Unnatural Harvest


No material escapes Constance Old

Connecticut-based artist Constance Old is many things: a Yale alumna with a master’s degree in a graphic design, a most unconventional textile artist, a printmaker, and an avid collector.  She is also a plastic bag and sales receipt hoarder, an obsessive list keeper, a cryptic diarist and a Puritan by heritage and sensibility. All of these aspects of her culture, education and nature figure significantly in her artistic life.

Americana collector Allan Katz posited that all collectors are born that way. This is Constance’s story, too. Beginning with hippos and dolls from foreign countries in early childhood, graduating to stamps in adolescence and culminating presently in fine art and what some would consider refuse, she amasses a record of our culture in precious objects as well as cast-offs. Some of these she keeps for the sheer pleasure of ownership, while some she transforms through making art out of them. Her strong academic background, an in-depth study of design and typography, art history and literature, are evident in her work. Among her diverse artistic influences she cites Jessica Stockholder, Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, Tara Donovan, El Anatsui, and the Gees Bend quilters.

Graphic design, her ”day job”, was about total control, a precise, composing of effective arrangements of images and type, not unlike the exquisite stamps in her collection. Stamps, to her, were not only tiny, carefully made pictorial objects but also little clues embodying myriad aspects of a culture. Her own imagery is a twist on this aesthetic: elegant, simple designs that communicate graphically but cunningly contain an undercurrent of unease with our contemporary consumerist culture.

Recycling is underlying theme. As a child in the 70’s, she took part in the first Earth Day and vividly remembers the famously moving “Crying Indian” anti-litter advertising campaign. Reusing materials was a way for her to physically and mentally cope with the excesses of a materialist society.

Constance finds that self-imposed material limitations create a kind of poetry, as in the twelve-tone music system or as seen in the artist Dan Flavin’s beautiful installations of fluorescent tubes in whose manufacturing there were innately restricted lengths and colors. Constance says she has “itchy hands” and has a need to “continually produce”. With her unorthodox rug-hooking style, she strives to elevate traditional ”women’s work” to high art. She creates completely non-functional rugs. These wall pieces are made exclusively from hand cut strips of found plastic and cash register receipts hooked through some sort of open grid-work. The identity of her materials is not obvious, being mostly transformed by the hooking process.

A painter in high school and college, and then an accomplished graphic designer, her life as an adult fine artist began after the birth of her daughter, which, in her mind, changed her from a producer to a consumer. In spite of what she calls her fulltime job as “motherwife,” late at night in her kitchen she began producing carefully constructed collages solely from her collection of dots and stripes gleaned from magazines and catalogues. Delving further into the craft, she signed up for a collage workshop at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, CT (CCP). She then moved on to take a class on bookmaking. She collected the endless and excessive stream of 8½” x 11” sheets of paper that made its way into her house-leaflets, mailings. She tore the papers into quarter sheets and bull-clipped them together into pads. She then began collecting and adding her daily lists, shopping lists, to-do lists. She restructured these into her piece called, “Book of Lists in 3 Volumes. The books were places to store her “extra emotions”, not stories per se, but a kind of personal coded diary-evidence that she had done something tangible, measurable with her time. She was also now collecting sales receipts, which became the endpapers for the books.

At CCP she makes monoprints and lithographs. Bar codes are her imagery of choice.  Their simple linear graphics are symbols of ubiquitous consumerism. Printmaking’s technical constraint, mixed with an element of surprise during the process is oddly appealing. This provides a chance to break away from her need for absolute artistic control and a chance to collect bar codes.

Constance’s ultimate medium of choice, rug hooking, presented itself by chance.  It began with a class at Brookfield Craft Center.  She had no particular interest in hooking, just in having social time with friends in the class. She immediately loved this pliable craft and realized it could be used with her highly controlled aesthetic. Hooking offered immediate results and was a natural, easy process for her.

In class they hooked with tee shirt material, but that did not satisfy Constance. Recycled paper and plastic would become her palette: dry cleaning bags, the plastic wrappers that come around annual reports sent in the mail, whatever was flexible enough to pass through the gridded substrate. She felt that by using these modern materials her work would be inherently contemporary and embody her themes of consumer culture and excess. The plastics were vibrant.  Her collection of sales receipts, when hooked, created beautiful grays. She also was able to build comforting artificial systems into her designs-another secret personal code — hooking in little spots of seemingly random colors that actually were marking the days of the week and number of hours worked—subtle evidence of a life lived, the gravity of the quotidian, marking time like Penelope at her loom in The Odyssey.  Artful vertical and horizontal patterns would be dictated by stringent, yet seemingly arbitrary rules.

Words in her designs declare modern truisms like “I OWN THIS”, hooked from super white plastic, nestled in a sea of receipts. Her piece “PINK (is still for girls)” is hooked from feminine hygiene product wrappers and sales receipts. “PLASTIC FLOATS FOREVER”, is hooked entirely with plastic.  It is a call to conscience but is also seductively beautiful with its watery wavy background pattern, whose  crisp forms and fonts are now softened by hooking’s inherent fluffiness.

Right now Constance is looking for more grids to hook into: plastic fencing, nylon feed bags, etc. She has a Collyer Brothers-like room in her basement filled with plastic bags, which are filled with more plastic bags, boxes of receipts and her daily lists. Collecting, constantly collecting.

For more information about author and artist Leslie Giuliani, visit www.lesliegiuliani.com.