by Maria Porges
My trajectory has been one of mending. By mending myself, I mend others. Looking at my history in a positive way calms me, and I can bring that to others. How do I mend my pain, my history? That’s work that most people don’t want to do. They would rather do anything else.
After many months of thinking about repair in all its forms — actual and metaphorical, hidden and visible, social, artistic and psychological—the world has changed around me in ways that seem both irreversible and incomprehensible. Trying to make sense of it all has meant circling back to the same questions with which this project began. Who is mending for? Is it for the mender, for the recipient — if that person is someone other than the mender—or for society as a whole? How much do we need to know to understand what is being fixed, and what the nature of that mending really is? And above all, why is mending important now?
When I first encountered Ramekon O’Arwister’s work, I was thinking about many of these questions because of his practice’s complicated and multidimensional character. He is widely known in the Bay Area for bringing groups of people together in shared creative events known as Crochet Jams. Increasingly, however, it’s his mesmerizing, idiosyncratic textile-and-ceramic sculptures that are now attracting attention. Both kinds of work involve not only physical mending practices but spiritual and psychological repair as well.
Born and raised in North Carolina, O’Arwisters has lived in San Francisco since the early ‘90s. An articulate and charismatic storyteller, he has often spoken about his early life.
“I grew up black and queer, in the de facto segregated Jim Crow South of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a very angry and homophobic environment. My grandmother, who was born in 1898 and lived to be almost 87, had seen quite a bit, and understood who I was even before I did. One day, when I was very young—maybe eight or nine — she said to me, ‘Come here, boy, and help me with this quilt. You can add any color or pattern you want. And I’ll show you how to add it.’ She already had a pattern; she’d been working on the quilt for months. But she was speaking to me in a symbolic way—the depth of her ability to do that was enormous. She couldn’t control what was going on outside of the house — the racism, the homophobia—but she could help me calm down, to feel accepted and embraced and then go out and find positive solutions.”
O’Arwisters’ parents worked in textile mills at jobs that have since gone overseas. The family lived on a farm, raising some of their food, and he remembers both parents taking what they had and reusing it creatively. “My father would say, ‘we aren’t going to go buy a new product at the store. We’re going to use what we have and repurpose it. We will improvise.’ To do this, you have to be in tune enough with your environment, see the links, be in the in-between of things.”
O’Arwisters’ education in the traditions and practices of black culture was extraordinarily rich, but he didn’t have the opportunity to study art. College culminated in a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. A few years later, he completed a master’s of divinity, which usually leads to a career in the ministry. Art, however, issued a stronger calling. But art was always a part of his life; as a child, he spent many hours sitting at the kitchen table, drawing and painting. “My parents knew that if I was drawing at the table, I’d be OK. I was at home; I wasn’t running in the streets, confronting the police, being destructive to myself or others.” Still, such an activity wasn’t considered to be work that someone could do for a living.
When he started in the master’s program at Duke University, O’Arwisters thought he wanted to be a preacher or a pastoral counselor. “But I didn’t feel authentic in the church. I wasn’t ‘out’– and the church wasn’t embracing gayness. How authentic could I be under those circumstances?” After graduate school, he spent five years in Japan, figuring out what to do next. He taught English and, in his apartment, made colorful abstract drawings, showing and selling them in a Tokyo gallery.
When he returned to the United States, he moved to San Francisco, where he held various curatorial positions, eventually serving as the photography and video curator for the public art program at San Francisco International Airport. He was painting, too, but galleries weren’t interested. “I thought, there could be many factors here that are out of my control…I could be angry, but anger is not redemptive unless you can learn something from it. I thought, what am I angry about? I realized that I wanted a community, I
wanted to be embraced, to be heard, to be accepted there on my own terms. So, instead of asking other people to give me that, why not dig deep inside myself and cultivate those attributes, give those things to others, through the folk-art tradition my grandma had taught me? Instead of me wanting other people to accept me and my art, why not use the folk art tradition that my grandmother had helped me to experience—a tradition that had always been there in my life, but until I took the time to step back and reflect, I couldn’t see?”
