Something out of Nothing


Donna Rhae Marder chases paper

Donna Marder has three strict rules: Sew only. Paper primarily. Every stitch is done only by her.  Following those guidelines for the past 20 years, Marder has taken the old, worn paper bits of her daily life and used her sewing machine, needles, and thread to make “something out of nothing.”

Marder started using paper in her sewing machine circa 1980, when she realized that all her skills were in handwork. The idea of using the sewing machine was to speed her process, but also to use it as sculptural tool. Initially Marder found her novice skills with the machine “off-putting.” Out of desperation she put an old National Geographic map under the needle and discovered her handicaps, “no longer seen in the context of fine dressmaking” were “perhaps endearing.”

Because throw away paper is the foundation for her art, Marder uses anything from snapshots, magazine pages, old teabags and coffee filters, baseball cards, waxed paper, newspaper, wrapping paper and from that pile of paper Marder adds wire, buttons, and beeswax and then she goes to her sewing machine with a notion, an idea. Marder says, “I spend a lot of time stitching, and VOILA! Poetry (sometimes).”

Her poetic pieces explore abstract concepts like void, size, space, or structure. Marder employs a combination of her formal art education along with the techniques of decorating and quilting to create pieces that are often she says, “An ode to unending domestic chores and the finiteness of life.  I have become the sculptor who pays homage to the made and unmade bed.”

The process for her inspiration is found in one of two ways — either in the materials she uses or in seeking out items to use in the context a particular concept. Marder comments, however, that, “tediousness becomes the most challenging aspect of my work.  Sometimes I spread the work of a piece over years so I can stand it.  I also listen to a lot of music and many books on CD.  I periodically think about getting someone else to do the repetitive part of my work and then I stumble over something while working that I can use to make the piece more interesting and become recommitted to making every God damned stitch myself.”

Her paper dress series is an example of work that was spread out over the years. First conceived in 2001, the dresses are based on the ones her own daughters wore and were copied from paper patterns. Details like piping and lace were fashioned out of old snapshots, children’s playing cards, Mexican oilcloth and ephemera. The series is poignantly dedicated to little girls Marder has known and are “material manifestations of lost girlhood. They are physical expressions of small disappointments, like unfulfilled parental fantasies, and large tragedies, like lost and missing children. The poetic foundation for this work is poignant but not hopeless. Despite heartache and loss, we can recall the bright hope and promise of every child and retire our fantasies.”

On the other side of the spectrum, and based on the concept of recycling, Marder created seven whimsical teapots made with Twining’s teabag wrappers. A collector quickly purchased six of them, and the remaining one is on exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum. Marder was included in a Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov book MANUFRACTURED: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects where the authors wrote about the teapots:  “The scavenged aesthetic celebrates the rawest of raw materials.  Though they may be scratched, faded, soiled and worn, each offers something that more pristine materials cannot:  evidence of past lives.  Consumer waste is reborn, providing an exemplar for dealing with eco-sustainability.”

What’s next for Marder? She’s entered into another realm—an experimental phase—using fabric. At the moment she doesn’t know what it will be, but as she puts it, “At first I didn’t have much imagination with sewing with fabric since I’ve developed odd ways to sew with paper, but I’m playing around with it and we’ll see what happens…”

Marder’s work has been written about in several publications including FiberArts, The Boston Globe, Artnet Magazine, and numerous blogs about the art of craft. To learn more about Donna Rhae Marder’s work see Mobilia Gallery at