Exploring Ideas Through Materials by Crystal Cawley

My work is a hybrid of art, craft, and traditional handiwork. I embroider on paper, using stitches for drawing and mark-making. I print letterpress and other relief processes on fabric and paper, using letterforms as image, pattern, or readable text, from which I make sculpture that resembles clothing but isn’t for wearing. I’m inspired by found and collected matter that has been discarded or forgotten, or is somehow obsolete; its history and decay inform how I use it and what it becomes. I love wrangling disparate materials and methods into a cohesive whole, and I enjoy slow processes that require a particular kind of patience, repetition, and commitment. I love a tedious, time-consuming activity that is its own reward.

You start with the possibilities of the material. – Robert Rauschenberg

I make things to explore ideas with materials. This requires my paying attention to not just what I’m thinking about, but what the materials themselves are evoking and how they develop and support my ideas. It also means intuiting whether I’ll be making a print, a sculpture, a fabric piece, or something in between. I’m most at home in the spaces between genres, where thought and matter first collide, and then combine.

Somewhere I read that a learning process includes necessary failures. In my studio, I need to feel that I am learning something as I make, which means I don’t always get a polished ready-to-show thing. The wrestling with the paper, thread, ink, textile, or metal gives me the information I need to continue. One of my studio walls displays these small failures, but I don’t keep them there as admonishments to my ineptitude. They are important reference tools that I look to for guidance, even inspiration.And eventually many will find their way into a finished piece.

When I was new to teaching, I overcame my nervousness by having specific plans for class time and for the object or products students would have completed at the end of the class. This approach was mostly successful for many years, but as my own work began to go in unexpected directions, I became less interested in teaching toward a definable object and more excited by introducing students to processes and possibilities. I encourage students to discover what works for them, to share what they know with each other, and to develop a vocabulary of skills and methods that they can draw on to use in their own studios.

Crystal Cawley makes sculpture, artist’s books, and works on and of paper. She teaches paper and book arts classes such as Sampler: Paper, Fiber, Print and Stitch and Sewing Machine as Drawing Tool in Maine College of Art & Design’s Continuing Studies program. Her work has been widely exhibited and collected, and she is a past recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant.