I first met Michele Fandel Bonner through knitting. She was working at my local yarn store and we quickly became friends as she taught me how to knit. Then I found out she is an artist. I was thrilled and terrified. It is a difficult position to be in – to find out that someone you have come to know and love makes art, when you suddenly realize the person you thought you knew might be painting crying clowns or making three hour films featuring only their nose hairs. Luckily, this is not the case with Bonner.
When I wanted to rip out the first lumpy, twisted scarf I knit, she told me that if I wanted a perfect scarf, I should buy one knit by a machine. Bonner overlooks the imperfections in knitting, but she makes meaning, she makes art, from the imperfections in the world around around us. Where some people see a heap of discarded clothes, she sees the raw material for making a message. For her piece Hide, the first in a series of three, Bonner sewed hundreds of designer labels culled from unwanted clothes. "Hide speaks to the world's obsession with labels for both people and objects," she told me. By reassembling the labels into a new kind of trophy to be hung on the wall like a moose head or bear pelt, she did not simply deconstruct a status symbol: she skinned it.
The hides were the first of many objects Bonner has made with labels. Other works include Care, a re-envisioning of the iconic Red Cross symbol through clothing care instruction labels, and the Taliswomen series. These small sculptures begin as plain cotton dolls, about four inches tall. Bonner transforms the figures with needle, thread, buttons, and labels, bypassing the aggressive connotation of the voodoo doll, holding in tact an idea of the the rag doll, and giving a feminist nod to both the objectification and empowerment of women.
The Taliswomen series is inherently dichotomous. We can see the small bodies as oppressed beneath the weight of glittering black Victorian buttons or as self-possessed, sewn into a suit of stiff pearl or metal buttons like chain mail. The same can be said of those covered in labels, Bonner's return to the making of skin. Here, the Taliswomen are composed mostly of size labels, becoming the ways in which we are measured, reclaiming identity as bodies, despite the attempt of suit or skin to constrict, quiet, mummify.
However, knowing Bonner, the series may have begun simply as a means to marry her various collections. Her studio is overflowing with boxes and bags of labels, buttons, gloves, window weights, tea bag tags, and hair. She was drawn to the dolls when she first saw them, and the fact that she could get her hands on a whole lot of them certainly helped. Unlike her tongue-in-cheek sculpture Tire, Bonner's contribution to a group installation calling for knitted objects to celebrate New England marine life, most of her work seems to begin as a physical process, guided by an emotional hunch, and only later, like many experiences viewed in hindsight, are all the influences that created it realized.
While much of Bonner's work becomes personal reflection of the political, some of it is purely her own. The Short Window of Cherries, for example, found it's beginnings in a memory of growing up in Switzerland, climbing cherry trees in the back yard to pick for dessert. The piece is a sphere of tiny jars that no longer preserve jam, but instead moments spent with family. One can look through the small, round glass windows to see memories of fleetingly sweet cherry seasons gone past, punctuated by cherry stones spit out through puckered lips, not unlike hundreds of kisses goodbye.
While I connect with the Taliswomen and The Short Window of Cherries through my gut and brain, there is a different feeling that comes up quick behind it, one that I get right away from pieces like Ordered Chaos, a cyclone of zippers hanging over four feet long, or Red Rose, a 15 inch sphere of porcelain animal figurines. It's the buzzing under my skin that comes with seeing a created texture. It's this movement that Bonner creates by glueing or sewing everything down - the fixation of everywhere a label or cherry pit or button has already been, of the hand repeating the stitch, of the eyes scanning over every word and through every hollow. This is how we know art. This is how sculpture becomes textile and back again.
Bonner's work has appeared in solo and group shows in galleries throughout the north shore of Boston, including The Marblehead Arts Association, and the George Wingate Gallery, and will be at the Kingston Gallery in Boston in April 2015. She has taught as a visiting artist at East Carolina University and will be leading another workshop at Monserrat College of Art this spring.
For more information on Michele Fandel Bonner's work, visit her website here.