Work In Progress: Micheal Sylvan Robinson
I met Micheal on a particularly cold Friday evening in October. I was greeted at the door by his grand smile, and immediately welcomed into the warmth of the studio, now turned into his personal space. The environment was inviting and kind, a spirit clearly created by his presence.
We chatted about New York in the 1980’s, identity, activism and fearful times. I left our conversation full of life advice and a stronger sense of importance in acting against fear.
We began our discussion on his most recent work, a collaged jacket created during his open workshop the week prior.
MR: “My workshop was about people composting fears and committing to action. It’s the first time I’ve had other people do the stenciling of the text, so they needed a little bit of time to practice with my techniques. The fears will be the inside of the coat, my work often includes an inside and an outside, and then the commitment to action will go on the outside.
My original inspiration for the garment was this woman in the 1800’s named Agnes Richter. She was a German seamstress who was institutionalized. She took apart her uniform and then hand embroidered her story on the inside and outside of the garment. It’s a piece that still exists. I thought, ‘wow, I’m sure people were doing everything they could to erase her story’ and this idea that she used the skills she had to keep her own sense of self was so interesting to me. Since then, I’ve been working with this inside-outside quality, the inside being more personal.
I knew when I was going to hold a workshop I wanted to try something that gave the text a more collaborative process. It was the first time I asked other people to generate the stories. They came and shared fears and wrote them down. People have been coming to visit me since I have been here. I have a little notebook and I have been asking people to leave their fears here by writing them into the notebook. I’m then adding them to hand stenciled work.
I’ve been finding it more challenging to have people say what they are going to commit to as action. I’m trying in my last week here to sort of have a call to action, I have been gathering the stories and now I want to say ‘what are we going to do?’ I think the action of releasing the fears is the most important.”
While in conversation with Micheal, I shared my personal fear and my commit to action in the notebook.
MR: “So I’m actually thinking for one of the jackets, making it joined at the sleeves, almost like a protest line, or you have a buddy, you’re not holding it by yourself. So I’m excited about that.
I have enjoyed the social engagement aspect working in this place [Textile Arts Center] has given me. It is not something I would say was a part of my work before coming here, but I have enjoyed getting to play with it.
It works with the idea that we are holding these things together, things that you often hold silently. I think we live in a really fearful time, and I have survived some fearful times. I feel like one of those old ladies that’s like do I still have to protest this shit? I thought we were done with it.”
A series of life experiences has led Micheal to where his work is now situated. Growing up, his family was constantly moving. By the age of sixteen, he was essentially responsible for himself, an age he says he would, now thinking back, would not have wanted to be. At this time, his family lived outside of New York City.
MR: “At that point my family was living in a house outside of New York and I was coming into the city as a young gay guy in the 80’s, really unaware of how in harms way I was and not having enough other queer people to stay ‘hey you’re in harms way, you have a target on you, you’re too young’. In some ways, I am fortunate that not worse happened to me.
A lot of my work now is thinking about trauma and the way that society traumatizes and silences. Especially now that I’m working with child sized garments, I think a lot about how those experiences are often younger than we credit them for. We think ‘Oh at 16 years old bad stuff started to happen’, but bad stuff was happening at six or seven years old in ways that don’t seem as nameable.”
Micheal later attended Bennington College for drama and dance, and after, Goddard College for his MFA. At Bennington, he worked in the costume shop and carried out that practice once leaving school. During one of his early teaching experiences, where he currently works again at Poly Prep School, he took classes in sewing and was making costumes for the school plays and shows. In this time, he realized he did not enjoy dressing other people.
MR: “Which is not great when the whole job of costume design is dressing others. So if you don’t like dressing people, it is not the job for you. I didn’t like talking about what was worn under the clothing, I really just wanted the clothes on people, but the actor wearing the piece wasn’t so appealing to me.
So when I went back to school I realized, ‘oh I can make clothing that people don’t wear, I can make clothing that is sculptural’. So I turned all of that technique I had spent so much time on into this new action.”
