With the Wind
52"H x 86"W x 9"D
Crochet Jam invites
participants to communally crochet Spirit Tapestries from shredded rags,
harkening back to traditional craft practices of
reusing and transforming textiles. In these free, public events, artist
RAMEKON O'ARWISTERS offers a public space for nourishing a sense of
belonging and connection between strangers, as well as the possibility
of liberation through creativity. Ramekon earned a Masters of Divinity
from Duke University and is currently a curator of exhibitions at the
SFO Museum and a guest
lecturer at various Bay Area colleges. He was 2002 Artadia Awardee
and a 2014 Eureka Fellow. If you live in the Bay Area, you can be
part of Crochet Jam this fall at the following venues: Root Division
(September 26, 2015) and Light Up Central Market, sponsored by the Luggage Store Gallery (Sept 30 2015). Crochet Jam will also be at the NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California on November 14, 2015. Ramekon lives in San Francisco.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You have a Masters of Divinity from Duke
University. How does this background influence the work you make? Tell
us a little about your path as an artist.
Yes, I was in divinity school in my mid-twenties. Fortunately for me,
and I believe for all of those around me, divinity students at that time
were taught to be critical of the sources and not to rely on blind
faith. We were taught biblical Hebrew and Greek, so we could translate
from the original text and not rely on standard translations. We were
taught to trust our own translations of the text, and to analyze the
scriptures with regard to the historical context in which they were
written. We asked questions like Who was the audience? and What was the social and political framework during that time?
It was a powerful way to teach young people to be independent and
self-reliant. Until this time, no one in my family had even read the
bible; we had relied on the local preachers within our community to
interpret for us. They authoritatively told us what to think and feel
and how to act from the advantage point of the pulpit.
was in divinity school, I was also a practicing artist and had
local-gallery representation for my abstract works on paper. As an
artist, I was liberated to paint and draw whatever I had the courage to
envision. And I did. I painted with the homemade grape wine. I dipped
rocks and sticks into paint to make marks. Much later, I drew portraits
of nude models using charred Brazil nuts.
Early in my
professional ministerial training, I realized that my real job—outside
of the sacred walls of academia and from the pulpit of the church—was to
maintain the status quo and encourage conformity. In that role, I felt I
was not meant to be an instrument of liberation but to continue to
incarcerate the minds of others into an unsophisticated and dangerous,
narrow-mindedness about religion. What frightened me more than the fact
that I was not aiding in the liberation of others was the fact that
others were hesitant to embrace a different way of understanding the
bible. People outside of the university didn't want to think differently
about how interpretations of the bible can cause spiritual, political,
psychological and economic hardship.
It dawned on me at the age
of twenty-five, that if the church was not willing to embrace new ways
of viewing scripture, then it would certainly not embrace a queer
lifestyle. Overwhelmed by the striking contradictions between the
revolutionary and transformative teachings of Christ—love, acceptance,
tolerance and forgiveness—and the present reality of the church, I
decided to finish my degree and move to Tokyo to embrace spirituality
through my creativity and paint and draw there. I lived in Tokyo from
1986 until 1991, when I moved to San Francisco.
Crochet Jam, Second Annual Family Art Day at the Shipyard
San Francisco. Presented by ArtSpan
OPP: Tell us about the history of Crochet Jam.
When I was growing up in North Carolina, I helped my paternal
grandmother, Celia Jones Taylor (1896–1982) make quilts. Quilt-making
with her is one of my fondest childhood memories. I was embraced,
important and special. I felt like a little black boy hiding my queer
self from my family during the harsh reality of state-sanctioned Jim
Crow oppression of black people in the U.S. and before the turbulent
years of the Civil Rights Movement that spread throughout the country.
My grandmother let me add any color or pattern I wanted to her quilt. It
didn't matter if the strip of fabric that I selected did not fit the
color scheme or any particular standard quilt-making pattern, that
wasn't important. Togetherness and sharing stories and feelings while
calmly quilting was important. There wasn’t any judgment. Our quilting
bees were calm, relaxing and peaceful, just the type of atmosphere a
confused, little black queer boy needed when the world outside of my
grandmother’s house was often negative, hostile and unforgiving.
My social practice project Crochet Jam
embodies this tenderness, compassion and warmth. I decided to start a
community-art project that enabled groups of people to collectively work
on a piece of art in public with strangers. The focus is on relaxation
and human connection. I want participants to be in a creative mindset
without anyone dictating the creative process, nor worrying about the
finished product. Crochet Jam is how I make liberation a form of art.
The project originally began in 2011 with small sewing events with friends that I called Stitch. I was awarded a second Individual Artist Commission Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission Cultural Equity Grant Program in 2011 for Sugar In Our Blood,
an exhibition in 2013 that was an autobiographical approach to explore
society's sexual stereotyping of the LGBTIQA and the African-American
communities. The community joined me weekly at my home to cut and hand
sew rag rugs. Stitch transformed into Crochet Jam with my
artist residency at the de Young. The museum's leadership supported my
community-based project but did not want to include using needles to sew
the fabric. I agreed, but I needed to figure out a way to attach the
fabric without needle and thread. A breakthrough occurred when a friend
mentioned to me that I was making rag rugs—you can also crochet rag
rugs! Crochet Jam was born.
