A portion of the interview about this creative duo was originally published in Happily Hooked digital magazine.
Orange Barrel Industries is the collaborative art business of creative duo husband-and-wife printmaking team Hannah and Blake. They are a witty pair who got married in a series of art events. They share on their website,
“At first, Blake thought Hannah was some kind of itchy, excitable midget and Hannah found Blake to be an uppity ascetic. It turns out, they were both right, but they learned to love each other, anyway. They bonded over their shared passions of printmaking, drawing, cooking and hard work.“
I had the opportunity awhile back to interview Hannah, both about her artwork and about what it’s been like to collaborate with one another as a married creative duo. In the interview, she also shares the names of teachers, friends and artists who inspire her, revealing how much we can influence one another even when we aren’t intentionally collaborating together. And yet, she speaks clearly about her own individual work and process, highlighting how even in collaboration we can be our whole selves.
When and how did you learn to crochet?
I learned to crochet about eight years ago, when I was living in Athens, Georgia in-between undergraduate and graduate school. I finished up my BFA degree in studio art with an emphasis in printmaking at Tulane University in 2007 (which is where I met Blake), but applied to just a handful of master’s programs in painting and didn’t get accepted, so I moved to Athens where my kind cousin Jacqueline agreed to rent me her large home for a very affordable price as long as I took care of the yard and chickens. Then, I moved in with another friend and artist from Tulane, Brian Hitselberger, who was attending grad school at University of Georgia at the time in painting. He works in all different sorts of media including fibers, so it was very inspirational to get to live with him for a year, especially due to the lovely works by New Orleans artist Gina Phillips he hung up in our home.
I was enamored with fibers techniques from my study of art history, and particularly due to a trip I got to take to the 2008 Biennial in NYC as an assistant with a big group of lovely folks traveling with AARP. The Biennial was great, but I noticed that all the works at the Craft museum, which I believe is now called “The Museum of Arts and Design,” were just as smart and amazing, but even better made! “Craft” can be such a dirty word in the art world historically, but as we know, the “crafty” media have had a resurgence as tools for the creation of fine art, or even art that exists between those two worlds.
The main thing that got me interested in crochet during that time, however, was a small rag rug in my bedroom that my cousin Holly had made from some of her and cousin Jacqueline’s old clothes. Every time Jacqueline would visit, she would point to certain lines in the rug and fondly remember the shirt or skirt that it once was. I really liked this idea – -the idea that you could hang on to all these clothes you loved, even if they became damaged to wear or didn’t fit anymore. It really gelled with my personality, which is a struggling mix of hoarder and “get rid of it all!” deep-cleaner.
I applied to 8 more graduate school programs that year, this time in printmaking, and had much more success! I decided on University of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, where I was honored to receive a full ride through a teaching assistantship. So, I started packing up, and my mom agreed to help me move. At the last minute, she couldn’t help me, so I needed to book a moving truck, instead. Due to it being a busy time of the year for that, I had to wait a few days in my empty, boxed-up house for a truck reservation. In the meantime, I ran off to a crafting store and got a simple book on “How to Crochet” and a giant crochet hook and sat in the window seat for a week teaching myself to crochet by making an incredibly sad-looking white sombrero of a rag rug from misprinted t-shirts I’d gotten from the screenprinting shop I’d worked at the past year.
Can you tell us a little more about your art background?
With two artists for parents (another creative duo!) and a love of being outdoors in puddles with dogs, I was convinced I wanted to be as unlike my parents as possible (so I thought) and study swamp ecology, spending all my days waist deep in the mud. However, soon after starting college, I became obsessed with my first drawing course, taught by New Orleans painter Adrian Deckbar.
I remember spending hours and hours drawing a piece of palm tree flotsam in detailed graphite and telling my mother afterwards that I’d been “sabotaged” by art because I felt like I had to follow that path now, so deep was my intensity when I was practicing it. It led me into a BFA in studio art, wherein I focused mostly on printmaking and painting at Newcomb College, Tulane University, where I also received minors in Art History and Philosophy that had a large impact on the structure and content of my artwork. I then went on to receive my MFA from Louisiana State University with an emphasis in Printmaking.
How has your art education influenced your crafting?
It’s funny to think about it now, because my undergraduate professor in printmaking, Teresa Cole was a fibers artist who became a printmaker, and now I’m a printmaker dabbling in the fiber arts. I didn’t have as much interest in making fiber arts as an undergraduate student, though I had an attraction to soft and strong constructions that likely began with looking at Eva Hesse and Nick Cave.