His work now emanates a wearable art quality, tactile and beautiful garments that look precious and untouchable, but upon my entrance to the studio I was encouraged to touch and feel them.
MR: “The piece I am working on right now, in the window, is a two dimensional piece called Inter-Generational Queer Conversations in Mid-life, thinking a lot about what I want to say, as someone who didn’t imagine I would be here in a midlife age group when I was younger and the odds were against me, who didn’t expect to live to be 30 let alone 50.
Back when I lived in the West Village I would see Marsha P. Johnson in the neighborhood, when people were not so loving to her, people were very judgmental of her crazy aesthetic. I thought she was amazing, even though I didn’t really know who she was. With her headpieces and garbage outfits, she was a notable fixture in my landscape. Then, I lived just blocks away from the piers when she was found dead and I realized it was hard terrain to survive here.
Now with this sort of hip new scope, marriage equality, and improved medications, especially coming from a generation that continued to die, it’s interesting to see and want to talk about. I didn’t lose as many as others did, but I lost lovers and friends who died before they were 30.
I had a colleague who brought a bunch of young gay men to see my art, which was great, but I had this sort of moment where I realized all of them were young enough to be my children [laughter], and their experience is so different than mine, in a good way, there are more visible options now and more agency.
For me, I am from a time when I was a teenager, I looked and was kind of a Boy George, Flock of Seagulls, Liquid Sky, and I had a lot of that for a long time, my clubbing nights were at Danceteria and Lime Light, in all kinds of outfits. I had a younger years where it was a lot about outfits and fun, but there was a whole chunk of time where survival felt very rigid.”
We continued our conversation on queerness and the importance of his identity and experiences in his work. The theme of activism holds a strong presence in his sculptural garments and his interest on collaged materiality.
MR: “My use of text comes right out of my activism background, you know writing things on my clothing, writing things on fabric and pinning them to my clothing. It’s interesting to me the clothing that I’m making now, the more sculptural pieces really is about the print and the texture and the combing things, and the text, an ability to join things, an assemblage of things that maybe shouldn’t go together. A mixing of this gorgeous precious lace and this paint splattered hand blocked text. This sort of ‘oh this has to be kept preciously’ is disappearing away.”
Understanding his background, his purpose and action in his work became more visible. Speaking on activism and its importance to his process, we carried on our conversation about how those specific experiences have placed in his current focus.
MR: “Even in my prime activism years, there wasn’t a lot of creativity in how people expressed themselves. I am currently a member of Gays Against Guns, which is an activism group countering gun violence, and it’s a very dynamic, costumed, playful, and my 90’s activism didn’t feel that way, it felt much more regimented. I think that my work also expresses that playful take too. One of the things that I know is really true for me, while I learned some really good protest and street action and all that stuff, and I’m glad I have all of that in my tool kit, I think what was more important that I learned in the 80’s is how to show up and care for other people. Part time drama teacher job and part time going to sit with someone in the hospital who was dying at 26 and doing all we could to keep the world from falling apart around us and in a more hopeful way, all of that felt really invisible at the time.
And now with my work I can express those struggles a little more explicitly. There is a deliberate playfulness of the work that I pay attention to, a sort of calling to the work ‘oh what is this’ intriguing aspect, while saying something intense in a playful container.”
Michael’s work is the prime combination of his worlds, tapping into past and present experience while capturing beautiful tactility and precise garment creation. His stories and conversation were incredibly interesting, and while not directly obvious, allowed for a full explanation of his work and its purpose.
MR: “I think the way activism and academic life for me I think that when I was a more vulnerable young person it felt like I couldn’t really share what was going on in the world around me when I was at school it was like ‘be at school and then leave school and not talk about how life outside intersected’. I think partially, who I am in the world, also what I know now what I would want to be as an educator, I am doing much better about keeping those things more integrated.
To keep my work and experiences closeted is to sort of lose the superpower that I bring to the table.”