Elevate Difference

Subversive Art Star

Interview with Jerilea Zempel

Artist Jerilea Zempel turns brutal machines of war into “warm and fuzzy” sculptures through her subversive crochet projects. She achieved brief Internet stardom via The Colbert Report when Stephen Colbert called her “a dangerous returning American”—aka an artist who crochets covers for SUVs and tanks—after she was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, who discovered her artist notebook replete with line drawings of SUVs and crocheting plans.

Elevate Difference recently talked with Zempel about just what happened at the U.S./Canadian border, her daylong Colbert Report shoot, sexism in the art world (yes, it still exists), and what’s so subversive about needlework.

Your work is part of a movement of radical, subversive knitters, crocheters, and feminist artists who use traditionally feminine applied arts to create political work. What do you find subversive about needlework?

I started crocheting because I had an idea for an art piece that needed it. I’m not committed long-term to the material or the process; it was just something I wanted to do for one specific project, then another. So I’m not sure I’m part of any movement. Maybe I’d consider myself a part-time member though.

Looking through a long-distance lens, the profession of being an artist has always been a 'guy thing'. All kinds of obstacles were invented to keep women out of the practice of high art. Needlework was a women’s domain and a lesser, minor craft. Now that artists are free enough to incorporate social critiques into the content of their work, it’s a huge temptation to toy with those broad, cultural paradigms. That’s why I think it’s subversive for both male and females artists to incorporate needlework into their work. That’s why I did it.

What was the first object you crocheted for an art piece, and what led you to start incorporating crochet into your art?

A rifle. Guns are really scary, and I’m always terrified in the presence of anyone carrying one. It’s hard to think of them as protection. They’re machines that mean to injure or kill. I sometimes imagine them as unpredictable beings with minds of their own. The idea of making a warm gun, disarmed inside a fuzzy, handmade cover was irresistible. I wanted to mollify the rifle like a fussy, crying baby.

My grandmother died before I was born and she crocheted elaborate lace tablecloths. They were souvenirs of her presence and absence. I still have some and I taught myself to crochet. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I even earned a Girl Scout badge in needlework.

When I got to art school and was taught all the dos and don’ts that came along with formalism, naturally I wanted to break the all those rules. To use crochet in my work was mining my personal history and rebelling against my education at the same time.

Your sketches for your project “Homeland Security (Blanket)” led U.S. Customs and Border Protection to detain you at the U.S. border for more than an hour as you returned home from an art show in Canada. You said the detention led to a “lively discussion” about your status as an artist and art professor. What happened in the discussion, and what did you take away from the entire ordeal?

The woman who stopped and searched my car was very nice, very cordial. But, she had a lousy job that she had to do. She didn’t know what to make of the things she found: yarn, crochet hooks, downloaded diagrams of SUVs, sketches of car patterns, copies of Bitch magazine, and a couple Guerrilla Girl books. To her, I wasn’t just offbeat or odd; I was suspicious.

I decided not to be aggressive or defensive or angry, so I brought up all the most conventional things about myself: I make a living. I’m a teacher. I own a house and a car. I have to be in shows to keep my job. I appealed to her as a working woman, a latent feminist. I offered to leave my reading materials for her. Maybe that’s what softened her. She wanted proof I was really a professor. [I showed my] university ID, and that was the turning point. I was released. Mid-August 2009 was just before the Republican National Convention when another professor, Bill Ayers, hadn’t yet become a household word for terrorist.

I live in upstate New York, and I’ve passed through a friendly U.S./Canadian border lots of times. But this time was different. It became hostile, a sliver of space where my constitutional rights were suspended in the service of fear. How had the U.S., extolled for its individual freedom, devolved to this? I had just spent two weeks in Canada—a gentler culture where the least fortunate are un-begrudgingly cared for by the more fortunate, where health care and education are almost free, where artists are treated like professionals, not weirdo-slackers—and this was what I was coming home to?

Since then I’ve been cautious and a little paranoid about crossing the border. In fact, I half-smuggled that SUV cover back into the US from Canada hidden in an IKEA box, in a borrowed car and through a secondary crossing that all the locals use.

Media attention about your detention at the U.S. border brought a new audience to your artwork and landed you in a satirical segment as a radical knitter on the Colbert show. How comfortable were you making your art work a satirical target at the hands of Colbert Report producers? And what was it like spending nearly a day filming the segment?

I love The Colbert Report, and it was a dream come true to get their phone call. Sure, I was uncertain about how they might present me on a show based on satire. As an artist, it was frustrating that the final product was out of my control. I talked for a long time with the producer, sent him lots of information, and I came to realize the Report isn’t in the business of pissing off artists. They’re creative types themselves. In retrospect, Stephen has always showed a curiosity and respect for visual art. When I finally met him, that was clear. Months after the segment he remembered details of my work. He was sincerely interested in what I did.

I was interviewed on camera, nonstop, for an hour and a half. I was asked all kinds of pointed and leading questions. The film crew followed me for an entire day. Anything I said or did would be fair game for the show. You’re bound to let down your guard for a second.

I sat and chewed my nails alongside a million other viewers the night the segment aired. I chose to be with close friends in case it turned out to be a complete hatchet job. But it was a great take on my work—“Subverting the raw masculine power of objects like these [film clips of deafening chainsaws and exploding tanks].” To have so many people see installations of work that don’t exist any more...it was like a retrospective show at some new international art gallery. The experience demonstrated the democratic power of the Internet as a vehicle to show and discuss art, avoiding the limitations of the art establishment.

