Tasha Lewis // Mixed-Media Sculptor // Jersey City NJ
Tasha Lewis is a mixed-media sculptor with a wide ranging artistic practice that includes global collaborative street-art, book design, self-publishing, illustration based on literature, and a variety of hand-sewn sculptures. Lewis works with cyanotype, a historic photographic process also known as blueprints or sun prints, as well as found and dyed textiles. Her studio-work has recently begun to focus on the human figure through the lens of Classical Greek statues. She embellishes the surfaces of these sculptures with embroidery and beading seeking to evoke a “sea-change” of lost artifacts transformed by ocean-life. Lewis has forthcoming solo exhibitions at The Philadelphia Magic Gardens (September 2017) and the Parthenon Museum in Nashville, TN (January 2020). Signed first-edition copies of her book “Swarm the World” are available on Kickstarter now through November 19, 2017.
I began my #CraftWithConscience series as a way to simultaneously promote the work of other makers and to discuss the complicated issues surrounding creative inspiration and developing one's own visual vocabulary. The internet is an ever growing fixture in many artists' lives and businesses, could you talk about the role the internet plays in your artistic and professional life?
It’s actually a particularly pertinent time in my practice to talk about the role of the internet in my art and business as I have just launched a Kickstarter campaign to promote and sell a new book I am self-publishing. The project “Swarm the World” itself hinges in a huge part on the role of the internet as a community builder, but I will get to that later. One of my friends, upon hearing all the steps that I had been through to make the physical proof copy of the book in his hands, noted that in almost any other circumstance there would have been teams of people working to produce a similar end result. This got me thinking and ended up sparking a few paragraphs that begin my Kickstarter Campaign story and I think are pertinent to this question:
"I am a full time artist. What that really boils down to is that I am my own boss and there is no one to delegate to. First, I am an artist. I invent new processes and create cultural content. But, to be an artist in the 21st century, I also have to be a web designer. I learned to code in order to best display and share my work online. I became a graphic designer and photographer in order to present my pieces in a clear and compelling manner. Then, once I had the idea for this project, I became an organizer. I created databases of addresses and mobilized people on a global scale. After the images came back from the participants, I learned how to design a book from scratch. Then, to promote the project I became my own videographer and animator.
Next, I will be a publicist. I will pitch my work to media outlets online and in print. Finally, I will work the mail room. I will process, prepare and ship out all these books to your homes. An artist is never just an artist."
To me, the internet is an amazing resource, but it is also always hungry. Hungry for more images of better quality and brighter backgrounds, for more complex interfaces, like mobile-friendly website designs, and above all for more content. I think as an artist if you can keep up with even some of these demands, you really have a chance to get your work to a wider audience.
One important lesson I have learned, though, is that you need to want to make what you feed the web. I love solving problems, especially visual problems, so web, graphic and book design are exciting challenges for me. On the other hand, I hate Twitter and I’m really starting to question Facebook, so I don’t force myself to engage on those platforms. Bottom line: if you can see this type of engagement as an extension of your artistic practice that is also in service of the sustainability of your practice, then try it out. You never know who might discover you. Seriously.
Coming back to the project. For Swarm the World I used the internet to find collaborators on a global scale. Since 2012 I have been hand-stitching small magnets to the bellies of my stiffened fabric cyanotype butterflies. Thus empowered, these little creatures can alight on metal objects or surfaces without leaving a trace. So began my ever evolving piece: The Swarm. I started with 200, but every few months that number grew. In this first stage of the project I was installing butterflies around my home town of Indianapolis, IN and I would take them with me whenever I traveled. The installations were ephemeral, lasting only 15-20 minutes, and I documented them with my camera. The blog I started soon filled up with hundreds of images of swarms of blue butterflies on fences, garage doors, telephone poles etc.
By the Spring of 2014, I had shown the butterflies in various gallery contexts, and their number had risen to 4,000, but I still felt that they had more to offer. What I wanted was to expand the pool of people who got to experience what I did with the butterflies — the selection of a place or object to swarm, the swarming process, photographing the results and engaging with strangers who happened to walk by— not just the images of the swarms on the internet. The idea came to me while on vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I brought a few butterflies with me, and my friend and I were really enjoying discovering a new city through butterfly swarms. It was during the second night when I couldn’t sleep that I realized something: while I could not afford to travel the world with my butterflies, I could connect with people who already lived in diverse geographies and cultures and sent them the butterflies. So Swarm the World was born.
It is clear to me that this project would not have gotten off the ground as quickly as it did without the internet. A few key articles and blog posts explaining what I was looking for and I was flooded with over 400 participant email requests. After three years of coordinating schedules and international shipping, my 120 final participants sent me thousands of images of their swarms from 45 different countries and all seven continents. The resultant book is much more than an art book. It is an artifact of collaboration and trust with strangers I met through the web. I gave my art to them, knowing all the things that could go wrong, and what they gave me in return is truly magic.
In a separate branch of my practice, I use Etsy as a forum to sell my work that is designed for the home. I recently made a collection of affordable hand-sewn glow-in-the-dark faux-taxidermy sculptures geared towards integrating into peoples lives and not a gallery context. I wanted to use some new mold-making and casting skills that I had developed in order to make forms that are strong and less labor-intensive. I could go on a whole tangent about labor, but essentially, while I enjoy designing and building my forms, I especially love the stitching of the skin. By implementing these new techniques, I was able to significantly cut down the time it took to get to the sewing stage. I wanted these works to be playful and freed from more rigorous standards of concept. They are little beacons, night-lights, or just curious companions. I love making them, and unlike some of my larger sculptures, they are scaled for people living in apartments.
