Finding Meaning in the Knots: The Art of Janis Ledwell-Hunt
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I used to love Instagram's visual feast, but the current marketing bombardment on my feed leaves me cold. Twitter has always been my least-favorite platform, and Facebook makes me weary for the most part. However, every once in awhile, the love/hate relationship that I have with social media tips toward the light when a work of art pops up and makes my brain zing, igniting a desire to find out more. Such was the case when I first saw the breathtaking work of Janis Ledwell-Hunt.
At first I was unsure of what I was looking at. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Was that macramé? How in the hell did she do it, and who was this fascinating Canadian artist with the bright smile and nimble fingers?
The @janisledwellhunt Instagram account showcases pieces readily recognizable as traditional fibre (fiber) art, but if you start from the beginning of the account and follow the artist's journey toward present day, you witness true artistic expression and expertise take form. The cherry on top is that Ms. Ledwell-Hunt is a terrific writer who readily shares her deep curiosity about life and her love for a tactile medium that connects, heart, head, fingertips, and knots.
Ledwell-Hunt's enormously successful fibre-and metal-supply company, Unfettered Co, continues to provide essential raw materials to the fibre community and has allowed the artist to pursue an ever-deeper dive into her art "unfettered" by the demands of the marketplace. This impressive melding of art and commerce serves as an inspiring roadmap to artists and creatives as Ledwell-Hunt's own journey continues to morph and grow.
I reached out to the artist to ask her about her work, process, and passion for fibre.
Please meet Janis Ledwell-Hunt!
Elizabeth Gracen: Janis, thank you so much for the interview, and welcome to Flapper Press! I believe that I first saw your art on Twitter in the #WomensArt feed, but I quickly found your Instagram account, and then your Etsy store . . . and just fell in love with the work you are doing. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you found your way to textile art. Janice Ledwell-Hunt: Thank you for finding my work and for helping women artists to be seen/heard! That's such an important ongoing project! I found my way to textile craft while on medical leave from teaching in both the English and Studies in Women and Gender departments at Vancouver Island University. I was leading a human rights complaint against the university's administration, and the life I'd known (and worked hard to achieve) was collapsing. So, I found myself looking for ways to keep myself busy while that was going down. I took an introductory macramé workshop locally and was immediately roped in. Looking back, it's easy to see that I might have really just needed to lose myself to something I had complete control over while I dealt with the larger forces that I couldn't control.
Macramé was that perfect outlet: it filled my days with repetitive motion and gave me little creative goals to strive for while I was processing the larger systemic failures of the university, the legal system, the work"safe" system, the policing system, and the patriarchal system that upholds them all.
Macramé captivated me early on for its moving meditational qualities. But then, there was a point where I think I stopped doing macramé as a way to lose myself and started instead finding my voice in it. While I'm hesitant to draw clear distinctions between art and craft and generally find it to be a hapless endeavour, I can also trace that personal shift in intention and, for me, the transition from doing macramé as a form of textile craft to textile art occurred when the knots became less meditative and more of a vessel for the expression of thought work.
EG: As a former professor of English Women’s Studies at VIU, you focused on experimenting with the connection of literature and philosophy, as well as the “socio-historical constructions of illness, excess, gender, and sexuality.” You made a leap from academia to art—do these same curiosities carry over into your work with fibre and knots? What ideas are you most interested in pursuing in your art? JLH: Thank you for this question! I've been thinking about it a lot lately because I just had to write my very first artist bio for my first solo exhibit, and the exhibit's curator and I had a lengthy discussion about whether or not I should include in my artist bio that I hold a PhD in English. My reservations had to do with its potential (ir)relevance, and there's part of me that wants the role of artist and critic to be quite separate, and there's another part of me that just wants to be able to fully inhabit the identity "recovering academic." lol. But, in the end, I did include that little snippet in my bio because I have no doubt in my mind that I bring my education to bear on my fibre art: sometimes directly and always indirectly.
In my academic work, I often traced connections between literature, life, feminist theory, philosophy, and ecology. In particular, I was interested in the ways that life takes shape—or the shapes that morph living—outside of health and normalcy, which can be quite confining. Sometimes the human animal fails miserably at seeing the ways that non-human animals, mycelia, fungi, bacteria (and so on) seem to form relationships that could teach us different shapes of being, belonging, and becoming. So, in the macramé work I'm now creating, I aim to bring to life some of these relationships, informed by symbiosis and parasitism. Increasingly, I'm trying to create compositional work that signals just how vital decomposition can be, for example.
