Dandy Lines is an exhibition of cosmic country embroidery that references Western fashion through the cyclical, transformative theories of craftwork and animation. It revisits the histories of the decorative and brings to the surface tensions between labour and identity, the body and the psyche.
Richly ornamented cloaks simultaneously project and imbed images of nature and the unnatural: their void interiors await a body for transformation; their heads have been severed, freeing the imagination into the frontier. Embroidered images are pulled from animation sequences that reference nature, but a nature that unnaturally exists between the animate and the inanimate. The cloaks sit atop wooden sculptures modeled after Western animal-objects: the barrel bull, the rocking horse, and the chuck wagon. The human body has replaced the animal and simultaneously acts as both the driver and the rider. The sculptures become extensions of the body; their repetitive motions mimic the looping animation sequences of embroidery. Decoration and surface adornment also act as an extension of the boundaries of the body: designs and symbols project outward and reflect an interior identity. By combining the Romantic era dandy of nature and individualism with the New Romantic notion of the unnatural, Western identity is here presented as a mythic space of continual transformation.
Caitlin Thompson grew up in rural east-central Alberta and completed her BFA in Sculpture at the Alberta College of Art + Design, Calgary (2007). In 2009, Thompson moved to Montreal to pursue an MFA in Fibres and Material Practices from Concordia University (2015). She has recently moved back to Alberta to complete the beneficial cycle of journeying and returning. Her studio practice focuses on the relationship between the act of making and the formation of identity, specifically in embroidery and animation.
Thompson has participated in artist residencies at The National Film Board, Montreal; Est-Nord-Est, St. Jean-Port-Joli; Struts Gallery, Sackville; and the Calgary Allied Arts Foundation. Her work has been exhibited at La Centrale, Montreal; Truck Gallery, Calgary; dc3 Art Projects, Edmonton; and the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. She has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Thompson will be presenting her first academic paper on the history of country western fashion in the summer of 2016 at the University of Alberta’s Dressing Global Bodies conference.
Interview with Caitlin Thompson
Elizabeth Diggon: Let’s start with the title of the installation. The phrase “dandy lines” offers multiple meanings and associations. What drew you to this title and how does it relate to the installation? I’m especially interested in hearing more about the significance of the historical figure of the dandy to the physical, historical, and conceptual aspects of your work.
Caitlin Thompson: Working in textiles and garments as a material, I am giving acknowledgement to the risk that comes at the expense of the wearing or making cloth. When I refer to dandy or dandyism, I am referring to a way of being-through-becoming, the act of transforming through making and wearing. In this work specifically, I think about the cowboy as dandy, although dandyism exists in infinite forms and possibilities. I view not only the act of wearing, but the act of making as a possible form of dandyism, as both are a form of transformative labour.
ED: It seems fitting that Dandy Lines was installed on the heels of the 2016 Calgary Stampede, given the installation’s references to the myth of “The West” and to the construction of Western identity. Could you speak a bit to your research on Western sartorial identity in preparation for Dandy Lines?
CT: I actually really like that this exhibition didn’t coincide with the Stampede, and instead could be read as its ghostly remains, the spectre of Stampede, persistently haunting the storefront when all the other window dressing has been washed away.
Many things influenced and continue to influence Dandy Lines, including growing up on a farm, trying to live in cities, and the feeling of working in the wake of the cutting edge. I also work at the Glenbow Museum, where stories haunt history. I’m interested in the myth of “The West” and how it keeps resurfacing in the psyche not as a geographical place, but as a body. That’s why clothing, the wearing and the making of it by bodies, is such a rich field of exploration. I have an ongoing research project running in tandem with Dandy Lines (the abridged version of which will be my artist talk at Esker) that I had the pleasure of presenting this summer at the University of Alberta’s Dressing Global Bodies conference.
ED: Dandy Lines’ sequined, barrel-riding cape has been installed so that the outside of the garment is equally as visible as the reverse, revealing the back side of the embroidered roosters, replete with dangling threads and other signifiers of the embroidery process. What led you to this decision? Has the process of embroidery – being both time-consuming and physically laborious – affected how you conceptualize your work?
CT: As labour-intensity as embroidery is, I still find hidden pleasures in the process. I work methodically, as pattern-based techniques require sequential bits of information to hold them together, but while the surface of the embroidery is controlled, the underbelly is a chaos of knots and gnarls – a ghost image of the surface. I don’t alter the underside of the embroidery. Its randomness is a relief of the technical tension.
ED: This incarnation of Dandy Lines includes mechatronics – the wagon-wheel, roped barrel, and rocking horse legs set the embroidered garments in repetitive motion – which gives the installation a feeling redolent of animation loops or GIFs. You’ve written in the past about the importance of the connections between embroidery and animation, could you speak to these connections and how they informed Dandy Lines?
CT: I worked back and forth between animation and embroidery for a few years, before I realized that the feeling of making was the same. To me, it’s the act of making that is comparable – the repetitive, sequential order and detail – that links the two. On a larger scale, the industries of animation and embroidery both show similar patterns in labour, technology, and outsourcing. With this install at Esker, I was excited to add to the animated effect by including mechatronic elements. Repetitive movement has a psychedelic effect on how we register time – and both animation and embroidery require a lot of time…In my upcoming workshop at Esker on embroidermation – the combining of embroidery and animation – I’ll be presenting this at length.
ED: Building on that idea, your chosen iconography also seems to tease out the connections between embroidery and animation. The gradually shifting faces adorning the bottom edge of the wagon-wheel cloak are particularly mesmerizing – the slow transformation between each face is reminiscent of a photo flip book. What informs your decisions behind your embroidered imagery?
CT: The imagery itself came in response once again to a similarity between embroidery and animation. I had been working on drawn animations before really getting into embroidery, but working sort of backwards. I started off by making short, narrative animations, without really practicing conventional animation tests beforehand. I became less interested in the narrative element and more fascinated with the movements of animation. This led to seeing every drawing as possessing living potential, especially with the regenerative cycle of looping. These drawings translated perfectly into digital embroidery, where pixels become stitches. Serendipitously, many of these looping sequences I was drawing (flowers blooming and dying, birds forever flying) are also major design elements found in country western fashion. I like to think of this as another connection to the idea of continuous transformation.