AIR Cycle 9 Highlight: Lily Moebes
How did you first become interested in working with textiles?
I really avoided them at first because my entire family is into textiles and I wanted to be a rebel. But then I graduated from college and didn’t have a studio and I found that textiles, or embroidery, were something I could do really cheaply and I didn’t need a lot of space – I just needed a comfortable chair. Once I got going, there was so much I found I could do with this one little technique, and then I started to build off of it as I got more and more space to work in, so it happened organically.
What kind of work did your family make within the realm of textiles?
My mom is a huge hand knitter, I can think of occasions where she has been cold, and knit herself a sweater. So that’s just my family…
What was your path like as an artist?
I started school thinking I was going to major in something like poli-sci. I was really committed to urban studies for a while – I thought that I would get a degree in planning. But the more I studied these other disciplines, the more I realized that it was the conflicts within them that I was interested in. I found myself most engaged by art about those subjects. I thought that the artworks were actually more complex and more engaging forms of dialogue than the scholarly articles I was reading, so I decided to study art. I studied art history with a minor in studio practice, and I mainly took printmaking classes. At the time, an academic headspace was more comfortable for me, whereas a studio practice felt unstructured and scary. Studying art history was a nice way of taking my love of breaking down problems and transferring it to a medium (printmaking) that’s all about taking an image and problem solving it into a copper plate and onto paper, and from there I built up a creative practice.
Is there a relationship between your printmaking and political science background the work you’re doing now in your art practice?
Some, yes, but honestly it’s harder for me to just be freely creative. If I’m thinking from a printmaking perspective, I might want to find an image, a technique, break apart the image into different techniques, put them back together, compress them in a press, and then I’m done. That’s such a clean and satisfying process, whereas things get a little messier and more complicated with textiles. More and more I’ve been trying to forget the ways of working that I’m used to, so that I make sure that I’m really putting the idea first, rather than the process, and that the process is fitting the idea, even if the process isn’t familiar. With textiles there are different elements, different variables. Fabric is so different from paper, ink is something that I feel like I can control easily, whereas I feel like I have to figure out how to make thread do what I want it to do without it knotting into oblivion.
Can you say more about what fabric does that maybe other mediums don’t? Or why you ended up gravitating toward textiles?
Fabric can be tricky. You can’t fold fabric and expect it to stay put, you have to press it, sew it, and relax it to make it do what you want, and even then, after some time passes, it may do something totally different. Textiles require a lot more experimentation. You have to learn from the materials. I find myself drawn toward pieces of fabric that are pre-constructed for a purpose, like napkins, or linens, so it’s not as if I’m cutting off materials to use and experiment with, rather I have an object with a story, and that story becomes one of my materials as well. I might totally mess it up while I’m trying to do something with it- I don’t know, I just have to get my hands dirty.
Can you talk about embroidery and reverse appliqué and why you’re drawn to them?
Reverse applique and quilting, quilting in terms of stitching, rather than piecing fabric together, has been a way to make forms by means of reduction and addition. I can sandwich 5 pieces of fabric together and not know what I’m doing, but I know that I can take fabric away, maybe I make mistakes and then I need to heal it by putting layers of fabric back on. By sandwiching these pieces of fabric together I can put together a matrix from which to unearth whatever it is I’m trying to make.
How has the residency here changed your work?
I’m definitely a lot freer than I used to be. It’s easier for me to come to the studio and just play with materials than it was before I came here. I haven’t been doing a lot of it lately, but machine knitting was a way to drop everything and just put color together, like painting with yarn. I really loved that. But the residency has definitely made me a lot freer and introduced me to techniques, books, and ideas that I don’t think I would’ve come across otherwise.
Take me through a day in your studio practice, how do you make your work?
