By Raina Belleau
What does the worn-and-tattered satin edge of a childhood blanket have to do with a sculpture? What is the relationship of the holes in your favorite t-shirt to a gallery wall? What does a broken garden rake have to do with how you envision the world around you? For Radical Repair Workshop, the answer to these questions is: everything.
Launched in January 2020 by Durham, North Carolina-based artist Julia Gartrell, the Radical Repair Workshop is housed inside a 1966 camper and holds an art gallery, studio and educational space. The project blurs the lines between art and craft through the hands-on learning of practical skills, the invitation to see sculpture everywhere and the exposure of our emotional connections to materials and objects. Radical Repair Workshop asks its participants to tell stories and reflect on their relationship to objects. Lovingly christened “Sonny”, the camper has hosted events and workshops in a variety of locations ranging from Duke University’s Rubenstein Center for the Arts to more unexpected locations such as Durham’s downtown bus station.
The very first repair performed by Radical Repair Workshop (RRW) was the renovation of the camper that would become home to the project. Sonny, with its roof-top marquee sign, butter yellow paint job and retro aesthetic, makes it stand out wherever it pops up. Inside, the warm wood paneling is interrupted by displays of darning techniques and a small white gallery wall of objects that explore art and craft in the context of repair. There are swatches of fabric darned in vibrant woven threads like miniature tapestries, vessels of clay and hot glue that seem simultaneously sturdy and precarious, and rusted tools and fractured mosaics that have the look of artifacts of past civilizations while remaining mysteriously familiar. The camper’s kitchenette provides an example of Gartrell’s whimsical yet well-organized take on education and gallery space. Below a set of handmade curtains, the small stainless-steel sink overflows with books on art, craft, materials and techniques.
RRW was created as a tool to facilitate both learning and access to creative and artistic spaces. The project has three educational components that are mixed, matched and adapted to the location and participants. The camper is a classroom for traditional repair methods, a gallery space showcasing work from artists and craftspeople, as well as an archive that is building an ever-expanding vocabulary of repair. This vocabulary includes both functional and nonsensical repairs that reflect Gartell’s background as a sculptor and educator. She does not believe in hierarchies of material or function, and the narrative and history of an object takes precedence when it is repaired. A caption on RRW’s Instagram reads, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it is, let’s get weird.” Repairs have included the (impractical) weaving of twigs to patch torn jeans and filling a void in a broken pot with hot-glued pom poms to the (practical) binding replacement of a well-loved quilt and elbow darning of a favorite cardigan.
Gartrell’s interest in repair stems from her sculptural work and her experiences as an artist in residency at the Arrowmont School of Craft, although the idea for Radical Repair Workshop was percolating for a few years before it officially launched. Both in her personal practice and as Radical Repair Workshop, Gartrell inhabits a middle ground between craft and art. She described herself as a “wild card” and a “renegade”, especially as she has been combining the craft-based skills she learned at Arrowmont with her sculpture, and in the way she has sought to teach this blend to others.
Gartrell’s sculptures outside of the Radical Repair Workshop also reflect the sentiment “make and make do”. She draws inspiration from stories of her family members making needed objects out of materials at hand such as baskets of kudzu and leftover pieces of 2×4. Her artwork is often a whimsical amalgamation of materials that reflect use and wear from the artist’s worn-out hiking boots to found chairs and ragged quilts. Another favorite material is clay that the artist digs from creek beds throughout the region. The human scale of the sculptures gives the sense of individual characters or personalized shelters, especially when given titles like Carapace.
While Radical Repair Workshop and Gartrell’s sculptural work share DNA, they have their own personalities and motivations. RRW allows Gartrell freedom that her art does not. She describes the issues shared by many artists such as storage and limited visibility and audiences, as incentive to find another creative pathway. Radical Repair Workshop combines Gartrell’s skills and interests as a maker and educator in ways that inspire her and her participants.
It is not surprising that Gartrell references the Fox Fire books as a source of inspiration. The 1970’s series of guides to back-to-the-land skills was an in-depth investigation and celebration of Appalachian traditions and folk wisdom. Radical Repair Workshop takes a contemporary look at the themes brought up by these books, such as the economy of objects and the value of labor and storytelling. One of the driving forces behind the first proposals for Radical Repair Workshop was the idea of repair as an economic indicator and the relationship of repair to a disposable consumer culture.
As she works to bring Radical Repair Workshop to new audiences, she has found the concept is a conversation starter and easily understood by her participants. She says that the bus station event sparked some of the most fulfilling interactions she has had so far. With each pop-up event, Gartrell hosts drop-in workshops where the curious can learn new repair skills. Even the occasional question about whether she fixes cell phones can feel like a relevant question as it addresses issues around the right to repair movement and the role of the consumer in our contemporary economy. “People really get it,” she says. “Students will invest time to slow down and work with their hands and interrupt a day in a good way to practice darning.”
One of the easiest ways of connecting to new audiences has been to ask questions about objects to which people have a special connection. Is it a favorite mug, sweatshirt or toy? What happened to it over time? How important is it to you to hold on to it and in what condition? If you could make it new again, would you? Why or why not? Radical Repair Workshop recognizes and celebrates the sentimentality of objects and their emotional significance in people’s lives. While she creates repairs for herself that are often sculptural interventions, Gartrell teaches the skills that her students need to extend the lives of the objects they care about or have made an impact in their lives. Gartrell and Radical Repair Workshop value both the useful and absurd and are using Sonny and pop-up programs to inspire participants to see, use and appreciate both sculptural and traditional modes of mending.
One recent event of the workshop was a gallery-style exhibition titled Hol(e)y T-Shirts hosted by Supergraphic Warehouse, a project space in Durham. Inspired by the very first donation to RRW’s archive, a threadbare shirt gifted by a close friend, Gartrell invited friends and family to loan her their most loved and worn t-shirts and to share the stories behind them. Sonny was parked indoors for the opening and the t-shirts were hung on the walls, accompanied by the owners’ responses to Gartrell’s prompts. The stories range from funny to bittersweet to heart breaking. The event brought together the workshops overarching themes of community, narrative, and material relationship in a new way and highlighted the ability of RRW to participate in a wide range of art events and conversations.
Gartrell is excited by the project’s flexibility. Radical Repair Workshop is currently working on proposals for oral history projects to find and interview those who work in the repair industry about the disposable economy’s impact on repair. Gartrell is also enthusiastic about the possibility of a Radical Repair Workshop road trip that would use the project’s mobility as a way to reach new audiences on a larger geographic scale; she is interested in finding collaborators for new events and workshops. She sees opportunities in both traditional and nontraditional spaces. “I can have a high end gallery show but I can also make it about learning and craft and repair,” she explained. “It feels like a superpower.”
Raina Belleau is an artist, educator and writer in Memphis, TN.