African American Art and Culture Complex, San Francisco
OPP: How has the project evolved over the years?
RO: For almost five years, I have presented Crochet Jam events at galleries, museums, San Francisco International Airport, a community shelter, schools,
and a hospice and in cities around the country—San Francisco, Oakland,
Chico, New York City, Miami Beach, and Greensboro, North Carolina.
Including Stitch and Crochet Jam, I believe that I have
facilitated nearly a hundred events. What has changed is that I am not
as concerned any more about only hosting Crochet Jams at museums and art centers. I plan to take Crochet Jam
to communities within the industrial-prison system, including youth
within our government's juvenile-detention centers, foster-care
facilities, domestic-violence shelters, homeless shelters, hospitals,
and hospice-care centers. But I believe that I am the one most
positively impacted by Crochet Jam. We all want to be liberated and not judged. I am liberated by the gift of Crochet Jam and I'm pleased to share it with others.
, Radical Craft Night,
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz, California
While crocheting can be wonderfully relaxing, teaching crochet to
beginners is exhausting! Do you experience social practice fatigue?
Well. Let me think. I only know one type of stitch in crochet:
single-stitch crochet. So I can't really say that I am a crochet artist
or really a crochet teacher. I am a social-practice artist. What I do is
provide an opportunity for participants to experience liberation,
creativity and social interaction using the folk-art tradition of
crocheting rag rugs—organic, free-form, rag-rug tapestries. Crochet Jam
is very symbolic in that I provide an opportunity for acceptance and
non-judgment through public, community-based events with strangers using
a folk-art tradition in a non-traditional manner for a non-traditional
Crochet Jam is liberating because no one is
dictating the creative process, nor judging the finished product. Once I
show participants—even five-year-olds!—how to single-stitch crochet and
how to attach strips of fabric, then they can add any pattern or color
they want to the tapestries. They are free to be as creative as one can
be using a large wooden rag-rug crochet hook and strips of fabric. I
keep telling the participants, add any pattern or color you want. But they still feel the need to consult with me, seeking my approval or feedback, and I gently repeat: Please add any color you want. Some even ask, Does this look good? Is it right? My reply is, How does it feel?
give up my perceived authority and ask the participants to trust their
creativity, their vision, and trust the material to reveal what it will.
We are hardwired to please others and to be judged by what we create
and produce. I am very happy that Crochet Jam has come to me; it is a gift that I freely share with others. I am extremely fulfilled and grateful that I am the conduit for Crochet Jam. I can only be liberated by liberating others. For me, that is the supreme power of art—to liberate.
Fabric, ceramic, glass, metal
100"H x 95"W x 36"D
OPP: Two of your solo exhibitions—Sugar In Our Blood: The Spirit of Black and Queer Identity (2013) at the African American Art & Culture Complex and Communing With the Unseen: African Spiritual in Contemporary Art
(2012) at the de Young Museum, both in San Francisco—address the
intersection of identity and spirituality. How do you define
RO: For me spirituality has nothing to do
with religion. Given my training, religion was about following rules,
respecting authority, dogma, ritual and the mistreatment others who
believed differently. Religion is antithetical to the spiritual well
being of the population. Spirituality, on the other hand, is about the
degree to which one is conscious, grounded, open and connected to the
universal forces that create all things.
It has taken some
time for me to embrace who I am spiritually, racially, sexually,
politically and artistically. Family, friends, communities, societies
and governments force conformity. We learn to deny who we are for the
pleasure of others, ultimately for the pleasure of the state. What I
feel I have had to deny the most over and above my sexuality is my
spirituality. I am spirit. This statement offends the powerful because
they cannot control it. Within the mega structure of the church system,
the masses are controlled through dogma, ritual and conformity.
Spirituality in all of its many glorious forms is a powerful thorn in
the body politic.
Where We Are
Fabric, photos, wood, paper
48"H x 84" W x 12"D
OPP: How does your solo work and your social practice work address spirituality in different ways?
In my solo work, I define what's important. I accept and take my clues
from my creative vision. At one of my recent group exhibitions, the
curator informed me that a friend's five-year-old daughter said that
"putting a rag rug on the wall is silly." Brilliant. What makes it
silly? Well, rag rugs belong on the floor, not in a place of reverence
like on the wall. This concept of keeping things and, by extension,
people in their places is the backbone of conformity. I accept my
creativity, my vision, as a spiritual act. Similarly, my social practice
allows others to be themselves, to connect with others and to be
liberated in a non-judgmental environment. It takes a great deal of
courage to be liberated. For me, it starts with accepting and embracing
spirituality through creativity.
To learn more about Ramekon and Crochet Jam, please visit crochetjam.com
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in
cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is
an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006,
and was a 2012-2013
Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian,
Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart,
a durational, collage
installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago).
Stacia recently completed an installation for Chicago Artists'
Coalition's 2015 Starving Artist Benefit and is currently working
towards a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien,
for O’Connor Art Gallery at Dominican University (River Forest, IL). The
show will open on November 5, 2015.