Depending on what I’m working on, I have a studio at home, which is where I am about 60% of the time. I’ll start by cleaning it. I don’t know why- it’s a nice ritual for me, to put everything in its place. Then I’ll usually try and free write something. The more awful and unpolished, the better, just to get a sense of where I’m at. And then, lately, I haven’t been working on any long term projects, so I might free write and then jump into materials. So I’ll either have a day of testing materials, in which case, I’m forcing myself to put things together, even if I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, or I’m doing something like a big embroidery piece or another big textile piece that requires a lot of repeating, sewing, lots of stitches, in which case I put on Law & Order and I do that for eight hours.
What imagery and subject matter are you working with now?
I work with the body and with texture. Textures that evoke the body, or how we feel the body. When I was in high school I did a lot of figure drawing. Maybe, that sealed my fate. Bodies are the only subjects that I’m consistently drawn to. Lately I’ve been interested in working with body as a tool of signification. What is the body saying, how is communicating with the larger context of the work or with something outside the work, how can the body signify.
Can you talk about the figures that you are developing for the final exhibition?
Over time, I’m going to make a series of ten figures. They’ll all be slightly bigger than life size, around seven feet tall, and they’re going to be female to gender ambiguous, neutered bodies in stances that suggest confrontation, offense, protection. There might be one of a body that’s on all fours, that’s making confrontational contact with the viewer, or one that has all its body weight on the front leg and is leaning forward, bodies that look like they’re going to walk out and engage with you. These are figures of protection that in my imagination ideally live in the home and protect families from themselves, from situations of abuse that have huge consequences for generations. I think everyone has a part of themselves that they developed to protect themselves at some point, whether or not it’s from a literal abusive situation or not, we all have those inner selves, and sometimes they can be maladaptive. Sometimes we’re so protective that we create boundaries between ourselves and other people. These kinds of figures are a way of me idealizing what if, instead of having to do that, instead of the kind of maladaptive consequences of the internalized protective figures inside of us, we just had big monsters living in the wall that helped keep families from hurting each other, especially people in families without a lot of power.
How do you like people to experience your work or engage with it?
I definitely make work for gallery settings, to be looked at rather than taken in any other way. I like my work to look at you. I definitely don’t make work for viewers to find peace in; I want to be asking a question, or showing them something that’s familiar but turned on its head. People have said of my work, “it’s definitely not pretty.” And that’s what I like about it. That’s what I find exciting. I want to be asking questions.
What are some of your other interests outside of the studio?
I like to read, I do yoga when I have the discipline. Outside of my art practice I work for a coffee company, I help produce all of our orders for people who buy coffee online. I have cats, and I like doing puzzles.
Who are some of the artists, creators, writers, anyone else you look at that have inspired you or your work?
I do this thing called Under the Influence when I sit down to work in my studio. I learned it in an acting class- you have to write down three things that you’re under the influence of at the moment. One right now would be Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”- I just saw the eight hour production on Broadway and it was incredible. Something about that story being so much pain and disjointed connection mixed with this divine intervention that isn’t what you think it’s supposed to be, and then a lot of healing and agency. It’s just amazing. I’ve since rewatched the HBO production and reread the play within the past few weeks. I’m also under the influence of this book I’m reading called the Body Keeps the Score, by a doctor named Bessel Van der Kolk. It’s about how the body stores our traumatic experiences, but really it’s this incredibly comprehensive volume- every way in which our emotions affect all of our other biological systems, which is super validating to read, and way more detailed than I ever could have imagined. I also love Tschabalala Self. I love the way that she’s putting bodies into a textile context and making them speak.
Do you have any long-term projects?
The Quilt Project is ongoing. It’s a quilt that’s made up of pieces of clothing and bedding that people contribute, and the people who contribute them have ripped them up. The articles are things that those people associate with sexual assault. I started it in college, and the things that I received in college were, for example, a pair of shoes, a dress, a tie, etc.. And then those items are pieced into a quilt for public display. I found at the time that I wasn’t good enough at quilting, and I wasn’t good enough at disengaging from every single person that worked on it to be able to work on it myself without breaking down. But, it’s a project that I’m passionate about and that was really amazing to work on with the people that contributed. I think I’ll work on it forever.