Studio Visit | Erin Lee Antonak
Studio Visit | Erin Lee Antonak
The color pink is the first thing I noticed when I previewed Erin Lee Antonak’s recent works at Artspace last week. Antonak, one of three current artists-in-residence at the New Haven nonprofit, had installed several of her recent wall-mounted fiber pieces inside the gallery space in advance of her exhibition opening this May. Three wallhangings containing concentric circles of charcoal gray and pink were centered on one wall, and the adjacent wall contained two more. Recently, Antonak began working with a rug tufting gun which she uses to create the intricate looped surfaces of multi-colored yarns. This new technique has allowed Antonak to translate her two-dimensional drawings into a tactile form of fiber art. Both her materials and her pinks—more punk rock than petal—bring an aggressively feminine vibe to her new series.
For Antonak, this palette of pinks, fuschias, and crimson yarn weaving these works together has a secret meaning. Antonak is half Native American and growing up, she thought of herself as pink. She’s part red, part white, she said. As a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Antonak learned how to make regalia for pow wows with her mother growing up. She braided cornhusks into long ropes that were sewn into gad jeesa, sacred husk face masks. As an adult, she apprenticed with a milliner in San Francisco and later worked as a costume designer. Today her practice as a visual artist is an amalgam of all these skills.
Describing her upbringing as chaotic, Antonak moved away from home at age fifteen. After college at Bard, she established roots in New Orleans, where she made hats and elaborate apparel for drag queens and burlesque dancers. Louisiana was home for Antonak until her life took a dramatic turn at age twenty-five. Her mother suffered a major brain hemorrhage, becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Soon after, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. Antonak relocated to be closer to her mother, providing care. With this return, she also resumed attending the ceremonies of her childhood.
For her upcoming show Seven Spans, Antonak digs into her family history. The title of the exhibition alludes to an Iroquois principle that encourages the current generation to weigh decisions based on whether or not they will benefit their distant future relatives. (The same philosophy also inspired the eponymous line of eco-friendly products.) Antonak hired a genealogist to help her gather information about the past seven generations of her family—presumably this group was thinking of her over a century ago, too. This continuum between the past and the future inspires the circular motif uniting these works. Antonak explained that this abundance of circular forms represents wormholes, a way to travel through time and make contact with future and past relatives simultaneously.
Thinking about her work as a form of cosmic communication is a novel phenomenon for Antonak, and this shift was influenced by a wave of major events in her personal life. Antonak’s mother passed ten days after the arrival of her second son. She grew up surrounded by ceremony and its related paraphernalia, though none of these rituals felt entirely appropriate for her as she grappled with her experiences of grief and joy. In a 2017 personal essay published in South Writ Large, she wrote, “I have never known a ceremony that was designed for my personal brand of pain and grief.” Her desire to make space for ritual for people sharing this longing forms the crux of her practice.
While many aspects of Antonak’s works depart from the objects she learned to make as a girl—her new wall works are not intended for ceremonial purposes and they recall the synthetic aesthetic of the 1980s rather than the sedate, natural materials of Iroquois crafts—the meditative quality of repetitive labor carries through to her current series. For generations the women in Antonak’s family have prayed as they worked with the hope that the meaning of their words would become embodied in the braided and sewn forms they created. Similarly, Antonak views her works as artifacts culled from actual ceremonies she’s witnessed and ones that do not exist. Regardless of their origin, these works are engendered with intention of spreading their healing energies outward. The process helps Antonak recover from the traumas of her past, rekindle fragments of her upbringing, and share the importance of ritual—self-designed when necessary.
Erin Lee Antonak: Seven Spans will be on view at Artspace, New Haven from May 19 through June 29, 2019.