I would also say that beyond subject matter, my academic training in literature and theory helped me understand the importance that storytelling plays in all our lives. One of the things we do with language is tell stories. I don't mean simply words on a page that automatically register as narrative; I mean that stories are material forces in all our lives. So I take that understanding with me to macramé and everything else that I do.
Macramé is a vessel for storytelling, and I knew that when creating my first knot.
I suppose what I'm saying is that my education has helped me approach macramé with the ambition to perform storytelling in my work and to see that as a possibility in a medium that is still largely preoccupied with the abstract and the utilitarian.
EG: If you are comfortable with sharing, can you tell our readers a bit about your process? How does a new idea germinate for you? Do you sketch it out, or do you immediately go to the fibre and start experimenting? Is there a lot of trial and error in the process? You’ve now reached a mastery that allows you to take creative flight. Was there a point when you had a “fibre epiphany” and realized that you could do just about anything you wanted with the form? JLH: I dwell on an idea somewhat passively for a really long time before starting to fashion it with knots. I love the creative voice that kind of nags at me while I work. It creates a laundry list of pieces to make down the road and helps me to never feel like I've done enough. lol. If I don't have that voice in my head, I start to get worried, because it ensures that I can continue to ruminate on new ideas while I'm busy making older ones. Each piece now feels like such a long haul that when I finish it, I'm hungry to hop right into the next project.
My partner deserves so much credit here too because he's always lended his own skill to helping me realize my ideas with fibre. Loren is a metalworker, welder, and machinist. And so, from the moment I picked up knotting, he's been right there willing to create metal structures for my pieces. Without Loren, I'm not sure that I'd have ventured into sculpture and into three-dimensional fibre art at all. One by one, he always proposes metal to remove obstacles that pop up in my creative process, and I'm spectacularly fortunate to have this. Each piece begins with a sketch and a day or two with Loren in his metal workshop. Together, we take my awful chicken scratch drawings and use their lines to fashion metal structures that I eventually knot around.
I've talked a little bit about the ways that my academic work pursued the sorts of shapes that can form outside of conventionally orchestrated health, and I'd also like to mention that my own illnesses and ailments have played an incredible part in the way that my work has evolved. I was on medical leave when I first learned to knot, and I was also physically debilitated when I think I first started making art with those knots.
Most macramé is performed from a standing position (makers will typically attach an anchor, like driftwood or a hoop or a piece of dowel, to an adjustable clothing rack). I did standing maniacally in the beginning years of my macramé business, Unfettered Co. I'd opened a little Etsy shop a few months into learning macramé, and it was here that I listed some of my designs as made-to-order pieces. Business picked up really quickly for me, and I didn't have enough hours in the day to fill the number of orders in my queue. At the same time, I wanted/needed to succeed as a creative entrepreneur because I'd just left my university post and was straight up scared shitless about my future. So I didn't listen to my body, and I hurt my back so badly (from standing and macramé-ing for such long hours on end) that I ended up with such a crooked spine that I couldn't walk for 9 months. It was in that time of injury that I started making more intricate and tight pieces that I could produce from a seated position. To this day, I sit to knot. And that's been of more consequence to my work than a simple change in posture: it's meant that I employ fibre and knots and scale in a way that is unique to my medium. While I worry about romanticizing illness and injury to a certain extent, I also worry about only configuring illness and injury as closures. For me, they were openings.
EG: You mention in an Instagram post that since the inception of your work you’ve tried to maintain a boundary between your fibre art and the Unfettered Co fibre art-supply business. How have you reconciled these two aspects of your life? Has it ever presented a struggle for you? What advice could you give other artists who need to make a living as they experiment and pursue their art?
JLH: This is such a tough topic to speak on, and I certainly don't think I've got it figured out yet. I've often thought that business entails competition with others, while art entails competition with self, but this distinction can be so easily undermined. Alternatively, I've often thought that succeeding at business involves interpreting consumer behaviours correctly within a marketplace that already exists, while art involves bringing a demand into existence that previ