Your own art education in the Formalist era discouraged political art, yet you knew early on that you couldn’t separate art from politics. How did you first become politicized as an artist?

I went to Columbia University, and Bob Blackburn, an African American printmaker, was one of my teachers. He told fascinating stories about living through the Harlem Renaissance and how important artists, writers, and musicians were to the identity of the community. It filled me with idealism that artists could affect the consciousness of a culture.

Meanwhile other faculty were jockeying to have shows in the blue-chip New York galleries and sucking up to rich collectors. One of the most cynical lectured me to give up even thinking art could change the world, that it was impossible. When I got out in the art world and realized that women artists didn’t get the same opportunities as men, I got politicized all over again.

You’ve worked with many different materials in your artwork—crochet, condoms, paint, horseshit, tree branches, and, with the Subversive Cookie Society, cookie dough. How do you make decisions about which materials will communicate your ideas?

I chose horse manure when I was asked to make an artwork in a field, and I didn’t think the field deserved the assault some of the other artists proposed: banging metal against trees, pouring huge concrete footings, using toxic materials like fiberglass. I wanted to nurture the site, not destroy it. And horseshit has its own special semantic meaning. I used pruned tree branches because they were castoffs and that was a form of recycling. Crochet and cookie dough were familiar to my upbringing, materials every obedient girl should know about. The condoms, well, they were just naughty and gross as art material.

In 1998, you crocheted a Russian Tank for your project “Guns and Rosettes.” Why did you want to, as you wrote, "transform a brutal machine of war into a warm and fuzzy sculpture?" And what was it like taking on such a project in Poland?

After the fall of the Soviet Union there was a lot of talk about a Peace Dividend, of what could be done with all the money saved by not having to fund a big army. So much for that idea. I started to think about using spent military vehicles as art material. They had a ready-made scale and permanence that solved a lot of problems for a public artist. And they came loaded with cultural content.

I bought a Vietnam era jeep from a military surplus depot in Pennsylvania and shipped it to Atlanta for a show. I covered it with dead pine needles and filled it with living plants. Afterwards I sold it to an architect who changed the battery and drove it away, pine needles and all.

Then I started dreaming of using a tank. It was the biggest, most aggressive land-hugging vehicle I could think of and I wanted to cover one with a material that was a gross contradiction. Crochet immediately came to mind. But there was no way the U.S. army would let me near one. I heard about a lot of tanks in a military museum in Poznan. I got a grant from George Soros’ ArtsLink Foundation, and I had to figure out how to do it. Some terrific Polish art students, who all crocheted better than I did, volunteered. Together, over two years, we made it happen.

Poland was just waking up to Western-style business, politics, and media. In the rush to catch up, there was no one who cared enough to say no to the crazy project. The nascent Western-style Polish media had a field day filming the Tank Girls every day on site. My helpers became TV celebrities for making art. The tank project took on a lot of meanings I couldn’t have imagined. Polish war vets came out to relate their version of the Battle of Poznan in World War II, which they were discouraged from telling for years. Everyday people came around the tank, discussing, arguing, admiring, and criticizing. The art press in Europe and the U.S. largely ignored it.

As an artist, you’ve said that you “find it tantalizing to put two things together that don’t quite fit: cars and crochet.” What is it about the tension in disparate things that you’re so drawn to?

Art in galleries and museums is so polite and well-mannered. The context alone gives gravity and importance that the art work might not really deserve. I like putting irrational elements together to evoke surprise, disbelief, astonishment. It couldn’t be anything but art. And if you put art somewhere it’s not expected, like in a public place, it’s an opportunity to mine a whole new lode of viewer responses. The world-at-large interests me more than the art world.

Your piece “The Lady Vanishes” is part of your series of replicas of masterworks that you create out of horse manure. You dedicated your “horseshit” Henry Moore reclining nude to “all the unknown and faceless young models who obsessed the minds of the modernist geniuses and whose body parts live on forever in art history.” What was your earliest understanding of sexism in the art world, and how do you see it continue to play out today?

I was taught to worship a handful of modernist artists for their formal and technical innovations. They all happened to be male and almost all used naked female bodies as subject matter and that was never really analyzed. It just lurked in the background, like soft-porn. Not much room for me in there. Then I realized the vast, untold history of women artists who had been there all along, figuring out ways to get around all the limitations set up to keep them out of the art world and art history. Their stories were courageous, heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, like Rosa Bonheur’s “permission de travessement” that she got from the police to allow her to paint in public dressed as a man to avoid being hassled. It was a bright light going on in a very dark room.

I’m no expert, but there appears to be a crushing glass ceiling for women artists today. While everybody wants them, needs them, at the bottom, emerging, and mid-level—so as not to seem too macho—women drop off, except for a token few, going up the ladder of art world success, especially in the art market.

Women artists have been the majority of art school grads for decades, but they don’t get the same professional resources. That’s bound to have an effect on their practice and production. Next time there are contemporary art auctions, count the sales of living women artists and the prices. Five to ten cents on the dollar of white male prices. And there aren’t enough collectors and artists who care about this inequity, even though they consider themselves liberal.

You’re an art professor as well as an artist. What advice would you give to a young feminist artist just starting out today?

Love your work, make your own art world, and never take no for an answer.

Written by: Ellen Papazian, May 30th 2009