Q+Art: Fiber Artist Casey Neumann Explores the Concept of Labor Through Craft
“Creating destroys as it builds,” says fiber artist Casey Neumann, whose exploration of labor through craft echoes a shift in the way we think about making. The NYC-based artist is keenly aware of each cut and every stitch that goes into her woven paper works and hand sewn fiber pieces. “The presence of the maker can be felt through viewing or touching the resulting piece or object,” she notes, establishing a physical connection between material, maker, and viewer.
In her work, Neumann draws a straight line between labor and the ability to connect with the world at large. Her philosophy parallels the public outcry surrounding low wages and labor laws around the world during the recent coronavirus pandemic. According to social scientist Karl Marx, we shape the world around us by laboring in concert with our fellow human beings. When we work for others who exploit labor as a cheap resource—think earning minimum wage at the massively successful McDonalds—we become alienated from our labor, and the products of that labor. Eventually, we become estranged from each other. Neumann’s work attempts to salvage a small connection to the world by reveling in the sheer joy of making, not for a boss, but for herself.
“There is a preservation of human spirit in the handmade,” Neumann writes in her artist statement. Her own handmade works are intricate, and largely process based, allowing the artist to find happiness in the act of labor. The human spirit, or communal existence as Marx would put it, flourishes when work becomes more than just a (skimpy) paycheck in service of someone else.
Still, Neumann notes that destruction inevitably awaits on the other side of creation: “A pencil is worn down as a drawing emerges. Paper is sliced, cut apart, and pieced back together as a collage. A spool of thread winds down as stitches join. We, too, exert and push ourselves with the hope that growth and rejuvenation may result from our labor and perseverance.” In this scenario, the cycle of labor and destruction is a positive force, necessary for artistic evolution and self-actualization within a disconnected world.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Casey Neumann: The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (introduction by Carlos Fuentes) is a stunning visual autobiography that includes both reproductions of her diary and translations of her stream-of-consciousness writing and some of her letters to those she loved. Her energy and the complexity of her relationships with both herself and others radiate from her drawings, paintings, and writing.
Janine Antoni's essay in Moor is another work that I draw inspiration from. Her "essay" is actually one long statement that does not come to a solid end (there's no period to be found). It is another kind of stream-of-consciousness writing that documents her collection of materials (primarily clothing and other accessories) and the stories they hold. She twists and entwines these collected materials into one long rope; the art piece itself is also titled “Moor.” An image of this rope courses through the book along with the text. It's like a series of mini autobiographies, rooted in these tangible people once possessed and had relationships with.
Anni Albers' Notebook 1970-1980 and Yoko Ono's Acorn are two other books that I enjoy exploring; their drawings and sketches are great sources of visual inspiration.
A work of fiction that I have also drawn inspiration from is a collection of short stories called The Color Master, by Aimee Bender. "Tiger Mending" is a story I was particularly taken with. In this story, she writes of handmade items that "still have the person's mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone." This statement resonated with me in particular—I find it to be powerful and true.
I don't know that these books should be on every artist's shelves, but they are books that are significant to me and my practice.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
CN: That is a difficult question, as the answer changes pretty fairly often. Today my answer is Ruth Asawa. I am an elementary school art teacher and I just wrapped up a unit on the work of Asawa with my kindergartners. They made wire sculptures, sculptures inspired by her fountain designs, and they created 2D representations of nature inspired by her drawings and paintings. My kindergarten students are now pretty obsessed with Ruth Asawa and her work. Multiple families have taken their kids to museums to see her wire sculptures as a result. It is beautiful.
Art education for children was incredibly important to Asawa and it played a huge role in her life's work. I would love to share about the impact her work continues to have on budding artists with Asawa herself.
What are you trying to express with your art?
CN: My work focuses on the “how” behind the creation of textiles. I enjoy exploring the spaces between fibers of lace, the stitching that makes up our everyday clothing, and the strength embodied by interwoven fibers. I strive to represent the essence and energy of the human hand behind the creation of these materials. I think I am drawn to textiles in particular because they act as a second skin and play such an integral role in our daily lives.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
CN: It depends on the purpose behind the ask. If it is for an event or a cause I believe in and want to support, then I will if I am able. It is a difficult thing to navigate, however, as I do not want to perpetuate the practice of offering artists "exposure" in exchange for their labor.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
CN: Hmm, maybe chocolate pastries dipped in coffee? I have a number of guilty pleasures, all of which seem to revolve around chocolate.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
CN: I am proud of my 20-something self, when I was doing more collaborative and performative work—I think that was so brave! I loved working on my Gloves Project,
which turned into a series of anecdotal portraits in glove form. These gloves were either made by me or donated by a collaborator. I wanted to highlight approaches to making and/or the aesthetic interests of the creative person each glove is attributed to. Seeking people out, creating tape casts of their hands, and asking them to create something for this series really pushed me out of my comfort zone and pushed my work into a new realm.
Reason Rewoven is another performative piece I am proud of. This piece involved me crocheting yarn directly into used and donated crocheted items. The pieces grew as I attempted to recreate the crochet patterns by sight. Through this process, the original creators became my teachers. I began to crochet the objects around myself and eventually became completely cocooned within this work.
My practice is now more solitary and possibly safe, I'd like to tap back into that younger and braver energy to push myself once again.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
CN: My nanamommy (our family nickname for my grandma) pushed herself creatively her entire life. She was an avid journaler and dedicated poet, but she would push herself out of these comfort zones to work on things like writing a children's book or composing and recording music. These were new realms for her that she explored later in life. During her 80th birthday party, she recounted the many hilarious events and stumbles that took place when she was trying to rally other members of the family to play various musical instruments for her and help her record one of her musical compositions. She advised us to "Never let not knowing how to do something stop you from doing it!" I think this is wonderful advice for creative people of all ages looking to explore new media or push into new boundaries in some way with their work.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
CN: I think there should be way more funding for art education. It is so crucial and should be integral to the education of all students.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
CN: I think historically significant, as then I am not tied down to the market and have more freedom in the directions I can run with my work. However, I say this as a person who is incredibly fortunate to also have my teaching career in addition to my art practice. If I were financially dependent on my art, I would rather be commercially successful.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
CN: The pandemic should have made it easier, as I was incredibly fortunate to be able to keep my job and, during the first six months of the pandemic, I worked from home. However, I struggled. Remote teaching is incredibly time consuming and taxing. That, along with the MANY other emotional ramifications of living through a pandemic, drained me and I found it hard to create. Thanks to things like the couple of group exhibitions I've recently been curated into and this interview request, I am starting to get my drive and momentum back.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
CN: I think that there are many artists who sought more human connections via their practice as a result of the pandemic. Some of these connections happened through exchanges and collaborations highlighting the stories of the daily lived experiences of the members of our communities.
The rise in the recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement during this time did help to bring more attention to the inequities and disparities of representation in the arts. I hope this lesson lives on—the art world is way behind. The people and work represented in the art world do not yet reflect the demographics of our diverse population.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
CN: I feel like I could run with my organic woven forms forever. I'm working on a medium scale drawing/painting of a woven form right now. It is time consuming, but very meditative. I'm hoping to pour some significant hours into it over the summer, as I will be teaching shorter days. I'd also like to create some more sculptural work this summer and really push the boundaries of the organic forms my weavings can take on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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