Interview: Bonnie Wells
by Mary Stein, Jul 7, 2012
I’ve known Bonnie Wells and appreciated her work as a textile artist for a long time. There’s something special about the way her work combines bold simplicity and expert technique, warm colors and surfaces that remind you that there’s a whole study in the subtleties of touch. Her work includes quite a range of ways of working with fabric, including shibori dyeing and silkscreen printing. I have a vivid impression of a lusciously tactile gold and amber amalgam of silk and wool she had blended through a felting process and then screen printed.
A few months ago when we spoke she was enthusiastic about a discovery she’d made on a recent European trip of a sophisticated, but cooperative, machine that met the artist half way, a machine that expedited printing on fabric while allowing individual artistic expression. That sounded like something worth exploring.
When I visited Bonnie at her home and studio in Walnut Creek recently, the machine had arrived, and was set up and operating in a shed outside her home. It turned out to be a complicated set up with innumerable finely engineered parts.
Mary Stein: It’s quite a machine. How did you find it?
Bonnie Wells: When I was in Denmark last summer I saw a similar set-up in a shop. The table took up one whole side of the store; then all these beautiful clothes that the woman proprietor had made with it were displayed on the other side. I was just blown away. I’ve been learning this stuff all my life and never saw anything like this. I asked where she got it. She told me there was a man named Zimmerman in Austria who had a company that made them. So I contacted him. He was retired, but he was willing to come out of retirement to make one for me.
MS: So he made this for you?
BW: He was going to, and we were negotiating on how big it should be, and so on. A retired metalworker who had worked in his company was going to build it. Then the lady I told you about who has this store wrote to me that there was one in Denmark that was available and 30 meters long. So I wrote to him and said, “Well, there’s one of your tables for sale. What do you think?” He said, “Just buy it, it’s great.” It turned out that even with the shipping the price was the same as if I’d had him make it. The table came in a 20-foot container that was dropped off at our door. And it works, fantastically. We’ve actually printed 15 yards so far. It came with 80 screens and it’s lucky we have a lot of storage here. They don’t make them like this anymore. The industry has moved on to computerized machines. I visited factories in Sweden where they have long tables, and they push a button and the machine does everything. It just goes and goes.
But this machine is not like that. It allows you to use industrial tools, but still work like an artist—only on a larger scale. Time is important, so to be able to make more fabric at one time helps. Eventually I hope to have a place—maybe in an industrial building somewhere—where many people can come and work. To have this kind of refined equipment for artistic uses is very cool.
And young people need to learn about these things. The first man who had this table, who is now in his eighties, and who had passed it on to the man I bought it from, took the time to email me and tell my husband how to set it up. It was very complex, with dozens of adjustments. He sent email after email to give us all this detailed information, and I said, “How can I thank you?” He said, “Promise me you’ll teach someone young.” Isn’t that lovely?
MS: It is lovely.
BW: Yes. He said he so wanted hand printing to be kept alive.
MS: And he had found someone who shared that wish.
BW: So it’s like I have taken on a big IOU!
MS: You have several things happening right now—this machine, the shop [Bonnie had just opened Material Grace, a shop in Mill Valley offering her own and other artists’ fabric creations].
BW: They’re related. I wanted to stop all this hauling of things around the country to shows. I wanted to establish a stable business so I could focus on one work place and one place for teaching others.
MS: Now I remember once you said that when you were a child your first experience of art was with the quiet it brought when you worked at it, which was in contrast to the atmosphere of a somewhat hectic family life. Is that still the case for you as you work as an artist?
BW: Yes, it’s very much the case. I think this, in part, is what attracts people to art. You’re working with your mind, your body, and your feelings, and many people find that can be a very satisfying experience, and a very nurturing and holistic one. I was a child in an environment where there was so much chaos. Looking back on it now, I’m not surprised that I gravitated to this place where I was able to have a sense of my own life.
MS: Without being able to put it into words, even.
