Artist Profile: Carla Tilghman

22 04 2011

We haven’t forgotten our loyal readers! Thanks to artist / art historian Carla Tilghman for getting us back on track with a new interview.

Carla Tilghman, "Cells Dancing", cotton, jacquard woven, 2008, 72"h x 56"w

REB: Tell us a bit about your background–schooling, interests, etc.–and about what you’re doing now.

CT: My background, schooling and interests mostly overlap: art, art history and textiles (with a modicum of medicine thrown in there for fun.) I learned to spin and weave when I was 12 and have been playing with fibers ever since. After a 10 year career as a paramedic, I decided that pulling all nighters was getting a bit old (we worked 24 hour shifts) and so I returned to school to study art history and textiles. In 1999, I earned an MA in Art History from the University of Kansas and in 2004, I completed my MFA in Studio Arts from Kent State University.
Right now, I am teaching art and art history as an adjunct and working on a History of Textiles textbook.

REB: How does feminism inform your work?

CT: Oddly. I have certainly explored my body in my artwork (my ovaries, my pregnant body, my personal body-image issues.) But I also find that feminism increasingly influences my teaching and my political activity. I am more actively advocating and campaigning for women in education, especially part-time educators, who are predominately female.

REB: Do you think that your fiber art (or fiber work by other artists) can be read as a feminist intervention into the idea of “women’s work”?

CT: As a Textile Historian, I see many of the current ideas about textiles as ‘female work’ as a misunderstanding or a misreading of much of the history of textile production. Historically, there is nothing inherently female about textile work. In most cultures, both men and women have engaged in textile and clothing production.
I use fibers because I love the way they feel, look, smell and taste. I have since I was a small child, playing with the cloth strips one of my babysitters used to make rag rugs. It’s about the hand work and the tactile connection with my materials. (Ceramics is equally interesting to me, but the clay dries my hands out unmercifully.)

REB: Do you enter into the fine art – craft hierarchy debate, and if so, how?

CT: I really dislike Leonardo da Vinci sometimes. It’s his fault that ‘craft’ started to take on a pejorative cast. He wrote about the nature of painting, sculpture and architecture as ‘fine’ arts to separate them from the craft guilds and allow painters (in particular) to garner higher wages. And yes, he spoke of the spark of genius (male) necessary for the finer arts. Bastard.
Art is art. Most of us are drawn to our process. Painters like the way paint feels as the paintbrush slides across the canvas; potters like the way that clay molds to form 3-D shapes. I like the way threads come together to form visually intriguing cloth. Printers, sculptors, video artists, jewelers, performance artists, glass blowers, body artists…. we are all interested in our process and our materials.

REB: Some feminist artists in the 1970s attempted to reclaim materials denigrated as feminine and to revalue craft traditions. Do you find those efforts still relevant today?

CT: Again, I find that there are misunderstandings about the history of craft and the materials used. The 70s feminists were looking mostly at the nineteenth century, heavily Victorian interpretation of women’s work. What I’m most interested in is educating people about the history of the different fiber process and looking at the intriguing gender divisions, which are often unexpected. I have a lovely picture of a French sheep herder standing on stilts, knitting. What a great way to pass the time while watching your flock!!
I find the exercise of reviving crafts lovely. I have a sprang sweater (a prehistoric method of twining and looping threads) which is darned comfortable. I find the process of researching the history of textiles (without the Victorian eyeglasses) to be fascinating and illuminating.

REB: As an educator, how do you approach feminism / feminist art with your students? Have you changed your approach over the years? Do you discuss gender issues differently in your online classes than in a face-to-face format?

CT: I find that my approach over the years has become more pointed and assertive. I am now more likely to ask my students challenging questions about their prejudices and biases. By basing those questions in the course material, we can have a productive conversation about perception.
The tone of conversation in online and face-to-face classes can vary (the difference between a class discussion vs the more linear online format), but I ask the same kinds of questions. I am quite blunt about my feminist stance and the need for students to become aware of gender disparities. I ask the same kinds of questions about issues of sexuality and race.
The history of textiles and clothing is filled with a rich variety of gender issues which always lead to fascinating conversations.

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