One eye sees, the other feels. – Paul Klee
I first saw the work of artist Sean Riley at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY. His exhibition “Everyday Will Be Sunday” included paintings, sculptures and a series of quilts made solely from his father’s clothing (ordinary blue jeans and sweatshirts, etc.), which he inherited upon his father’s death. These garments were painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed into incredibly moving art objects, one quilt featuring hand-embroidered words from a traditional gospel hymn, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down, Everyday will be Sunday.” There are some mysteries about these works I would like to leave intact; others that have become obsessions, which have stayed with me since 2012.
Indeed, many poets have written about the clothing of the dead. There’s Anne Carson’s “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” and “The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos, but I have found no art with the impact of Riley’s. And so, I have repeatedly watched the few video interviews of him, one with artist Michael Oatman, one with Tracy Baker-White, and caught a few of the phrases, a few of the subjects that interest him, as if trying to find loose threads upon which to pull when engaging this thoughtful, sometimes reticent young man.
MKJ: You speak about collecting objects of utility and having an interest in simple objects that have an honesty or truth inherent in them. What do you think elevates ordinary things to the realm of “sacred” (if this is the correct word)?
SR: I certainly don’t find all utilitarian objects sacred, and that’s kind of why I like them, because they can be so ordinary. And I think their ordinariness comes from the fact that they are created to perform a specific task, and in that, their form becomes very unique in order to perform that task. I have a particular interest in kitchen objects, because they can be so strange. Sometimes I don’t even know what they are made for, but can tell they are very specific to a certain task.
I like to leave room in my own practice so that the function of the work or purpose of the work dictates the form. I try to allow any type of media to be possible or available to me when I’m working, so whether it be quilting, embroidery, painting, or sculpture, it’s all there to serve a greater purpose, whatever I’m following, or whatever I’m seeking.
MKJ: You also talk about the connection between “the eye, the hand, and the picture plane.” Is it the original investment of the maker’s eye, hand and time that elevates objects? Is the special quality inherent in the object?
SR: What makes something sacred is what I’m exploring in this body of work. To me, the fabric that I’m using, the fabric that I’ve inherited from my father has become sacred to me. It cannot be replaced. The denim I have of his, there’s a finite amount of it. It can’t be regenerated, and so, to me, that’s sacred. The challenge is in trying to make it into art and trying to do justice to the material without exploiting it.
So, if you were just to look at denim jeans and I told you that they were my father’s and that my father had passed away, they probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But if I could do something to alter the fabric in a certain way, put something of myself into that fabric, then I think that it has the potential to be sacred (or appear sacred) to many more people than just myself.
I’m trying to figure out how to do that and I approached it in the quilts that you saw on exhibit at the Arts Center, and since then I’ve been trying other means to do it as well: like deconstructing the denim jeans into fragments. I am now taking the denim down to individual threads, removing the individual weft strands (all done by hand), in a very labor-intensive process.
MKJ: Your quilts are certainly of a different essence than many so-called “memory quilts” or craft quilts, in my view. This is not to devalue the work of others, but yours are certainly elevated to “high-art.” I’m trying to get at what made this happen. There was certainly the presence of your father in the clothes, his hard work, day in and day out, and your care in dismantling them, pressing them and re-working them, adding commitment, dedication, ritual, and devotion. But I think it could have to do with the way the quilts evolved from your paintings in some organic way as well. Certainly the quilts could not have happened without the paintings.
SR: Right. I think it’s important to remember that when I decided to make the quilts I had never sewn anything in my life. The idea of memory quilts has been around for a long time, but to use the inherited clothing to make quilts, to me was a radical idea, because it meant learning a whole new craft to carry this out. So I didn’t have the skill and/or the baggage of a quilter going into the project. All I could really offer was my knowledge as a painter.
Gearing up for the quilting project, before I started cutting the clothes or sewing the fabric, I started making paintings and collages that mimicked quilt-making procedures. I was researching how to do that and then doing it in my paintings, making strips on paintings or with collage and joining those strips together to make a full rectangular image. When I finally came to the quilts, I had a general idea of how to do it, at least in two-dimensions, and I brought to it my color sensibilities and my compositional sensibilities as a painter and the first couple of quilts were quite rudimentary, simple in their construction. But the visual experience with them is very rich, as I knew how to manipulate color, space and form.
MKJ: And I understand that you sew on your grandmother’s sewing machine.
SR: Right, so there’s that connection to ancestry that I never really considered before.
When I think of what my goals were with the quilts, I knew I wanted to keep them anonymous, so that there are no real signs of my father in them. There are no logos, no images, and no “text” in the fabrics themselves. There’s nothing you could really point to and identify with my father. I did that intentionally because I wanted the viewer to approach the works and hopefully be moved by them just because of their visual qualities, and if it stopped there for the viewer, that was fine for me. But if they wanted to go further and read the text on the wall or read the exhibition label and find out that they were made entirely from my father’s clothing, that would add another layer of meaning to the quilts.
MKJ: I would argue that it had an additional effect (which I have also heard from other viewers): it tapped into a collective consciousness. I believe this relates to a narrative or memory embedded in the artworks, embedded in the body, in the fabric, which is what I was trying to get at earlier, a shared memory, or “collective loss.” And I think this generalization on your part facilitated that effect.
Clearly we are not the lone authors of our narratives; rather, our self emerges from our interactions with others, (as George Herbert Mead and psychologist William James told us). Did you know that this narrative effect, this transference, and collective response would happen?
SR: I think so, simply because for some reason I was drawn to the quilt medium. Looking back, it just seemed to be the natural choice. Like I said, the memory quilt has been around for a long time. There’s an inherent property to fabric that we identify with other human beings, a tactile quality, a softness that relates to the human experience. So I think it was very fitting for me to deal with my experience of loss in an artistic sense by using fabric. It’s not something I would even try to approach in a painting or drawing. It never made sense to me in those mediums, but it does in fabric.
