By Melinda Baker
When Nashville-based fiber artist and curator, Pam Marlene Taylor, was studying art at Tusculum University in 2013, a painting professor told the female students that they weren’t allowed to include images of cats or the color pink in their work. When Taylor turned in her senior project – an abstract fiber “painting” on panel made with blown glass and woven raffia – the professor admonished her: “This is good, but it’s getting dangerously close to weaving. Weaving is not art, it’s craft, it’s women’s work”. In other words, if you want to be taken seriously as a female artist in a man’s world, you must avoid making anything too feminine.
Though the professor, a woman, was trying to protect her female students, it riddled Taylor with self-doubt, causing her to step away from fiber arts for years. Then in 2016, while cleaning out a closet of old art supplies, Taylor rediscovered the raffia she’d used in her senior project. She hasn’t put it down since.
Experiences like the ones she had in college now fuel much of Taylor’s practice. She creates abstract, conceptual tapestries and fiber works that lean on the tradition and language of weaving to tease out contemporary issues of female identity, gender expectations, and the distinctions between art and craft. Her work does not strive for perfection in a traditional craft sense, but for emotion and storytelling in metaphoric ways. The vivid color and voluptuous texture of her pieces draw you in, and her edgy, expressive compositions hint at their deeper messages.
In December, she will have her first solo show in Nashville at Red Arrow Gallery, who represents her.
What typically inspires you to begin a new tapestry or fiber work?
My work almost always begins with a concept, something that’s been stuck in my head like a song. They’re usually feminist issues, the world seen from a woman’s perspective, a woman seen from the world’s perspective, and my own experiences. A lot of my work is also inspired by things I’ve changed my mind about. Changing your opinions, ideas, and beliefs is incredibly interesting to me, and I’m interested in reflecting that process in my work. For example, many of my pieces gradually transition in color to represent the small and almost unnoticeable stages of changing your mind. Eventually, you turn around and realize you’re completely different than you were before.
Your work disrupts the distinctions between art and craft. What do you think makes art “art” and craft “craft”?
I believe anything can be art and anything can be craft. My simple answer is that if you are an artist, then what you make is art. Now, that doesn’t make every piece of art a good piece of art. For me, good art involves the mastery of the craft. Have you practiced your medium? Are your techniques honed? This doesn’t mean you need an art degree. I have an art degree, but I learned to weave on YouTube. At this point for me, though, it’s just a craft, even if it’s an oil painting. You could create the most realistic portrait, but I would still only see it as a craft if you don’t have step two. Step two is concept. Some people are really turned off by “conceptual art”, but it’s simple, what are you trying to say? Why are you making this? What do you want the world to know? Pet portraits? Craft. Pet portraits because you’re interested in exploring the almost unexplainable love humans have for pets? Art.
Why is it important for you to confront these distinctions?
We’ve been having this conversation in fiber art since before my time, but I think we are still having it because of its deep associations with women’s work. Women have been sewing and weaving and embroidering for so long, it’s hard for people to justify why it’s art now (or was then). Even my professor in college who discouraged me from pursuing weaving – she was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously because of her experiences of women not being taken seriously in the art world. But I’ve had really positive experiences in the art world as a fiber artist, and I feel really lucky to rarely find myself defending whether or not I am an artist to anyone other than my own inner critic.
Material holds rich metaphorical meaning in the fiber arts, with its connection to domesticity, lineage, spirituality, the female experience, caretaking, etc. What’s your relationship to the materials you use?
Most of my pieces incorporate raffia and roving, two very different materials I’m really drawn to. Roving is essentially raw wool, it’s what spinners use to make yarn and needle felters use to felt. I love weaving it into my pieces as is. Raffia is a palm tree material that is beautiful on its own and really easy to dye. It’s not typically seen in the fine art world; it’s mostly used to fill Easter baskets or in gift wrapping. It’s strong and feels really utilitarian to me, though, which is something I enjoy seeing next to the roving, which is super soft and fluffy.
Your practice as well as much of your work draws attention to the weaving process. You weave on hand-built looms and often show the warp, which is usually covered by the weft. Tell me more about these and other techniques you use to expose the act of making.
That’s one thing I love about roving. Because it’s so thick, it highlights the warp (the vertical threads on a tapestry) which is usually hidden by the weft (the horizontal threads on a tapestry). In my series, Women as Warp, the warp represents women and how they and their efforts are often the unseen and unappreciated forces holding everything together in the family and in communities. In another series, Changed My Mind, I explored the process of changing your beliefs or opinions by creating a sort of color gradient with the raffia. Each cord is made by braiding individual strands of raffia and then braiding those braids together, sometimes again and again, to form a strong rope with a complex texture. I start with one color of raffia, then slowly replace strands with a new color until the cord turns into a new color completely. This tedious process represents the small steps it takes to change your mind and, ultimately, who you are.
You’ve been featured in and curated several standout exhibitions in Nashville recently. How do you approach each process – making art versus curation?
Both start exactly the same – with a concept I want to explore or a conversation I want to have. For instance, an online show I recently curated for Locate Arts, Dirty Laundry, was an exploration of the ideas of airing out dirty laundry – that is, telling secrets or reporting in a post-#MeToo world – and actual dirty laundry. I didn’t feel like my work was the best fit for this idea, so I decided to curate other, mostly female artists’ work who make installations using actual dirty laundry, dirty laundry wash water, laundry baskets, etc. I also have a running list of artists I want to work with, so I always start there too, seeing if their work would fit.
My own artwork, on the other hand, begins when I have an idea that does work within my practice. I just completed a series called Tubes based on the very different experiences my husband and I had when we decided to remain a child-free couple. After experiencing health complications with my birth control, I attempted to have my tubes tied, and each piece in the series is based on all the discouraging responses I received from different doctors–a piece in the series called, You’ll Change Your Mind When All Your Friends Start Having Babies, is a good example of the kinds of things they’d say to me. In contrast, when we called to ask about getting my husband a vasectomy, they didn’t ask his age or parental status or even need a consultation appointment; they just asked when he wanted to come in for the procedure.
Color is essential to your work. How important are your color choices to the concepts behind your work?
Color is super important to my work and I’m always really intentional about it. Especially with pink, a color that’s been and will continue to be a big focus because it sparked one of my first “ah-ha” moments with feminism. When I was little, I hated pink and dolls and anything girly, but only because I thought that’s what you had to do to be a legit feminist. As an adult, I realized those beliefs were only reinforcing the idea that girl-things were lesser-than and that boy-things were better-than. So, now, I love pink and find a lot of strength in using it in my work.
Melinda Baker is a writer and educator based in Nashville, TN.