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 previously hasn't. But this falls short too. So sometimes when you repeatedly attempt defining one practice against another and continue to feel unsatisfied by those yields, it's indicative that perhaps the question (or the opposition) is poorly staged to begin with. And so, I'd say I've slowly arrived at that understanding, even if it's an uncomfortable one.
Unfettered Co is a successful fibre and metal-supply business that initially grew from my early macramé designs. I'm really proud that it's a business that's always been nourished by creativity, and I love that it supplies materials to fellow creative souls. It's neat to be working in my studio chasing down a difficult piece with the same materials Unfettered Co sends to customers who'll in turn use their imagination to make something completely different out of the same raw material. That connection gives me a sense of purpose and community, and I think I should always aim to lead by example: by virtue of pushing myself to produce the best macramé work I'm capable of producing, and with the aim of encouraging artistry with fibre. So, I suppose that does seem like the two seemingly disparate roles of entrepreneur and artist are reconciled by those intentions. As both rope slinger and rope sculptor, I want to invite a sense of curiosity about just what else might be possible to create with knots.
The income I earn through my business is what means I can (currently) work as a fibre artist without the need to sell my creations. That's a spectacular fortune that I don't feel entitled to yet want to make the most of while I can. Unless an artist is extremely well established (or independently wealthy), it's probably really hard to arrive at a circumstance where they can create art full-time without the imperative to use that art to generate an income. And yet, I know from experience that artistic growth happens more quickly when we're not limited by the parameters of creating with selling in mind. That's where you get the space for genuine immersion: that's where you can pull your sleeves up and hone technique, voice, concept, practice, and so on. I think the currency of artistry is nothing other than time. How much time can you reserve for making your art? What percentage of your day can you set aside for that practice? It's a question that ties in with privilege, because privilege often manifests as unencumbered time. For women who still bear the brunt of childcare, eldercare, emotional labour, housework, and community building, unencumbered time is hard to come by.
So if I can muster a kernel of honest, pragmatic, and non-patronizing advice it would be this: if you want to pursue art, choose your partner wisely.
EG: In the Instagram gallery of your work, you mention in a more recent post that you have shifted back from “getting better” to “getting faster again, more decisive with each step, and moving from piece to piece with confidence.” Has there been a back-and-forth shift between these two energies over the course of your career as an artist? What part of your process hits that sweet spot where you are in the zone and the work takes on a meditative nature, and how important is that for you? JLH: In truth, I haven't found this sweet spot yet, and I don't know if I ever will. I take longcuts over shortcuts and agonize endlessly over each and every step in the process of creating a piece. I've wondered if returning to a more production-based model would help me. Because making pieces with shorter creative arcs might amount to a quickening of pace. My sense is that I might need to develop two different styles of work: The first would be accompanied by lower stakes and shorter completion times. The second style would be more long-game pieces that come together over time. The former would involve a rehearsal of the techniques and discoveries that manifest while immersed in the latter. That's the advice I'd give myself anyway, but we'll see if I can actually follow it.
EG: I’ve read that you are fascinated by the interconnectedness of all things—especially with the ideas of how death and illness can be reframed to consider how decomposition nourishes life. The astounding bird sculpture is an exquisite example of these ideas. It is such a powerful piece, with beauty and pathos intricately woven together (as you say, “pun intended”). The piece is symbolic of life itself and all the contradictory dynamics that occur all around us and within us.
As an artist, your work appears to have evolved into a deep examination of life and death. How has the progression of subject matter in your work changed you? How do you see your work evolving over the next five years and beyond? JLH: Thank you for mentioning the "undead" bird sculpture! I think that's still my favourite piece because it's concise. I'm a bit long-winded in all initiatives, lol, and so to have arrived at that level of minimalism is still unusual for me. I've never spoken openly about why I made that piece because it's hard for me to do, but here goes: Right around the time that my business was starting to take off, I lost my dog. He and I had traipsed around together for thirteen years, and our friendship ushered me into young-adulthood in an unforgettable way. He died in a clinic, as many companion species likely do, and so much of my experience of that heartache was the sterile context of his death. I physically couldn't bring myself to look at his lifeless body because I was terrified that I'd be haunted by the memory and that that image would be more central for me than his living expressions. Not having looked at him that day is quite possibly my only regret. So, I made the bird to look at death and to try to re-examine my relationship to loss. Looking at that piece, I'm still floored by how much expression lives in the bird's face and feet (something I have yet to achieve a second time, and not for lack of effort). I'm pretty sure I also managed to macramé a soul, and I'd challenge anyone to find precedent for that within the medium. My dog was with me when I made that bird; it's the only explanation I can muster. I cried throughout its creation, and I think I'd tried to cheat grief up until that point. To come back to your question, I'm really interested in confronting the materialities of death, because they're something that's often foreclosed to us (or, in my case, something I failed to look at). Being fully alive means living with our corporeal decomposition. We practice rituals for honouring death spiritually, symbolically, culturally, socially, economically, and legally. But when it comes to the material complexities of death, a pulverized corpse in an urn or embalmed body in a casket is supposed to be sufficient.
