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AIR Highlight: Ryan Scails

This conversation took place on June 29, 2021 at the Textile Arts Center, and August 26 on Zoom, with Ryan Scails and Isa Rodrigues

Video Visual Description: 

Footage of Ryan Scails, wearing a off-white button down short sleeve shirt, blue shorts, golden earring, and a black face mask. In the foreground on the right hand side is the blurry silhouette of Isa’s light face and dark curly hair. The conversation is happening in Ryan’s studio at the Textile Arts Center, and Ryan and Isa are sitting across from each other. In the background, on the walls, are some of Ryan’s works, including drawings, material samples, a square canvas panel with indigo dyed modular inserts, and a dress form featuring some of Ryan’s clothing prototypes. At some point during the conversation, Ryan and Isa move to the front room at TAC, where Ryan talks about one of the works he’ll be showing at the exhibition. The interview ends with footage of Ryan and Isa talking on Zoom.

Ryan Scails (he/him) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. His work examines the nuances of materiality within the built world and how intentional shifts in details can give humans context in ways that confront the limits of their bodies and the matter that surrounds them. He's interested in the relationship between texture, contact and use, and feels linked to those factors as a matter of historical convention. As a person of color, he’s constantly attempting to navigate the embrace and resistance of his environment and considers his own body an example of material conflict. 

The presence of physical labor in much of his work is developed by systematically fortifying structures to resist caustic changes. He approaches elemental and personal histories through a forensic lens; working backwards to develop a better understanding of origin points. The results often include compounded drawings with unreasonable layers of material or information, overbuilt paintings composed for structural integrity, forms that embrace the idea of saturation, and garments made to empower the individual and facilitate exploration.

He received a BFA from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and his most recent exhibitions include ForGround at Peer to Peer, Los Angeles, CA; High Beams at TSA LA, Los Angeles, CA; Touching Down Lightly at Moonmist, Houston, TX; and a solo show titled Another Now at SARDINE, Brooklyn, NY. This fall, Ryan will be a resident at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for the Arts/Industry program in Sheboygan, WI.

Isa Rodrigues (she/her) is the co-Executive Director of the Textile Arts Center

Isa: Hi Ryan, good morning! Thank you for having me in your studio, it looks great in here. Would you like to start the conversation by introducing yourself and your practice?

Ryan: I’m Ryan Scails, I’m a multidisciplinary artist, based here in Brooklyn, I’ve been here for years. I make a lot of work, typically, with found objects but it kind of ranges from drawing, sculpture and also clothing. I sort of make things in the realm of fashion. And a lot of my work, I would say, kind of focuses on the idea of material conflict and just sort of the concepts of attrition, and habit, and use, and those factors being related to labor, in certain ways. And, I suppose, just kind of the consistency of how things get worn out over time, and what that looks like aesthetically, and what that says about cultural practices.

Isa: When did you start working with textiles? And what drew you to working with fiber as a medium?

Ryan: That’s a really good question. I’ve been sewing since I was pretty young. My mom taught myself and my siblings how to sew when I remember being pretty pretty young, but really kind of taking to it as a young teen, I think. Like learning how to make really simple objects, pillowcases and things like that, doing some repairs, and I kind of took to it in that way in terms of my own personal use, and fashion really was the application. I never really used it in my work, at least heavily, until the end of school, when I was at Cooper (Union) years ago. A lot of the elements in my show were actually sewn in ways that I guess I was trying to almost supplant the act of welding in a certain way because I attribute them…oftentimes, I think the construction is really one to one, in certain ways. The pattern making, the sort of immediacy of all of it, the sort need to be kind of exacting as you go in, to avoid as many mistakes as possible. For my thesis show there, I made this really long dropcloth, in the sense that I really just bought a massive bolt of fabric and finished the seam on both sides. So it was a good like 100 yards of material. It’s never really my intention, but it’s very much the kind of endurance sort of sewing that I kind of got used to in a lot of my work. (laughs) Because I was sitting there with this long continuous piece of fabric, sort of in the middle of this long columnated hall, with some of the fabric slumped over a small table and my machine and stuff. And I always liked this idea of joining things quickly, and I’ve always seen fiber as a really worthwhile way to do that. Because I pay close attention to materiality, and fabric has so much nuance to it, and so much texture and movement, more so than I found metal really did, in certain ways. Yeah, so I love to be able to move really quickly and fiber allows me to do that.