BW: Yes. One of the first experiences I had that was profound in that regard happened when I was in college. I was in a sculpture class and was asked to make a representation of the person standing in front of me. I remember that I became aware of a deep, deep silence within me. I didn’t know what caused that, but the effort of really concentrating and trying to work with the eye and the hand and what was out there in front of me was such a strong discipline that I think I became really aware of myself there for the very first time in my life.
MS: So that was different from making a drawing from imagination?
BW: Much different. It also had to do with being with a group of people trying something together in the same space. There were 20 other people in the room trying the same thing. That was different from the experience of going away into myself to get a kind of respite. I had no intellectual framework to put that into, but I remember being completely amazed by it. Suddenly I could see the model, the details about her arm, the way it rested on her leg. I remember leaving class that day and seeing everything. I understood that studying art could literally change how you see.
That kind of seeing has to do with the fact that I’m not talking about what I’m seeing anymore. The part of the mind that’s naming things is somehow quiet. And then what some people call a flow, an inner awareness and silence, comes out of that. And that experience becomes the most important thing. I think my whole life—my work with children, my family, my teaching—is related to this kind of quiet seeing. I think there’s magic there.
MS: I keep wondering about the learning process. How do you see the moment when you run into technical or personal limitations?
BW: Well, I see that all the time, probably most of the time. What changes is your relation to that, and you understand that it’s part of the process. If you do it often enough, you know there’s a beginning, middle and end to this process. And if you know where you are in the continuum of that, you know what you might expect at a certain moment. A moment arrives where you realize you have to let go of everything you thought you were going to be able to do, and see what actually is coming in front of you, which is like a gift. It surprises me, and it’s something that is more authentic because it’s something that comes through you rather than something that’s already there. It’s something that’s coming out through working with the actual materials.
That’s why I called my business Material Grace. There’s the material aspect, and then there’s something else that’s needed, and we’re given that. We are given that through the effort of beating our head against the wall to come to something that’s more truthful and valuable and useful than the cliché that I started with. There’s a certain amount of effort that’s required, a certain amount of just being there and working with the materials before something changes and you can actually see what’s in front of you. What is the material doing? It’s not something that you can will into existence.
MS: I relate to that in the sense that there’s a payment in seeing what I thought it was going to be like or what I thought it had to be like.
BW: Yes, and also being able to accept that. One thing is that you can kind of see the difference between people who have more experience than others. It’s not so much talent. I don’t actually think it’s about talent. There certainly are very gifted people in the world, but I personally don’t think it’s so much about that. Especially in the work I’ve done with adults, you see it’s not so much about a gift as how much someone can be there with what they are doing and tolerate the frustration of it in order to get on to the next thing. You can call it a payment; I would call it a realization of how disconnected what you have done is with what you had in mind, what you were hoping for. Then when that occurs, something actually starts to move, there’s a letting go of what you had in your head, that it has to be like this, but also there’s more willingness to really learn.
MS: And to accept the discrepancy.
BW: Yes, and to learn as you go. And suddenly it’s not so much about the part of us that compares and judges. That starts to disappear and you become more interested in what is actually going on, and then you can actually come to something. That’s what I find over and over again. It’s very mysterious. And you can’t rush or control the process, and it may not always occur in that way. The moment I think I might know what to expect is the moment when it won’t happen that way. I can’t go confidently into the studio and say, “I know at two o’clock I’m going to have a breakthrough.” Or you think the work has been good, and you come back the next day and see it’s just worthless.
MS: Is this the kind of thing you try to say something about to your students, or do you just let them be free to find it for themselves?
BW: The class is designed to be very experimental. It’s very open, very much allowing people to follow their own thread. That’s the part that helps you to face the frustration, to be actually doing something that matters to you.
MS: Not to be following a fixed direction.