I became more and more interested in working with fabrics as a graduate student as I began to make very large scale woodcuts around 4′ x 8′. For example, I started using old bed sheets from Goodwill for proofing as an affordable alternative to paper while I figured things out. Due to my own inadequacies as a printmaker as well as the high humidity in Southern Louisiana warping the wood, I would get one side coming out good on one print, and another side coming out good on another, so for a critique I cut out the two good parts and sewed them together just to show my committee how the finished piece would look once I could finally afford the giant paper to print it on. I realized, however, that this Frankenstein print on “trash” fabric looked much better than what I was originally planning!
That, along with teaching myself to sew with some help from my grandmother in order to make my wedding dress, led me into working mostly on fabric surfaces in my current practice. The process of cutting up the prints and appliqué stitching pieces back together leaves behind lots of scrap prints on fabric. I turn these along with other old clothes and bed sheets into my current crochet constructions.
How does working with fiber play into your life as a teacher?
As a teacher, I think working with crochet has really opened me up to possibilities of the medium of printmaking to cross boundaries. Also, I like the fact that I source my “yarn” through the partial destruction of items that are no longer loved, needed, or otherwise useful. I think this idea of reforming materials helps me devise ways of creative healing in the classroom. It also helps me to have conversations with students about how printmaking as a collection of largely antiquated mediums of reproduction has a place in contemporary art making along with other mediums of production that cross artistic and commercial boundaries like sewing, wheel-thrown and mould made ceramics, plaster and metal casting, welding etc.
Can you talk a little about your stitches and materials?
My husband and I often work together as a creative duo under the name Orange Barrel Industries. Crochet is a great medium for installation art as it creates a flow between elements and can be morphed and shaped over many different shaped surfaces in a variety of spaces. We create crochet works out of a variety of fabric types ranging from old clothing like blue jeans, t-shirts, and dresses and bedding as well as plastic grocery bags. This is combined with carved wood, quilted elements, applique-stitched pieces, packaging materials, and a variety of types of printmaking media, especially woodcut prints and screenprints. I think there are a lot more things we could do with the medium, and it’s fun slowly exploring all the possibilities together.
We get a lot of fabric from friends and family, especially Blake’s grandma Shirley, who is in a quilting group at her church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. They get a lot of donations of fabric, and some of it isn’t suitable for their projects or sometimes there is just too much for them to store it all! So we happily take that as well as old t-shirts, ripped and stained bedding, and other fabrics and plastics from our lovely family and friends. When we travel to make work, we usually visit the local thrift stores to see what beautiful colors and patterns of shirts they might have for us to print on, and whatever is leftover from printing and sewing or whatever doesn’t get printed becomes our crochet material!
Being self taught and relatively new to crochet, I have so much to learn! I mostly use basic chain stitching to start in a line or loop and then build outwards in a spiral pattern for a foot or two before working very organically in irregular rows on from that just alternating the height of my crochet stitch from single to double, treble, and way beyond! Occasionally I will stop and chain stitch again and then hook into a later loop to do a “popcorn” type thing and create open, laced areas in my work. I’m a big fan of artists like Andrea Zittle who like to craft artwork that one can live in/with, and which looks more and more beautiful as it ages. I’m inspired by artists like her and Sarah Sze, whose artwork looks like it grew that way out of inorganic and organic materials alike, all jumbled together. Lately I’ve been studying some hand embroidery stitches to add into my work and plan to learn crocodile crochet stitch next!
I’ve also done work with plastic bag crochet. It was a bit frustrating at first until I got a system down for cutting down the bags! I’d say start by watching a youtube video online about how to efficiently cut down the bags. You may want to avoid waste like I did in the beginning and try to use the top and bottom of the bag, but trust me, that’s more trouble than its worth! I found it best for my work to use slightly wider strips, 2″+, otherwise the surface seemed a bit sparse. I got into a rhythm where I would lay flat and cut all the tops and bottoms off of a big bunch of bags. Then I’d cut all of them into strips and make a “yarn ball.” It somehow made it go faster than doing the whole process at once.
Ultimately, I don’t like the feel of the plastic when working with it. It repulsed me a bit, but I did like the medium conceptually, and I love the sound it makes when its in long strips together, like in this piece by my husband, Blake, called “Gargantua“. I plan to keep using it after a break! It was hard to work on it around my toddler because he could easily rip the plastic yarn. One of the things I love about crochet as a medium is that its safe and easy to work on around my baby, so the plastic kind of ruined that aspect for now.
How does your work intersect with socio-cultural issues?
