MAKERS: Sarah Isenhart
“Sarah Isenhart is interested in transformations. Quiet, nimble – dedicated, but defiant, her needle punctures, rips through the surface – ruptures what was, making what is to come. It is in these careful moments of conversion that objects take on a new life. Acknowledging the tradition of women’s craft, she shadows the conventions of embroidery – meticulously hand-stitching each image, dedicating hundreds of hours of exacting labor. Confronting the ‘decorative’, and once again challenging the separation of art and craft, the artist is chiefly concerned with process. Only in such a painstaking enterprise can one ultimately gain a sense of mastery, or experience the gratification that such reflective practice often reveals.”
I wrote the blurb above about Sarah Isenhart years ago, and it holds true to this day. And while I knew that Isenhart’s practice was meticulous and time consuming, it wasn’t until I visited her studio in West Park that I saw for myself just how meticulous it is.
As you can see in the example above, one aspect of Isenhart’s practice is transforming old maps from National Geographic – you know the ones, folded up as a bonus within the issue, often lavishly illustrated. There is an old suitcase in her studio filled with them.
Using the maps as her canvas, Isenhart delicately embroiders imagery onto the map. And hundreds of hours later, the map is transformed into something new – something that allows the viewer to think differently about these maps and the imagery therein.
Recently, National Geographic apologized for its racist past – the venerable publication frequently portrayed “natives” as exotics, happy hunters, noble savages, and every other cliche. Some of these maps, like the one above, depict the lands of indigenous tribes before displacement by the influx of Americans into the West. Isenhart is a member of the Diné Tribe (also known as the Navajo Nation), a tribe known for their amazing textiles and rugs, and their painstaking and detailed weaving techniques. This heritage definitely influences her work.
In her studio, I had the chance to watch her work on one of these embroidery pieces. Sitting at a desk, with a lamp pulled right up into her face, she works on these (often tiny) creations. Stitch after stitch is pulled through, slowly, with exacting precision.
Her stitching starts to cover up the illustration, which leaves an incredibly tactile surface in its wake. She has several works in process, so she can switch between them – each one of these small pieces represents hundreds of hours of work: “I think there is something very meditative about the motion of repeating a stitch pattern. I work very close to the piece when I’m focusing on a section, so the rest of the work is vignetted. I require a solid block of time, because the process can be so intricate. Sometimes I will become so absorbed in a section and when I pull back, I realize I’ve only covered a 1”x1” area. So, you must be a little zen to not be slightly disheartened. I think setting up, planning how I want the final piece to look, the cutting, threading, stitching, and all the methodical detailing becomes ritualistic in a way.”
Stitching on paper is not as easy as fabric, she has to work carefully, trying not to tear the surface. As she explained, “when I first started, I had to figure out how I could transform paper to be able to handle the manipulations that I was going to place on to it. You poke a lot of small, close knit holes into a piece of paper and it becomes nothing; confetti. By transforming this paper into something that can be more malleable, the dynamic changes I want can be accomplished.”
A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the past Isenhart was more of an installation artist (she cites Andy Goldsworthy and Nick Cave as influences), so it is perhaps not surprising that in addition to these tiny creations, she has started making much larger pieces.
In a recent show at Doubting Thomas in Tremont, Isenhart exhibited the piece above: “Bear | World (Reimagined)”. Abandoning her small maps, Isenhart is now using pegboard as her canvas. And while the technique is similar to embroidery, it doesn’t allow for the freedom to stitch every which way – here she is restricted to the grid of holes on the surface of the MDF.
These new restrictions have Isenhart being meticulous in new ways – for example, she shows me her “color key” and stitching chart.
This chart to me looks about as daunting as doing my taxes, but Isenhart likes the challenge: “I am finding that, with these new pieces on board, I need be aware that my techniques have to evolve, because the processes I learned to get around the inflexibility of paper, may no longer apply. So now a new set of skills must be created.” The end result is a nearly life-size bear, rising out of a background of maps.
As I said years ago, writing about her smaller work, “Only in such a painstaking enterprise can one ultimately gain a sense of mastery, or experience the gratification that such reflective practice often reveals.” I think this holds true for her new work as well – these pieces are still very much about process – about creating new rituals.
I can’t help but think about Navajo master weavers, usually women, sitting in front of their looms – the complex and intricate patterns slowly emerging – and the amount of skill and patience it must take (some individual textiles take over a year to complete). Isenhart told me that her father (who was a painter) gave her a small doll when she was little, a Navajo woman sitting with a loom: “I remember being fascinated with it, because I had no idea how a pile of wool became a beautiful object.” A fascination with that kind of transformation is at the core of Isenhart’s art – it is in the quiet, zen-like moments of transforming, that objects can take on a new life.
To see more of her work, visit www.sarahisenhart.com.