Interview with textile artist Allison Green

“I thought I was going to be a scientist. That’s the direction I was going right up until my last year of high school, and then I took this art class with a teacher who wasn’t even an art teacher; she was a gym teacher filling in. She took us on all these field trips to see different artists, and I thought, ‘this is such a challenging discipline’ and that it would never stop being challenging, so I kind of went off and haven’t looked back.” – Allison Green

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Mark: I am joined in the second half by Allison Green, welcome to the show.

Allison: Hi, Mark, how are you?

Mark: I’m doing great, how are you doing?

Allison: I’m really well, thanks.

Mark: Is it really warm in the Barracks? Has that been a difficulty for folks this week?

Allison: It’s not too bad actually – I don’t know if it’s the stone, but it’s kind of like being in a basement – it’s a little cooler.

Mark: You’re described as a visual artist, and I’ve got to ask – the description here is that you make nearly-living sculpture and textile art. What is nearly-living sculpture?

Allison: The work that I do is really trying to get at what the essence of nature is and even how nature appears in our manmade construct. The work that I make, I want it to be almost living, but not quite.

Mark: So is this living in a lifelike sense? Is it a reproduction of nature or living in a different sense?

Allison: I would say yes, in a lifelike sense. Organic things and even finding life in buildings.

Mark: Oh, wow, ok. What sort of work have you done before? Describe some of your favourite pieces.

Allison: A project that I did – I guess it would be two years ago now – an exhibition at the Saint John Arts Centre. That was a series that combined imagery taken in Saint John, so a city with really strong buildings, strong architecture, and combining it with images that I took in Fundy Park and also in New Hampshire, so really in the heart of nature, and finding similarities between those two places.

Mark: Is that something that you have naturally found yourself doing? Or is there some influence that started sparking this idea into you?

Allison: I would say that’s something I naturally do, so when I look at things, I really am looking for the connection to other things. So that’s really how I make myself at home in new places, so when I go away I look for how it’s visually similar to the places I’m comfortable with.

Mark: How many installations have you been able to do like that?

Allison: How many installations?

Mark: Yeah.

Allison: I’ve done a handful of solo shows, and I’ve been able to do a few residencies, which have been really nice. That’s probably one of my favourite things to do so that’s what I’m doing here this week, is I get to interact with people while I’m doing it and really hear their influence, and I’m really lucky to be able to work with [Abby Paige] here this week – you spoke to her just before the break and that kind of communication really opens up my art, I think.

Mark: It sounds as though there’s a bit of loneliness associated with the work that you do – is that true?

Allison: I think in any kind of art form you spend a lot of time in solitude, so either when you’re kind of getting your inspirations or later when you’re making, so any opportunity that you can get to break down that loneliness and reach other people is really important to take.

Mark: So what sort of work are you doing this week?

Allison: This week, as you may or may not know, the theme is home and ideas of coming from away and kind of rooting yourself in a new place, and how different people do that. So as I said before, when I go to a new place, I always look for these visual reminders of home, be it finding a set of buildings that look like a cliff face that I really love from home. This week I’m combining different cities and ideas of home in places that I’ve been with silk painting.

Mark: I saw this written and I thought “maybe there’s a comma, or another word missing…” what is silk painting?

Allison: Silk painting is when you paint on silk using dyes, so you start by applying the resist to make your outline, and that creates little borders. When you paint on your dye, in the spaces in between it kind of spreads really magically to fill the spaces, and it stops at your outline. It’s a really fun process – really colourful.

Mark: Is it hard to work with?

Allison: No, it’s hard to control. It has a lot of life of its own – as you can imagine dyes spreading around, they like to mix together – that’s what really drew me to it. It takes the control of one of my hands, and I’ve always been a perfectionist so it allows me to let go of that and really let the medium do its own thing.

Mark: That must have been really hard the first few times you did that.

Allison: It was, yeah – I really wanted to make it exactly perfect and that didn’t work out, so slowly I kind of fell in love with that part of it. And it makes it really fun for other people, too, because they can come in and try, and it doesn’t hurt me if they don’t do it exactly the way I would.

Mark: What about this particular medium attracted you to it? Is it just because of that relinquishing of control? Was there something about the texture, or about the kind of style it produces?

Allison: Well I’m a textile artist in general so I work with many different kinds of cloth, but the reason I’m attracted to cloth is that it’s so malleable, and it can be shaped, and it can be sculptural or it can lie flat… it really has this sort of human quality in that it can adapt to any circumstance that I place it in. So for silk, I think it was really how well it takes colour and how bright it can be that really attracted me to it specifically.

Mark: Do you have these silk sheets stretched out on a frame, or are they free? How does that look?