But there was a problem. Needlework, the craft O’Arwisters learned from his grandmother, wasn’t suitable for a group activity– since needles are sharp and sewing takes time and patience to master. O’Arwisters described the ‘lightbulb moment’ when he realized there was a practice he could share with others. “I showed my work to one of my friends, and she said, ‘you’re braiding fabric and sewing the braids together to make rag rugs, but you can do this with crocheting.’ That was the answer. I designed some bigger crochet hooks…and that allowed me to take it to another level — to use fabric, in a context that was healing.”
In 2011, inspired by his childhood experience of love and acceptance through making, O’Arwisters started Crochet Jam. As his story suggests, these participatory events were at least in part for himself, extending the tradition of younger artists—especially women and artists of color — creating exhibitions and events to sidestep the hurdles erected by the white, male-dominated art world to exclude them. Over the years, O’Arwisters’ get-togethers have taken place all over the country: at senior centers, elementary schools and community colleges, maker fairs and art fairs; in corporate headquarters, alternative art spaces, artist’s studios and museums; at shelters, block parties, and as part of neighborhood festivals.
Fabric, he points out, is something with which we all have an intimate and constant relationship, from the moment we are born. It is familiar and comforting, talismanic and protective. Everyone knows it and feels comfortable using it– unlike fine art materials, which can be intimidating. “I’m asking participants to look at
making differently—to make without a label, to allow themselves to experience it. I ask them to accept what they are doing. Just to do it, not define it. I don’t want to be defined myself—politically, sexually, racially. We are more than our labels. I don’t expect the participants to go that far, but I want them to choose their fabric and interact with it. I don’t give them instructions. I let go of my authority and allow them to maintain their agency.”
At the same time hundreds of participants have been “jamming” with him all over the US, O’Arwisters has developed a new way of making sculpture. It started in the fall of 2016 during a residency at Recology (also known as the San Francisco city dump, where artists-in-residence have access to whatever refuse garbage trucks haul in). For weeks, he found himself in a frenzy of collecting, filling his studio with everything from tires and hubcaps to typewriters, bathtubs and old medical textbooks. After three months,
Deborah Munk, the director of the program, walked into his space and remarked that it looked more like a yard sale than an exhibition-in-the-making. “I went into panic mode,” he recalled, “because she was right… a month isn’t a long time to organize a show that is going to get a lot of attention, which these residency shows usually do. So I decided to step back and see how I was feeling on the inside.”
It was the fall of 2016, and “the election had taken place… I felt broken, detached, thrown away, sharp. I took these emotions and feelings, accepted them and thought, OK—instead of just looking at this as an opportunity to accumulate, I’m going to look at it as a way of reflecting these emotions. Whatever I’m feeling, I thought, maybe others are too.”
Putting on the required safety suit, O’Arwisters entered the recycling area. At first, he saw the usual assortment of enticing junk he wanted to take back to his studio. “I thought, this isn’t working… Until suddenly I heard a crashing sound, four or five bins down from where I was standing. So I walked over there and I was staring at broken ceramics.
“Someone had cleared out their family heirlooms, or they just wanted to get rid of some stuff—plates, bowls, teacups—and I’m looking at these broken, sharp things, and I’m misty-eyed. And I thought, Ohhhh…I need medication… counseling… something.” O’Arwisters smiled when he told me this part of the story, but he was serious. “Then I thought– if I’m looking at shards and I’m emotional, it must be something in the unconscious I’m dealing with. They’re broken. And that’s how I feel. So I picked them up and brought them back to my studio.”
At first, he put the shards in frames and various other containers, presenting them that way in the Recology gallery. Later, though, he wondered what it would look like if he drew on his experience with crocheting and put these very different materials together: colorful strips of cloth, something as familiar to him as breathing, and the hard, brittle shards that represented how he was feeling. The crocheted fabric framed the broken bits in a kind of bricoleur’s repair. He called the series Mending.
