Friends of Friends

Friends of Friends

Here’s the writing I’ve been working on for Sushiro, minus footnotes I’m too lazy to reinsert on here. Go and see it, and have some little panko-crusted mushroom dumplings what are wonderously tasty. There’s a closing reception on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7pm. I’ll post a flier later.

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I sew needlepoint photographs of people I’ve never met, but know of through the stories and art community gossip of my friends.

I’ve always loved hearing about the friends of friends. I’m the sort of lady who has two or three good friends, and a bunch of acquaintances that I’m usually too shy to talk to at openings. My friend Jon used to work at a raver clothing store in Market Mall. During the day it was dead; the kids were in school and the mall was full of retired ladies having coffee. He’d call in the afternoon and tell me soap-operatic stories about people who worked in other stores: the Coachman, Claire’s, and A1 Aquarium. I was fascinated, having built the characters up in my mind as grandiose, almost mythic figures.

Art people and gay people tend not to stay long in Saskatchewan. They move here temporarily for a job/school, and within a few years move away. In between they leave as often as possible – for conferences, juries, or just visiting. They’re full of stories, and their characters stick in my head. I feel like I almost know them. They make up what I imagine as the Canadian art community in places I’ve never been. Sometimes I’d google them, curious to see what they looked like, to find more gossip, or just to keep them straight. It was always kind of sketchy. Before Facebook especially it was hard to know if the photo really was of the person I was looking for.

For months I’d been thinking about all these stories. I tried to write some of them down – the stoner who got stuck in a basement wall, the lady whose cat had its own chair at the table, the sexual conquests interrupted by angry raccoons. I wanted to find a way to illustrate them, but I’m a crappy drawer. I experimented with freehand embroidery and punch-needles before finding plastic canvas. I’ve always liked things in pixels – how they only look right far away, and dissolve into bits close up. It was perfect, and soon I became addicted.

One of the usual requirements for being called a “professional artist” is recognition and acceptance by ones peers (other artists) as such. Friends of Friends is, in part, about asserting my place in the art community by claiming social ties. I needlepoint people I hear about a lot: friends, ex-friends, coworkers, colleagues, roommates and students. They’re not always the good guys – sometimes people are more motivated to talk about people with whom they have a rivalry or (questionably-rational) hate-on. Subjects have “two degrees of separation” from me (i.e. they are known by one or more of my friends). They’ve all been talked about, and have become personalized through their narrative relationship to someone close to me. I’m not interested in acquaintances or celebrities someone saw once at a bar.

Friends of Friends also asserts the place of its subjects. If someone has made art about them they must be important, I imagine the viewer thinking. I have an ongoing performance project called LadyLady Helping Services, in which I help artists with things like sewing and design. I see Friends as being rooted in this helping work. A few years ago, with Populust, I “helped” Edmonton-based artist Jonathan Busch by setting up a fan site for his performance persona Lourdes the Merry Virgin without his prior knowledge. Friends too has a distinctly fannish aspect, in both its use of popular “craft” materials and obsessive, time-consuming production. It’s made in earnest about someone’s imagined persona. And like fan art, its subjects have little or no control over it.

Generally people I needlepoint don’t know about it (I think), although it’s not a secret. Some friends are really keen on the project, though, and I can count on stories traveling. I didn’t expect the project to actually create a relationship between me and the subjects, but it kind of did. Or just a very convincing perception of relationships.

In the summer of 2007 I was in Toronto telling a few friends about the project I’d been needlepointing obsessively during the visit. When I explain that I do people I know through gossip, the most common response is “Really!? What do you know?”. But I don’t usually spill. I don’t expect what seemed compelling to me to be blockbuster news to most people. One person in particular was dismayed. “Your project is about withholding gossip!”, he teasingly accused, and begged me to tell. But I don’t really feel comfortable retelling the stories, and I’m not particularly good at it; they aren’t mine. They might have been exaggerated to begin with, and by the time they’re memorable enough to hit yarn it’s probably impossible for me to unravel the truth from the (bigger! better! more!) embellishments in my head. I like it that people might try to imagine how I’m connected to the people in my portraits, or what they’ve done to deserve one.

The needlepoints in Friends of Friends are all the same size: sixty-nine stitches wide by eighty-nine stitches high . Framed as a box, one portrait contains exactly 9985 stitches, and takes 35-40 hours to complete, depending on the complexity and number of colours. The crisper the starting photo, the easier it is to work with. I prefer professional “publicity shots” or video stills if I can get them. Drunken snapshots at the bar don’t turn out very well, no matter how much I’d like them to. When I’ve found a good photo I crop it, index to 8-12 colours, and resize to 69×89 pixels. Then I print out two big copies – one with normal colour and another with false pattern colours that are easy to differentiate by the dim glow of cable TV, late at night.

The two odd-sized needlepoints are not part of the Friends of Friends series, but I wanted to include them anyway. Cheli Nighttraveller is a long-time friend of my partner’s who was in Saskatoon last October working on a performance project. This picture was taken at the farm where she met her bunny, George Binky. The Lesbian Rangers, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, are Winnipeg-based performance artists. This needlepoint is a replica of a well-known promotional shot.