Strings attached

Looming community art project helps Austinites mend the ties that bind them

Community art project helps Austinites mend the ties that bind them

Mire + Mend, a community art project weaves colorful fabric and ropes between trees outside the Elisabet Ney Museum.
The outdoor portion of the art installation encourages audience interaction. Courtesy of Elisabet Ney Museum

Community art projects can be thrilling, but also intimidating. What if you’re not that coordinated? What if you can’t come up with an idea? If all you need to shine is some fabric and a willingness to follow directions, head over to the Elisabet Ney Museum.

“Reweave: 2021” is an art installation by Jade Walker in two parts. The indoor portion, Birdsong, resides in the Elisabet Ney Museum and is entirely made by Walker. It explores climate change and the oddity of how attuned humans can be to the way birds communicate. We can read their behavior to understand whether an environment is safe for us, and change ours accordingly.

Embedded in the bird-centric weavings are ideas about how people treat each other as things change, and as we move into new spaces to survive. All this was underway before the pandemic, which happened to strengthen the relevance of those ideas. The indoor collection puts forth bright yellows to signify hope, slingshots as symbols of violence, and weaving to emphasize the care involved in activism.

The outdoor portion, Mire + Mend, is an interactive project that was commissioned mid-pandemic by the City of Austin Museum and Cultural Programs Division of the parks department. The city put out a call for “ArtsResponders,” artists developing socially engaged art projects to help the public “cope with and overcome COVID-19.”

Walker’s response activates a project she was already working on, replacing written signage with abstract woven materials in bright, cheerful colors. As in Birdsong, the soft materials were chosen to suggest gentleness.

“We recognize a weave ... in our clothes and in our blankets and things that bring us comfort,” says Walker. “For me, it was just a quick way to be able to incorporate that feeling of comfort into my sculptures.”

Anyone passing by the installation at the Ney is invited to add to the tapestry, either using their own materials brought from home or whatever they can find in the area. Someone wove in a discarded tennis net they found across the street. Someone else surprised Walker by vertically incorporating a dog leash. Although the original intention was to create a meaningful work from meaningful objects, from owners’ perspectives, it now gives discarded things new purpose. As more found objects join the piece, its value becomes more intrinsic.

Many children have added to early versions of the artwork in novel ways that helped Walker rethink the final design. The way some kids attached ropes to trees prompted Walker to suspend the entire textile with pink climbing rope. There were some maintenance challenges involved in fighting gravity, but she eventually gave in, realizing that nature was shaping the piece as it was meant to.

Reweaving, the namesake of the overarching project, is a technique for seamlessly mending clothes using their original threads. Walker chose this name to reflect her hopes of repairing social structures frayed by the pandemic, using the original threads that held it together. Still, there is some paradox in the name, as she hopes we can build a better future instead of simply rebuilding a copy of the past.

While the pandemic was part of the impetus for “Reweave: 2021,” much of its driving ideas about nature and change come from Walker’s experience at her friends’ private eco camp in Hubbard, Texas. The camp proprietors, a muralist and a jeweler, bought 20 acres of land to restructure, designing the landscape to better hold water. The family started visiting Camp Scissortail just to see their friends, but became invested in the acts of committing to the land, including caring for more than 100 fruit trees. Most of the material used in Birdsong comes from that camp.

“It was my trigger to understanding that humans need to reconnect to the Earth in a more meaningful way, and for us to be sure that we’re teaching our kids how to deal with an ever-changing space,” Walker says.

Each time the Walker family visits the camp, they come back with new or deepened skills, from foraging to AirCrete construction. Walker home-schools her children, who are 3, 8, and 10, and stumbling upon natural unknowns has become part of their education. Similarly, the kids who strung up the prototype to trees discovered a valuable new art technique, and anyone who participates has an opportunity to interact with each other’s creativity.

Walker points out that weaving is easy for a beginner to learn, and loves that “everyone has their own interpretation of a very simplistic skill.” Even her own weaving skill is limited, making the project as a whole fairly unintimidating.

“As things change and go back to ‘normal,’ I hope people can take the part of the last year or two and find the positivity around it and incorporate that into their lives,” Walker says of the approachability of the project.

Since the foundation of the weave uses rugged outdoor materials, Walker hopes it will last through the summer. No end date has been decided for the community installment. Anyone is welcome to participate at any time, and Walker will be onsite for an artist talk on Saturday, July 24.

To see more of the exhibit, including videos of Walker sharing insight, visit theney.org.