BW: Exactly, or a kit. So I don’t ask people to define in advance what they are going to do. We talk about the process when the need arises. For instance, I had a 68-year-old woman who started crying because she was so wounded by the fact that she couldn’t produce something that was as good as what the person sitting to her was doing. That’s when we start to say something about the process we’re going through. And then we might talk about how and why it is that this matters so much to us.
I truly believe that as human beings we absolutely need to make things. It seems to be a universal need. When I was traveling in Denmark one year I visited the Museum of Resistance, a museum devoted to the Danes under German occupation during World War II. The Danes who were part of the resistance were put into a particular prison where they were subjected to horrific conditions. One man who was a prisoner saved and saved and saved pieces of bread so that he could sculpt a rose. And they had this rose there. It was tiny—maybe as big as a half dollar. It just so touched me.
So we need to make art, and I think the people I work with as adults have never developed or allowed that part of themselves to evolve. There’s such a paucity in our education. Early on people learn to feel that they’re not good enough. There’s so much criticism. I often get people who are really wounded from that.
MS: Is this in a class where they are actually going to do something with fabric?
BW: Yes, we’ll start with some simple technique to get them going, and it’s always about the same thing—visualizing—whether it’s drawing or painting. It doesn’t matter what the actual medium is—it’s always about space and color and movement, a two-dimensional surface and how you interact with that. So people don’t know they’re coming into a fine arts class. They feel that “I’m just going to make a textile.” But we’re really talking about all these fundamental things.
MS: So they feel they are entering a safe space, not plunging into the abyss.
BW: Yes. And I think that’s good. Because the people who say “I want to go study painting” are already the people who are beyond that difficulty. Then there’s the other situation, where there are people like me, who actually want to work with textiles. My grandmother was a quilt artist, my other grandmother was an embroiderer, and I started with textiles before I ever did anything with paper. So that’s much more natural to me, and I think that’s why I returned to it after I studied painting.
MS: Martha Stewart was on a TV program Sunday night where they explored her genealogy. Turned out she had all these ancestors who were lace-makers or embroiderers or other kinds of crafts people.
BW: The DNA of it is pretty fascinating. When I went to Denmark and studied my ancestry I found out I had a male ancestor who was a dyer, and another ancestor who was a lace-maker—not too far back actually. That’s why I think it’s important to have a kind of respect for a drive like that.
MS: Even if you’re working with someone who has nothing like that in their background you’re giving them something that they can pass on.
BW: I’ve had many students—women mostly in their middle age or older—who really do find something by going through this process of making. They’ve found something of real value even if they don’t come back to the class again.
Either after an intense three-day weekend or a seven -week period of classes, at the end we always have a sharing moment. Sometimes I have everybody bring in the ugliest thing they did, because there’s always this thing about “ugly” and “beautiful.” So everybody brings in what they call their worst piece, and then we have an hour to work on somebody else’s ugly piece. And in the time we’re doing this I’ll have a review of techniques and ask them to pick one technique they’ve learned and do something to the ugly piece and not to worry about what’s going to happen, because it’s so ugly already. So we have taken all the things we tense up about out of the equation. And the pieces come out wonderful! Most times, they’ve become the ones we’re attracted to the most. And there’s a real sense of joy and relaxation in the room while all this is going on.
Another thing we share at the end of a class is to have a time when people put out everything they’ve done. It’s often a lot of work after eight weeks. Even after three eight-hour days, there’s a lot of work that everybody hasn’t seen, because at a certain moment they’ve relaxed and focused on what their own work is. So there’s this feast of things to look at, and a real acknowledgment and amazement, you know. It’s “wow! wow!” So everyone gets this kind of core reinforcement about the process. And we’re not necessarily putting names on whose work it is. It’s more about “look at what this process can bring to this room that we’re all standing in.” It’s about enjoying this environment because of the process we have been through.
MS: It sounds like a different quality, a different level.
BW: Yes, it’s completely different from when we first start. It’s living example of the human spirit meeting the material. I think it’s very exciting, to do it again and again—and to learn. I learn a lot.
