It's Friday afternoon, a week before her installation at the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Art is supposed to open, and some of Allyson Mitchell's luggage from Toronto has gone AWOL. Imagine what those helpful WestJet employees must think when they find a bag filled with staple and glue guns, and lightening-bolt costumes embellished with pink fun-fur and disco ball crotches. But these are necessary tools for the artist, filmmaker and activist. This weekend, Mitchell is pulling triple-duty in Halifax—installing a new work at the Khyber; lecturing at the NeoCraft Conference, an international symposium on modern craft; and performing at FemFEST, a celebration showcasing female performers and artists. She needs her stuff.
Luckily, another duffle bag she travelled with is safe in an upstairs office at the Khyber—Mitchell's studio for the next week. Orange and yellow shag carpet, knitted and crocheted pillows, rughookings and furry toilet seat covers spill out as if the bag burped up grandma's cottage. Two circular rughookings are pinned on the wall for inspection.
Mitchell also made a trip to a local Value Village to supplement her materials. She gleefully reaches for two oversized plastic bags bulging with finds. She tries on a hideous peach-coloured knitted collar, puzzled as to which way it's supposed to go on. "It's so ugly," she howls. "I know people who could wear it and look high fashion, but it screams frumpy middle-aged crazy lady."
Removing the collar, she lays it down beside two circular handmade throw pillows in modest grey and evergreen. "This is a beautiful piece here," she says, leaning over a technicolour wooly rectangular runner that perhaps once covered a side table, "I might use it in the glass case to put the name of the installation."
Finger of Craft was commissioned by the Khyber for the entranceway, between the two front doors. "The finger of craft—it's supposed to be kind of gross," she says. "It's a play on hand of Christ, and the naughty kind of finger-bang thing. But it's also a play on touch—the finger of craft, it's a magic spell: "I told you to decorate this place, the finger of craft is angry!' And this building needs the finger of craft—a little love—it needs a cozy around its neck."
Originally, Mitchell planned on using brilliant-hued vintage MACtac but the Khyber's walls are too uneven to hold the adhesive. Instead, she's going to completely cover the walls in gorgeous hunks of carpet. From another bag, she pulls out plastic candy bowls shaped as jack-o-lanterns, which she'll cover and use as molds. "These pillows will be formed around these to be like herpes-sore, pimply things, clustered and climbing up the walls. The majority of them will be made with handcrafts like this. It's going to be beautiful."
Like her practice, Mitchell's entry into the art scene was anything but typical. In 1996, she started her MA in women's studies at Toronto's York University. She was also into stickers, making zines, short films—an extension of collage and flip-books—and graffiti that attacked sexist and transphobic attitudes (in fact, Mitchell says she first declared her sexuality on a bathroom stall), but at the time didn't see the connections between her academic and growing artistic pursuits. Her exposure to third-wave feminism—considerably more inclusive in terms of race, class and sexuality—in particular, the DIY-punk energy of the Riot Grrl movement, "was the political finding of my voice. It was like an explosion."
More and more, Mitchell found herself procrastinating over schoolwork, although she now sees those diversions as necessary to her path. Today, while teaching cultural studies (she finished her PhD last year with a dissertation on fat women, power and space) at York, she works hard at empowering her students with knowledge without getting tangled up in academic jargon. "I want to reach people's hearts and guts. It's one part public performance, one part wake-up call and one part trying to fuck shit up."
Mitchell didn't go to art school. Her work is heavily grounded in cultural and feminist theory. She learns through process and experience: Tired of tripping over rolls of carpet on her studio floor, she discovered the beautiful undulations shag carpet makes when it's stapled to a wall. Mitchell calls herself a maximalist and her approach, a Trojan horse: The work is energetic, undomesticated, wild, humourous, smart, big in thought and outsider scale. It's appeared in national newspapers and on the cover of Canadian Art. She keeps some colourful ammunition in her arsenal. Most of her installations use found domestic textiles and abandoned craft: Another political infusion.
"It's about the massive amounts of stuff, materials, products. I know that I can go into a thrift store anywhere in Canada and find things that people have discarded. Whether it's Montreal or Halifax or Calgary, I know I can find some things that look like this," she says, and points to the pile on the table. "It's about consumer practices, how much shit there is, but it's also about domestic crafts. It seems really sad, too, because someone put all this time and effort and energy and it's abandoned. I wonder if it's because the person died or if the craft did what it needed to do. I think of lonely, isolated women in front of the TV making something like this."
Counter to that sad image, Mitchell is also an active instigator, participant and observer of the resurgence of craft among young, politicized and queer communities. On Sunday afternoon at NeoCraft, she's lecturing on craft as an urban survivalist strategy, "especially in cities where we're alienated from each other," she says of the popularity of events like stitch 'n' bitches. "There's this heightened individualist attitude, so when people are around a space, sharing in an activity, there's a communication—a magic that's infectious and really important and life-sustaining. It's like a really good meal in a way. And when people's eyes are down on a task, people are willing to take a risk, say outrageous things, they become contemplative and open to ideas."
