EK Interview : Melissa Maddonni Haims
By the blind architect
Melissa Maddonni Haims is a connoisseur of yarn. She’s hot off the Venice Biennale and going to be creating an exhibit for Art Basel in Miami for Select Art Fair in December of this year. Her work with yarn spans the realm from street art (a la yarn bombing) to philosophical installations (heaven and hell). Check out her interview for a deeper look…
Please introduce yourself, what’s your name, where is home?
My name is Melissa Maddonni Haims and I am a fiber artists based in Philadelphia. I grew up here in the suburbs, moved away for 15 years (5 traveling, 10 in New York) and came “home” in 2005. I live here with my husband and our 11 year old daughter.
Tell us about the installation you’re doing at Select Art Fair? How long have you been working on it? How many colors are you using? Some of your work uses text, some not, will your work at Select use any text? How long did it take you to be proficient enough at crochet to start incorporating text into your work?
I’m doing something really different this year at Art Basel and I’m excited to be showing it at Select Fair. This is my second year at Select – in 2012 I did a public installation on the Mezzanine of the Catalina Hotel. I yarnbombed the entire railing, which was about 100 linear feet of crochet. It took me about 8 straight weeks to crochet, about 25 hours to install.
This year I am showing in both a gallery room and the Zen Garden. The Zen Garden is a small, intimate public space that I will be showing a sculpture of crocheted rocks called “Offering”. The colors are very subdued, very natural. Many people think the work is actual rocks in photographs or from far away, but in reality they are plush – stuffed with recycled materials and crocheted around with ordinary colors. They are kind of like sweaters for rocks.
When this work showed for the first time this past spring in Philadelphia, it was very text heavy. There was a book, there was poetry, there was a lot of talking. The work is for my oldest and best girlfriend who was killed by a drunk driver in 2011. I am still contemplating exactly how to show the work on it’s own, without all of the photography and stories. But a giant pile of crocheted stones should really be able to stand on it’s own. I think.
Additionally, I’ll be in room 112 showing totally different work along with a friend of mine, painter Constance Culpeper. She’s a painter who is bringing these really amazing paintings of interiors in these bright and beautiful colors. I am bringing a series of yarn bombed chairs – the colors are super bright and fun and funny. All of the chairs are different shapes and sizes. They are unexpected, which is what I do best. Unexpected materials in unusual places.
There will be no text on the chairs. I’m kind of done talking right now.
How did the idea of hyperbolic crochet come about? How deeply have you delved into the mathematics of hyperbolic planes? What real world objects do you draw inspiration from for your hyperbolic crochet? Where does the cathartic content come from?
Hyperbolic crochet happened quite by accident for me. After I became proficient at knitting I wanted to experiment with crochet because I felt it had this beautiful ability to be sculpted – and it does. In fact, I rarely knit anymore. I came across the hyperbolic formula after viewing the Hyperbolic Reef project (Institute For Figuring (IFF)) and when I realized that what they were doing looked exactly like what I was doing, that’s when I began researching the mathematical formulas – the geometry of the hyperbolic plane. I am really inspired by the beauty of hyperbolic crochet – like ruffled mushrooms, or a coral reef – it’s thick and beautiful and improbable. I like to mimic that. In fact, I’m working on a project focused on biomimicry in fungus and crochet.
Catharsis is really important in my work. I find that this type of crochet, this repetitive motion, becomes very meditative. And like cathartic writing, the repetitive motion with your hands can free your mind and allow it to be more open. Kind of like a monk who might meditate while walking along a circular path. Or moving their hands along mala prayer beads while chanting.
In terms of cathartic content; I’ve had the realization in the last few years that the majority of my work is steeped in death and dying. And I’ve accepted it and really run with it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but death affects us all and I have found a way to celebrate it and honor those who have passed on in a really beautiful way.
What got you into working with textiles? How do you find the textiles that you work with? Where do you find the vintage and heirloom fabrics that you use? What is your favorite color? Do you find you use it often?
Back in art school, they teach you about materials; where to get them, the quality and how to prepare them. Everyone was using the same thing, cotton duck, stretched on wooden bars. Then gesso. I remember after my 2nd or 3rd year that I really was bored of this typical expectation and wanted to differentiate my work and so I turned to the fabrics I had on hand – sheets, towels and clothing. I started stitching them together on my grandmother’s sewing machine and painting on them. This was in the mid 1990’s and I don’t think I’ve ever bought a piece of fabric (especially duck) since. I refer to the fabrics I uses as either vintage (if someone has entrusted their own old and important fabrics to me) or heirloom (fabrics that have meaning to me and my family – like the bed sheets my father slept on as a child).
I am really terrified of color in my every day life, but with my work I am much more experimental. I really like to mix colors that don’t “go”, kind of the way my grandmother used to make afghans out of the little bits and balls that she had, color be damned. And with the vintage and heirloom fabrics, the color is there, I just put the pieces together and really, this shit knits itself.