Wow! This could be a very long answer, though I feel I’ve been going on quite long about everything. The short answer is that this intersection between my work and feminism is an indirect one. I am inspired by a lot of artists who work with feminist themes, imagery, and mediums, and this finds its way into my work, though it isn’t something I’ve found a great way to talk about yet. I keep gravitating back to using the female form in my drawing and print work as metaphor for human impact on the planet, as well as just due to my attracting to drawing the figure. This figure is often inspired by my own body in affirmation, personal self study, and personal acceptance. Also, as the artist Tim Hawkinson once said about the use of himself in his piece “Emoter,” – “It’s using my face because it’s readily available, I have exclusive rights to my face. It seemed to me I guess, honest to just use my own face.”
My husband and I often work collaboratively as a creative duo on feminist themes in our work, much of it referenced directly by the use of traditional “feminine” textures and materials rather than by the content of the work itself. It becomes at once about our home life, “domesticity,” and also about larger issues dealing with a sense of home, like “domestic” oil resources.
Conceptually, we both focus more on environmental themes, looking at contemporary disasters like oil spills, weather systems, energy use and policies, and so on through natural, political, and social lenses. Of most concern to us lately as a creative duo is the continuing negative impact humans have on this planet, and the ability of many people to explain away or ignore this. We address this issue by looking at ourselves and what impacts we personally have and how we could improve and change. My work has spent time talking about energy transportation, animal/human relations, and environment damage through resource development. Leading up to and after the birth of our child two years ago, however, as a creative duo we began to make more work about his future and current impacts on this planet, and how things may look in 20 to 50 years from now.
On the sidelines, separative from our work as a creative duo, I’ve also been carrying on a related body of work focusing on issues of self identity, communication (or lack there of), motherly roles, and my own changing body going through this process of having and raising a child. I haven’t fully figured it all out yet, but the series is mostly prints and drawings, and it is called “Hair Ghosts.” Here is a short artist statement (work in progress!) for this series as it develops:
“My current series of ‘Hair Ghosts’ started in response to the challenge of relearning to draw after having a baby. Beginning with the form of smoke cloud or spill, the ghosts grow outwards from the figures and embody our histories, dreams and personalities. Hair itself, along with mammary glands, is one of the particular characteristics of what it means to be a mammal, and human hair patterns and styles have evolved for survival and are socially and religiously significant. Some cultures even believe hair is our connection to cosmic forces, and a symbol of freedom, health, and independence. By morphing the hair into a form of its own, it rebels against our control, being as it is merely long strands of dead proteins. The doilies express a complex femininity with notes of ritual, while also emulating the shape of hair follicles, and mimicking the function of a mandala: a centering, mental and spiritual process of journey without taking a single step.”
Overall, the big image I see that carries throughout my work in all mediums is the form of the smoke cloud/plume. This form first started emerging in my work in graduate school, both in drawings and as I further developed my use of crochet from rug-making to low-relief sculpture. Clouds of smoke and the similarly-shaped spill form are a sign, a signal. They evidence a transformation of one form into another. After years of living in Louisiana, eyes glued each summer to Doppler radar maps of storm projections, and then observing thereafter a barrage of news reports about oil spills of various kinds, this form has become a constant in my visual vocabulary.
What do you see as the pros / cons of working in traditionally female mediums to express socio-political viewpoints?
I think it’s a much easier time to work with these sorts of mediums and be taken seriously than it was 40 years ago. My mother is also an artist, and she told me she was booked to work with the Italian sculptor Pomodoro during a study abroad program. Upon arriving to his workshop, however, he saw that she was a woman and said she wasn’t allowed to with with him because it would distract his other male employees. Hearing things like this from just a generation prior to mine makes me realize how far we have come, even if there is a long way yet to go.
I think feminist video art did a lot for changing the conversation about particular materials and their contexts and power. I think a lot about pieces like “Loving Care,” by Janine Antoni, in which she uses her own hair like a brush to paint the floor with a bucket of hair dye. Feminist artists at that time were using new media for fine art, materials that had existed for so long as a part of women’s experience, but hadn’t yet been explored as media for artistic expression, as this allowed them to get away from all the years of masculine dominance in more traditional mediums like painting, sculpture, etc.
Can you tell us a bit about what it likes to work as a creative duo in collaboration with your husband?
As professionals in the same field, we’ve moved around a lot competing for the small number of jobs that are available to academic printmakers who wish to teach in the University system. Sometimes that has been frustrating, but the adventure element has been fun! From our travels, we have such a great network of friends and colleagues all around the country whom we get to visit and work with during the Southern Graphics Council International (SGCI) and Mid America Print Council (MAPC) Conferences. As a creative duo, we even got married as a part of a series of official conference events at SGCI in Saint Louis in 2011 that included a panel discussion on creative partnerships, an exhibition of print artists who work collaboratively, and two wedding performance ceremonies that took place in the gallery.