MS: In the sense of your own process or in the sense of communicating to other people?
BW: I learn about my own process of teaching. Each time I learn more about facilitating the students’ experience. I keep wondering, is there a better experience? What is going to take us there? Is there a less circuitous route? That’s one thing, and then the other thing is that I just plain learn from what they do. My own work and vocabulary of what’s possible increases exponentially. To me there’s no better way to spend your time. It’s so rich. There’s something nourishing about the whole activity. It’s so important to have that experience in some part of your life on a regular basis.
MS: You seem to have such a deep feeling for working with fabrics.
BW: I think fabrics are a natural medium for me. It’s what I was exposed to at a very young age. When I went to study art at California College of Arts and Crafts, textiles were a marginalized part of art education. It was not given a lot of respect or emphasis. Fiber arts were just beginning to be important in the Bay area. At that time you couldn’t major in textiles. If you were there to study art, you had to study painting and drawing and sculpture. And then you could spend a little time in the textile department—weaving or printing, getting some exposure to that.
I grew up around textiles knowing how to sew, buying and cutting fabric, so that knowledge was already in my body. My mother was an embroiderer and my grandmother was a lacemaker, so these materials were in my house and were part of my education. Of course growing up then you had to study sewing, so I felt competent in those areas very early on. One of my mentors, who is well known in the textile field, told me that I have “textile hands,” whatever that is. But it was something she recognized.
I remember bringing my textile work to a male teacher of painting, whom I very much respected and admired. He looked at me and said, “You’re painting.” Which did two things for me. It made me wonder, does that mean I should be painting on paper or canvas and not in a textile class? That was the negative side. The other thing it did was it made me realize that I was practicing fine art on a textile medium, the medium that I most wanted to work with. But he didn’t think what I was doing was as valid as painting with a brush. He was of the ‘50s generation of painters. He thought I should be out there stretching canvas, and I was actually more interested in doing what women for hundreds and thousands of years have been doing with their hands. It was what I was drawn to and what I liked the most. For me the surface of the material was always important. It had to have a certain quality. I spent hours in painting classes trying to get a surface that I liked with paint and paper!
MS: Like that felted material you showed me.
BW: Yes, that rich deep sort of feel—and I thought what the heck, this is the medium I want to work in. It was hard; I didn’t feel validated about that at all. And I had very few mentors in the textile field because it was a very new idea to have a textile department where textiles were looked at as a fine art and critiqued in that way. So if you went through school in that department you came out lacking some of the skills you need to work with color and design, etc.
In the end, I went to school twice. I graduated knowing I didn’t have the background I needed. As soon as I could, I went back and studied painting and drawing without the textiles. Meanwhile I got the technical information that I needed for myself at the library. And when I applied to graduate school, rather late in life, by then I was already bringing the two together. The wall pieces I made were technically okay in terms of what was going to happen to those dyes and fabrics over time, and they were so much better visually because I had studied painting and drawing. Then I had the experience of being given a place in a graduate program in a major university, UC Davis, fairly late in my life. At Davis they had an amazing technical library for textiles and for two years I spent hours and hours getting the information I needed to bring fine art and textile processes together. And that’s when they really came together.
Now I don’t have to think about those things. I understand dyes. I understand temperatures and the fibers that I’m working with so that I’m free to allow many things to go on. It’s probably the same in music: you have to know your notes, or in writing, you have to have a vocabulary.
MS: You know, I’m working with Susan Vorbeck on a piece for the newsletter, too.
BW: Susan’s work can make me cry, and it’s not about things that we think of like the composition of an art piece, for instance. It’s the absolute near perfection of what she does. It’s the stitching. If you just look at her stitching, that brings up this question about how something that’s made by hand can be so touching. What is that? It’s like that man’s rose. It was made so well, even more so because of the medium he was using. It’s almost like music. There’s something communicated there that goes right through us if we can receive it.
Bonnie Wells is the owner of Material Grace in Mill Valley and a long time textile artist.