Family was most certainly on my mind as I traveled to the Southwest this past month. My immediate biological relatives all currently reside in the Phoenix-metro area, where they’ve either retired or chosen to start new families of their own. As a single, unmarried, sorta-employed, queer, urban artist-type in my late twenties, the experience of visiting brothers and babies, parents and grandparents, is often fraught with self-conscious anxieties over belonging, and adulthood, and dependency, and mixed feelings of togetherness. While I am privileged to have my connections to blood-relatives be strong and loving, when left alone to wander I found myself not only imagining, but actually encountering, unconventional and affectionate familial bonds existent outside the heteronormative nuclear unit, outside of a romantic or sexual dyad, and even outside of this, perceived, time period.
Yes, I went to The Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace. Sure, there were obscene amounts of turkey legs and synthetic fairy hats. But, there were also inventive, and unusual, and entirely self-determined lives being lived by an all female group of traveling weavers, by a motorcycle posse displaying self-designed insignia, by the self-described ‘Family of Artisans‘ hand-making gorgeous moccasins as part of Catskill Mountain Leather Co., by the cute fire whip master being assisted by the falconer’s girlfriend, and even by the falcons themselves – rescued and rehabilitated by this hodgepodge group of folks. I met an older gentlemen carving wood spoons and thought to myself, despite my complete lack of artisan skill, that I could do that too. I wondered about apprenticeship as a possible alternative for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness. I encountered an oddball bunch of chainmaille artisans who looked at me knowingly, with love, as I admired their sexy two-tone halter top – the one with a silver women’s symbol subtly entwined with classic gold chain.
I neither want to reduce nor romanticize the profundity with which I felt the recognition of a feeling, and felt recognized by this feeling, from these encounters. It’s a feeling I’m attempting to call familial. It’s produced, in part, by observing the craft, the labor, of people doing things together, of living lives made possible because of that craft, that labor, that togetherness.
Angela Ellsworth is not only an artist I’ve worked with, but one that I’ve enjoyed knowing for many years. Much of Ellsworth’s recent performances and artworks (as with Lady Ties for a Line Dance, appearing at the top of this post) situates domestic handicraft, pioneer-era material culture, and visual archetypes of the Mormon sister wife within decidedly feminist, erotic, and often irreconcilable contexts. Her 2009-2010 series of pearl corsage pin adorned cotton bonnets (known as Seer Bonnets) produces this irreconcilability with great impact. These are glorious, textural, glistening objects – like fetishes – elevated through Ellsworth’s resourceful, laborious application of pins into cloth, producing heavy, dangerous, intimidating, and (thereby) thrilling compositions. Varying in height, sometimes connected by cotton, and altogether arranged into indecipherable arrangements, there is both uniformity and uniqueness amongst this work.
Ellsworth happens to live in Phoenix, and teaches at Arizona State University. Upon my arrival, much of my aforementioned family-visitation anxiety was quickly alleviated because of one simple invitation she extended; “Two words for you: Line Dancing.” Within 24-hours of my arrival to the Valley, I found myself at the wondrous, decidedly lo-fi lesbian bar Cash Inn Country literally able to enter, in unison, a queer, alternative context. Variation and variability was everywhere (in fashion sense, in gender expression, in age, in line-dance know how), and the silliness of dancing came with the relief of realization that this was, indeed, an integral, important, beloved part of Ellsworth’s uncommon art practice.
As luck, or a severe Chicago winter storm, would have it, a delayed flight allowed me to meet up with another craft oriented queer artist occasioning Phoenix for biological family, as well. LJ Roberts and I first met in San Francisco, when I was too young to truly realize how much we have (or would come to have) in common. I knew Roberts as the artist who in 2005, with great aplomb, re-added the word ‘Crafts’ – in bright pink furry yarn – to the signage announcing a reconverted warehouse space as the current, recently retitled home of the California College of the Arts. However, it was Roberts’ sprawling, dazzling work The Queer Houses of Brooklyn… (2011), that I had just recently seen at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, that was on my mind when we met in Phoenix. The piece operates like a soft, interactive map of radical queer lives lived politically otherwise both past and present. Appropriately, I was fascinated to learn that the work was produced while Roberts was living collectively in an anarchist household outside Richmond, VA. This added bit of information only helped make more clear what I already suspected about this work; it is a testament, a document and gesture, honoring the families we can choose – be them queer, Renaissancian, whatever.