Abigail Newbold’s Crafting Settlement is an installation at the Currier Museum of Art (Manchester, New Hampshire, USA) open until 14 July 2013. The exhibition provides a contemporary context for the New England legacy of self-sufficiency, including the Shaker Movement. In the text below, Newbold responds to some of the many questions raised by her fascinating and beautiful installation.
JMC: Settlement implies a collective process of finding a place in which to live continuously. In your show, this seems to become a purely personal matter, associated with camping paraphernalia. Is this intended to be ironic?
AAN: Yes, there is irony on a lot of levels here. I am referencing the history of Shaker design philosophy as well as the Shaker’s work ethic as a model for a Utopian community (comprised of many), while making it very clear that this Settlement is designed and inhabited by an individual. While it is a personal narrative about character development, it is also a commentary on the more modern issues of isolation within dense urban environments and our propensity to remain estranged and physically distant from our immediate families as we travel for work and schooling. Given this scenario I take comfort and humor in the notion of an individual having the capability to design, make and erect a settlement on this scale autonomously. It would be ridiculous, and yet there is something so inspiring to me about projecting the hope that there are still multi-talented individuals out there who could and would go to such an extent.
I am also intentionally speaking within a tentative language with these new dwelling structures, which appear half-way between tent and more permanent home—an inference to the mobility that camping affords as well as lack of long-term commitment to that specific spot—referencing the other meaning of the word “settle”—which connotes compromise.
To understand the layout of the gallery better it might help to have a description of what’s present: the installation is comprised of two main components: on the main platform are a series of unique dwelling structures that I’ve designed and made displayed in a spartan context with only an inference of old city infrastructure as back drop (water, power and fuel). Around the periphery of the gallery are six vignettes that address some of the more philosophical concepts I am dealing with around domesticity at large. The vignettes are more abstracted arrangements of both found and made objects that speak to more directed subject matter: “Porch Time”, “Scullery/Larder”, “Hope Chest”, “Workshop”, “Garage/ Stable” and “Antechamber”.
I make many references to a community just out of reach of the immediate sphere that this installation presents. Take the trophy mailbox that appears in the Porch Time vignette—it represents a conduit to the outside world without breaking the continuity of isolation. I have also placed the dwelling structures within a skeletal infrastructure that might have been previously occupied and has since been abandoned—a hand-pump that powers a fire hose, a hickory dovetail outlet box providing the power to the electrical lights in the dwelling structures, and an old water heater re-purposed as a propane tank. These all serve as references to the existence of electricity fuel and water—all massive systems that reach beyond an individual simply fending for herself in the wilderness.
It is my use of craftsmanship that is most strategic in this dialogue as it is imperative to my manifesto of survival. The individual inhabiting this settlement could not survive without the practical hand skills presented here: timber framing, basic woodworking, sewing & pattern drafting, weaving and caning. Hand skills are occupation and a means for survival and to make comfort.
JMC: You seem fond of fluorescent materials. These seem quite artificial and at odds with the natural environment. Is this also ironic?
AAN: This palette comes from an urban or industrial aesthetic. The implication is that the materials are industrial cast-offs. My use of synthetic, fluorescent materials presents a future–hopeful look forward– a re-purposing of available materials applied to older, found objects with a traditional sensibility for craft. The effect is intended to carry tradition from the past into the future tense.
This is not about rural or wilderness survivalism so much as surviving within the context of a more familiar environment—take the de-volution of industrial cities in the “Rust-Belt” of America, where factories and mills are being re-purposed as housing, artist spaces, and markets. Vacant lots become sites for community farming initiatives. The natural world is creeping back into cities—pheasant populations are growing, and sightings of deer, bear and turkey are more and more prevalent. I am presenting a view of a self-sufficient life within this reclaimed industrial context—a life that might have only been possible in more rural landscapes just a couple of decades ago.
I guess you could call this tension between past and present, natural and artificial ironic, but what I am presenting is intended to be more of a realistic future hybrid of re-purposed objects mixed with traditional making techniques and more common industrial cast-off materials.
JMC: It appears that your work is about re-purposing consumer camping materials, rather than making new objects. What relationship do you see with craft?
AAN: Crafting Settlement is a conglomeration of newly made objects, re-made and repurposed objects and found objects. Again, I am presenting a model of what it is to live a hand-made life; not in a purist extreme, but in a more realistic manner where objects and materials are harvested, gathered and incorporated as they are useful and or valuable, and new items are made where there is necessity for something custom or unique. Through my incorporation of traditional techniques- quilting, the weaving of chair seats, woodworking and knotting I am advocating for the continuance of such skills of craftsmanship. The character’s survival in Crafting Settlement is contingent upon their ability to make the objects that serve as tools to make means of transportation, shelter and any manner of domestic goods.
I am interested in advocating for the accessibility of making and craftsmanship to a broad spectrum of people and for hand-made objects to be used in our daily lives, not merely relegated to a collector’s shelf. By presenting these objects in a context representational of where they would likely appear (as opposed to the more formal museological method of display in which an object is often isolated from similar functional items and taken out of all visual context of its use) I hope to make them more familiar. The sleeping bag I custom made is an example of how I’ve expressed this philosophy in Crafting Settlement. I made the exterior shell to be like a more modern bivouac sac made of waterproof cordura nylons with an industrial zipper. The interior is lined with a quilt that I made by hand, and refitted along with a black rabbit skin to insulate the interior. I would prefer to use my quilts in this manner then have them hung decoratively and stripped of all relationship to their functionality. That said—I do not want to discredit the very important role decoration and aesthetics play, as I cannot deny that they play a large role in my work as well.
Abigail Newbold was interviewed by Kevin Murray, online editor of JMC.