Nathan Vincent: the rebellious domesticity of queer crochet
The artist profiled in this post, Nathan Vincent, first came to my attention through his participation in the show “Queer Threads” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Nathan’s work utilizes the medium of crochet to respond to the traditional gender associations of spaces and objects through discrete and full scale gallery installations. He has been most gracious to accommodate my questions and been an enthusiastic supporter of the project. I’ve featured many of his works and works of the artists he references in the gallery above, but it’s a representative sampling and much more can be found on links imbedded throughout the text. Enjoy!
Dandycraft: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your trajectory to becoming an artist? How did you settle on your preferred medium(s)? What drew you to traditional craft practice as a medium of expression?
Nathan Vincent: I grew up all over the Midwest as the repressed gay son of a preacher man. Art was not necessarily at the forefront in my household, although my mother was good at drawing and all sorts of handicrafts. It was my mother who reluctantly taught me to crochet and cross stitch. I can’t begin to count the number of times I begged her to impart her knowledge before she finally caved in and shared the magical world of crochet with me. Looking back, this was obviously due to her preconceived ideas around gender and why I should or should not participate in these activities. It is through this lens that I began working with yarn and crochet as a medium to create art. During my studies in college I was looking for something more expressive and exciting than the pattern paintings I was working on. I wanted to make pieces that stood outside the rigid traditions I felt stuck in with painting and drawing. I sort of stumbled across crochet again, which I hadn’t done for many years, when I was visiting a friend who was crocheting herself a sweater. She wasn’t using a pattern and she was working in a circle as opposed to back and forth. The light bulb went on and I connected this technique to sculpture. Craft felt so new and different from anything I’d ever considered “art”. There’s a rich tradition of fiber and crochet in art- I’m thinking of the movement that started in the 60’s- but being an uneducated youngster I had no clue about this world and it all felt new, exciting and empowering. The idea of using yarn and craft as an artistic medium was compelling as it felt very different. The connections this had to femininity had been problematic for me as a teen, and therefore felt ripe with possibility for exploration. It was this juxtaposition of medium and concept, traditional masculine roles with traditionally feminine ones, and my own personal history with living between the lines that drew me to craft, and crochet specifically.
Dandycraft: Traditionally, there has been a scholarly divide between fine arts, the decorative arts and craft. How do you place yourself on this continuum? How do you define yourself as an artist, artisan, craftsperson, maker, etc.? Are these distinctions meaningful to you and your work or not?
Nathan Vincent: I think we are all a bit too anxious to define ourselves. I feel that history will prove that this obsession with placing ourselves firmly in one camp or another is a bit crazy. As if you can’t be an artist and a craftsperson, or artist and designer or designer and maker. To me, it seems that the art world has been keen to keep this divide between art and craft very strong in order to dictate who is taken seriously. I used to be very worried about this distinction and sort of felt that if I wasn’t referred to as an artist, my work couldn’t achieve great things. I don’t think I really care so much anymore. I think the impetus for referring to myself as an artist these days is the ease in which that word communicates a certain intent behind the objects that I make. I make “artwork” because I am interested in challenging the way we think, offering an alternative viewpoint, and directing people’s attention to certain ideas.
Dandycraft: Who are your influences? Who are the other artists or individuals your work is in conversation with?
Nathan Vincent: I’ve been influenced over the years by a multitude of sources, so this question is always baffling to me. How does one answer this when everything one sees and thinks on influences your output? I’d say my family really influenced the work that I make today- due to being taught gender roles at an early age without really even knowing it. “Boy’s don’t use the word ‘cute’.” was actually a sentence uttered in my household. In college I was really moved by the work of Hans Hoffman- his use of color and tension in his paintings are things that I try to achieve in my sculptures, even in an abstract way. Sigmar Polke was another big influence as I was looking to understand how an artist can develop a personal vocabulary of imagery and revisits themes again and again. Ghada Amer was one of the first artists working in fiber that I had ever seen, and I still marvel at her work today. Jason Hanasik, Aaron McIntosh, and Bren Ahrearn, are all contemporary male artists working in ideas around the redefinition of masculinity, domesticity, and sometimes violence and aggression- and I feel like my work is in pretty close dialogue with theirs.
Dandycraft: Your work focuses strongly on queer interpretations of traditional domesticity, sexuality and gender. Was this always a facet of your work? How did it evolve? Have you found your work informed by or in tension with the traditional associations or history of your medium? What were the moments in your life that influenced this perspective?
Nathan Vincent: Yes, this has always been a part of my work since I began working in fibers. The first piece I made out of yarn was a crocheted penis. It was soft and fuzzy, and benign. Not at all what one thinks of when one thinks of typical representations of the phallus in contemporary culture. This softening of the male form was a launching point for the ideas and concepts that followed. I had experienced teasing and some level of isolation due to the fact that I genuinely enjoyed participating in activities that were deemed feminine. Making this work was a way for me to feel more comfortable in my own skin. Because my work is in a way a critique of traditional associations, I think they actually work to my favor- offering something very familiar to push up against. The fact that my work is soft and inviting, and often times feels cuddly and intimate lends it to being understood in a certain way before the underlying conceptual push becomes obvious, which again is what I’m shooting for.
Dandycraft: Craft is frequently associated and lauded for its strong emphasis on community, in terms of communal production/creative processes in domestic or studio environments, or generating community participation/action around a particular issue. Do you find this to be true with your process and work? What community do you envision as the audience for your work?
Nathan Vincent: Interestingly, I’ve found my work to be a fairly solitary endeavor. I understand that there is often a community of makers working on projects, and for a few of my larger projects I’ve had assistants, but that’s been the exception rather than the rule. It’s been very hard for me to let go of the actual making of the work, since for me the fun is in the making. Additionally, the actual sculpting is often done in the crochet, and it’s hard to hand that off to someone else to do as each piece is different and can’t easily be automated. There are other artists who are able to simplify their process to one that anyone with needlework skills can pick up with, but I don’t find that to be the case with my art very often.
I don’t really think any one community is the particular audience for my work. In the past, I might have imagined that the LGBTQ community would have a stronger reaction to my work, having experienced many of the same things I had throughout our formative years. However, I find that pretty much everyone has had an experience where they felt uncomfortable acting the way that feels natural due to social mores. In this way, almost anyone can connect with the artwork and find themselves in it to some degree.
Dandycraft: The last decade has brought significant societal and political change for the LGBTQ community with the advancements in marriage equality, but there are still important advancements to be made. Have you found your work addressing or evolving in light of these the social and political changes? What do you see as the new front-line for the LGBTQ community and do you intend to address it in your work?
You know, I used to say “I think my artwork will be irrelevant soon” – meaning that the ideas around gender conformity and gender roles would be a resolved issue fairly quickly. I guess I was a bit too optimistic. We are making huge strides, but we are nowhere near the place of acceptance and resolve like I thought we would be. For that reason, I feel I’ll probably be addressing these concepts for quite some time. Despite the attitudes of those of us in the art world, changes in the way media portrays the LGBTQ community, and ‘kids these days’ eschewing pretty much any form of traditional roles, I think we’ll still be talking about the fluidity of gender for some time to come.
My own work has taken on new meaning in recent years as well. Take the Locker Room for example. It has always been about a gendered space, vulnerability, and homoeroticism but given recent events with transgender bathroom rights, the installation takes on a more complex relationship to the LGBTQ community and raises questions about who owns these spaces and what that means for the people on either side of the stall door.