Allison: After I paint on them, I stitch them with a sewing machine and that adds a bit of depth – kind of like when you think of a quilt and how it has areas of stitch outlining other areas – so then I stretch it in a frame. I might stretch it in a canvas frame or I might hang it in a frame.

Mark: Does it produce a kind of – do people want to touch it when you’re done? Is that something encouraged?

Allison: Yeah. I think as a textile artist we like people to touch because it’s all about the texture of it, right? Sometimes it’s soft or it’s rough, and usually there’s an aversion in people to touching where they don’t want their children to be able to touch, but for me at least, that’s part of the draw, and part of the work. So it’s not just a visual medium – it’s a tactile medium too, so I encourage touching.

Mark: How many pieces are you working on this week? Is it one piece or do you have several smaller pieces?

Allison: I’m gonna be here for two weeks, so this week I’m doing two pieces that are silk painted and two pieces that are a bit of a different style – that are digitally printed onto cotton, which is kind of like an inkjet print like what your printer would do, and then next week I’m working on one very large piece and that’ll be silk painted as well.

Mark: Same theme as this week?

Allison: A similar theme, but that one has some connection to my ancestors. My grandfather is a huge inspiration for me, so it kind of has some ideas of where he came from – from Newfoundland, a place I’ve never been, but I feel like there’s a certain home for our family there.

Mark: So home not only in terms of place, but in terms of people.

Allison: Yeah, that’s right.

Mark: How long does it take to work on a piece like this? Is this one where it takes an afternoon to finish or something like this, or has it been just one week working on one piece?

Allison: It’s kind of in the middle. It takes about a day to make one silk painting, but I tend to work on them in sets, so it takes me about a week to do 4 or 5. It’s kind of one of those processes where you have to pause at many stages, so it’s better to have something that you can go away and work on in between.

Mark: ‘Cause you have to wait for it to dry, is that right?

Allison: Yeah, that’s right. I wait for it to dry and then later I’ll have to let it rest, then I’ll steam it and wash it all out… it’s a really fun process with lots of different steps so it keeps me focused.

Mark: So does the final product go up on – is this something that a painting would look like or is it more like a quilt which is over stuff? What does the final product look like?

Allison: The final product will be up on a wall, so like a painting, it hangs flat, but unlike a painting it can come off the wall so I can add areas that are say, stuffed, or folded, or changed in different ways so that it’s a two-dimensional piece but that has some three-dimensional aspects to it, so that’s bringing in some sculptural parts, too.

Mark: Is there something about this merger of man-made structure and nature that has always been a theme of your artwork?

Allison: I would say that it sort of developed that way after. At first I was really most interested in science and the industry side of it, so things like circuit boards and power lines – that sort of thing; really hard lines. Over time I just developed in myself this love of nature and of growing things, and so that automatically found its way into my work.

Mark: Have you always been a hands-on artist in this way? Is that something you did when you were very young?

Allison: No, I thought I was going to be a scientist. That’s the direction I was going right up until my last year of high school, and then I took this art class with a teacher who wasn’t even an art teacher – she was a gym teacher filling in – and she took us on all these field trips to see different artists, and I thought, this is such a challenging discipline and that it would never stop being challenging, so I kind of went off and haven’t looked back.

Mark: What sort of challenges have you been able to find, and I’m assuming, overcome and enjoy in the end?

Allison: One of them is certainly trying to control too much and trying to make everything “the right way” instead of really using my art as a way to figure out what’s in my own head. It allows me to think. On paper there are certain things that I can’t articulate with words, and I can’t even articulate them to myself, so I’m better able to think visually by making art. For me, that never stops being a challenge – trying to bring what’s in my head out so that I can better explain it to people.

Mark: Art and science are often seen as opposite ends of the spectrum of thought and being. Have you been able to bring some of the science appreciation back into your art as well?

Allison: I think so. I’m a great appreciator of science and I think that they’re not so different. They both allow you to theorize, they both allow you to explore and experiment – I think they have many, many similar qualities, but they’ve sort of got this false separation in our society.

Mark: How have people been responding to your work? You said the kids are able to come up, and maybe some of the adults as well, and paint a line or too?

Allison: Absolutely. There have been lots of people who you have to ask twice to make them agree to make a mark, but then when they do I think they’re really excited by how simple it is, and it’s just a series of simple movements that can make something really complex.

Mark: You mean like paint movements, or hand movements?

Allison: Yeah, that’s right; when you silk paint, you don’t have to try and get really close to the lines because the dye will spread to fill the areas for you so each time you place your brush down it’s a very simple movement – you just dab the dye down; you don’t have to be very particular about it. But then when you do that a thousand times on one piece you get this really complex piece.

Mark: You also mentioned this later embroidery stage – have you been able to work on the embroidery or demonstrate embroidery there?

