"It made me aware of my own sympathy-bias and how that affects who we feel compelled to protect": An Interview With Erika Diamond
The moment I saw the work of Erika Diamond in the New Works/Alumni One exhibition at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, I knew I had to speak to her. Diamond’s work is meticulously crafted using traditional fiber techniques while delivering powerful messages related to some of the issues that currently divide our nation. She manages to convey the simultaneous strength and fragility of human beings in a manner that is truly moving, conjuring a sense of empathy and connection at a time when we desperately need them. She recently took time out from travel and exhibition preparation to answer a few questions. Here’s our conversation:
Liz Miller: Imminent Peril-Queer Collection is poignant on many levels. The work addresses issues of gun control and LGBTQ acceptance through traditional textile techniques made manifest in bullet-proof Kevlar. And you have a personal connection with the person for whom each garment was designed. Can you talk a bit about the moment when you knew you had to make this work? Was it immediately after the Pulse nightclub shooting, or was there a less direct path in terms of how this work coalesced into a deliberate vision?
Erika Diamond: I am always preoccupied with safety and ways to live forever, so bullet-proof Kevlar is a material I have been considering for a while. The Pulse nightclub shooting is an event I know many queer-identified artists have felt compelled to investigate and memorialize in some way. Though I knew none of the victims personally, it personalized the threat of gun violence in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It is far more likely that I or the people I love could have been in that scenario than others I read about. It made me aware of my own sympathy-bias and how that affects who we feel compelled to protect. I was also struck by how little it affected those around me who are not LGBTQ or queer-allied. I immediately considered how the scenario might have turned out differently if the club-goers had been wearing bullet-proof vests. The next step was to consider what type of bullet-proof vest one might wear to a nightclub. It would have to be fashionable and reflect one’s personal sense of style. I thought of the queer people in my life who are vulnerable to harm, those I would protect if I could. The list grows longer each day as I think of the friends, lovers, mentors, and even artists I admire. I think of my gay “uncles” who helped raise me, not having the option then of raising children themselves. This project began as a response to Pulse, but it has evolved into an act of gratitude and celebration of the individual queer people in my life. It feels important to stress the unique personality of each person represented in this series, rather than designing for stereotypes. The world is better in so many ways because they are in it.
Liz Miller: The human body is central to your work, as a site of vulnerability as well as a site of strength and resistance. Similarly, your work shows fiber arts as fragile or delicate as well as strong and assertive. You employ traditional fibers techniques in ways that are completely unexpected. How did you arrive at this innovative use of fibers and textiles?
Erika Diamond: Most of my work is about skin, and textiles themselves act very much like skin. They share the same properties really – protection, markers of identity, warmth, heritage. They hold us together and bear the scars of our encounters. It is exactly that simultaneous vulnerability and strength that interests me. Where is the breaking point? What are our limitations? So, boundaries come up a lot for me in my work. That’s where the notion of clothing or textile as armor feels appropriate. If I am drawn to an unconventional material, like eggshells, it is because I see the same qualities in them. Clothing, even textile objects for the home, exist for the body. I am drawn to their sense of empathy. Textiles care. I think we should all care more.
Liz Miller: Do you think that traditional (or outdated?) notions of fibers and textiles (ie that they are craftsy, that they are feminine, that they are delicate) provide you with something to work against? Or is that an irrelevant conversation in 2018?
Erika Diamond: This conversation around the gender and sexuality of both the material and the maker is pertinent still and has also evolved. I think it will always be relevant, but I wonder if the canon of textiles has now come to include what is perceived to be feminine (fastidious, decorative, understated, etc.) as also gestural, conceptual, assertive, and queer. I don’t think I actively seek to engage in this conversation when I am in the throes of my studio process, but I am aware that my work is usually craft-based, feminine, and delicate. It took me a while to accept this, trying in my younger years to make work that didn’t divulge gender. This was dishonest, and I am grateful to no longer feel the pressure to erase the femininity in my work. I view intricacy as complexity, craft as eternal, and feminine as incredibly strong.
Liz Miller: Your oeuvre includes performance-based gallery work as well as costume design for dance and theater. How has working in these areas influenced the work you make that is not time-based? Do you think of all your work as performance-based on some level?
