Sonja Dahl is an artist, writer and lecturer of contemporary art at the University of Oregon. Her work critically explores the cultural, historic, metaphoric and embodied aspects of how textile processes such as indigo dyeing, whitework embroidery and patchwork quilting live within and reflect the values of human societies. She conducts her research and art making from a situated acknowledgment and critical engagement with her white, American, settler identity. She is a founding member of Craft Mystery Cult, a member of Ditch Projects artist-run space in Springfield, OR, and a continuing collaborator with Babaran Segaragunung Culture House in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Her arts research projects and subsequent collaborations in Indonesia (2012 – ongoing) are supported by the Fulbright Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council. Sonja’s artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and her writing is published in peer-reviewed journals and printed and online arts publications. In conversation with former student and recent UO Fibers graduate Tuesday Lewman, Sonja discusses new traditions, responsibility as an educator, and lines of inquiry in her practice.
TL: I don’t know how much research you’ve done on this year’s festival, but the theme is New Traditions. I know you’re aware of that because your talk with Jovencio is kind of centered around that, but I’m just curious, what does that mean to you? What did you think of when you first heard that?
SD: When I think about what New Traditions means, one of the first words that pops in my head is adaptability. In my experience, I’ve observed that traditions are always a living and growing and changing thing. It’s tempting to think of tradition as something static or something that stays the same across time, whether it’s across generations or just a shorter thing that’s shared or done. But it’s my observation that traditions are constantly adapting and changing to the world around us. To be part of a tradition is often to be rooted in something or to be dedicated to something that’s shared. This idea of a new tradition feels to me like it implies that adaptability. It also feels loaded with a kind of idealism or hope for positive change.
It’s a complicated thing, because I think many people use the word tradition in a very loose way. I don’t know if everyone really understands what a tradition is or what it means to them. Part of what’s exciting about that is that traditions are ever changing and adaptable. The idea of a new tradition brings up all these interesting questions for me about how do you make a new tradition? Can you make tradition from scratch? What does that look like? What does that mean? What does that entail today? And that brings up another point, that traditions are often located somewhere or with someone specific. They’re often context specific. That’s part of what creates that kind of rootedness or that lineage that a lot of people desire. A new tradition has to build on that and have some kind of anchor. It’s interesting to think about, what are those anchors for people?
TL: Definitely. What are some anchors that you build off of in your practice? I know you work with indigo and quilting and weaving which are obviously very traditional kinds of crafts in a lot of people’s eyes.
SD: That’s a good question, I feel like my work is often in conversation with and making use of these kinds of traditional materials and techniques, working with indigo dye, patchwork quilting, and whitework embroidery, that’s been another line of inquiry for me. I’ve also been working with Pendleton woolen fabrics and thinking about settler culture in the West. I don’t necessarily see myself as being specifically rooted in any of those kinds of traditional media but I’m really interested in what kind of ideas and stories are embedded in material culture and specific materials and our broader relationships to them. That’s part of why I always gravitate towards these kinds of materials that are recognizable…or maybe not recognizable, but there’s something potentially accessible about them. I think about that especially with quilting. I don’t necessarily make quilts, I make quilt-like objects, so I’m often making use of these materials and media that have deep roots for a lot of people. I know lots of amazing contemporary fiber artists who work in the media of quilts, who are from a lineage of quilters and actually learned from family members who learned from other family members. That’s being embedded in a lineage. I feel like I’m constantly quoting from and making use of these materials and in a way trying to tell other stories, or think about specific aspects of what it is to be part of a culture and be part of society, which is implied in the phrase, ‘the fabric of society,’ which I’m really fascinated by. That said, I think I share with a lot of contemporary makers a really deep desire for some kind of lineage, connectivity. I’m really curious about that and critical about it. Especially with my early material love of indigo, that began just from complete material fascination. As with so many people, when you see that cloth turned blue in the air for the first time, it’s just…
SD: …You lose yourself. I’m not the only one who took a community college class on natural dyes that changed the course of their life, you know. But as I continued to work with indigo over the years, more and more questions came up for me and a lot had to do with the sort of cultural specificity and sense of not belonging. And so in part that was what kind of drew me to the time that I spent in Indonesia, which was asking a lot of these questions of ‘if I’m going to work with a material that’s not of my own culture, that doesn’t technically belong to me in that very direct way, I need to invest myself more deeply in building more of a relationship and deeper understanding and respect for at least one place that makes use of it.’ Coming back from that really shifted my focus and use of Indigo to think more specifically about indigo’s relationship to the United States, to our history. That shifted my research into looking at indigo’s history as a plantation crop, its relationship to the transatlantic slave trade, and all these more complicated aspects of American history that are continuing to play out on the contemporary stage in our society.
