) you use color and shape to communicate memory. How does this language figure into your current work, and if not, why?
Wright: That work was done in the wake of my parent’s divorce as I was trying to figure out the new context my life was going to have. By working on an industrial Jacquard loom, I had the potential to be much more painterly and figurative. You can break traditional rules with such an industrial machine. However, I felt a disconnect with the Jacquard. Hand weaving on a floor loom creates a dialogue between weaver and loom due to the restrictions of the threads. So I decided to carry over the ideas of color, identity, and personal history to the context of hand weaving and pattern structure. While I made the Jacquard piece to figure out who and where I was after a sudden change in my family, my current work is explores the present and movement towards the future in a different way.
Jaeger: What were some of your most important discoveries during this project? How did you know when the project was complete?
Wright: I learned a lot about myself, as this work seemed to be the “closest thing I have found to the thing,” if that makes sense. And the work is definitely not over. I am still continuing the project but I also have a deadline for my senior thesis show! Now I am working on making some of my digital prints into bead weavings. I am also thinking about taking the small studies and translating them back to woven fabrics.
Jaeger: What was your greatest challenge?
Wright: My greatest challenge was dyeing. For my weavings, I didn’t have enough money to buy all the yarn colors I wanted, so I bought white and decided to dye all of my colors. The only word to describe this is backbreaking! I spent so much time just setting everything up. Sometimes the dyeing would fail and it felt like I had wasted so much time. But in the end it was all a learning experience (like anything else I guess).
Jaeger: Who or what were some of your inspirations either for this project or in your work at large?
Wright: Like I said, I think Anni Albers is one of my favorite artists, even though she is probably every weaver’s favorite. But I was also heavily inspired by artists such as Jules Olitski, Ellsworth Kelly, Polly Apfelbaum, the quilters of Gees Bend, and my teacher Samantha Bittman. Also just by simple things: the sunset from my Providence apartment, the way graffiti is covered with paint that’s usually just a few shades different from the original wall, and the language of flags—especially maritime flags.
Jaeger: You’ve worked commercially as a textile print designer as well as with smaller, more esoteric designers. Could you talk a little about the intersection in some of your work between fine art and this experience in retail? How does your creative process differ when you are creating work for a client versus a personal project?
Wright: As I am very new to the game, it has been a challenge to design for others. But I try to take what I’ve learned throughout school and apply it in those situations. Sometimes it has no connection at all to my personal work, and I kind of like that. I get to take a break and create something a little more simplistic and less loaded. I also like to keep my personal work to myself sometimes, since it is so meaningful to me. However, when I am working with smaller artisans I do try to push that side further, as I see it as a unique opportunity to keep creating things in line with my ideas, but in a form that someone will be able to use in their life. These projects definitely have different processes since I am working with other people, but are still reminiscent of how I work for my own stuff—they just require more meeting and talking and compromising. With my own work however, I cannonball into a ton of different things and see what happens and what I like.
Jaeger: You earned your BFA in textiles from The Rhode Island School of Design. How did you come to textiles as your focus, and how did your experience at RISD begin to shape you as an artist?
Wright: As a kid, my mother started going to the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival and took me with her several years in a row. I was never a huge fan, but I was always into making things. My mom and I would also dye silk in the backyard pretty often during elementary school, and I always watched my grandmother quilt. Around that time my mom also started wet felting. I would help her with those projects as well. I always thought I wanted to do fashion design and I took a bunch of different sewing classes in high school along with drawing and computer graphics classes.
One day I realized that this thing that had been surrounding me my whole life was it. I just hadn’t seen it for myself until around my junior year of high school. I went to RISD knowing that I needed to pursue textiles and I’ve never really wavered since then. I feel so lucky to have been able to attend RISD, and while sometimes it was hard to make ends meet, it was a place that has forever changed my life. I cannot be more grateful to all of my textile family, who grow together and help push each other forward to figure out what that thing is that they need to be doing as an artist.
RISD taught me about working as hard as you possibly can, and figuring out the next step even when something goes wrong. In textiles, we were pushed to think as far ahead as possible, as different as possible, and to really push against the limits of craft, structure, and machinery. I have found this so helpful when working in the field, as nothing different ever comes from making what you assume people will like. Pushing the limits is the only way to challenge complacency in design.
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