2. Where do you find inspiration for your work? In what ways has the internet and/or social media impacted your design process?
I do find a lot of inspiration on Instagram. How much of it filters into my work in the studio I am not sure, but that does not mean that is doesn’t nourish me in other ways. What I am drawn to is getting a little dose of the lives of makers all over the world. Through Instagram you can go on studio visits with both famous and emerging artists alike. For me, it proves a simple truth: that, as artists, we go to work everyday just like everyone else, we are not mythic beings, untouchable and misunderstood. We drink coffee, have pets, and children and we live full engaged lives. Seeing this every day on my phone doesn’t feel like a distraction because it affirms to me that my choice in life is valid and that thousands of other people are working through the same challenges and setbacks as I am. And more, that I can reach out to them as ask for advice. All the above has helped my grow and develop my philosophy as an artist.
As for direct inspiration, as a sculptor, I am really inspired by process. It seems like ages ago now, but when I was first introduced to the cyanotype process before my last year of High School, I was captivated. I loved its history, I loved that you mixed the chemicals together yourself, I love that you painted it onto watercolor paper with beautiful Japanese brushes and I loved that you could make you own negative from xeroxes or found leaves. Ever since, I have been pushing that process, learning new things about it and finding innovative uses for it. My double sided cyanotype fabric butterflies are one example. Indeed, a huge epiphany came when I discovered that you could buy fabric pre-treated with the chemical. That became the basis for my switch to making sculptures with textile skins which have since evolved in many new directions.
I am currently reading The Haystack Reader: Collected Essays on Craft, 1991-2009, and a line from Christopher Rose’s essay really stuck out to me. He says “We could say that time is ‘folded up’ in the craft object. In a sense, increased time gives increased dimensionality.” (p. 237) He is speaking not only of experiencing an art object, but also of slowing down to understand material processes. His words are also an apt way of describing how I become inspired. There are so many new things to be found in novel materials or the combination of known materials, you just have to take the time to dive in.
At the moment, the materials that are activating my discovery are plaster gauze and felt. Those may sound like crazy combination, but they work quite well together in creating strong, durable sculptures that also have moments of softness embedded directly into them. This is essential because when I sew the fabric around the form, I need places where I can throw in a few stitches and secure the textile ‘skin’ in place. I have found more and more, that my sculptures must be made with a sensitivity to the textile that will eventually cover them. And this necessity inspires me just as much as a visit to the Greek / Roman wing of the MET Museum does.
3. How have you, as an artist, found your creative voice?
Tying into what I said in the previous question, finding my voice has always been about curiosity and experimentation. I have landed where I am now not only because I make work in a novel way, but also, and equally, because it fulfills the needs of my hands. I mentioned earlier that I was reading a book of writing collected by Haystack, and that place, The Haystack Mountain School of Craft, has been a huge influence on my voice. I have attended workshops there as a student, work-study and technical assistant, and each new relationship with the school has given me new skills to apply to my practice. It has also provided a physical counterpart to my virtual community of makers on Instagram. Community and context are essential to honing your voice as an artist and anything you can do to expand them will be beneficial.
4. Sites like Pinterest and Instagram are popular places for artists’ to share their own work. They also act as public visual archives, often leading to creative work by others that walks the line between ‘inspiration’ and ‘infringement.’ Have you encountered copies of your work online and how does it affect you? What are your strategies for dealing with it?
Yes I have, particularly with my butterfly Swarm project. My general thinking is that no one is really going to have the patience to truly replicate what I do and if there are low-quality copies out there, they only make my work look better in comparison. But that attitude may only be because I have never encountered anyone actually making money from a market that I have not reached with work that looks like mine.
In general, when I see a cloud of blue butterflies that was created after 2013 (when images of my project began to go viral), first I acknowledge that it could be a coincidence. I was not the first artist to swarm insects and so obviously I won’t be the last. Second, I look to see who is making them. I have had many students reach out to me to ask about my process, and I am very open with them. All artists learn from copying to a certain extent, and I think it is natural. What really matters, and as I said what I have yet to really encounter, is someone who is making money from work that has direct ties to innovations that were clearly mine. Yet, I think if this did happen, I would probably let it go. I believe in being open about my work and process on the internet. If 99% of the time that openness helps other artists grow or understand their own work better, or draw collectors into my unique processes and 1% of the time people take advantage of it, then I still feel like it’s well worth it.
5. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or creative business people?
My advice is to carve out a space in your life, both temporal and physical, where you just show up and do your artistic work. A room of one’s own is still essential. Also, know that your creative impulses are not an ornamental novelty. As a collective, we as artists make culture and that is important work even if it isn’t always reflected in a paycheck. More, in the service of our creative community know that you can always try to reach out to other artists and ask for advice, and those other artists if you are reading this, please also take the time to respond.
6. Do you have any favorite blogs, artists, or Instagram accounts that you’d like to share?
David Atlmejd is always making amazing work, and for anyone interested in materials he is always pushing things to new places
All images provided by the artist