Work In Progress: Annie Gunks


On an overcast and unseasonably warm winter afternoon, I sat down with our February Work In Progress (WIP) Resident, Annie Gunks, in her studio to talk about her work.

How long have you been working with textiles, and what drew you to working with them?

I’ve been sewing pretty much my whole life. My grandma sewed a ton, she was an amazing seamstress. When I grew up, my mom taught us how to make our own clothes, so I’ve been sewing for a really, really, really long time.

For a while, I had a hat making business where I would make cycling caps. Then, I started getting more into these abstract, geological shapes with fabric when I got tired of making hats and wanted to do something a little bit more artistic. When I was making hats, it was a lot of repeating and repeating and repeating the same thing. It is really nice to keep that meditative repetition in my work but abstract it, and then incorporate my geological background into the pieces.


Can you tell me more about your background as a hydrogeologist, and how it’s tied in with your artistic practice now?

I did an undergraduate in Geology, focusing on water quality- Hydrogeology, and did a Master’s in Environmental Sciences. I’ve always been really tied to water quality issues, and how what we do on the land surface affects the water quality, but also the natural geological processes that shape our landscapes.

I think it’s really inspiring the way that the earth is constantly moved by water, and shaped by water. Something that slips through your hands has the power to move massive mountains given enough time. Through studying water quality issues and being out on the field, I see a lot of really beautiful and impacted features and get different inspiration from that. For a period of time, I worked with nonprofits doing citizen science and engaging local communities with taking ownership of the water quality issues, teaching people about what’s happening in our backyard and how it’s affecting water resources. That’s a consistent thing I’m trying to incorporate into my work. I enjoy teaching people about what’s going on around them, inspiring them to get outside and be engaged in their environment and get them back in touch with their landscapes.


There is a geological pattern emerging in the works – how else is geology tied in to your work?

Fabric is a very fluid material. In my mind, when I think about trying to see water in any type of artistic material, I think fabric is the best to show movement and flow. I enjoy how it moves through air, like when a door opens and a gust of wind comes in, it moves my pieces and gives them life.

I also really like the challenge of trying to create structure with using such a fluid material, so creating things, like little mountains, or this past week, when I was trying to make crystal structures.

What process or technique has been most important to you? Sewing?

Yeah, the structure and the form from my pieces comes just from sewing. Creating angles, and then that rigidity through the stitches themselves. I do starch and press everything, so that kind of helps, to add a little bit of form, but I try not to put structured pieces underneath. I do collaborate on occasion with Lily Erb, an amazing welder/sculptor to incorporate steel sculpture with my fabric works. So far we have not used her structures to prop up the fabric, but instead to give the work more context to the geological nature of the pieces themselves.

You’ve previously talked about exploring the human imprint and impact on the natural world – how do you do that through your work? What are the ideas behind that?

I’ve made some pieces that are based on rivers, and the workshop that I’m doing is based on the impact that we have on rivers and landscapes, the dirt that comes from around here, what’s attached to it, bacteria, or waste and how it gets into our waters. So it’s more a launch back to having those conversations, being more in touch with these landscapes that we’re in, and how they’re not actually separate from the waterways that are around us.


Take me through your process – do you have any things that you do every time you’re in the studio? Music? Podcasts?

Being in front of a sewing machine is really tough on your body, because you’re in this one space. I always try to take a moment to stretch, and move my body, and breathe, and look at things as they’re growing.

I feel like a lot of my pieces they have their own life as they build, so I like to take time to just watch them.

Can you tell me more about where you work, and how that affects the art you create?

I work for the U.S. Forest Service right now, and my base station is in Aspen, but in about a month and a half I’m hopefully going to have another position at a different forest, hopefully in Alaska or something like that. It changes seasonally. But my goal is to keep my work centered around being outside and connected to the landscapes and waterways.

I take my sewing machine with me wherever I go. Housing situations when you’re doing seasonal government work don’t really allow you to set up a studio, so where I’m at right now I sometimes get a chance to sew in the laundry room. But I’ve been in the field a lot for work, sometimes just sleeping in a tent and then usually at the end of the night after a long day of fieldwork, I’ll do some sketching of some things that are around me, to just try to continue doing something while I don’t have access to a space to sew.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Texas, in San Antonio. So, a fairly urban environment, but my family went on a bunch of road trips when I was growing up to go camping in New Mexico, Colorado, and to visit national and state parks. It was a great way to grow up, and influenced the path I have taken as a environmental scientist and stay in touch with the outdoors.

Photo by Annie Gunks.

Photo by Annie Gunks.

I saw you take a lot of photographs. How does that tie in to either of your practices as a scientist or as an artist?

Those two things are very different, separate. I go back and forth. When I get tired of sewing and cutting up fabric, I’ll switch back over to focusing on photography for a while.

All of the photos I take are on film using disposable cameras. I turn the prints into postcards and mail them off. The main part of my photography practice is staying connected with my community, my friends, and people that I meet when I travel through sending them the postcards and taking the time during my day to hand write each one.

Dirt dyed fabric.

Dirt dyed fabric.

Have you ever used organic and mineral materials as the actual mediums within your work?

I’ve been dirt dyeing a lot of my fabrics. Instead of using dye or plant based natural dyes, I just get dirt from different geological features that I think are really interesting and have interesting tones to them, and I try to incorporate them into the fabric, and that also comes from trying to incorporate that feature into the work itself. When I’m sewing, cutting, or tearing the fabric, the dirt is still in there, and the soil can come out, and you can smell it – it smells like when it starts to rain and you smell the dirt coming back up into the air. It gives an interesting feature, and a little bit more context to my work.

How would you like for people to experience your work? How do you like to share your works with an audience?

I really hate art that people can’t come up and touch, and people are always surprised when I tell them that they can touch my work. I like to live in a world where people, can actually touch and feel things.

The nature of sculpture itself is looking at something and moving around it, but you’re gonna get a different perspective at each position you stand at, or you can walk 360 around them – just making it more interactive, have a more immersive experience.


How has this space and being a Work In Progress Resident at TAC affected your work?

I think just giving me time to just to play, mess around, and screw up. It’s not a luxury of time that I have very often. It’s been fun to have a lot of people just drop in and talk to you. I’ve had a bunch of just really fabulous artists looking in the window at the work and then coming up to talk to me about different processes.

What artists do you look at or have inspired you?

Someone who always comes up in my mind that I really love and admire, which is not really related to my work but still a person who kinda honed into the playfulness and is also an immaculate artist, is M.C. Escher. I love to look at a lot of his earlier work, the way that he abstracted landscapes through his printmaking, but was still tied to the geometric features. His early work is just really gorgeous.

Do you have any dream projects? Anything that if you could do, you would do?

I think just make bigger things. I really love doing installation pieces. More of that immersive experience. Where you can come in, and then you’re in a totally transformed space.

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