Art is that space where we can ethically and creatively grapple with some of what still gets edited out of quotidien life.
EG: You made the deep dive into macramé in 2018, and you’ve taken the textile art world by storm with your creations. From the early pieces of easily recognizable macramé plant hangers, aquatic-life wall hangings, the superbly feminist macramé “tits,” the colorfully coiled snakes, gorgeous mushroom-festooned human hearts and lungs, and now to the decomposed creatures budding with new life . . . your journey has been in the making for all to see. When you look back to the beginning, did you ever envision your art, work, and life would be anything like this, and do you ever miss your life in academia? Would you do anything differently?
JLH: The more distance from academia that I achieve, the more I'm able to flesh out a distinction between living in proximity to the institutions that uphold academia and living in relation to a fabric of thoughtwork. The way that power is operative within academic/corporate institutions is dehumanizing. However, engaged thoughtwork is lifesaving. And, I hope to always remain in contact with that. I think I am. I left my position as the chair of a department of Gender and Women's Studies and left the space of the classroom. But . . .
I've dedicated myself to macramé: a practice that is both academically under-examined and culturally undermined because it's a way that predominantly women have endeavoured to create.
Macramé's gendering and connection with women's domesticity since the 70s has meant that it's still dismissed as an art form. I would argue that macramé's exclusion from art galleries and spaces where fine art is publicly consumed is even more glaring than that of knitting, crochet, quilting, cross-stitch, and weaving. As an academic, you're trained to identify and "plug" gaps in fields of thought. As an artist, I've landed on a fibre medium that hasn't yet been let through the gates, and my feminist academic training drives me to challenge its dismissal in whatever ways I can.
My work isn't generally explicitly feminist, and yet when I tie knots, I feel pretty connected with the audacious, impish, creative tactics that my feminist and queer heroes have woven into their politics.
Actually, I have a full-circle story that might be useful here: I was defending my honours thesis at the end of my undergraduate degree, a setting that meant that I had to present my academic work to all of my English professors and fellow English majors. One of my professors brought her knitting project to the event. While she listened, she knitted. The professors who'd supervised my thesis were upset by her actions. They apologized to me for her disrespect and assured me that should never have happened. At the time, I thought nothing of it. Now, I think about it pretty regularly. What was so troubling about her knitting while listening? Why should knitting not belong in a professional or academic space? Why should one form of creativity necessarily undercut another? Why should knitting serve as a "distraction" rather than an invitation or encouragement within that space? What on earth is the point of defending a feminist dissertation when legacies of women's labour as fundamental as knitting are considered anathema to the conveyance of feminist thought? I've learned so much more from that which is dismissed than that which has been celebrated, and I hope to be able to keep capturing that spirit of re-composition with everything that I do.
EG: Janis, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me about your work and passion for fibre. I look forward to watching your creative journey unfold and can't wait to see what you come up with next! Please tell our readers a bit more about some of your favorite creations.
Figured I’d take a little dive into some of my early work and talk about my macramé fish. This design made my Instagram account go viral at the time and was the engine upon which I was able to build my fibre-supply business. It’s been widely circulated and copied at this point, and I wanted to talk a bit about that.
Initially, I named this piece “Cods of Misery,” after an NFLD (Newfoundland and Labrador, my homeland) common expression. The codfish has played a notorious role in NFLD’s history, with its overfishing and subsequent industrial collapse serving as a cautionary tale. So there are many ways in which the misery of the cod has conditioned NFLD culture. My aim with this design was really to try to honour my heritage by engaging with the complexity of the cod as a symbol, and I was always trying to reference (however implicitly) the destruction of marine life. The fish were supposed to be ghost-like, lifeless spectres of what once was.
