Looking through a pile of pretty handkerchiefs, I read from a collection of 275 messages written in marker on fabric. As part of a Flux Projects event, Louisiana artist and teacher Jes Schrom invited the public to a sewing circle at Young Blood Gallery on Saturday, August 20, 2011. Participants donated several hours each to sit and carefully embroider a secret or two from our community. Some of Schrom’s Secrets of Atlanta were strikingly cathartic: “I’m probably gay;” “My dad doesn’t like me;” and “I lie about my age.” Others were funnier: “I am tempted to touch art at museums.”
I sat with about fifteen women, talking and stitching at fold-up tables in the funky salon of cute animal art, hand-sewn trinkets, and tattoo designs inside Young Blood. Light beamed down from the skylight over our temporary community of volunteers who offered to process the raw admissions of anonymous citizens. We jokingly wondered if any men would show up. (At least two did!) From eavesdropping, I noticed that the event seemed to attract young, serial crafters who discussed crafting events and role models. Other circling conversations were about gardening, vacations, and relationships. We talked about the secrets a bit, but not really our own (except for one person who was proud to admit she had shot a cat).
This project is only somewhat aggressive in its attempt to publicize personal information. The final embroidered handkerchiefs will hang in several public bathrooms this fall. In many cases, the artworks will be displayed in the very establishments where the secrets were collected, like Octane Coffee on the Westside and Aurora Coffee in the Highlands. A public bathroom is a somewhat private—and gender specific—place to “out” secrets. Is the artist trying to retain some sensitivity to privacy? Or, is she making a connection to the typically scatological scrollings of the stalls, which can be quite revelatory, at least in their honesty. Is she revering the public bathroom as a secular place for written confessions?
There is a certain amount of self-consciousness on the part of those who submitted a secret under this formula, but it’s certainly interesting to see what kind of secrets people keep. Apparently the secrets had to be edited. Schrom, who has franchised this project in other places like Minneapolis, said Atlantans in particular confessed to a lot of extramarital affairs, where those from the Midwest had more secrets about body issues.
So what were we doing turning invisible secrets into physical art to exhibit? Perhaps we are all a little nosy, enjoying the drama of a revealed secret. Or, when reading others’ anonymous disclosures, we relate to the things about ourselves we do not share openly. Schrom means to provide therapy as well as entertainment. But, I have to ask: Why sewing? Why handkerchiefs? Is it a practical choice in that they fit into the towel dispensers in the bathrooms? Or is it that sewing has an association with specific gender roles? Traditionally, women have gravitated toward the quiet, delicate, and time-consuming work of stitchery. Are they the ones in our society most likely to mend things, to offer us something to cry on, to mother us, and to have compassion for our secrets? Is Schrom somehow inviting men to give that role a try? I’m not sure.
After a decade-long revival of craft, the participatory aspect of this project seems conventional, and possibly an attempt to be popular. But I’m sure I’m the rare person annoyed by this in wanting it twisted a bit further; the project seems to result in a positive and meaningful ritual for local mainstream audiences. For sewing has certainly gained acceptance once again as an important artistic medium. Using a sewing circle is no less relevant a format than taking a photograph or making a painting.
In fact, using sewing as a medium is an important statement in contemporary times which are so flush with technology. Rare is the chance for average people to use their hands for something other than typing and pushing buttons.
Like other movements that reacted to the industrialization of humanity, we are in the midst of a twenty-first-century craft movement, which attempts to reconnect us with human touch and individual artisanship. In the late nineteenth century the Arts and Crafts movement sought to uphold traditional craftsmanship, using medieval, romantic, and folk styles of decoration. The sixties saw a repetition of this impulse against the machine with publications like Foxfire and the adoration of weaving and American Indian art. Ultimately, I’m glad Schrom attempts to handle secrets tenderly with thread and fabric (even if it’s trendy) instead of in an online forum or in neon. It says something about privacy and physicality, and in this case, in a manner that’s not too loud.