Stringlism: Texture, Threads and Mapping Identity

Artist Maren Kathleen Elliot has always been fascinated by faces, and has developed a unique way of expressing their images. We asked about her upcoming gallery (May 14 to 17) and how she turned it into a weekend of artistic celebration.

Courtesy Dylan Hart

Were you always drawn to portraiture? What is it about faces that inspire you so much?

Like all humans I am hard-wired to hone in on faces. I love the complexity of experience associations, emotions and projections that can occur looking at the image of a person. Even if you don’t know the person in a photograph or painting, you know they have a story.

What is “Stringlism”?

“Stringlism” refers to my mark-making technique of layering glazed strands of fibre on a flat surface to create imagery. The word is made up, suggested jokingly by a friend who asked something along the lines of,  ‘If pointillism is the technique of using small dots to create an image, does that mean that you do stringlism?’ It kind of stuck. Materials and the meanings they carry have become important in my creative practice, so using ‘Stringlism’ as the exhibit title for my first complete body of work in this medium felt right.

Courtesy Maren Kathleen Elliott

How do you describe these works and your process of creating them?

In my study of drawing there have been many invitations to focus on lines to express and create the illusion of form and mass. I remember getting a book on drawing the figure when I was a teenager and one of the exercises was to imagine your lines were a ball of yarn, wrapping around the figure. This planted a seed. I was curious about a more tactile experience of drawing. What if I could touch every line?

What developed is a kind of tactile drawing practice. The back-and-forth between these pieces of string and myself inspired me to reflect on the back-and-forths we have through our lives with other people, and how these relationships influence and shape our identities.

Are the faces all people you know?

Every one of the subjects in this series is someone I met though growing up and being an artist in Edmonton. Some of them are relatives or very close friends. There are former roommates from several different places I lived. Others I know less intimately — friends of friends or peers who interested me and crossed into my life right around the time I was photographing source images for the project. It’s an interesting exercise to go back to how I am connected with each one. I prefer to depict people I know because it brings a very human exchange into my process. As images are powerful things, I also like to know that I have consent to use someone’s likeness.

Courtesy Maren Kathleen Elliott

As a four-day event, with a musical performance, yoga and dance, it seems like quite the exhibition. Why did you choose to do it this way and who else is involved?

Because human connection and exchange are such a conceptual foundation for this series, I did not want this exhibit to be this silent, stagnant serious thing where you can hear a pin drop. My goal is to have the event be inclusive, and offer a variety of ways to engage.

On top of my solo show, I see it as an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate some of the amazing local creatives and performers I’ve had the privilege of connecting with because of the arts. As a dancer, I have trained with both Edmonton Dance Theatre (ballet, contemporary) and the Rhythm Fx collective (freestyle go-go). Both of these companies will be performing at the event, and I am excited to share how the dancers responded to my artwork with their own creativity and movements. For more active participation, Chantelle McNicol of Sweet Kula Yoga will be providing a practice, and Ivan Touko has prepared an upbeat follow-along afro dance class.

Courtesy Maren Kathleen Elliot

How do people take part and what can they expect?

There’s a number of things that people can check out through the event. Our ‘opening night’ is happening on Friday evening in the form of a live-stream, where I will be presenting each of the 11 art pieces in the string portrait series, answering questions, and sharing some dance excerpts that were created in response to the series.

On Saturday morning, there will be a beautiful yoga class led by Chantelle McNicol of Sweet Kula Yoga. Though it’s not your typical ‘yoga in the gallery’ — Chantelle incorporates themes of the exhibit in her practice and filmed it with one of the artworks.

Saturday afternoon, I’ll do my artist talk which is a more traditional kind of presentation with texts and slides that will delve more into the development and conceptual groundings of the series. Then on Sunday afternoon, there will be a short and upbeat dance-along with Ivan Touko.

Outside the programmed events, there is also 3D virtual gallery of the artworks which people can check out any time from the 14th through the 17th.

How did you manage to turn it all into an online event? Seems like even more work in a very short period of time. 

Going online has been a huge amount of work and a learning curve. It’s a bit of an experiment, and we had a number of obstacles to navigate.

The first one was that although this show was originally supposed to be happening at the Edmonton Convention Centre, I came to Ottawa for a residency a number of months ago and was set to drive back home to Edmonton at the beginning of April. As it stands, I am in Ottawa with six of the art pieces. The other five pieces, as well as my performers, are back in Edmonton. Not all of these pieces had even been photographed. I think what allowed this to get pulled together was the amount of help I have had. I am doing the gallery set-up of what I can in my partner’s apartment, and the work that was stuck back home is featured in the videos I got from dancers. So many calls, emails, photos, videos, music and conversation happened back and forth between me and the dance groups, colleagues, my assistant Corinne, my parents (who had the Edmonton pieces), my designer and other contributors.

I am not techy, but I am pretty creative and I was not alone. Despite self-isolating and staying at home, I have felt a huge sense of community in this time.

Is there a message or theme to the exhibition? What are you trying to get across, or celebrate with these works?

I think a theme that has popped up time and time again through creating these pieces and producing this event is connectivity. What ties us together even in the absence of physical contact? How can texture be a metaphor for the marks made on us by others through our lives, and what role does that play in making us who we are? We are fundamentally social beings, and there’s a fascinating complexity to that.

How have you, and the people you know in Edmonton’s artistic community, handled this pandemic? Any changes or stories you’d like to share?

We are all finding creative solutions to continue producing and distributing our work. There have been some very creative solutions as a result of the current limitations. One of my colleagues in Vancouver, Cleo Victory, did a bike tour peep show where she biked all over the city and shared videos of her colleagues and friends performing out of their balconies. It was a total riot.

People say there is nothing like limitations to spark creativity. With that said, many things have devastatingly just not been possible, and had to be put on hold or cancelled. We, like everyone, are experiencing a lot of loss right now but I think artists learn to be resilient because of the nature of the work we do. I think we’ll get through this.

Check the schedule and enjoy the weekend-long exhibition at marenkathleenelliot.com

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