This isn’t what resonated with viewers and consumers, though! Instead, I kept recreating the design to fulfill orders for customers who wanted to decorate their ocean-themed houses, cottages, and nurseries. They found the fish more festive, I think, and loved the notion of a school of fish joyfully swimming upstream. At the time, I needed the income that the design generated, so I marketed it in keeping with that sense of freedom and fantasy because that’s what people were biting on.
Having had this “success” while still a macramé beginner was a formative experience. In order to generate enough income to keep my macramé business alive at the time, I had to compromise my vision for the tone and intention of a piece. Furthermore, I lost control of its reproduction because images of the piece took on a circulatory life of their own on Instagram and Pinterest. The cycle went a bit like this: a customer would happen upon the image, then be directed to my Etsy shop where I sold the piece. They’d then contact a different macramé maker and commission them to make the piece more cheaply. This, in turn, meant that I kept my own prices far too low, and yet the cycle continued. So I was on a bit of a treadmill that took up my entire creative energy.
The precariousness of that position will remain a crucial lesson and in a curious way connects with the greed and desperation of the overfished cods of misery. There’s a potent public devaluation of art, craft, and cod, and in the space where appreciation could live, we have the impulses of capitalism. If there’s money to be made (or saved), sometimes a sense of appreciation and integrity are lost.
This, in turn, was a more recent attempt at creating a dead fish:
This piece articulates something that my first fish could only gesture at. I kept the vertical orientation of the original cods of misery because I always liked it. I used reds and rusts instead of blues and attempted a biosurrealist fish skeleton that also serves as a fern. I like the way that ferns almost seem arterial or like rib cages to begin with. So this just seemed like a natural extension.
Most often, completing a piece means I’ll have very clear ideas about where I failed. It’s not a failure that brings hardship so much as a sense of failure that motivates growth. And so, while I can step back and see what I accomplished with this piece, I’m also pretty focused on its flaws—and those will keep me coming back to riff on the concept differently. But this fish fern marked my first attempt at creating dripping blood. What moves me to keep honing blood drips is that it’s kind of a subterfuge of the medium. Fibre doesn’t drip. It hangs. It feathers. It folds. But it doesn’t have liquid properties. One of the unique elements of my macramé is that it often only grows upward or outward. However, with blood I’ve returned to the possibility of fibre hanging down—but just with the intent of controlling that downward orientation so fully that the properties of string/rope appear to be another substance entirely. That’s an articulation I’m continuing to try to perfect.
Oh boy, this piece. Ok let me just say that this cordyceps-clad cockroach has yet to be given its full background and narrative (and I won’t give that away other than to say it’s definitely literary). Let me also say that making this piece shook my confidence because every time I posted any part of it in my Instagram stories, or the finished piece on my feed, I experienced a sudden exodus of followers. Now, I try not to worry about such trivialities! However, working on a piece and broadcasting it on social media can be a very flawed exercise. Sometimes it threatens the actual life of a creation when you most need actual momentum.
What I love about this piece is that it introduces an interesting “villain” into my macramé world building. I’ve relied heavily on mushrooms in my work because they’re captivating composters/communicators that feed on waste in a poetic—and bloody heroic—way. It’s easy to make people feel delight when they see the colourful fruiting bodies of mycelia because we’re continuing to adopt increasingly positive associations with where they might lead us wayward humans. But cordyceps (still fungi) tell a nefarious, necromancing story of paralysis, parasitism, zombification, and mind-control (even though that notion has been scientifically debunked, as we’ve discovered that actually cordyceps control insects’ bodies without controlling their minds!!!! Yikes, even more disturbing). Anyway, who doesn’t love a fascinating villain?!
I love this piece immensely because it is so far removed from conventional notions of beauty. Someone said to me, “I’d never put THAT in my home,” and I walked away from that interaction happily swishing my hair with the knowledge that I’d created macramé that was completely divested of the function/sometimes-sterility of home décor.
So to return to the threat of turning hard-earned social media followers away with increasingly strange creations: I’m more and more ok with that because it gets me further away from the initial “cods of misery” treadmill of losing control over the narrative and creative process. Popularity is a currency that limits us as humans.