Erika Diamond: Growing up around the ballet world has given me a unique appreciation for the expressive power of the body as well as the transformative power of clothing as costume. I see most of my work as the representation of something that has happened or is yet to occur. Objects made for (ie: clothing) or from (ie: bronze castings) the body inherently suggest time-based physical interaction. The tapestries, though physical records of my hand-weaving process, are static objects. However, the images absolutely depict the body at its most vulnerable and the effort to capture a moment in time that requires human interaction. I refer mostly to my woven CPR and Airline series, but the figure is paramount in the HB2 and new Run/Hide/Fight imagery. These didactic figures are suggestions for a decision that must be made, individually and collectively. I wouldn’t call that performance, but maybe a call to action.
Liz Miller: Fifty States and HB2: Red to Blue address recent debates in North Carolina regarding access to restrooms for transgender individuals and are handwoven in alpaca wool, a very time-intensive process. An investment of time and materials imbues the works with a sense of purpose and value that starkly contrasts the plastic, mass-produced signage we encounter daily. How does the slow act of making and the corresponding materiality reinforce content for you as the maker, as well as for the audience?
Erika Diamond: Tapestry is a very laborious way of capturing a moment in time. It signifies importance and value as a result. This work aims to depict the spectrum of our identities and also to find the realness behind the symbol. These issues affect real people, and most people I have encountered in the world are not truly all-man or all-woman. The slight depth to tapestry turns the figures into more than just a flat image. In both the tapestry and Kevlar work, I am absolutely discussing the value of individual lives and our responsibilities toward protecting one another. Alpaca is a luxury material in the U.S., for its softness and limited availability (unlike sheep’s wool or acrylic). In Mouth to Mouth, for instance, I want this life-saving imagery to appear soft, romantic, and imbued with importance that only highly publicized acts of heroism often receive. Kevlar is expensive, somewhat difficult to work with, and typically ends up protecting only certain people. I am questioning who gets protected and why and who is valued in our society.
I’ll also take this opportunity to clarify the intentions behind the House Bill 2 legislation. It used the single-issue of subjecting transgender people to using the restroom inconsistent with their gender identity as a smoke-screen to mask the depths of discrimination included within this bill. In a nutshell, HB2 “nullifies local anti-discrimination policies and enforcement tools that protected everyone regardless of race, national origin, age, disability, gender or religion.” (The Equality NC website explains it comprehensively http://equalitync.org/hb2/index.html). It provided a license to discriminate without even religious justification, especially targeted at LGBTQ people.
Liz Miller: What are you working on now, and where can we see your work in the future?
Erika Diamond: As usual, I am working on several projects as once. I continue to create more Kevlar works for the Queer Collection, which will be exhibited in 2020 at Iridian Gallery in Richmond, VA. I just learned how to screen print during a brief residency at Studio Two Three in Richmond, and there I produced a series of prints and t-shirts featuring the Fifty States imagery I have been illustrating through my weavings. I have been looking for a way to make some of my work less laborious and more accessible (less expensive) as a result. That series is also more about the message and its dissemination than the value of the artwork itself. Aaaand, I am working more leisurely on a series called Mixed Signals combining cautionary road-sign imagery, weaving, and bobbin-lace.
Liz Miller: When you aren’t making art, where can we find you?
Erika Diamond: On the road! Finding new communities with which to connect fuels my practice and my travels. I’m also addicted to yard sales, thrift stores, and the dollar tree which are easy to find across the country. This season, I am teaching weaving, lace, and sewing workshops at the Arts Students League of Denver and a Methods of Inquiry class at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Otherwise, I am usually cooking, eating, talking about food, or just thinking about it. Oh, and since my nomadic lifestyle doesn’t allow for pet ownership, I will admit to visiting dog parks and trying not to look creepy while swooning after other people’s fur babies.
German-born and the daughter of two ballet dancers, Erika Diamond is a conceptual artist using textile, sculpture, and performance techniques. She received a BFA in Sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Fiber from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and her costumes have been commissioned by Charlotte Ballet. Residencies include McColl Center for Visual Art (NC); STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise (NC); Black Iris Gallery (VA); ABK Weaving Center (WI); and Platte Forum (CO). She received a Regional Artist Project Grant in 2015 from the Arts & Science Council of NC and a recent Adjunct Faculty Grant from VCU Arts to create new work using bulletproof Kevlar fabric. Diamond has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University (VA) in the Craft/Material Studies Department, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond (VA), Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (CO) and the Art Students League of Denver (CO). She spends her summers as Assistant Director of Galleries at Chautauqua Institution (NY).