Photo Credits: Isa Rodrigues

Isa: Yeah, one thing that I find really striking in your work is that attention to construction details, and how it’s all so thoughtful and so engineered, and it serves a purpose but it serves almost as a drawing. And the same attention to the materiality. The materials also feel very intentional, like there’s no pairing that happens by accident. I’d love to hear you speak more about the importance of materiality in your work and if you have any favorite fibers or favorite materials that you feel you’re drawn to.

Ryan: Yeah, I use a lot of really simple plain canvas. And I really enjoy the act of manipulating that, something really rudimentary I guess, and kind of illuminating its qualities but also seeing how far I can almost  (take it)… In a lot of my work I’ll leave some of those parts bare or the origin point of that material, and then shift a little bit, slightly, with a dye or mark making of some sort, or a finish. I’ve been waxing things recently, and I really enjoy that because it feels like it makes something almost completely new, kind of covering up or filling in pores in a certain way. A lot of my work kind of airs on the side, or at the very least, with an interest in sustainability. That’s something I find fascinating in general, but in that I kind of lead with in my life, with purchases and just being a consumer in general. The work that I make with those sentiments in mind... they feel more like bodies, I suppose. So the materiality that I’m sort of seeking is something that creates objects, pieces that I’m kind of setting up for a life of some sorts. So the material connections that I’m making, for me, feel like appendages more than they do (feel like) accessories and things. Like you said, there’s no wayward intentions at all, like I do mean for these sorts of connections and joints to be, I don’t how you’d put it, almost like.. It’s not necessarily to stave off entropy but it’s just to prepare them for it in a certain way. Because I do, very much, contemplate the life of objects in a cyclical way. So for me, what I’m always seeking is how to prepare something, prepare a body for an eventual life. And (for) change, you know, the inevitable change.

Photo Credits: Isa Rodrigues

Isa: Ryan, can you tell us more about what has been the focus of your research studio practice over the last nine months?

Ryan: Yeah, it feels like it took me a while to get to this point (laughs). We learned so much in the first few months of this program. It’s wide ranging and generous and for someone like myself, I was just taking a lot of notes, and really really loving it. (laughs) But to get to the point where we can actually apply all these things that we’ve learned, it took me a little while to kind of focus. I feel like I’ve been kind of interested in surfaces a lot, and the finishing of fabrics. And even just the idea of manipulating fabrics to make them behave differently is something I’ve been interested in. I’ve wanted to try waxing things for a long time. So I’ve been working on this kind of modular object, called Anti Exposure Unit, because this is something that I’ve been thinking of in the realm of both fashion and art kind of object.

(Pointing at two sculptural works made of sewn canvas units connected through lacing) This is a use of it in sort of an insulated iteration, and this one right here is one that is flat and just waxed. Both of the main surfaces are the pretty typical canvas that I tend to use, and here, with this one, it’s actually insulated with kapok fiber. I’ve been thinking a lot about how, I guess in all of my work, surface affects things in a sensory way. What I love about these is that fundamentally they behave differently, in terms of how they affect things spatially. As in this (object) is absorbing and suppressing sound, and this (one) is actually a little more rigid and inadvertently kind of bouncing sound off of it, which is not necessarily the first thing someone would think of when they see a waxed piece of fabric. But for me it’s not just about the sort of practical application of a wax, which is typically to be weather resistant and those sorts of things, but it’s about how it kind of deflects, I think. I’ve been thinking a lot about, specifically, passive sound art sort of works, actually. And how all of that relates to how we, how bodies, clothed bodies move through space. So it’s been about how I do, even once the program is done, get back into knitting and weaving, so I can create the material myself a little bit better, or a little more comprehensively from start to finish. Because I’m really into the idea of fiber on a molecular level really. Even spinning and those sorts of things, getting down to like the first parts.

