A conversation with Mel McMichael

Mel McMichael is Connexion ARC’s current artist-in-residence, learn more about her project, Use ’em While You Still Got ’em, and Limited Time Offer, a pop-up exhibition and residency program hosted by Connexion. Limited Time Offer works outside of traditional exhibition strategies by activating Connexion’s current shared workspace into a temporary gallery. Projects will be installed for 72 hours only, showcasing artistic production completed by artists-in-residence over the months of July and August, on view from August 25 – 27. 

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Kasie Wilcox: Tell us about the project you’re developing during your residency with Connexion.

Mel McMichael: I’m currently working on a textile book of textile poetry, relating to impermanence, my relationship with my grandmother, and coming to terms with her genetic disorder. And with that, it has expanded into creating a space that contains the book. Viewers can interact with the space.

There’s a weird thing with knitting where it’s somewhere between an art and a craft, depending on who you ask. For me, my work is something people wear, touch, or feel, and the idea of something in a gallery space that you can actually can touch bridges that gap, I think.


KW: Tell us about learning to knit, and how does it relate to your project?

MM: I’m not exactly sure when I wanted to start knitting, I was in middle school. My mom had a bunch of old knitting supplies, she used to knit when we were babies, but eventually it got pushed to the back of a closet. I must have found it and thought to myself, that’s what I want to do. So [my mom] bought me books and tried teaching me how to knit – but she always kind of knitted in a weird way anyways – so she encouraged me to figure it out myself.

Around the same time, my grandmother’s disease had come to a point where she was no longer safe to stay at home, and she had to be placed in a special care home. During that transition, she was in the hospital, and she was scared – we were all scared. I brought my knitting with me because I wanted to show my grandmother, she was supportive of whatever I tried, and she asked me to knit her a blanket for the special care home. She wanted it to feel like a home.

So I spent an entire summer, every single day, knitting that blanket for her. That’s how I started knitting.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 1.08.38 PMIt took a long time; it took more than the summer to create. It got to a point where I had a pile of squares, of garter stitch squares, and I was going to stitch them into a patchwork blanket. Then school started, and the pile would grow, but it was growing slower than it did in the summer, and then that February, my Nan got a cold, and everyone decided that this was it – this was her time – and they called in the whole family to say goodbye. I panicked, and cried, and sewed the blanket together. I brought it to her, but she then lived for another four years. [laughs]

At the time I didn’t know how to join blanket squares together. One of the squares I ran out of yarn, and instead of getting more yarn that matched, I started knitting with a completely different yarn, it was a different colour, it was kind of strange looking, and I remember thinking, “this is the ugliest thing I have ever made,” but I needed to give it to her, I promised I would give her this blanket. I thought, “if she doesn’t make it until the end of the week, it’s over.” She loved the blanket, she wore it all of the time.


KW: Can you describe your relationship with your grandmother?

MM: She was always very supportive, we went to visit her every holiday – mother’s day, Christmas, easter, thanksgiving – even though we lived in PEI and she lived in Stewiacke, NS. She was a very important person in my life. No matter what I tried, she supported. When I took piano lessons, she said, “come play, and we will have a kitchen party” – my Nan is from Cape Breton [laughs].

When I went into theater, she wanted me to record all of the shows so that she could see them. When I learned highland dance, she bought highland dance figurines so that she could tell everyone that her granddaughter was learning highland dance. She was amazing that way.


Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 1.08.28 PMKW: Can you talk a little about your feelings towards Huntington’s Disease?

MM: I think the thing for Huntington’s disease, as it is for most diseases; everyone is going to feel a bias towards the one that affects their family. Huntington’s is prevalent, and is a dominant genetic disorder, but it doesn’t affect as many people as other diseases do. The only celebrity I can name with Huntington’s disease is Woody Guthrie. It’s hard to talk about because nobody seems to know about it. There’s no ice bucket challenge for Huntington’s. I never know where to start, it’s tough explaining, “my Nan isn’t drunk, she has a hard time talking and walking.”

I always felt guilty, because when I was younger, and even thought she was so supportive and kind, I was jealous of other kid’s grandparents because they could go do things, like bake with their grandmother, things that my grandmother wasn’t able to do physically, and at times I almost resented her for it. Until I grew a little older and realized how that’s stupid, and that my grandmother is amazing. It was unfair to feel upset towards her for not being able-bodied.


KW: Thinking about the blanket you made for your grandmother, and the way you described it to me, it reminds me of a Japanese aesthetic philosophy called wabi-sabi. It’s a cultural view that considers accepting transience and imperfection by finding beauty in things that are impermanent and incomplete. What are your feelings towards these ideas?

MM: I absolutely love the idea of that philosophy, it’s always been on my mind no matter what project I create, because textiles are an impermanent form. You can dig up pottery from thousands of years ago but you won’t find a garment in perfect condition from a couple hundred years ago, because it’s likely already rotting. I find influences and inspiration from nature, as well. There’s this weird thing where humans want to preserve everything, they want to live hundreds of years, they want everything to maintain in a perfect structure, for years and years. We’re always moving forward and trying to last longer, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to last longer, but nothing lasts forever. I find it’s better having something beautiful for a short period of time versus having something that’s just okay forever. I rather have something beautiful in the moment.


KW: Tell us more about some of your other artistic influences.

MM: Drawing again from nature, I get excited in the Fall when the leaves change colour, and it will last for only a week or two weeks, and then all of the leaves fall off, and everything turns brown. There’s something beautiful about that, than having green trees forever. As far as textile artists, I’m a fan of Olek, she is a crochet artist from Poland, who is now based in New York City.

