TRACKS: ALLYSON MITCHELL, RADICAL CRAFTby Anne Swartz
Plush, crafty, lezzy, freaky, fun—that’s the work of artist Allyson Mitchell, who recently spent six months in Brooklyn on a residency at the International Curatorial and Studio Program ICSP on a Canada Council for the Arts Grant. I spoke with her once she’d returned to her home base in Toronto.
The Third Wave’s embrace of craft as a DIY subculture is more than a decade strong. Major museums, such as The Museum of Arts and Design, have had important exhibits about things like radical lace and subversive knitting. Mitchell’s focus on making lesbian feminist statements with her art —she’s particular about her brand of feminism being informed by her lesbianism—uses a craft kitsch lens to showcase her worldview of gender and gender social justice.
While in Brooklyn, Mitchell did research at Prospect Park’s Lesbian Herstory Archive and saw lots of art. She also did “regular kinds of New York stuff” and made new work, which went on view in January and February at the David Nolan Gallery as part of the massive, two-gallery show, The Visible Vagina, a collaboration with Francis M. Naumann Gallery, both in Manhattan. Though the show should have more properly been called The Visible Vulva, Mitchell contributed a large, funky installation of a super-sized labia-shaped installation.
Her time at the Lesbian Herstory Archive was a significant catalyst in the concept of her upcoming work, an installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It will be a large storefront window project featuring two life-size sculptures of women with vibrating, lit electronic brains. She’s calling it “Lesbian Feminist Back-to-School Windows.” Backing the installation will be wallpaper with drawings of the bookshelves at the Archive.
“The scale is growing with each installation and each realization,” Mitchell explained, “I can feel it growing and the energy is increasing.” What was at first a response to the gleaming lipstick lesbians of Hollywood as showcased in The L Word, among other lesbian-chic forums, has developed into a practice paralleling her interest in the politics of bodies, bodies of size, fat acceptance, and body acceptance. “I wanted to see bigger, hairier, fatter, sexier bodies,” she said. So, in 2004 she began making a series of sculptures titled Ladies Sasquatch, hairy plush stuffed animals rendered twice the size of her body. With the intent of “claiming more space,” and energized by the positive response she’s been getting from young queer women, she wants to realize a house-size installation after she completes the storefront window project. “My art practice is kind of a fireball,” she remarks, “fed by the oxygen around it.”
So what’s she planning? A lesbian feminist version of a “Hell House” that she originally conceptualized for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night contemporary art event scheduled for October 2, 2010. Although curators commission all kinds of projects for that event, the curator she was working with thought the scale was too large, and so Mitchell decided to pursue the project independently. So-called “Hell Houses,” Halloween attractions created by American fundamentalist Christian churches, showcase the torments of damnation in order to shock teenagers into more wholesome behavior. Sometimes they end in a church setting or a Heavenly space. Homosexuality, suicide, and abortion are just some of the transgressions found in the Hell House rooms, which motivated Mitchell to plan a version replete with sexual scenarios. She said, “My megaphone becomes even larger with the larger pieces.”
Alongside her art and life as a crafter, Mitchell is also an academic. She holds a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies and teaches in the School of Women’s Studies, York University. When I asked her about the difference between her writing and art, she said she feels that writing is less effective than her art practice. “My films, performances, and sculptures are about trying to materialize feminist theory,” she expressed. “They are a way out of the limitations of academic writing and its classic inaccessibility.” Her art is an articulation of feminist theory. For her, it is all about increasing lesbian visibility. And in her art, she explained, “I have a lot more freedom—I am allowed to have a sense of humor.”
Mitchell has also thrown herself into the creation of a gallery for independent lesbian and feminist art. With her girlfriend Deirdre Logue, she’s created Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), a gallery and art-making space. Next, with friend Gigi Basanta, they are moving into a micro-granting program called DAG (the initials are the first letters of each of their names), which will offer artist’s residencies and modest funding. “We are cooking up lots of schemes for creating art and community.”