Casa Illuminata

One day I opened an envelope and noticed the pattern inside. So, I kept opening it until it couldn’t open any more, and it was a house. So I put Giotto’s ceiling on it.

Giotto di Bondone, Scrovegni Chapel Ceiling details; Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Giotto di Bondone, Scrovegni Chapel Ceiling details; Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even in the beginning, I knew they were houses. When you first open an envelope, the flap turns up, and the envelope resembles the shape of a house.  When you open it all the way, separating the walls of the envelope, it opens up into a ‘floor plan.’ Almost like the plan of a cruciform church.

Casa Americana, 2015, silk thread on envelope
Casa Americana, 2015, silk thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

I often find raw material for my work at home, and this time, it came in the mail. I couldn’t help myself; I felt compelled to explore and expand the patterned spaces inside these envelopes as if I was arranging furnishings in a house.

I went to a studio talk the other day to hear artist Barbara Knezevic speak. At one point, she said that she had been pondering the idea that materials ‘have agency,’ that maybe they dictate what forms they take. They ‘speak,’ and when an artist begins to manipulate and change a material, it is part of a conversation with that material. The artist listens and responds, and the conversation is embodied in the finished form.

That word ‘agency’ struck me at the time, and I immediately thought about my ‘illuminated houses.’ The envelopes came to me, and I found them too beautiful to throw out. They asked me to intervene. And at the time, my hands wanted to sew. It was perfect timing for the following conversations to happen.

Bee’s House: Labor

As I’ve begun to use hand-sewing more and more in my work, I’ve become more conscious of labor, efficiency, and time. For some reason, I’m attracted to ‘drawing’ with thread, or ‘free sewing’ I guess, instead of drawing with ink, graphite, or paint. It is a kind of drawing that can’t happen quickly. To sew a line with thread is a slow and deliberate process. The labor is tedious. I feel it in my whole body after a while. My shoulders ache, my right wrist and hand start to feel numb, my hip flexors become tight from sitting, my eyes feel strained. And yet, I cannot bring myself to use a machine.

Bee's House, 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope
Bee’s House, 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

I am stubbornly determined to work by hand. I want my hand as close to material as possible. This feels right to me, but I wonder if there is some more significant meaning behind this impulse. I know other artists resist fast production, efficiency, and the dematerialization of their labor, too. I think lots of people, not just artists, have been resisting this dematerialization and our move as a society towards a knowledge economy for a very long time, and I don’t think it is a resistance based solely on nostalgia. I think we recognize the role of touch in our experience and as a tool of our intellect, and there is a real feeling of loss when touch is no longer a major mediator of everyday experience.

Marsie in the Pink House and Marsie in the White House: Home and Heritage

As often happens when the hands are busy, the mind begins to wander. At any given moment, my mind is a riot of information, emotions, and anxiety. Writing, walking, and working tend to quiet things down, or at least slow things to a sustainable pace. I settle into a steady rythym while walking or sewing, and during these times, I start piecing things together. I don’t remember how it happened, but while sewing in the studio, I thought of the ‘Marsies.’ Marsie in the Pink House and Marsie in the White House: my maternal great-grandmothers Thelma Taylor and Katharine Crook. I didn’t know these women, but I’ve heard enough about them to know that I am descended from strong, intelligent, female stock.

I think we all struggle to identity ourselves, and part of that process is wondering about ‘who’ gave you your body and your potential. The trouble with surnames is, they tell you next to nothing about your origins. Your surname tells you half of your biological and cultural identity. And that in itself is only half of the parent who passed it to you, and half of the parent who passed it to them. The information that surnames provide gets exponentially smaller with each generation. I wish I knew more about the names that were ignored, the other names that make me: Heidelbach and Coblentz, Evans and Byrne, Appel and Freund, Manning and Clayton… Taylor and Crook.

Tom McCarthy’s House: C. You see?

C (Tom McCarthy's House), 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope
C (Tom McCarthy’s House), 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

During of course of this project (during breaks from my labors), I read Tom McCarthy’s book “C.” Occasionally, I fall in love with people solely from reading their writing, and Tom McCarthy is one of those. I was so affected by reading this book. I won’t bother trying to describe it to you, because I know my distillation of it will be so inadequate. (It is the story of Serge Carrefax from birth to death, with so many amazing descriptions of what happens in between. – See, it just doesn’t really explain it.) This envelope with ‘C’ printed all over the inside came in the mail just as I had finished reading it.

Lion’s House

Cecil the Lion was killed when I was working on this one.

Lion's House, 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope
Lion’s House, 2015, silk and cotton thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

Ptolemy’s House: Geometry 

Another book I read during this period was David Berlinski’s “123: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics.” It may sound a little silly, but I was attracted to this book because it’s about the history, philosophy, and abstract ideas behind math. And it is written simply and beautifully. It was in Berlinski’s book that I learned about Ptolemy’s Theorem.

Ptolemy's House, 2015, cotton thread on envelope
Ptolemy’s House, 2015, cotton thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

Ptolemy_TheoremPtolemy’s Theorem: |\overline{AC}|\cdot |\overline{BD}|=|\overline{AB}|\cdot |\overline{CD}|+|\overline{BC}|\cdot |\overline{AD}|

If a quadrilateral is inscribable in a circle then the product of the measures of its diagonals is equal to the sum of the products of the measures of the pairs of opposite sides.


In a quadrilateral, if the sum of the products of its two pairs of opposite sides is equal to the product of its diagonals, then the quadrilateral can be inscribed in a circle.

It’s amazing to me that something like this exists. That there are ‘rules’ about the universe that can be abstracted and explained by the number-symbol language of math. For the first time, I understood that math was, in fact, poetry. And so, I made Ptolemy a house.

One Pulse or Another

One Pulse or Another, 2015, cotton thread on envelope
One Pulse or Another, 2015, cotton thread on envelope, © Amanda Wagstaff

I have recurring dreams about tidal waves, but the details are never quite the same. Once, I was in a house on a rock island and when the wave came, it enveloped the the rock but the house protected me. Once, I was on the beach with my fiancé and we watched as the waves got progressively bigger. No one on the beach or swimming in the sea seemed bothered by it. It was strange. The waves were so big and cresting so close to us, but the water never reached where we were standing. Last night, I dreamed about beaches and huge ocean waves again. This time, I was lying on the beach and had to keep moving my towel further and further inland to avoid getting wet. Eventually I went to the porch of a beach house and watched the waves from there. The beach was insanely crowded and the waves were huge and crashing really violently, but no one got hurt.

This envelope conversation is the hardest to explain. The designs of the others all came to me when things seemed to align in my head and a connection was made, like the ‘C’ envelope and the Tom McCarthy book. This one was purely intuitive, an unselfconscious impulse. I think the recurring wave dreams explain it best.

Comments are closed.