I’m relatively new to the world of contemporary art. Last time I was in Montreal, I spent a day at the Musée des beaux-arts, and I saw a piece in the contemporary art exhibit that looked like bioluminescent coral, hanging from the ceiling, and it was made from recycled bottles and lights. I’m not sure if the artist intended for it to look like coral, but she did intend for it to be a reflection on how we treat our oceans. I loved the juxtaposition between the natural and unnatural, organic and inorganic.


KW: The concept of the piece sounds very interesting. It sounds like a clever visualmetaphor for a social issue, and I 

imagine it’s conflicting for viewers because it’s also a beautiful artwork.

MM: Yeah! It looks like coral reefs, but we are currently losing our coral reefs to pollution. It’s a weird feeling. I like the idea of playing with those juxtapositions.


KW: I feel this ties into your current piece, because through creating an interactive textile piece, you are asking viewers to touch it, experience it, and to participate in essentially damaging it and unraveling it. What led you to thinking about these concepts through textiles?

MM: I never really stopped knitting. When in a lecture hall, I had knitting needles in my hands. I would be anxious about the number of people in the room, lecture halls have like 300 hundred people in one room, and I have social anxiety, so I would bring my knitting needles with me. I can knit without looking, thanks to that summer when I knitted the blanket for my grandmother. Eventually, I moved onto the world of craft, I figured that I could sell things, because I was making a lot of hats, and I wondered what I was going to do with all of these hats. I figured I could sustain my hobby by selling what I made.

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In my last year of university, I took a class called Motivation and Emotion, and we did an assignment that involved defining a hobby and the motivation behind it. I researched myself, and I discovered that the motivation for my knitting was sublimation, which is one of Freud’s defense mechanisms. Out of all of Freud’s defense mechanisms, sublimation is the healthiest. The idea is that you take one fear and apply it to a different activity. Psychologists will use it with people who are battling addictions, they will tell them to start running, so that every time they crave a cigarette, they will go for a run instead, and eventually all of that energy going into running, and now they are addicted to running. It doesn’t cure them of their addiction, but it does change it into something healthy. I took my anxieties about my grandmother and my anxieties about life, and turned them into knitting. It didn’t cure me of my anxieties, but gave me an outlet. When I figured that out, I figured that maybe I should keep knitting but for different reasons, and find other ways to deal with my anxiety. So I decided to study textiles to learn about them from a different angle.


KW: I find it interesting that, in a psychology class, you were asked to research yourself, to explore ideas pertaining to yourself, and to uncover the origins of them. I’ve noticed that the artistic process for many artists is a similar to that, because an artist may be looking inwardly, or examining an experience, or drawing conclusions from world happenings, and then transposing or encapsulating them into a physical thing. Coming from a background in psychology, what are your thoughts on art therapy?

MM: I think it’s amazing. I’m friends with a number of art therapist, who work with visual arts, music, and theater. Art therapy helps so many people. I think that art is a healthy outlet for anyone, that being said, I’m not a fan of needing a problem to make art. I think the tortured artist idea is unhealthy. I don’t know if there is any form of art that doesn’t involve some introspection, there is always a piece of the artist in the artwork, I think.


KW: This residency program is intended for emerging artists working locally, and this is your first residency, what do you expect the results will be of your current project?

MM: Going back to Huntington’s disease and not knowing how to talk about it, or trying to talk about Huntington’s disease because it’s very personal and scary subject for me. This is a way for me to show my experience with Huntington’s disease, I don’t have to talk about it directly – people will be able to physically look at it, touch it, and feel it through the piece.


KW: You are hosting an artist talk this evening that will be exploring your artistic process through guided visualization. Tell us about guided visualization.

MM: Sublimation is the first step in some therapies; by taking a bad habit and turning it into a good habit – but you still have a habit. To deal with that, a lot of psychologists are talking about positive psychology, and a lot of that work has to do with mindfulness, meditation, being present, and visualization. That’s my journey as well. The artist talk will involve bringing everyone through my process. I will be exploring memories, exploring my experiences with my grandmother, and even though that moment has passed, we will be present in that moment and reflecting on that moment. We will also focus on being present in this moment.

The talk is going to be under the willow tree, by the walking bridge. I think this is a popular spot with the locals because it’s a peaceful location, by the river. Water has played a big part of my life. We will be creating a comfortable space for everyone, people can participate in whichever position they feel most comfortable in. I will lead a guided meditation, beginning by grounding ourselves, and then leading us through visualizations, like how I remember my grandmother’s living room, or a holiday morning, things like that, and then afterwards, we will take a break, ground ourselves again, and continue on with a few more visualizations. This way, at any point, if someone needs to shift, or to take a break, or they need to leave, they can do so without feeling they are disturbing anyone. It’s important that we are continuously maintaining a safe and comfortable space.


Join us Thursday, August 10, for a guided visualization artist talk with Mel McMichael, artist-in-residence, part of Connexion’s summer series, Limited Time Offer. Mel will be leading mind-body exercises pertaining to the themes of her project by simulating images associated with memory and touch.

Please meet outside of the Connexion Office (65 York) between 6:00 and 6:15, the group will travel to an outdoors site reserved for the talk (the willow tree on the green, by the train bridge, after the overpass). The guided imagery intervention will begin at 6:30, followed by a casual discussion, with refreshments and cake, learn more.

This project is presented with the support of Sixty-Five York Creative Studio and shiftwork collective. Follow the artists-in-residence progress on Instagram @connexion.arc

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