“I just felt it needed to be highlighted that
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
Rachel Yurkovich, one of the artists featured in Lexington Art Leagues FEAST exhibit, is an artist currently located in Cleveland, Ohio, where she works at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Growing up with missionaries as parents, and having many homes around southeast Europe, Yurkovich who had always had a love for craft’s and drawing, took an even greater interest in the visual arts when it occurred to her she “could use art as an emotional output and a communication tool”. Yurkovich continued her interest for the arts by attending the Cleveland Institute of Art for Sculpture and Painting, graduating in 2014. Her artwork involves various forms of mediums in 2D and 3D, but regarding Yurkovich’s favorite mediums she says that, “My favorite mediums to work with are living things, and capturing their action through video. The action and reaction of the projects must be genuine and not faked for he camera.” Most of Yurkovich’s artwork is inspired by struggles found in daily life, the indulgence of people’s pleasures, and the fascinating lives of insects and animals.
We had a chance to ask Rachel Yurkovich a few questions about her video piece, “Five Second Rule”, that is featured in FEAST.
Lexington Art League (LAL): What went into the creation of your piece for the FEAST exhibit?
Rachel: I was thinking about how our perspective of food changes immediately once it hits the ground, and which food is the most iconically is lost forever once it touches the ground. I wanted to counteract that and depict someone that is so into the ice cream they will throw off every social construct and act like an animal by lapping it off of the dirty sidewalk. So I tried it. This piece was a second attempt at a performance that involved dropping of an ice cream cone with three scoops onto the sidewalk, waiting more than five seconds, then stooping down to the cone and eating it off of the sidewalk without my hands. I got some weird looks, but the ice cream still tasted good.
LAL: Why did you think this piece would be a good addition to the exhibition?
Does the rest of your artwork follow along the same lines as this piece? If not, what themes are typically exemplified in your artwork?
Rachel: FEAST: Pleasure, Hunger, Ritual When I saw the title I thought it would be a perfect setting for this piece. My work addresses overconsumption, and how sometimes the lack of self control can lead to negative consequences. For Five-Second Rule I used myself in a performance of such. However, other times I have used insects and animals as stand-ins for human situations of desire, indulgence, and self destruction.
LAL: What goal or message do you want the viewers or audience to know about this piece in particular?
Rachel: If the viewer is disgusted or semi-shocked by why I am doing what I am doing in the video, I would like if they would stop and ponder as to why they disagree with my actions. Through this and other works people will be exposed to another way of seeing themselves and their actions. I advocate for thought to happen behind decisions that could have negative consequences on one-self or others. To not spend one’s life seeking out ways to fulfill desires of the flesh, but to take advantage of the cognitive ability we have as humans and be self-aware of what we choose to spend our time indulging in, and how deep we let ourselves go.
LAL: What advice would you have or give to newer artists?
Rachel: Don't limit yourself to one material. Experiment with anything (Right now I'm collecting dust for no reason). Get a studio and make a habit of going there even if you don't get anything done. Apply to lots of shows. It's kind of like a good type of gambling.
For more information about Rachel Yurkovich and her artwork visit her website:
"Five-Second Rule" by Rachel Yurkovich
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All Lexington Art League programs are made possible through the generous support of LexArts. LexArts allocation of $50,000 represents the largest single donation to the operations of the Lexington Art League.
The Kentucky Arts Council, a state arts agency, provides operating support to the Lexington Art League with state tax dollars and federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support provided by Lexington Parks & Recreation.