Before her lecture, Mitchell will be at Anchor Archive, along with her partner-in-filmmaking Christina Zeidler and the curator of their film program, Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk, for a craft show-and-tell brunch. The two artists recently presented a similar event in Vancouver with the Seamrippers Craft Collective, where people sat on the floor and discussed their art— mostly film and video. Mitchell says, "It was so beautiful. It was a consciousness-raising craft circle: Instead of the mirrors looking at our vulvas, we were looking at each other's artwork and discovering that, instead."
Zeidler and Mitchell have been holding up mirrors for each other for about 10 years, as individuals and under the alias Freeshow Seymour (a reference to accessibility and a schoolyard joke about a naked lady and her two dogs). On Saturday, there's a retrospective of their films at the CBC Radio Room. Built on the "Deep Lez" philosophy instigated by Mitchell as an attempt to resurrect radical and lesbian feminism in art and performance, their short films are bright, sparkly, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes funny or sad.
Treating film as a craft, the two experiment, often the result of retreats, with techniques like cameraless animation, lomo photography and Super 8, incorporating childhood photos and memorabilia, tons of candy, pastries, animals and glitter in their narratives. Fun to watch, the filmmakers are geniuses at slipping in messages without painfully bopping you over the head. Take If Anyone Should Happen To Get In My Way, where scenes of a woman with a big bear head moving through her domestic routines are interspersed with text: "Better watch out when I get mad...I hold it inside...If you betray me...I might ignore you at a party."
Perhaps no other artist has done as much for fun-fur as Allyson Mitchell. "Fun-fur is disgusting," she sighs. "It's spun plastic. It's all gas and oil. You cut it and all the stuff goes into your lungs. I hate it and love it at the same time."
At Dalhousie Art Gallery, as part of their Close to You exhibition, curated by Sarah Quinton of the Textile Museum of Canada (where Mitchell's room-sized afghan and carpet womb Hungry Purse is currently installed), witness her mastery of the faux. As you walk down the stairs, meet Big Trubs, a four-metre-tall woman with luscious curves, bum, breast and hair, cheekily designed for a posh Canadian Art-sponsored gala. The guardian of the show, this plush goddess is in charge, overseeing two tiny pink fun-fur weasel-like animals caught in a standoff, and "Shebacca," a wall-hanging that begs for a stroke. Giving fun-fur new meaning, Shebecca lounges on an '80s purple background, eyes closed, pawing herself with pleasure, in homage to iconic Playboy-esque poses.
Shebacca sometimes travels in a larger pack. Originally shown alongside three-metre-tall Lady Sasquatches—their multiple hairy teats and giant vulvas a far cry from typical airbrushed pornography—this is Mitchell's way of keeping the politics radical and dangerous. She says, "My idea is to have these monster ladies that are so mesmerizing that people can't resist them, the ideas, the ideologies. I light them so there's a light shining off their crazy, big rumps and I use the fun-fur that's the most soft and Siamese cat-y so they are hypnotized into touching this giant ass. It's part of how I cast a spell."
Three Lady Sasquatches are currently hibernating in her parents' basement waiting to go on tour to a bunch of different venues across Canada in the next couple of years. "It's amazing, before there was two and now there are three, it's not a couple, it's becoming a movement," she says. "I'm hoping to make three more and I'm thinking of making two sasquatches in a 69er. Really explicit and provocative, so we'll see how that goes."
If the lightening bolt-fun-fur outfits arrive in time, Mitchell and Zeidler will perform at the FemFEST Cabaret on Saturday night. As a founding member of the now-defunct, costume-lovin' performance troupe Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off, Mitchell kicked that taboo in the crotch, securing her title as a fat activist. Along with co-founders Mariko Tamaki and Ruby Rowan, with performers Abi Slone, Tracy Tidgwell, Joanne Huffa, Lisa Ayuso and Zoe Whittall, PPPO celebrated "fat dyke bodies" with public interventions and shows like Move it Fatty, Wide Side Story and Big Judy. Sitting in her chair, Mitchell pulls a few aerobic dance moves. "It's so much easier to do this," she pumps her arms in the air. "Everyone looks better in a group."
Mitchell's work, from her films to her fun-fur beasts, are meant for sharing and public consumption.
"Part of the reason why this is happening is because of the power of word," Mitchell says. "Our film retrospective came together because of Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk saw our work at the Canadian Filmmakers' Distribution Centre, and Krista Davis,"—the Khyber's assistant director—"saw my work in Syracuse and wanted to get it here.
"This is all about young women getting fired up and making shit happen."
Finger of Craft opening reception, Friday, November 23 at the Khyber ICA, 1588 Barrington, 7-9pm. Close to You at Dalhousie Art Gallery, 6101 University, until November 25. Freeshow Seymour screening, Saturday, November 24 at CBC Radio Room, 7-9pm, PWYC. FemFEST Cabaret, November 24, at The Seahorse, 1665 Argyle, 10pm, $5 adv/$7. Made with Deep Love: Craft Show & Tell Brunch, Sunday, November 25, Anchor Archive, 5684 Roberts Street, 11am-2pm, PWYC. neocraft.ca
Arts editor Sue Carter Flinn takes communion at the church of craft.