fence transparency

This text is by Nitasha Deogun and Levon Apriar Kafafian in their capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

A Fringe Society

Weaving Together a Community

Interview with Levon Arpiar Kafafian*

Nitasha Deogun


Creating the fabric we use is no longer a household task and therefore one we are largely removed from. The Western world is constantly becoming more disconnected from the processes and materials that make up the world we live in. We want to help re-establish your connection to the material world.
(excerpt from the Fringe Society’s mission statement)

A Fringe Society figures 02 and 03
photo by Nitasha Deogun (left) and photo by Remus Roman (right)

This is my second visit to the Fringe Society, Levon Kafafian’s weaving studio and school. He greets me warmly and leads me through the main room filled with looms and spools of yarn into his kitchen, where I am served tea from pale green, handmade pottery. The first time I was his guest, we drank strong Armenian coffee and Levon told me that he could read my future in the black grounds remaining at the bottom of my miniature metallic cup.

I had approached Levon a few weeks prior to this interview to invite him to be a guest curator for an exhibition taking place this summer about skin and fabric at the Detroit Museum of Healing. As a fellow artist who works often in fiber, I was very eager to see his studio, learn about the types of educational programming offered and submit a proposal to teach a natural dyeing or weaving course.

Much like the first visit, our conversation flows rapidly and humorously from one topic to the next. I steer my line of questioning towards conservation. “Can we talk about moths for a minute?” Laughter ensues but we both know it is a serious matter. This is a high level concern for textile artists and collectors. Wool and silk in particular are very attractive meal options for many insects and the damage caused in storage can be irreparable. I tell a dramatic story about killing a particularly terrifying moth one night in my kitchen last summer, whose wingspan was the size of my palm. What if his family returns for revenge to chew up all my fabrics? “Big moths are not the ones that cause the damage. It’s really the little ones you have to watch out for,” he reassures me.

A Fringe Society figure 1
photo by Nitasha Deogun

Levon is well versed in this area as his first formal introduction to textiles was through a job at Hagopian Rugs, where one of the primary services offered is cleaning and restoration.

“Fiber as a medium is delicate… not really archival but still utilitarian.”

We start to talk about the inherent “softness” and vulnerability associated with cloth. I quote artist and educator Deborah Valoma, who was my undergrad textile history professor. She made a lasting impression upon me during her history seminars. In one lecture, she pointed out the intimate nature of the relationship between humans and fabric: In every culture, textiles are the first thing you touch after birth, when you are swaddled in cloth as an infant, and the last item you touch at the time of death, in the form of a shroud.

We decide to switch on a voice recorder for the rest of our discussion.

ND: Okay… shall we continue?

LAK: So, where were we?

ND: So, we were talking about how you take textiles out of this very familiar context, where they are almost an extension of the body, and make this transformation into objects that would be considered fine art.

LAK: The thing about being vulnerable is that that’s what human relationships are all based on.  You cannot have human connection unless you open yourself up and become vulnerable to perceptions, judgement, or a certain level of interaction with another human being and I think that is the strength in working in a fiber medium. You have these very strong preconceptions about what fabric is and what fabric does, and how people interact with it, that completely opens up the dialogue. I have a list of things I can access from the media itself before I make anything. I can go in and say “Oh alright, this piece is about identity” and I use something that people already associate with their identity. So for example, an evening gown that talks about being sexy, but also about being at the mercy of the gaze of others. Things like that, where specific textile forms are used for specific purposes. So you can tap into that reservoir of preconceptions and strengthen your piece.

ND: So it’s more of an opportunity for us, as fiber artists.

I feel like there are so many divisions in the medium. There are weavers, surface designers, there are people who deal with a specific stage of production like dyeing or sewing. It’s so vast and so separated. That’s why I think what you are doing here in Detroit is so amazing because it presents the opportunity for all the parts of a whole to connect, to learn from each other and create discourse. I love the educational aspect of your studio.

LAK: You have to be connected to a certain group of people and what I am doing with this space is extending an invitation to people who don’t have those connections, to be able to take part in the discourse, to be able to take part in that skill-learning, to be able to take part in that networking. All of that is very much part of what I do here. And you know, I love geeking out on fabric as much as the next person but I also like to talk about issues in the greater world of craft, fashion and textiles and maybe working what I do into possible solutions. It’s part of why I am working with some folks on building a fiber and dye garden.

I came together with Ash Arder and Emily Staugaitis. Our whole idea is to create a space where the community can engage with the entire process of how a plant goes from seed to garment: workshops in making and using dyes, to spinning and collecting fiber—all of those different things that have to happen between garden and finished product.  And we very specifically want to work with plants that have multiple uses; for example, something that can be eaten, made into tea, used as paint or pigment, used for soap or medicine.

[Some of the plants that Levon mentions will be included in the garden are indigo, black gipsywort and nettles.]

LAK: We want to work across fields and bring people together, maybe people who have an interest in gardening, somebody who has an interest in color, somebody who has an interest in herbalism. For each of these different sectors, we want to establish a dialogue between them, and for a lack of a better word, interlace them together through programming.

ND: No! I love that! I like that term. One of the concepts that I explore often in my own art is this use of textile metaphor in storytelling. The whole obsession with it started when I was in high school at Cranbrook and was first exposed to the craft of weaving. Ironically, we happened to be reading Homer’s The Odyssey in my English class that year. And I really loved the parts where Penelope continued to deceive her trail of suitors by weaving the story, then unweaving the story. To me, it was this empowering subplot of rebellion, feminine intelligence and a clever use of cloth. And, to spin a thread means to tell a story. It just shows, again, how integral a part of our “human-ness” fabric is…

LAK: There is absolutely so much metaphor and terminology that comes out of the fiber craft, and largely because it happened in every home and was an ubiquitous language that people knew how to...

