Work In Progress: Hanna Washburn
Photos by Daniel Natalo-Lifton
This past week, I sat down with our Work in Progress (WIP) artist for the month of July, Hanna Washburn. Accompanied by her colorful, soft sculptural pieces, we chatted about her childhood memories of textiles, studio practices, and interest in weaving themes of femininity and the female body into her work.
Tell me about your journey within the arts. How did you start working in textiles?
Textiles were always something that I loved as a kid. My grandmother was really into knitting and textiles, and she taught me how to knit. I was also really into friendship bracelets when I was younger because I was a long time camper and counselor—that was just such a big part of camp culture! My mom also started crafting when I was little, and used to make all my dresses. I have really fond memories of this time; she would show me different fabrics and I would pick out the ones that I liked. She also made the drapes and seat covers in our house. I feel like a lot of people have stories like this. My work in textiles is so connected to these memories, and I think they’re really important. When I work now I feel like my formal arts education is just as important as things like those memories or experiences that I had in a less formal way.
I then went to Kenyon College for undergrad and studied fine art and literature. My majors really informed each other, and having this liberal arts experience was always important to my practice. While at Kenyon, I did all kinds of artwork because it was a small art program—everyone had to take Intro to Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture, etc. It was actually really great because I feel like now I have a basic foundation in each of these disciplines. I did some sewing work like embroidered drawings and photographs, but not sculptural pieces like I am doing now.
Textiles were always something I was interested in, but didn’t really start working with [them] formally until I was in grad school at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). When I started at SVA, I began to make these paintings by sewing pieces of clothing together and then stretching them over stretcher bars. I would then cut and stitch them or add other things to the surface. While at SVA, my work just became more and more sculptural, and by the time I finished it looked more like the work I am doing today!
Photo by Daniel Natalo-Lifton
Where do you get most of your fabrics and textiles from? What kinds of materials are you drawn to using?
I mostly work with used clothing, usually my own, but have also been accepting donations from friends and family because I’m running out! In part, I like the idea of repurposing material and giving it new life. I never get rid of anything, and I particularly like using clothing that is very worn, or ripped or stained. I also think that taking things that might be perceived as waste and trying to find a new purpose for them is a limitation that can sometimes be inspiring to me.
When I was in grad school, most of the clothing I was working with was from high school and college. That time period is really interesting to me. Being a teenager is such a formative time, and I was really interested in using material that was so much about becoming a person and related to the things I used to think about. The person I was in high school, my artsy, sixteen-year-old self, comes up in my work now. I sometimes like to use literature or songs that I identified with as a teenager when titling my pieces. I feel like that time is so emotional and I remember hearing certain songs or watching movies, and feeling such a strong identification with it…like this person really knows and understands what I am going through!
I’m also interested in using floral patterns because I used to wear them all the time when I was little. Growing up in New England, my mother and grandmother wore floral a lot and my childhood home was just covered in that pattern—the couches, drapes, everything! I think florals are attached to the domestic and the feminine, which I like to play with in my work. Clothing is a really interesting material to use because people are so attached to their clothing…again, it’s very connected to memory and intimacy.
Photo by Daniel Natalo-Lifton
Take me through a day in your studio practice. What are some ways you sustain your practice?
That’s definitely something that I am still trying to figure out! When I was in grad school, I had a really steady schedule and a regular studio practice. After graduating, I did a one-month residency in Woodstock at Byrdcliffe, and had a certain practice while I was there. And now I’m here, and again my schedule has changed! Doing this residency circuit has been really great because I get to be in different places and meet new people, but it does make it difficult to have a really consistent practice.
I love to listen to podcasts and audiobooks while working. Sometimes I use the machine, but I mostly sew by hand so I spend a lot of my time sewing. I’m sure a lot of other artists who work in textiles have a similar experience, but it’s nice to listen to audiobooks and to get lost in a story. Sometimes when I look at my old work, I can retrace exactly what I was reading or watching at the time I was making it. Right now I’ve been really enjoying listening to Harry Potter, which just feels so indulgent. I’m mid-way through the fifth book, which is really dense and starting to get really dark! But it’s great because the Harry Potter books are so long. I’ll listen to it on the train or while I am working here at TAC. I also strongly identified with the Harry Potter series as a teenager, and when I listen to the books I have such an emotional connection.
Photo courtesy of Hanna Washburn
What do you think about while you work? Is there a conceptual thread that runs through your work in all of its phases?
