Telling Stories

Paul McKee’s Vocal Textiles

For Paull McKee the attachment to fabric started at a very early age with a vague memory popping up with the color blue. “Somewhere on the edge of my memories there is an image of a lamb, it may be frolicking or asleep I can’t tell. The image of the lamb seems to be placed in one corner of this pale blue memory. I imagine it as a blanket and I think it was pretty important to me almost a part of me or an extension of me.”
 
His fascination with textiles began with his Nana Skippy’s linen closet. Like the children in The Chronicles of Narnia, Paull discovered a very different world in his grandmother’s wardrobe—one of old tins of buttons and bits and pieces of fabric. “I remember it smelled amazing and everything was very ordered.” Noticing that her grandson was drawn to fabric and making crafts, his grandmother started a sewing box for the boy--one that he secretly kept at her house since sewing for boys was not considered a masculine activity and frowned upon.
 
McKee, however, didn’t care about typical male stereotypes. He prevailed in his pursuits of all things fabric. His first sewing project was a cushion for his feral cat Tom, which McKee had caught and tamed. From there, he progressed to French knitting on an old cotton reel then moved to his mother’s old singer machine, intrigued by the mechanics of how things could made and put together.
 
Initially drawn by the touch and smell of fabric, one of the primary motivating, but more intellectual, factors that appealed to McKee was how textiles retained a historical and cultural essence, how their wear and tear could be renewed and made into something entirely different (or retain their original use) by mending.
 
In creating his pieces, McKee is an avid journal keeper, and these diaries serve as a mapping process. “A lot of the time the practice is self-directed in so far as the connections with people and objects as I reach out into the world. A lot of the meaning comes from the context of the stories and relationships I build along the way.”
 
The writing, he explains, helps him get a clear idea of what he wants to makes sense; whether it fits strategically with what has come to him before, and where he want the practice to go in the future. But keeping a journal is just one aspect in his creative process. The second major element is a listening centred one, where he keeps quiet and just listens to other people. This technique plays an important role in how he describes his approach to materials, “I listen to them I guess and try to keep myself out of it as much as possible so that the materials can speak for themselves. I collect or find discarded or handed on or gifted materials that are often worn or have had a long life. I tend to avoid newly produced materials at present because I am a little bewildered by advanced capitalism and the consumer society and mass production.”
 
Older textiles, he explains, offer an oral history and stories that he writes down or sketches to work out combinations or construction problems. From there he works with a cork board and pin things against each other to see if the pieces work together or not. He recently has started to photograph these sequences as point of reference to previous combinations to compare and contrast. He adds, “Like any textile person, I will make samples where necessary to work out technical difficulties or processes. I quite enjoy this as the samples then become the sketch book I often say that I draw with the sewing machine.”
 
One of his core sociological and gender specific interests is investigating men’s lives through fabric. McKee noticed in Australia that there is a story of masculinity in and through textiles. “The stories are often surrounded by wordlessness or silence in so far as language doesn’t exist or can’t quite reflect the extent, depths or shades of the stories.” These men’s stories exist as a sort of wordlessness absence, and he talks about the presence of absence as a process of making visible what is silent. “It is very much like darning or mending. You have to see that there is a hole a tear or a rupture and then decide to fix it with the materials at hand. In this sense I talk about how I situate my practice in ‘make do’ culture here in Australia.”
 
His project plays on this masculinity model, and he is mostly known for making waggas-- a bush utility rug that first appeared in Australia around the 1890s. Traditional waggas where made by splitting open an old a wheat bag or an oats bag then lined on one side with a soft cloth. Presumably these soft clothes were old or used flour bags from the Wagga Wagga flour mill. The company’s insignia with the name of its town Wagga Wagga where printed on the bag, thus the name of the blanket.
 
Related to the bluey and the swag (bedrolls), the wagga is considered an iconic textile object sewn by men, McKee explains, “The history and stories of men making waggas is not a radical or subversive story. It’s not meant to be. It is another way of opening up stories of men’s lives to give language and opportunities for other men’s stories to become visible. So I collect old blankets and fabrics from all over the place lots of times people give me blankets with stories attached. I try to honour the materials and there inherent stories and make waggas from them.”
 
Oral histories, cultural heritage, telling stories are all the elements that are woven and sewn into McKee’s textiles, and that he conveys to his audience—a broad network of people. “What I noticed about textiles as a medium is that people step toward it and want to feel it that it has a coming towardness quality. This sets up a different viewing dynamic compared to viewing a painting. I’ve noticed that when people look at paintings they often take a step back from the picture plane and engage in an analytical way. I am noticing different approaches of mindfulness that these mediums and their contexts and histories evoke. I decided that I would make work based on a concept of shared core values. I am particularly interested in Hope and Hopefulness.”

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