 (Pointing at other works on the wall) And I even did some works here, which were some of my first ones actually, very different from all the other stuff I eventually was making. But these sort of things were in line with the found object work I typically make, but they were all off cuts from other work. These two pieces are actually from a pair of gloves I never completely made. They were sort of mistakes if you will, kind of scrap pieces that I needed to work through something to continue to make work really. It got me to the point where I could make all this other stuff. I’m really interested in how to manipulate pre-existing fabrics, and strengthen them, figure out how to weatherproof things, and almost even like, not necessarily arrest time, but figure out ways to fortify fabrics, if I can. I think that has to do with the finishing as well, and just how I apply different mediums.

Isa: You’re mentioning earlier the first months of exploration here at TAC, where you were learning about the studio but also new techniques. Would you like to share more about your experience as a resident at the Textile Arts Center? Were there any highlights of the program?

Ryan: Many highlights, for sure (laughs). For someone that has been sewing for a really long time and experimenting in that way, it’s been really wonderful to come to a space, a program, that is focused on fiber in a way that I don’t think I’ve sort of forced myself to just think about just one medium in a certain way, even though every single one of us as a different approach towards it. I would say that one of the biggest highlights is something that I didn’t get into until a lot later actually, was getting into indigo dyeing, that you helped me with. I remember that I had done some natural dyeing in the past, but indigo is very different, in really particular ways. And that happened to be a class that I missed so I was a little reluctant, and just a little bit scared (laughs).  Oh I don’t know how to do this and, you know, really just overthinking it. And once we did it I was like “oh this is easier than I thought” and also, it has honestly expanded my ideas and my practice, and it just opened a ton of new pathways. It’s ability to transform is really impressive. It is sort of an alchemical process, it’s so lovely. I’d say that just science in general, many different disciplines, it’s such a large part of what I do and how I think and how I display my ideas, in a sort of engineering sort of way. So I’ve been really into that. And just figuring out new ways, even if I hadn’t done them per se, figuring out new ways to influence fabrics. I want to do a lot more knitting, that was a really wonderful sort of thing to discover. I probably had seen domestic knitting machines but never really understood how they work at all, and I’m excited to do more of that. I hope to, with the natural dyeing in particular, with the indigo in particular, I’d love to get into resists, like wax resists and things like that. Because I’ve been thinking about that more in the act of mark making, sort of the reductive approach, almost like sort of using an eraser to kind of create lines, very like you know William Kentridge like in a certain way, like a ghost image creating movement in a certain way. I’ve talked about drawing a paramount and it really is such a large part of my practice, that it has been fruitful to figure out, or to just apply new ways to make drawing more than it typically is. More than it is as flat work in my practice and just taking the line to three dimensions and figuring out how it expands my sculptural work, how performance can create lines, how the body can make lines and those sorts of things. I’ve really enjoyed even just having all the handouts and notes that we’ve taken through different courses. I now have a library of a wealth of knowledge to use and come back to use, at the studio as well. I hope to get into more. There were certain things like certain classes that I wasn’t able to take because I just wasn’t available at the time, but I want to do some embroidery and sashiko and that sort of stuff so there are many more things to get into. But I’d say the biggest highlight was the blue of indigo for sure (laughs).

(Ryan and Isa are in the front area of the studio, looking at one of Ryan’s sculptures)

Isa: Ryan over the last weeks we’ve been talking more about the final exhibition in September, which kind of acts as a culminating time for the program. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re planning to present at the final exhibition?