ND: …to share.

LAK: …to describe things in.

ND: The Silk Road! Textiles have been the backbone of economies and cultural interaction/trade for so long but now it’s also… distant. Again, I appreciate the title you’ve given for your space, “Fringe Society,” because it has people still using original, manual techniques, now mechanized for industry. These people are on the fringes— figuring out where their processes fit into the modern world, as products or art objects.

Maybe if you could speak a little bit to how your heritage has (or hasn’t) inspired you. Or how you see it connecting to your work.

LAK: Yeah, for one thing, when I first started weaving, my intention was to be a rug weaver. I wanted to make rugs and that was largely an output of my working in a rug retail store, coincidentally, one that was owned by Armenians. And it happens to be a somewhat stereotypical Armenian thing to have a rug store and to be a rug dealer. For me, even though I didn’t grow up outside of the United States, I very much grew up in an Armenian community and my parents made it abundantly clear that I was to learn as much as I could possibly learn about my lineage and about the culture that birthed me.

ND: So, building on that, what’s your first memory of an interaction with a rug? Or with a traditional garment from Armenia? Again, I can’t help but relate this back to my cultural experience with textiles and being a child who would love to hide under the clothing racks at the sari shops, it was like being in a little tent made of lavishly embroidered silk fabrics… the colors and textures would feed my imagination. I feel like Armenia is similar to India in that it has this use of vivid, unusual color combinations, heavy embroidery, use of gold and silver threads, intricately patterned carpets…

LAK: We’re traditionally known as merchants and in the United States, jewelry and rugs are where Armenians have made their business, but I would say my earliest interaction with textiles in a place that holds meaning for me is running around as a young child in my parents’ and grandparents’ houses, being surrounded by these beautiful objects (the rugs), that we would sit and play on and come together around. They really were like hubs of social interaction, whether or not you were an adult. I think the great thing about that, at the very least, it helped me to have a perspective on aesthetics and textile design at an early age. Not that I even thought about design as a possible means of making a living until I was working at a rug store. Now, the thing is, I didn’t learn weaving from Armenians. I didn’t have exposure to any sort of techniques that are specifically Armenian. All I had was the exposure to the aesthetic heritage, whether it was reading books, or doing online research or knowing about those things because I am in that community. There were no craftsmen to apprentice under—

ND: I feel an exact parallel. I have never studied textiles with an Indian teacher. I have never studied dyeing in India. The natural dyer that I apprenticed for in California, she had actually gone to a village in India and studied dyeing with things like lac—we were talking about insects earlier, it is similar to cochineal—it produces a range of purple and red hues. Indigo, as well.  So while I have copies of all her notes on those things I, myself, have never had that. Is that [direct experience] something you seek to have happen at some point in your career?

LAK: In some ways yes and in some ways no. I am more interested in what I’m doing now, and I’m not so much trying to find a technique or skill from the people of my heritage doing this work––largely because I doubt that there are that many doing the work right now. The thing that is most interesting to me is looking back into history. For one thing, I would say, there has been a specific sort of distancing from a more Eastern, Armenian identity in favor of a Western one in the country itself. Like very much an aspiration to be modern and Western.

ND: Again, so like India. Yeah, that’s so true.

LAK: But here, because we have a diasporic community that is removed from living in that space and being surrounded by it, the opposite is true. An aspiration towards…

ND: History.

LAK: Historicity. So what I do and how I connect to my heritage is that I look for traces of the past. I look at historical costumes, historical textiles, and jewelry-- not just artifacts from the past but also practices. For example, calendrical celebrations. There is a group of people in Armenia who are neopagan and engage in pre-Christian practices. Some of these practices have melded into Armenian Christian traditions, but a lot are no longer engaged with, except by this minority.

ND: [I listen to a story about “Vartavar” or the “Feast of Roses.” The feast day was in honor of a pre-Christian goddess and one of the ways she would be celebrated would be with a picnic by a flowing body of water. That’s a great practice in itself, to have a picnic by a stream or a river, Levon points out.]

LAK: And this is something that I am interested in, in keeping up with tradition. I specifically look to what we as a people did before this imposition from outside came in and completely changed the landscape. Not that there weren’t wonderful cultural innovations that came about because of it, but many things were lost. So I’m looking at that specifically as a way of engaging with my heritage. And how to… move forward.

ND: So would you say it’s more of a spiritual than cultural reference for you?

LAK: No, it’s very much both. It’s very much in line with the ideals of say Afro-futurism, in a larger context, like an Ethno-futurism.

Moving forward and incorporating certain things from a cultural heritage, but realizing that you have to be relevant to today and the way that life is changing around us all the time. So we have to… adjust. But we should be able to take that which has been given to us through our lineage and move forward.

A Fringe Society figures 4 and 5
Snowfall scarf in ice and Indigo colorway by Levon Kafafian (left) by and custom baby wrap by for doula and mother Laurel Miller by Levon Kafafian (right).

[You can find class descriptions, schedules and a shop to buy Levon’s hand-woven scarves at www.fringesocietystudio.com]

* Part one of a three part series on textiles in Detroit
(This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity)

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link - issue 27: April 2016