In many ways, these traditional materials kind of guide me and I follow them. The materials are teaching me things, they’re taking me places that I need to go in my work and deepening my critical understanding and ideas the longer that I’m in relationship with them. There’s a lot more I could say about that, but I’d say I make use of these kinds of traditional media as a way of trying to connect materiality and ideas and lived experience, the relationship between being a person and being a part of culture or society. My work with indigo raised a lot of complicated and interesting questions for me about what I have a sort of claim or relationship to, just naturally, as a descendant of immigrants who all assimilated and left their home cultures behind in so many different ways. I share with a lot of Americans this lack of roots. They’re there, but they’re sort of truncated. That sort of shifted me in the direction of thinking about and making use of materials that have some kind of relationship to the places of my ancestry, Norway and Holland and Northern Europe. That’s part of what led me to whitework embroidery, which is also a fascinating material to use when you’re thinking about whitenes or European settler culture. Same thing with patchwork quilts. I’ve been doing research about women who quilted on the wagon train trails, the relationship between the pioneering West and these kinds of hand making traditions and various things like that. That’s been an interesting trajectory as well in my work, the materials and the ideas and the necessities sort of work in tandem.
TL: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot too, specifically with weaving for me. On the one hand, it’s exciting to discover a new material or technique and feel like because you don’t have a direct lineage to it, there are no set rules to follow. Or rather, it doesn’t matter what the rules are because you can just play by your own. At the same time, I think there’s definitely a responsibility to understand and respect the history and learn why this material has the value that it does in certain contexts. And that understanding has a huge value. Very interesting.
SD: Yeah, complicated.
TL: Very complicated.
SD: Yeah, that word responsibility, I think is a really important one. That’s one of the big words in my vocabulary, in my making practice, in my research, and my role as an educator. I’m always thinking about ‘what is my responsibility? What is a responsible way to approach this topic or material?’ I think responsibility and respect go hand in hand.
SD: It’s an interesting and urgent question to be asking, because there is a feeling that in this kind of globalized situation that we all exist in, anything is possible, everything’s up for grabs. But yeah… you’re right. That comes with hidden costs. Asking those questions is super important.
TL: How does being an educator affect your view of traditions? You’re constantly around students and emerging artists who are discovering and engaging with a lot of traditional techniques for the first time. I’m just thinking of myself, discovering weaving and feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, I just discovered electricity!’ How does that shape your view of traditions in textiles in particular?
SD: That’s a wonderful question. I think there’s a really interesting mix of joy in sharing those discoveries, and a sort of gravity in the responsibility. I think a lot about how we who have had academic art education are trained to think and approach things and the emphasis on having the ability to talk about or express linguistically the meaning and the reasons behind one’s work. There are all these things that go into guiding students, as an educator. Part of the responsibility is in trying to create a space that is as open and inviting for exploration as possible. I have a lecture every term in my Understanding Contemporary Art class that deals with appropriation and representation. So it’s kind of looking at those things, both as how they’re tools for artists, but also how they’re sometimes dangerous terrain. Students always have a lot of questions about that, they want to talk about it more. There is definitely a sense across contemporary culture that young people are very tapped into, obviously, that the taking of something that doesn’t belong to you for your own personal benefit is bad. And I think sometimes that fear of appropriating stops students. I think those are moments that are really rich and tenuous and full of possibility in an educator/student, mentor/mentee kind of relationship. Those are moments where there is a lot of room for conversation and a lot of room for growth and exploration.
I am constantly shifting my mentality around these kinds of things, you know, ‘how do you guide students responsibly in learning a tradition that’s new to them?’ That’s the other thing about new traditions… It’s not just that we’re building traditions in a new way or creating new traditions themselves, but that a tradition can be very new to someone who has just discovered it. There’s so much excitement and possibility in that. When someone discovers indigo dyeing and is just blown away, or discovers weaving and is blown away, there’s this incredibly potent moment of possibility for helping guide that early understanding and material love. There’s lots of really useful questions to ask. It’s also tricky. I don’t want any student to feel shut down, but at the same time, I want to encourage careful and critical thinking about materials, about relationships between people and their materials and techniques and history. Indigo is magical, but what is our responsibility to a material that has specific relationships to the past in American society? What was my responsibility as a foreigner in Indonesia studying about indigo dye? It’s not my own tradition, but it’s a material that I am familiar with and love and use. As an educator, it’s exciting to be in a position helping to guide students through some of those early formative moments in their making processes.