MKJ: It’s so interesting to me that even though those quilts don’t have the specificity you described, they do indeed seem very specific. It’s an enigma!
SR: That’s what I realized. They are very specific because they come from one person’s clothing, and that person had a palette, a style. My dad was a fairly simple person, at least stylistically, so that the clothing has uniformity in many ways, and that becomes very specific to him. And I have a specific visual language, which I’m imposing on the clothing as well. So even though I tried to keep it anonymous and broad, there is an underlying narrative to it.
MKJ: When I think about our selves emerging from our interactions with others, and the possibility of your work being an exploration of the self, and certainly an exploration of your relationship with your father, as well as a tapping into the collective, I’m also reminded of a performance piece by Marina Abramović , documented on video by the PBS NewsHour in one of their “Brief but Spectacular” moments. She describes how she invited gallery guests to sit across from her in silent presence as she stared into their eyes for an extended period of time. There were some people she knew, some that were strangers.
Your work somehow reminds me of hers, in its meditative quality. Like Abramović, I find you to be fully “present” in your work, and in “Everyday Will Be Sunday,” I found that you did in fact invite someone (your father? the viewer? yourself? all of these individually?) to metaphorically sit across from you in silent presence. Your work and hers, in my view, require the viewer to be fully present as well. Can you elaborate on how your work is an exploration of the self?
SR: I like the idea of a viewer being silently present in front of my work. I hope that they can experience the same joy and wonder that I did when creating the work. My practice is certainly a quest for understanding myself. That is certainly at the root of it, an understanding what I am capable of, what I’m not capable of. I am constantly trying to push my own personal boundaries in an attempt to create something very unique.
I think that working with the inherited clothing has allowed me to explore that. I’ve begun a deeper exploration of myself, my place in the world, my own personal timeline on the planet, and of what objects we leave behind and where they can then go. Working with my father’s clothing has led me to look at my own personal art and artifacts differently and consider how they become evidence of time and our existence.
MKJ: You have also said to me, “And now after seven years, I can’t really make the paintings without the clothing/fabric. It is always in my mind – that what I am doing is ultimately a study for what will happen to the fabric. It has really changed the way I approach painting – I see it completely differently. My understanding of these works and the process is directly related to my other studio work – painting, drawing, collage.”
You are currently working on a series of shield images, which I find fascinating, because after all, isn’t the quilt a form of shield, both protecting us and encasing us? An art object with a protective property? I saw a video of the layered process involved in the making of one of these pieces and it does look very much like a quilt-making process. Is this true?
SR: Yes. I made my last quilts in 2013 and since that time I’ve been using fabric in a lot of other ways. I’ve really been exploring the fabric much more deeply, looking at how it was made, how the fabrics were dyed, and really getting into the process of weaving. At the same time, I’m also looking at the form of the shield throughout many different cultures. It’s a much more open form and can really take just about any shape, from full-body size to something that can easily be held in the hand. But it always has a relationship to the body.
And that’s what I’ve been most interested in. Of course the quilts also have a relationship to the body, because they’re made to cover the body (or two bodies), so they have this certain scale and the shields have that same idea of scale or proportion, but they are much more malleable. And I’ve been really excited about that; I don’t feel as constrained to a rectilinear framework. I can do much more in the shield format.
I’ve also been using a lot of elements in my painting and collage work that I’ve learned from the quilting process: like the binding of the quilt, the tying of the quilt, the different types of marks you can get with thread. I’ve done things like sew on paper or use the sewing machine without thread to mark paper. I’ve embroidered into paper and made marks that resemble embroidery. So, at present in my studio I have fabric out, the sewing machine and embroidery, as well as painting, drawing and collage. And it’s exciting because they’re all speaking to each other.
When I’m approaching a painting, making marks for a painting, I’m thinking about how those marks would translate if they were done with thread or through embroidery or with the sewing machine. How would they translate in a real, tactile sense? But then, because it’s a painting, it has much more freedom in a sense than a fabric work could have. And from that freedom I also learn about how I can push the fabric work in different ways, ways that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t learned them through the painting process.
MKJ: So they are all interconnected.
SR: Very much so. And when I come up against an obstacle in the painting I usually find the answer through the fabric and vice versa. Answers for the fabric can be found through painting. It’s a great relationship that I think has a lot to give.
MKJ: It is so natural for humans to resist uncomfortable emotions that it is touching to find someone courageous enough to move toward grief, reminding us that a quilt is also something upon which we can lie down in surrender, and a shield can be something that empowers us. We reach another enigma, because it seemed you made your loss public, yet you did so in a very reserved, quiet way.
SR: I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear. I made the quilts out of a compulsion. I felt like I had to make them, without really knowing why, but it certainly felt like it had to be done, in retrospect. It was a way to allow myself to talk about my experience of losing my father, and doing it through art was really the only way that I could do it. Because, as you know, as most people know, it’s really a difficult thing to talk about, and many would prefer to avoid the subject. But it’s something you don’t want to forget. You know, I don’t want to forget him. And the experience of losing him was so profound that I think that it deserves the attention that I’m giving it.
—Sean Riley & Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Sean Riley was born 1977 in Wareham, MA. In 1999 he received BFA in Painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2004 he received an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon receiving his MFA, Riley was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation; given to only 10 graduating MFA students nationwide at that time. From UPenn he was also awarded the Charles Addams Memorial Scholarship given to one graduating MFA student per year. Since that time has held several solo exhibitions and been included in many group shows throughout the Northeast. He has been a resident at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in Providence, RI and works from a studio in Pawtucket, RI.
A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.