I’m really interested in the body and the imperfection of the body as well as the way we perceive our bodies. I am thinking about lumpiness and lending physicality to feminine patterns. As I mentioned, I began working more in a painting style; everything was really frontal, hanging on the wall, and over time the pieces have just become more and more sculptural. The liminal space between painting and sculpture is also something that I’m interested in exploring.
I’m creating things that are difficult to place in a certain category—people are like that and bodies are sort of like that too. Sometimes the clothing or the patterns are recognizable…there is something that feels familiar but there is also something about my work that makes it difficult to immediately identify in a certain way. I’m interested in making objects that are colorful and squishy, that maybe seem approachable and non-threatening. But the more time you spend with them, you think, Hmm maybe I’m not actually sure what’s happening here. Maybe this isn’t as simple as I thought it was. People look at something and often think they know exactly what it is and how to feel about it. I’m actively trying to thwart this impulse—visually and thematically it’s something I definitely care about.
In some ways, I am also giving physicality to memory as well. I am interested in adolescence and how our bodies change and how we grow into them. Someone once told me in a crit[ique] that my pieces looked like phantoms emerging from my past, which I thought was really fitting. They have a domestic feel, they kind of look like furniture or things from a childhood bedroom. They embody these associations, but they don’t have a clear functional purpose. Sometimes I paint on them as well, adding another layer of material and composition is something that makes them feel like they’re in flux too.
Tell me about your experience thus far at TAC. Any projects or pieces you’re excited to work on during your residency?
I brought in a couple pieces that I had started and hope to keep working on or finishing during my residency like the one behind me on the brick wall. When I started at TAC, that piece looked really different and I didn’t like it at all! Same with the piece I am working on now. That’s definitely part of my process—to constantly rework and change the forms. This way of working still feels new to me, like I’m developing the visual and verbal language to talk about it. It’s definitely taking me a while to settle in, and I’m trying to give myself the space and time to experiment and figure out what’s going on!
All TAC residents host a workshop, and mine is towards the end of the month. I am going to be holding a community patchwork, where people come and design a patch that I will then stitch all together. I’m really excited because I have never had the chance to try something like this before!
Are there any artists or pieces of literature that you look to for inspiration?
One of my most favorite artists is Louise Bourgeois. She is definitely here in this room. Her retrospective at MoMA last year was amazing and really inspiring to me. Recently, I have also been thinking a lot about Kaari Upson and her installation at the Whitney Biennial. She left a found couch outside her studio, allowing it to be worn by time and the elements, and then cast pieces and parts of the couch that she installed in different places around the room. I’ve been reflecting on this work a lot recently as I think more about how I install my pieces, and the relationship between them and the architecture. I also recently read a series of essays by Margrit Shildrick called, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries, which was about the body and the ways that it is expansive and always shifting.
Photo by Hannah Wilton
How would you like people to experience your work? How do you like to share your works with an audience?
It’s been funny having the summer camp in this space because kids react so strongly to this work! I think kids really like to touch the pieces because they’re so colorful and feel familiar to them. They have this reaction where they see it and they immediately want to grab it and touch it. A lot of adults actually have this reaction too. Most times people ask if they can touch it and I usually say yes if I am here because I don’t mind and the pieces themselves are very resilient. I have had a few experiences where people just kind of grab the work, which can feel violating especially because they’re so much about the body. But I’m also interested in this response—I wonder if my work brings out a childlike instinctual reaction in people or some kind of physiological response.
Sometimes it can also be difficult to share my work when I feel like I’m still in the process of working on a piece. I don’t always feel confident sharing the work, but also know that it’s important to show it and get feedback. I’m sure this is something all artists struggle with! It’s been really great doing these residencies and being in different communities that are so supportive.
Do you have any dream projects or future directions you would like to take your work?
Yes, I am definitely interested in exploring the way that my pieces are installed and interact with each other. Someday, I would like to create a more immersive environment and play with the way the pieces fit together like a puzzle. I feel like my work has taken this natural progression from paintings that are very frontal, and now they’ve become more sculptural and multi-dimensional. I’m excited to lean into that more. I will also be doing another residency in September at Art Farm in Nebraska.
You can visit Hanna’s installation for Work In Progress from July 1 – 31, at TAC Manhattan studio, and learn more about her work and process during Artist Open Hours, on Saturdays 2-5 pm.
On Saturday, July 28th, Hanna will host a community patchwork workshop, inviting participants to create an original fabric swatch with needle and thread, paint, and other materials. Learn more and RSVP!