Allison: Yeah, I’ll be doing that later this week, so I’ll have my sewing machine in here.

Mark: So it is all done with sewing machines? Or is it done by hand as well?

Allison: The majority of it is done with sewing machines and it’s really fun – I put a special foot on my machine and it allows me to move all around, so I’m not tied to straight lines. I can really explore the artwork.

Mark: So this is obviously the main focus for your artwork right now. What other textile art do you do? Or is this the main form that you always do?

Allison: Sometimes I make soft toys, so I like to make sort of science-inspired toys that have some kind of learning element. I’ve done toys that have the water cycle imprinted on the sides of a block. Things like that I really enjoy – I think there’s a certain playfulness that you can get in things made for children. Also I’ve done sculpture in the past as well, so I’ve worked on combining textiles and stone and live plants together in sculpture.

Mark: Did you say actual live plants?

Allison: Yeah, that’s right. I did a residency a couple of years ago at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre and at that time I was putting terrariums inside of stone sculptures inside of textile sculptures.

Mark: Oh yes, I believe we talked about that!

Allison: Yeah, I think so.

Mark: That is obviously very challenging – working with actual living things – is it hard or limiting to do that or is it just that you have to take more care?

Allison: It’s very tricky, and I think I’m probably better equipped to explore that now because I have a space where I have more outdoor space to work in, so I’m really looking forward to working at a larger scale with that moving forward because one of the challenges with that is keeping the plants alive. If I can create a more permanent environment, say on my property, then I can do a lot more exploration with that.

Mark: Do people have the notion of art that they once did? Because it seems to be that art at one point was very, very permanent. You would make something, put it on a wall, and you’d enjoy it for a lifetime, but it feels like today we consume things a lot quicker. Do you find that people respond to your art a little bit differently? Is it a more tangible medium and a more touchable experience in a longer sense?

Allison: That’s a very interesting question. It is a very consumer-driven culture that we live in now, and I think that maybe it’s a little too permanent for people sometimes. People think of falling in love with a piece and having it with them forever and that’s a bit alien to people now, so there is a certain fear of that, I think, that kind of permanence. But maybe because it is a little more flexible, and that cloth does break down over time, that it’s a changeable medium.

Mark: So do you have any exhibits that are currently available, or things online that people can check out?

Allison: Yeah. I have my website online and that’s, and then down at the Abbey on Queen Street in Fredericton, I have a couple of pieces there right now.

Mark: What pieces can see down there?

Allison: That’s the project I was telling you about at the beginning with photos and imagery from Saint John, New Hampshire, and Fundy Park that have been combined together, so two pieces from last year.

Mark: Is that photographic art? Or is that actually silk painting?

Allison: It’s silk painting, but I used photographs as inspiration, so I combined them digitally to begin with, and that was my design sketch. Then using that I made a silk painting.

Mark: Do you have a clear idea when you first start like that, or do you have a specific thing you want to reproduce, or does it grow organically like the spreading of the dye?

Allison: It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes I work in a really calculated way, and other times, something I’m trying to move more towards is being more spontaneous because now that I have all this practice sort of replicating these buildings and these natural artifacts, I feel like I can better improvise them now and come up with new environments that come out of my mind.

Mark: I’m also having difficulty understanding the scale that you’re working with. The terrariums are fairly small – are these paintings small as well or are they on a large canvas?

Allison: No, they’re quite large. They’re usually about 12 square feet so some of the ones I’m working on here are 3×3, some are 4×3.

Mark: Do you get into very fine detail with that or are they also scale in terms of the pictures?

Allison: I’d say there’s pretty fine detail, and I like to have areas that are more open and kind of bring in a focal point of really high detail.

Mark: Now, you’re using silk, and you said originally you kind of liked some of the properties of silk – do you do this with other kinds of cloth?

Allison: Silk painting no, but the digital printing I do use different kinds of cloth so I’m really enamoured with natural material. They just have a certain feel about them which goes well with my work, so I like to use cotton and silk.

Mark: I guess it was called silk painting so I probably should’ve taken a clue from that.

Allison: You can use cotton, it just doesn’t spread quite as magically so it hasn’t drawn me in the same way.

Mark: Well there’s nothing that can defeat a magical quality so I can appreciate that. I wanna thank you, Allison, for talking with me these 20 minutes.

Allison: Thank you very much, it was great talking to you.

Mark: I’ve been talking with Allison Green – she’s currently one of the artists in residence for this week and for next week as we’ve just discovered, down in the Barracks. I still like the description of ‘nearly-living sculpture’ – that’s fascinating, so definitely keep an eye out for her down there. Thanks again, Allison.

Allison: Thank you.


Listen to the audio podcast of Allison’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Allison Green (Textile Artist)


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