In these tabletop sculptures and wall pieces, fragments of mundane, every-day ceramics—some small, and others quite large– are cradled and contained by eccentric crocheted cloth forms. The ropy coils wind around sharp, broken bits like shapely bandages, inside of which the lip of a cup or rim of a bowl can be seen, barely visible. It’s a kind of aid that holds a hurt without trying to conceal it. Mending #21, for example, brings to mind how a tree grows around a fencepost or sign, engulfing it in living wood: a process called inosculation. The word suggests an enveloping kiss.
The fabric forms are composed of a wild variety of colors and textures. (He originally bought old clothes, linens and yard goods at thrift stores, but now, people give him bags of these materials. A stockpile of fabric is constantly being used and replenished during the “Jams.”) The shapes of many works invoke vessels, but some are more abstract. In Mending # 19, for instance, crocheted curves and circles envelop a tall, narrow vase, like vines overgrowing a neglected monument. And each work changes radically when viewed from different sides. In Mending #16, the swags of material that cradle a broken bowl alternately reveal and conceal the ceramic form almost coquettishly.
The materials, O’Arwisters told me, reflect both his past and his present. “I needed to accept my journey as an artist—my journey, not a Western European journey, involving painting on canvas or working with marble in a specific fine-art tradition. Those things don’t speak to my experience. It’s like me trying to put myself in a context that doesn’t reflect the authenticity of my world. My grandmother, my mother—they both reflected their joy or pain through fabric.”
Mending # 18, one of the least vessel-like pieces and as well as one of the most compelling, predicted the direction O’Arwisters’ work has taken. Jagged fragments of what was once a plate support the sculpture’s intricately worked cloth form. Wider than it is tall, it suggests a giant knot perched on dainty sharp feet. From the surface, other ceramic shards protrude, as if the act of crocheting, like a geological process, has pushed the pieces out to the surface.
Everyone has a primal connection to shards. It’s different from broken glass– a different emotional connection. –RO
Like cloth, pottery dates almost to the beginning of civilization and has been part of nearly all people’s domestic landscape. Thousands of years ago, cultures all over the world figured out how to transform mud into something permanent. At least, until it breaks.
In O’Arwisters’ work since early 2019, textiles and ceramics are still featured, but their roles and behavior have changed in subtle and important ways. Gradually, he has moved from using one or two shards in each sculpture to incorporating as many as he can. These are no longer the shattered remains of domestic pottery, but the product of a collaboration with the ceramics department at California State University, Long Beach. The program’s faculty, staff and students produce ambitious, eccentrically glazed sculptures and one-of-a-kind tableware. Pieces that explode or break in the kiln—as sometimes happens– end up in the department’s “shard yard.” and From pictures of these interesting failures, O’Arwisters chooses the ones he wants, paying for them to be packed and shipped to him.
In his current series, Cheesecake, broken pieces are startlingly visible, their dagger-like forms thrusting out like limbs in all directions. Often covered in strange textures, they conjure a presence that shifts between alien and ancient, like some of the imagery associated with Afro-Futurism. O’Arwisters chose the title Cheesecake to evoke his desire that this body of work to be provocative and sensual—but slightly disturbing, almost threatening, as well. These dichotomies encapsulate the way he feels about being queer and black. He remembers being raised to be passive and submissive, “to never to look white people in the eye. Even now, I wouldn’t make eye contact with the police…How do I make my work reflect my experience? How can the materials I use be subversive, sensual, powerful, and restorative, all at the same time?”
The cloth in these works is different too—both in its deployment and presence, and in that it new instead of recycled. O’Arwisters now uses materials he buys online from a designer fabric store. While not necessarily more vivid, these offer a dizzying variety of textures and weaves. He also plaits the cloth as well as crocheting it. Plaiting, or braiding, was a daily ritual in his childhood home as it is in many African-American households, and his use of it puts him in dialog with other black artists who work with hair, such as Sonya Clark and Meschac Gaba.