TL: That’s a big responsibility to be shaping the way that a group of young people and emerging artists are engaging with these ways of making. I’m glad that responsibility is something that we are both kind of thinking about in this conversation. I’m curious, what is a new tradition that you have taken up in your practice recently? Is there anything that comes to mind for you?
SD: I’m constantly trying new things in my making practice and like I said, the materials often lead me to the places I need to go conceptually, and sometimes the ideas lead me to specific materials. Most recently I have been working on the TC2 digital jacquard loom and as you know, it’s part of my role in the fibers area at UO to caretake this technology and that has been my primary role with it. Finally, I’ve begun really exploring it for my own work. In many ways, doing that in the specific site of UO’s fiber studios is really interesting because we also have the manual punch card jacquard loom that Barbara Setsu Pickett brought to the department. She began the tradition of the student trips to the Lisio Foundation in Florence so that students could learn how to weave in silk on these very old punch card looms, and we also have all our floor looms and tapestry looms and the digital jacquard loom, which is the most contemporary descendant of the punch card loom. So to weave on that loom, in that specific context, there is already a sort of a layering of relationships of lineage that I find really interesting. Not even to mention that this is one of the newest forms of weaving technology, which could be thought of as a new tradition in the broad and global history of weaving. This digital jacquard loom occupies a very contemporary place in that and stirs up a lot of controversy among handweavers.
TL: Oh, really?
SD: Yeah, I think with any discipline where people are deeply invested in a skill there’s always opinions. There is this depth of investment and care about feeling that one is a caretaker of a lineage. I think that’s really powerful and deeply important and not as commonly encouraged necessarily in contemporary art education. There’s something very freeing and exciting about interdisciplinarity but there is also something deeply rewarding and important to be learned from a long term relationship with a medium you know.
TL: I’m interested in the TC2 naysayers. I guess I can understand how the process being so different and new could make handweavers bitter but it’s interesting because I feel like sometimes a new technology or tradition developing can be a way of showing respect. Like, we love weaving so much that we want to create a new way to enjoy it and engage with it. It’s interesting to me that there are people out there who are opposed to it. I guess I just hadn’t thought of that.
SD: Well, I think that’s based on an understandable reality. Sometimes new technologies mean loss. Sometimes it means change, like, traditions can shift in ways that are really adaptable and positive and resourceful, but traditions often are forced to adapt in ways that involve loss. Do you know the term Luddite? That term actually comes from when these manual jacquard punch card looms were first introduced. That was a whole new technology that didn’t quite automate weaving but made it possible for really intricate weaving to be done on a larger scale. There were handweavers whose trades and livelihoods were threatened by that, so they actually went around smashing these looms. The Luddites were literally loom smashers. When I learned that I was like, well…I guess I have to stop using that term to describe my apprehensions with technology because I don’t think I’m gonna go around smashing looms. I think that’s an interesting thing to mark, that with new technologies in any kind of material lineage, that can hold both great possibility but also the potential for loss and for a major shift. The loom smashers are one example of that.
Living in Indonesia, I saw that kind of adaptability constantly. There were a lot of artists, dyers, and artisans who were working really hard to try and re-learn some of the ancient knowledge around natural dyes, including indigo dye where there had been a multiple-generations break in that knowledge, in many cases completely lost. How do you relearn a tradition that already existed that you should ostensibly be able to have access to but the knowledge is gone, and the reason that knowledge is gone is because of colonial intervention? In this case it was the Dutch colonial enterprise in Indonesia. For hundreds of years they introduced synthetic dyes in an effort to sort of streamline and modernize textile manufacturing. Sometimes when we get caught up with the cool new thing and let other things go, down the line our descendants end up asking ‘where did that skill go?’ and ‘I want to know how to do that.’ The loom smashers and the natural dyers and all these folks who are lamenting losses in a sort of chain of knowledge…that’s also really fertile terrain to recreate or make a tradition new again. What grows in those spaces I think is really interesting.