We inspire each other a lot, and I know I’ve learned so many important skills from Blake about how to survive as an artist: how to enter shows, network at conferences, frame work, photograph work, and set high goals! For my part, I try to contribute to our creative duo through creating websites, updating social media, and keeping those high goals set to a schedule. Conceptually, our work travels along the same veins, so we end up collaborating as a creative duo for that reason as well as because it helps us to accomplish bigger projects, tackle more exhibitions, and provide different viewpoints/perspectives and methods on similar content in lectures and other presentations.
It’s definitely challenging sometimes, but we are always working on a better process for collaboration. We mostly work in stages on projects and trade them back and forth, or define specific elements of a larger project that are each person’s responsibility. Collaborative installations are particularly challenging because we live and work in a small space, and so usually don’t get to lay out everything together until we are in the space itself hanging the show. This often means we had different ideas of how things would be actualized in the space, and there are usually some unexpected gaps in the installation that we have to work to fill. We have learned to bring way more to the gallery than we think we will need, and are always working on improving our relationship as a collaborative creative duo.
How does your relationship inform / affect your individual work?
Blake definitely inspires me to be a better person and artist. He is also a very quick and clever wordsmith when it comes to titles, artist statements, show proposals, and so on. He helps me find the words to express nascent themes in my work while they are developing, rather than only after a work or series is completed. I think we also really egg each other on to reach higher and do better. It’s great living with your biggest competitor, who also is your deepest love.
What do you most hope people take away from viewing your work?
In our collaborative installations, my husband and I endeavor to create an environment that is beautiful, detailed, and impactful. We hope by calling attention to our own negative impacts on the natural world, others will find themselves questioning their own practices, daily routines, and opinions on resource use, throw-away culture, and the social and political issues surrounding these and similar practices. That’s what we’re working towards as a creative duo.
With my most recent personal work, I think I’m just looking to create an image on the viewer’s inner eye–something they may remember and think about as they go about their lives.
What are some of your favorite exhibits you’ve done?
We had a show as Orange Barrel Industries at the College of the Sequoias Art Gallery in Visalia, CA entitled “Domestic Depedance,” and I also had a solo show, “Split Ends,” at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, KS. I made a stop-motion video of the latter install on my website. It was a great space to hang up our crochet works. I really enjoyed getting to see my most recent large work, “Footprint No. 20,” up on the wall, since I’d been working on it for a year in our tiny apartment and hadn’t gotten to see it all come together until that moment. It was the first work I started incorporating plastic bags into, though it isn’t really evident in the final product. Turns out it’s over 20′ x 9′ in size! I had no idea until I put it up onto the wall. More of our exhibitions can be found on our website.
In what ways has art healed or helped you? What about crochet specifically?
Art, and especially drawing, is really how I define who I am as a person and what I am doing here. So, in short, it is a large part of my life. Whenever I am anxious, down, or otherwise worried, there is nothing better than getting into the studio or anywhere and working on my artwork. Even if nothing comes of it that day, it is important to me to do something every day towards my practice.
Crochet is the best way of continuing work on my art even when I come home from work/the studio. In this way, it helps manage my anxiety that I’m not getting enough done by allowing me to continue working on something at home, too! In graduate school, it became my second body of work that I would practice when I came home from working on my prints and drawings at school. I would crochet in the evenings while my husband and I ate dinner, watched a movie, and spent time together. Today, it is one of the few forms of art I can really focus on and complete when at home with my toddler. He loves to play with the rag yarn and uses the crochet hooks as drum sticks to make music while I work! Crochet has always been an effective method of calming myself down and feeling like I’m getting something done. Because I take discarded materials, I also feel that I am doing something good by making them into something useful and sturdy, that I know holds up for years and years of use beyond its original life as a bedding, bag, or clothing item.
I love looking at the mandala-esque works I create when I am done with them, and they bring me a sense of calm and peace.
A Few More Thoughts from this Creative Duo …
Here are a few things that the couple has shared about collaboration elsewhere on the web …
- “We were married in a series of official 2011 Southern Graphics Council Conference International events entitled Blessed Unions in Saint Louis, Missouri.” (website)
- “Basically, we just grit our teeth and did everything we could to make it awesome. Once we got up to Saint Louis, everything seemed to go pretty smoothly. We’re a great exhibition-hanging team, and Blake is good at channeling stress into brilliance.” – A Beautiful Party interview
- Blake shares that his Adrift series “examines the isolation and anxiety of my marriage in the contemporary cultural and ecological morass” and “is a move toward self-exploration and sincerity, documenting the muddied future my partnership faces as we enter a new phase in our career and family.”