In Cheesecake #9, skeins of loose threads and what look like tassels hang and drape, sometimes cascading over the sharp edge of a glazed fragment. Though still abstract, pieces like Cheesecake #13 and #14 invoke the possibility of figures, costumed in some kind of ceremonial regalia. Cheesecake #10, in contrast, looks more like a ceremonial weapon.
In these works, it’s possible to see familial connections with other artists and art forms: Michael Lucero’s figures made of stacked fragments, Nick Cave’s costumes, Congolese n’kisi, and Judith Scott’s thread-and-yarn wrapped constructions, to name but a few. All could all be distant cousins. But as O’Arwisters points out, “When I’m working, I hear a voice saying, ‘don’t worry about how it looks,’ and I think, who’s talking? Then the voice says, ‘Accept it as it is.’ And it makes it possible to make things I haven’t seen before.”
Where the Mending series alludes a kind of spiritual repair for viewer and maker alike, the Cheesecake works are sharper—not only literally, but metaphorically. They are both frightening and beautiful. That duality, according to the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke, produces some of the strongest human emotions: “Whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.”
Can work of this sort can be reparative? O’Arwisters believes it can. Art can call attention to the need for mending in many different ways. In the future, he plans to make his pieces larger, to further clarify their meaning and presence. “Instead of looking down to see it, you will have to look up, and walk around it. Something that’s as big or bigger than we are. Where fabric doesn’t look like fabric anymore. I think about how water can be transformed to ice or steam. I’ve wondered how I as an artist could be so in tune with my materials that I could make them behave, make them appear like other materials. I want to know my instrument like a jazz musician, so well that I can improvise with it. To become the conduit for what the material wants to become.”
My job is not to pass my pain on to you, or anyone else. What I’ve learned is that when I am calm, I can make decisions that allow me to navigate in a positive way. How do I help others do that? -RO
At the end of our first visit, I asked O’Arwisters about his name. He told me he changed it to reflect who he wanted to become. “My birth name came out of the Judeo-Christian heritage. No one expects much from a name that’s so common — Timothy– and I needed a name that would change my posture, that would put me in the world with confidence, in opposition to that heritage.
“My father, whose name was Arwisters, never mistreated me for being a gay child. Some men would have been embarrassed by my ways, my voice. As I got older, my dad never minded when I brought my boyfriends home. He would even show them around town! In the black church, the whole idea of gay and lesbian culture is still very unaccepted. So I took his name to remind me to have that kind of compassion. I added the o in the Celtic tradition, in which it means ‘child of.’ As for my first name, I think the word ramekin – the cooking dish– is such a beautiful word. But I knew that if I spelled it that way, it would confuse people. So I changed the spelling. You can’t dismiss it — it’s powerful. Ramekon.
“It’s through my work that I can be that person—be the most authentic, the most honest. That’s very important to me that I am able to accept my journey as I am. Every day, I’m working with broken ceramics. And when people look at it, they see that the shards aren’t being thrown away, but embraced. Held firm. We all feel broken sometimes. We want people to mend us, hold us in their embrace. Come visit us when we’re feeling well, write a note. Hold our hands. Hear without interrupting. Actually listen. It’s a gift to be heard. I do the best job I can.”
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A version of this article originally appeared in Maria Porges’ blog, words about art, and is part of her forthcoming book about makers who employ mending in their work—whether physical, social, or psychological.
All quotes from the artist are from conversations with the author.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.
Bonnie Neumann says
What a beautiful article and beautiful story! What a beautiful person!
Natalie Sakurai says
Beautifully written. The artist’s story and work have moved me, and I’m thankful to the author for sharing them. We all need this mending, and these thoughtful words, especially after the last few horrific days.