Art Access
Feature Article
February 1966
Seattle, WA

Material Memory

Gail Gnnnell's studio is attached to the side of her back porch; in size and character, it's reminiscent of a child's play house. An intermittent flow of children, friends, clients' and cats runs in and out the door which opens out onto a play area and a garden (lush in winter, now damply awaiting spring).

Step inside, and you will see: a table with a computer, scanner, printer, and piles of graphics in progress; a clothesline where old Simplicity dress patterns encased in tea-bag paper and acrylic medium are drying; worktables with carving tools, stamps, inks, rollers, brushes, and stacks of fragments-in-progress. There are shelves with books, jars, and an ancient. dysfunctional sewing machine. On the floor are more pieces-in-progress, plastic tubs, and piles of materials; on the walls, large pieces hang for consideration and alterations.

Gail has an easy flow between commercial graphics and artistic pursuit; images stamped on a large collage. pieces become patterns in the background of a brochure; sketches and images from old books (on knots; on medieval heraldry), which were scanned into the computer and xerox-enlarged, find their way back into a large collage.

The integration and flow of Gail's life with her studio is continued in her work. Knots, braids, and roots speak of generations of daily life and the entanglements of families. Doily forms collected from friends and relatives— particularly from her molher— appear and recede in the layers of her work. Stamped icons of naked babies are abstracted from snapshots of her four children. Layers of tea-bag sheets, wrapping paper, shelfpaper, dress patterns :collaged, stamped, painted over, hung out to dry— have the look of repatched and tattered quilts of thc mnemonic layering of wallpaper and paint worn translucent as the skin of an old man's arm.

On the day that I last visited her, Gail was working with the dress patterns: laying out the tea bag paper (a whole sheet of the tough, white, porous material Red Rose© bags might be made from), spreading out the pattern, covering it with a second sheet, brushing on the acrylic gel medium, then carefully hanging it on the clothes line like wet laundry. Some of the patterns were still in their envelopes; all were from the 1950s and 60s. The envelopes showed the pen drawings of wasp-waisted women and girls in flaring skirts; the measurements on the back absurd by today's sizes.

The patterns had been recovered from GaiI's mother, who had patiently sewn and resewn them. "I kept buying the same pattern," Gail says, "I can't believe she just kept sewing them and never said anything to me." Watching her work, l ask her what kind of material she uses to make the stamps. "It's Softoleuum®," she says, "like a linoleum block— but softer. You can find it in the little kid section of the different art stores. It's easy for kids to work with.

"Linoleum blocks are too fussy for me. They're too much in the service of the medium, and not enough in my service. And I have needs. It needs to be fast. The Softoleuum® dulls tools, though. I can't get too intricate with my patterns because the tools aren't sharp. It makes me think the media needs to have some give to it. You need to think about the constraints. It has to match up well with your life limitations, but there has to be some resistance as well. Trying to get those things to match up is difficult."

She takes out the pins, lays out the pattern, covers it with the gossamer sheet, and begins to coat the layers with acrylic. "This part reminds me of making flaky doughs… You do certain things to the board to get it ready for the dough, put the little tissues down....It's going full circle… I absolutely refused to have anything to do with the kitchen for a while. I had an aunt that used to say it relaxed her when she cooked. I couldn't understand it. I'm starting to now. I think it has something to do with age…

"It's son of like l'm entombing these old dresses..." she says. "It's very weird... some kind of strange, emotional, psychological process. There was a time when I would have said. 'This has no significance whatever!' " (We laugh.)

She's finished coating the layers of paper, and begins to peel it off the table. "This is the medical procedure part… and this is the laundry part." She hangs it on the line. "These are like skins… hanging up to dry. They don't take very long, 20 to 25 minutes depending on the humidity. Then they are liberated. You can do anything with them. They become very tough and translucent and waxy; they remind me of the waxy oil paintings I don't do anymore, all those varnishes. I can pretend that it's some old traditional art method, that I'm still doing that."

Lately, she has been cutting "snowflakes" out of the liberated skins—short-hand doilies—which are then layered into a larger work, or given away to friends. That part's next. First she finds the Polaroid™. It's faded so that a light patch pushes into the photo and highlights her sixteen-years-old eyes. They look like Cleopatra's. In the background, awkward, middle-aged aunts and uncle sprawl, gazing in some wonderment at their brand-new girl.

— Elizabeth Bryant