Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Sandra Brownlee: 2. Turning Point and Transition

* This is the second of a multi-part series about artist and weaver Sandra Brownlee
Tactile Notebook page by Sandra Brownlee, Photography by Keith McLeod
1) A Turning Point: 1995-1996
How do artists sustain long careers while keeping themselves engaged in the work, healthy, and the work fresh? For those committed to a life in the arts, this is an important question. Some artists repeat themselves in the mid to latter parts of their careers as a result of personal, professional, or financial obligations. Some feel that they have little choice but to continue making the same work in order to satisfy the expectations of their galleries and clientele. Other artists are adverse to learning a new technique or medium and stick to what they already excel at. There is personal, professional, and financial risk in changing a way of working. There is greater risk in continuing on the same path when it no longer satisfies the artist. Here is an account of Sandra Brownlee's courageous decision to revitalize her practice after nearly 30 years of teaching and making.

"Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility." –– Pablo Picasso

"Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." –– Jason Shinder, poet

In a 1994 Fiberarts article, Sandra Brownlee is quoted as saying: "Throughout my experience as a weaver I have felt intensely alive (London, 33)." By late 1995, this was no longer the case. Brownlee was 47 years old and had been weaving for 27 years: more than half her lifetime. Suddenly she felt that she was repeating herself and that her work was becoming formulaic. When she sat down at the loom, it felt arid. Furthermore, by 1996 Brownlee felt that she was not able to mentor and guide students at the college level. She had been teaching steadily at a number of art institutions for 25 years, and at that moment she felt that she had nothing relevant to offer. Brownlee had reached a turning point and she needed a change.

London, Peter. “Uncovering The Muse Within.” Fiberarts Magazine. Vol. 21, No. 2 (Sept/Oct. 1994) pp: 28-33.
Tactile Notebook page by Sandra Brownlee, Photography by Keith McLeod
2) Transition or A Change is as Good as a Rest: 1995-2005
By chance Sandra Brownlee discovered the means to launch a decade of creative growth and renewal. In early 1996, she taught a workshop to children that she found rejuvenating and absorbing. In September she let go of her part-time teaching commitment at the University of the Arts and began teaching full-time multidisciplinary art to Kindergarten to grade four girls at the Agnes Irwin Lower School, outside Philadelphia.

Instead of forcing herself to sit at a loom where there was no spark, at the end of 1995 she took a hiatus from weaving actively and channelled her attention to her notebooks. The energy was in the everyday and the notebook, not at the loom. During her first year at Agnes Irwin, Brownlee focussed on exploring and inventing in her notebooks, often filling a page a day. (For more information, I wrote about Brownlee's notebooks in this post and this post.) The energy that she once had teaching at post-secondary art institutions was now found in the classroom with clay, finger paints, and cloth scraps transformed by young imaginations. The students' unbridled curiosity and inventiveness inspired Brownlee to bring childhood art activities into her studio practice. She set aside the many limits that had defined her weaving practice and explored colour, textures, materials, and techniques on a greater scale. The notebooks provided another bonus: unlike a loom, they were portable and Brownlee was now free to create art anywhere.

Out of her newly revitalized notebook practice emerged her Tactile Notebooks series that she started making in 1999, when she shifted to teaching part-time at Agnes Irwin. Cloth Book, My Story and Garden of Joy are two autobiographical book works from this series.


Jaime Rugh said...

i was a student of sandra's in 1995-96 and a sad one to see her move on- i've never been more inspired and motivated by another teacher and always felt i learned more from her in that brief time than any other. it's nice to read this all these years later. especially the part about her feeling no longer able to mentor students. i understood the need to change & admire & respect her process in art and life.

Karen said...

Jaime, Sandra is a remarkable woman and I have learned a lot as I interviewed her, visited her, and wrote about her these past three years. It's been a real honour and next year I'd like to write a series of posts chronicling all that I've experienced and learned from this process. Thank you for sharing.