Your commentary on the reuse of afghans, of the cloths of our grandmothers seems your work hopes to honor them, where does this emotion come from? Are you connected strongly to your grandmother?
I was very connected to both of my grandmothers. They lived very close and were always around. I never had a babysitter as a child – it was always my grandparents or my siblings. And when I was with my grandmothers, they were always making. Making dinner, making cookies, making booties, making making making. My mother was the same way, but different in a way I can’t explain. She was more utilitarian and more experimental. She followed patterns, occasionally, while my grandmothers churned out the exact same things over and over and over; afghans, bedspreads and booties. The end. Every once in a while one of them would bust out with a baby sweater, but really that was rare. And they did it in private where they could concentrate – the others were mindless and brought everywhere.
Do you consider your work a counter force to new age ideas of consumption, and the distance we seem to have created from heirlooms?
I do. What to do with the yards and yards of knitted and crocheted blankets that our grandmothers made? As our society moves farther away from handcrafted items for necessity and closer to a more disposable way of life, how do we remain loyal to our grand protectors? What were our grandmothers, after all, besides guardians of our families? Sentinels of the kitchens. They made sure we had enough to eat. That we had enough love, that we were safe. That we were warm. I create from these pieces from our past work that honors our matriarchal history.
As a culture we seem to pursue consumption on such a level that we want objects that are so well made they stay in our families for years, they’d be stale, old, what’s your personal response to this?
As I grow and see these afghans more often in thrift stores than on couches; wrapped around furniture for moving, in my own basement on a shelf, I think of what a terrible thing it is to be treating these blankets as disposable items. To pay homage to our grandmothers I have collected these afghans and turned them into physical representations of the grandmothers that created them. Their human size and form creates a warming space of remembrance of those who loved and cared for us.
You seem to value heirlooms highly based on the commentary on your site, would you say that’s a correct assumption? How do you think we can address the culture of consumption?
That’s kind of funny, because the only way to truly value them is to buy them and therefor become a part of the consumption culture. My real dream is to touch something in people that makes them want to come to me with their heirlooms, let me take them and create them into something that can be shown, loved and lived with in a new way.
How can we honor our grandmothers and all the work they did?
We can do the same. We can model them in our every day lives. We can be giving and loving and warm. We can be human. When someone tells me I drive like a granny, it makes me happy – I’m waving people along. And all the while I have crocheting in my lap so I can get a couple of stitches on as then go.
Heaven and Hell was your piece for Art Basel 2011, can you tell us about it?
The piece almost looks like a collection of stalactites and stalagmites, was this your intent? The two sides seem to be reaching towards each other, crossing the center boundary in places, what did you hope the viewer to walk away from the piece thinking? Our society seems to be increasingly polarized, do you think the diametric themes are so disparate? All people exhibit both sides of the equation, none of us is without flaw or fault, nor redeeming and beautiful qualities, do you hope to challenge your viewers to consider how this disparate forces exist in us all?
Heaven and Hell was shown at Verge Fair at Art Basel in 2011. I was invited by Verge to show in a juried exibit called Tomorrow Stars and It was in the lobby of the Greenview Hotel on Washington right near the Big House. It was crocheted and knitted over a two-year period after the death of my mother. It began as heaven, as I learned how to crochet and knit and I was creating these pieces that seemed to me like a beautiful, billowy place, like heaven. I found solace in imagining her there. After about a year, someone made a backhanded comment about my constant handwork (I really do bring it everywhere – the movies, dinner parties, restaurants, bars). They basically said, “enough with heaven, when are you going to make hell”? And that was it. The next year I worked on them both simultaneously and it wasn’t until they came together that the stalactites / stalagmites comparison came about. I was reading a lot of Dante at the time – anything I could find. Good, bad, fiction, bad fiction. And I was really thinking more about the circular and circuitous qualities of the sculptures then the dialog between them. Once it debuted the conversation turned to the disparity in the forces, like you mentioned. We all have an amount of good and bad in us, and this work effected people in different ways. What was so surprising to me, though, was that no matter where it showed – and it showed in many places – Hell was the overwhelming favorite among the viewers. In fact, there are very few pieces of hell left. Almost the entire sculpture of Heaven is in tact – it was one hundred individual pieces. I only have a fraction of hell left. What does that say about our society?
What are you working on now?
Well, right this very second I’m working on catch up. Sadly, being a working artist requires a lot of time out of the studio – proposals, marketing, mailings, website updates, social friggin media. It really never ends. When I’m finished with this interview and get back to the States I will spend a couple of days locked in my office and then the next few weeks in the studio finishing the chairs for Art Basel, the biomimicry project, and my very first outdoor sculpture park commission. I’m really excited for that last one.
What do you want to eat for dinner tonight?
I just discovered this great vegetarian pad Thai at my local Chinese place and I can’t wait to dig into it again. It’s so spicy that I can hardly stand it. I guess I like pushing myself pretty close to the edge.