Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ultimate Fighting & Embroidery Thread: Q&A with David R Harper

As I noted here a few months back, David R Harper is a youngster whose artistic career already seems unusually distinctive. (That's what people say about you when you teach yourself taxidermy, embroidery and boat building before the age of 25.)

Anyway, Harper was nice enough to take a break from MFA studies in Chicago this week and chat with me on the phone about a few aspects of his work, some of which is showing starting this Friday at the Textile Museum of Canada. (He's also got shows on right now at MKG127 and the Acadia University Art Gallery.)

Our Q&A was published in today's National Post, as well as (in the print edition) some images of Harper's work. Here's an excerpt:

Q Your art stands out for its use of taxidermy and its elaborate embroidery. Which came first?

A They came around the same time. I did my first embroidery in 2006, after I graduated and travelled for a bit. Basically, embroidery was an awesome nomadic practice. I didn't need much to do it, just needle and thread.

And there was a long-standing fascination with taxidermy. When I was a kid I remember being awestruck by it and wondering why people had it, what it meant in the home or the museum. After reading about it, I realized part of the fascination is that it's both a man-made and nature-made object.

Since learning and doing real taxidermy, I've discovered taxidermy dollmaking, which was traditionally used to create toys and tchotchkes. It allows me to create any kind of animal I want from scraps.

Q I've heard that you watch Ultimate Fighting while embroidering. Is that true?

A Yes, though I don't do it now because I don't have cable anymore. I do embroider for hours each day and for a while I would watch Ultimate Fighting, as well as Law & Order-- whatever was on in the middle of the day in Nova Scotia, really. Now, while I'm doing grad school in Chicago, I watch reruns of bad shows. I just finished watching the first season of X-Files again, which was a great show but had really bad acting.

Ultimate Fighting was weirdly fascinating because I don't usually like sports, and the ones I do like are more like lawn bowling. Maybe there was a little Freudian thing in there about the work that I do, in that it's really brutal in a way. But maybe it's also like watching reruns over and over again, because it's a way of getting your brain as empty as possible. Recently, I realized how important it is for me to go into a very meditative state when I work. Embroidering a hide for hours is a very devotional act.

And here's a bonus question that didn't make it into the piece:

Q What is it devotional to?

A Sometimes it’s responding to the objects themselves. The relationship between me and my materials goes very deep, and I fall in love with everything I touch. I think just sitting and spending time with the work and making everything by hand is important. I’d never put my hides in an embroidery machine. That’s my spiritual muse: the work, the labour.

If you want to find out more about Harper--or at least his recent practice, as it sounds like his artmaking might shift in future a bit to include porcelain dollmaking--I recommend this award-winning feature by Sue Carter Flinn that appeared in The Coast last year.

Image of one of David Harper's hand-embroidered hides courtesy Textile Museum of Canada

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