London, England based artist Caren Garfen employs her talent for intricate hand-stitching to create subtle and delicate pieces with profound messages. Her works explore themes of gender stereotypes, femininity, and domesticity all while retaining a sensitive and accessible approach. Garfen’s piece Anna is currently featured in our present show at Lexington Art League, FEAST: Pleasure + Hunger + Ritual. Anna is a biographical work chronicling the diary of a young woman living with anorexia nervosa. The narrative is meticulously “written” out with hand-stitched human hair on a cotton, child-sized dress. The words on the dress are poignant and alarming as viewers become emotionally invested in reading the story of Anna. Although the piece documents the struggle of one person, it manages to encapsulate the intricate and devastating effects that influence all who suffer from or have been affected by eating disorders. We wanted to know more about the complexities surrounding Anna so we contacted Caren to gain a deeper understanding of her work.
women are either consciously or subconsciously
absorbing negative issues relating to their bodies.”
Lexington Art League (LAL): What is your background as an artist? Can you remember a particular time/moment where you were certain that you wanted to pursue this field?
Caren Garfen: When I was a child I always wanted to become an artist but at that time I was guided towards practical options. I worked as a craftsperson for fifteen years from 1991 onwards, hand sewing top of the range miniature dolls house samplers for adult collectors. It was a wonderful time, as I could be around while my family grew up and I was able to pursue my stitching. As my daughters became more independent I decided to go to university to study for a degree in the Applied Arts. This opened my mind to new ideas, and by the time I left I was ready to fulfil my childhood ambition.
LAL: From Anna and the other pieces on your website, I’ve noticed that you work with themes like gender, stereotypes, domesticity, femininity, and media portrayal of gender. Why are these themes so important to you?
CG: I am naturally drawn to issues relating to women, I have three sisters and two daughters so these might have some bearing. When I was researching dieting, I collected four women’s weekly magazines over the course of a year and found that every week they came up with more and more diets with crazy names like ‘The Chocolate Diet’ and ‘Eat as Much as You Like Plan’. I just felt it needed to be highlighted that women are either consciously or subconsciously absorbing negative issues relating to their bodies.
LAL: When I first saw Anna, I was immediately struck by the intricacy of the hand-stitching. How is process an integral part of this piece? Is process just as important as the product?
CG: The process is an integral and important part of this piece, and this is the same for all of the artworks that I make. In the case of Anna I knew that I would use a different medium to sew with when Anna informed me that she had lost all of her hair and was now wearing a wig. I wanted to use human hair as there is a fragility about the single strands which would relate to the fragility of the human body when it is under duress. This was a new process for me, the individual strands were different thicknesses, some too thin to use as they would break in the stitching. Hair also creates feelings of both repulsion and attraction which I found of interest.
The final ‘product’ is just as important and always relates to the concept. In Anna I specifically chose a small child’s dress because Anna was finding it difficult to face adulthood which is a common difficulty with eating disorders. In another artwork, Wafer Thin, which related to dieting, I created a textile ‘kitchen paper towel roll’. The concept behind this was that the roll began ‘fat and rounded’ and as it was pulled, got thinner and thinner until it was wafer thin.
LAL: The pocket is a really interesting part of the piece since Anna actually created it. Why did you ask her to have a part in the piece? Have you ever invited people to take part in the making of a piece before?
CG: I wanted to reach out to Anna; she had been so honest and articulate about her illness that I wanted to give her something back. It made a big difference to her confidence to have been asked to be involved in the artwork. She chose and hand stitched the words on her pocket; I hadn’t mentioned that I would be using black and red hair, so it was interesting to find that she had used the same colours in her cotton threads. I asked Anna to write whatever she was comfortable with, and then simply details about her weight and relevant dates. I wanted to communicate with her as sensitively as possible.
When I was commissioned to make a quilt for the Victoria & Albert museum in London, I wanted women to be involved in some way as a throwback to the American sewing bees where women would get together to stitch their quilts. The artwork dealt with women and work and whether women wanted to work full-time, part-time or not at all. I was looking for something that would represent the domestic side of their lives so I asked several friends and acquaintances to collect the lint from their tumble driers and used this as the middle layer of the quilt. Everyone had their name stitched on to a long label attached to the edge of the quilt in recognition of their contribution.
LAL: I read that Anna contacted you after seeing one of your works in a gallery. Do you have any memorable instances of people reacting positively to your work or people feeling like they can relate to a piece on a personal level?
CG: My site-specific artwork Reel Lives (2013) was created for a former textile mill in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, UK. I researched the lives of people working in Saltaire, gathering information from the 1891 census about where they lived, their ages, the jobs they did in the mill, etc. I wanted these millworkers to be recognised for their contribution to the success of the textile trade in the 19th century. I hand stitched plaques of over 100 women, bonding the textiles to wooden bobbins so that the women had their own individual memorials. When visitors came to the private view, quite a few of them recognised family names, and found the piece very moving. A number confessed to crying as they read about the women’s lives.
LAL: What was the process for creating Anna? Was Anna the main inspiration for this work? What research or references did you seek out specifically on eating disorders?
CG: I had just completed four years of intensive research and making relating to dieting and although I had touched on eating disorders I was ready to change to a completely different subject area. When Anna contacted me after seeing my art installation, She Was Cooking Something Up (2014), which was in the form of a full size kitchen, I simply had to change my mind. Anna had bravely reached out to let me know that viewing the kitchen had made her want to get better. I was overwhelmed by what she revealed in her message, her honesty and articulacy. I asked her if I could make an artwork about her illness, emphasising that everything would be dealt with anonymously, and that I would not use any information without her permission. Even the title of the piece relates to ‘pro-Ana’ websites and is not her actual name.
I realized that, although I did know something about eating disorders from the media, I really needed to carry out in-depth research. I read many books on the subject, sought out academic papers, scoured the internet, and even attending an international conference in central London.
LAL: The show at LAL is titled FEAST: Pleasure + Hunger + Ritual. If you could put Anna in one of these categories (pleasure, hunger, or ritual) which would it be and why?
CG: If I had to put Anna into one of these categories, it would be Ritual. I have observed through my research that there is a devastating ritual in eating disorders. A routine, day after day, of pill taking, ritualised cutting of food into tiny pieces (but barely eaten), obsessive exercising, compulsive weighing and calorie-counting, etc.
LAL: What is the one thing you hope for people to take away from viewing Anna?
CG: In viewing Anna I would hope people would take away the knowledge that eating disorders are about more than wanting to be thin; they are devastating mental and physical illnesses, and I know Anna too would want to convey this message.
Come see Anna and other great works on display for FEAST: Pleasure + Hunger + Ritual.
See more of Garfen’s work on her website: http://www.carengarfen.com/
Anna by Caren Garfen