Ryan: Yeah, I’ve been making, I’ve mentioned, work that is about conditional objects and things, and kind responding to things, things that I’ve encountered here. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about, I guess the term would be almost like pre-industrial engineering, sort of ad-hoc kind of construction that people do personally for themselves in certain communities and things that are kind of made-up to serve really specific purposes, not widely disseminated, all that sort of stuff. That's how I think about some of these sculptural works that I’ve been making. This piece felt like sort of a break-through. I’d call these chairs here, these are sort of conditional objects to me because they’re things that I’ve encountered here, that we all encountered here. They were, for me, kind of indicative of the program, in the sense that there are many many of these ikea chairs here, and they are pretty much in everybody’s studio. And I decided to respond to them and present them in a different way. For me, this whole piece is really just about almost showing action, or the act of construction in a certain way, or at the very least insinuating that something is constantly in progress. There’s this element of direction and construction, and people can see that these chairs, or whatever objects are underneath, don’t typically live this way, but they’re reconstituted in a way that kind of gives them a different meaning, I think. Because right now there’s no real function as they typically survive but the concept of the chair is sort of reapplied. So I have been working with this idea to make almost architectural elements or product design like elements just out of fiber, out of fabrics. So I made these soft hinges here and decided to finish the edges of this cotton cord with plastidip, which is a material that I’ve used a lot in the past, very kind of robust and intense sort of stuff to finish seams basically and make sure things don’t fray. Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to, essentially make objects that can, I guess I sort of talked about the joy of labor, celebrate the spaces that they’re in but also give one a concept of movement through space and, you know, almost presenting the idea of installation as a part of the work too. Because I think that can get lost sometimes. Sometimes we go to art viewing spaces and things are just built up, and whether or not we wonder how they got in that way is one thing, but I think obscuring it is really kind of tragic actually, because it’s such a large part of how artwork is, how it survives in spaces,.. Yeah, I just want to make as much artwork as I can that kind of shows everything, shows the whole process, and dives deep into the aspects of art making that some people kind of dismiss.

Photo Credits: Isa Rodrigues

(Isa and Ryan are now talking on Zoom, on August 26, 2021)

Isa: Ryan thank you for being back here with me again. We had some mysterious (thing) happening with your last question and the recording went missing. So here we are again because we do want to know about your future plans and projects for after the residency. So two months after the residency, what are you up to? (laughs) 

Ryan: Yea right, how have things changed and shifted in these two months (laughs). I think my intentions, when I was mentioning during the original interview, are pretty similar. I’m very close to leaving for this other program, for the Kohler Arts and Industry residency. In between this time I think I mentioned taking a bit of a break, but I haven’t been that great at it, until very recently. I began working at an artist studio for the last, basically once we left TAC to kind of now, to basically late last week, I was working at an artist studio nearly full time. Which was a wonderful experience and something that was definitely very opportune, because, you know, I sort of needed to generate funds before I left for Wisconsin and everything, but it’s been a lot. But it’s also kind of been another twist and turn informing my work a little bit and what I want to do once I get to Kholer. I’ve been thinking about how to integrate textiles and fiber more in the work that I’m going to pursue when I’m out there, when I’m out in the Midwest. Trying to figure out how to, I don’t know, do some kind of slow and kind of patient work in the act of form building and mold making and things like that. For more context, I’m going to be working in ceramics, once I’m out in Wisconsin, which is a bit of a departure, but there’s a lot of, I guess in terms of form, a lot of relatable moves that I’ve been mulling over in terms of my practice. So I’ve been trying to think about cloth in the finished sense and fiber. Thinking about cloth in terms of a working class kind of almost accessory or sort of tag along in terms of how people who do physical labour or engage in physical labor wipe things down and clean things off, or take care of themselves with, you know ,small hand towels and things like that. Thinking about the towel, (which) is something I used in my work in the past, basically thinking a lot about care and personal hygiene and things like that. So I’ve been thinking about the towel as this, and the hand towel in particular, as this sort of universal kind of transferable object when it comes to the world of the working class in a certain way, and this thing that is kind of a signifier, and equitable volume if you will. This thing that occupies space but means different things in terms of how it’s used, when it’s used. So I wanted to shift this project that I was proposing for my stay at Kohler, actually to do multiples of folded towels and doing sort of a slip casted kind of iteration. So I’m about to reach out to one of the techs there to talk about that. Because my original proposal was very different (laughs).

Isa: You were also mentioning, on the first take of this question, that you’ll be looking again at a project that you’ve been developing over the last few years, which is your clothing project/brand. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? What can we expect in the next months, year, after you take your break?

Ryan: Yes! (laughs) Hopefully even sooner, to be quite honest. It’s a funny moment that I’m very close to everything at once, you know (laughs). Which makes it a little bit overwhelming but exciting too. Getting a lot of help. Clothing as a medium, fashion as a medium, is something that I’ve always been interested in but I’ve been diving into it a little more seriously as of late, with a lot of help. It’s probably the most collaborative kind of art form that I work in I suppose. And that’s been really eye opening and kind of formative in terms of my experience at TAC and working with a really great mentor Tara (St James). What I like about what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to make with this brand, is that I’m not in any way divorcing it from the rest of my art practice, and even personally need to keep reminding myself that it is just another thing that I make in a certain way. Although it’s getting out in the world, and being marketed in a different way, I suppose, it’s very much an ongoing art project. So it’s called Livincloth and it’s really centered around the idea of making, eventually it’ll be sort of an acute focus on outerwear, you know, kind of a focused approach towards making tech wear if you will, almost technical garments that are made with natural sustainable materials. Trying to avoid the use of petrochemicals and unnecessarily utilizing adhesives and taped seams and melting things that don’t need to be melted, that sort of stuff. Just trying to do things that are kind of robust and useful and, you know, the type of things that create joy for the wearer but that don’t necessarily cause detriment to the environment that they’re made in and how they’re used over time. So I’ve been kind of focusing on many different, I think, not practices necessarily and bodies of work, maybe, while I was at TAC, and the clothing was this ongoing thing that I was getting really great just feedback and guidance from everybody involved really, but especially Tara St James, my sustainability mentor there. I think what people can expect is more accessories to start out. I’ve got a few shirts that I’m going to be presenting as a pre-order option. There are some that you’ve definitely seen in the past that are really really close to production, some linen things and then some similar shirts to some of the things that you’ve already seen in a flannel as well, for the colder months. So I’m trying to do that, I’m working with a natural dyer. Basically the idea is that I want to going forward kind of make everything in white essentially and then based on interest and pre-order campaigns figure out what dyestuffs and what natural colors people want to work with, which is kind of fun. So like every season… or, I’m probably not necessarily, I say season, but I don’t see myself working in that way, you know, thinking three-four years ahead, and that sort of thing. I’m more interested in establishing things that really work and that people respond to and if they sell well over time, you know, in sort of a made to order format, then I’ll continue doing it, but as soon as things, kind of like peter out I’m not going to continue putting it out in the world, that doesn’t feel responsible to me. So yeah, it’s going to be like inventive utilitarian garb if you will, a lot of smocks and pullovers and stuff you can kind of take a little walk in, or be in your studio and do things in. And hopefully graduate to coats, like parkas, and trenches and stuff like that, things that are waxed and reinforced and gusseted and all that stuff which is you know what  I love. Sew until you can’t anymore. (Laughs)

Isa: It’s all so exciting! Congratulations Ryan, for your residency and definitely looking forward to seeing Living Cloth out in the world. Very exciting projects ahead.Thank you so much for sharing and I hope you get the break that you need and very much so deserve right now (laughs)

Ryan: (laughs) In do time, in do time.

The TAC AIR 12 Final exhibition, Considering Mass and Density, will be on view at the Textile Arts Center from September 13-26, 2021.


Artist Highlights