Threadstories is an Irish visual artists who produces wearable art objects. Starting with a crotched balaclava base, the artist uses a variety of techniques to produce various malleable and draped textile masks which obscure and transform the wearer. Once the masks are activated by the wearer they are either photographed or captured on film and shared primarily via instagram. The documentation of the masks comment on privacy and manipulated imagery in the age of social media.
How did you get started?
My current way of working began in 2015 when making a mask to wear to a festival. I stumbled on the combination of techniques while trying to figure out how to make the idea I had in mind. First I made a balaclava which I had never done before, that balaclava then acted as a ground or a surface on which I began to build form and sculpt by adding yarns. This method of building a malleable form struck me as having endless potential and there began the compulsion.
I graduated from a degree in Fine Art Sculpture in 2004, then slowly slipped into a state of paralysis through analysis for an unbelievable 10 years. I really had nothing to lose when I started making the masks, honestly I had already mourned the loss of being an artist. With hindsight I see that the emphasis placed on idea over object within a Fine Art degree was in conflict with a stronger educational influence in my life, my childhood. I grew up surrounded by gifted makers, I realised that I was better suited to working with materials and felt more comfortable working ideas out in the making. It took me a long time to convince myself that this too is a valid way to make art, I started to suit myself in the studio.
The fact that I eventually began to make masks is not surprising, throughout my studies I was drawn to artists that used their body as site. I did make wearables during my degree although never with textiles or any craft discipline, unlike now. Dance music and how that influenced my social life must be considered too. I’ve always been more comfortable at parties and festivals rather than pubs and clubs, DIY costumes and masks went hand in hand with that.
Can you take us through your art making process?
Every time I photograph one of my masks I treat the photo like a sketch, I am striving to find as many different forms by repeating the same techniques. The techniques I employ are always the same, I crochet a balaclava, sometimes with holes for features sometimes not. For me to leave just a mouth exposed invites a host of interpretations from the viewer as well as creating a balaclava with no mouth and just eye holes. I enjoy testing these subtle changes in form and how they can invite multiple interpretations. I then hand tuft the masks, the yarns I use when tufting will create an endless array of outcomes from the same technique, the choice of yarn can mean the difference between a mask with a lot of movement or a mask with a strong form that can be brushed and manipulated to hold numerous forms. Manipulating the same mask and photographing it or filming it is my favourite part of the process, sculpting the malleable form to communicate different narratives is creatively very satisfying as I am always surprised by the range of outcomes.
Once the mask is photographed or filmed that exploration of form and movement is finished for me and the physical mask is ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed. Reworking the masks over and over allows me to push ideas forward at a faster pace, I get more satisfaction from being experimental rather than precious. I am endlessly exploring the properties of different yarns and pushing the materials, I like unconventional pairings for example crocheting a balaclava with a fine yarn then using spray paint or a permanent marker on it to see what happens. Generally speaking I am working intuitively, no design or drawings in advance. Each new mask is a critique of a previous mask, you could say I am thinking with my hands. Trying on the mask regularly throughout the making process to see if what is unfolding is looking interesting is important. For me it is the photograph or mask on film that is the artwork not the physical mask. The mask is nothing until it is activated by the wearer.
When you have finished a mask, how do you choose the context in which to display it? Some of the shots appear to me to represent an array of themes including Humour, Horror, Religion, Militia and Sexuality.
My masks are never finished I would describe them as being in a state of flux, when I see something interesting in a mask I photograph it a variety of ways, then reflect on what looks interesting. I go with my gut, I’m looking for something I didn’t expect to see, a healthy dose of chance is involved. I don’t photograph a mask with a narrative in mind, the narrative in essence is the disguised face. I take influence from a wide range of sources, your suggested themes are in there, humour for sure but also sexuality and forms you might see in religious iconography.
What other techniques or materials do you use?
I crochet, tuft, dye, bleach, scribble, perform, photograph and film.
How do you challenge yourself artistically?
Good question.. do I? What I find challenging are commissions which I rarely except unless I am interested in the particular artists work who has commissioned the pieces because my time is tight and the masks are time consuming to make. These pieces definitely stretch me technically. I’m currently working on some masks for music performers and a contemporary dancer, for me this always feels like a risk because I can’t control how the mask will be worn. It also changes the context, but sometimes opportunities are too good to pass up.
Expanding the photography aspect of my work by developing tableau pieces made up of multiple performers is an area I am exploring, this will be a challenge but it is the right next step. I recently received funding from Kilkenny Arts Office to up-skill and access mentoring around studio photography and post-production so let’s see what happens there.
Last year you had your first solo show ‘FalseHoods’ - How was it putting together an exhibition of the masks through photography and film.
FalseHoods at Kilkenny Arts Office gallery space was made up of four moving portraits on film, created with London based Irish filmmakers Sixbetween, two life sized portrait photographs shot by photographer Hazel Coonagh, a small screen showing a selection of about 20 masks in motion, which I describe as my sketchbook and a large paste up on the facade of the building, beckoning in passers-by. Preparing for FalseHoods was an incredible learning curve. The challenge with FalseHoods was in the way I was creating the work for the show, I engaged professional film makers and a photographer to support the process. Up until this point it had all been a very lo-fi operation, now I could no longer wait for the unexpected to unfold with the portraits. The extended play and reworking which I usually engaged in causing unexpected results was curbed, this was definitely food for thought. With that said spontaneity was a small price to pay for the beautiful series of portrait photographs and film I got in return. I am forever grateful to curator Mary Butler and Kilkenny Arts Office for supporting by art practice and giving me these opportunities, it’s all learning which is really valuable. Like most artists I am always striving to grow and improve so each opportunity to show work feels like a testing ground that helps me to push my ideas forward.
Can you elaborate on the significance of documenting the masks on social media?
As the work has developed, Instagram with its interplay of the personal and the artificial has become an interesting platform to share the kind of art I make. The work is questioning how the erosion of personal privacy in the digital age shapes how we view and portray ourselves online. The masks deny the viewer the full story of who the sitter is, echoing the curated or false personas we portray and view online daily. Most of the time we know what we see on social media is untrue or falsified but we still buy into it on some level, for example that can be applied to someone’s physical appearance, lifestyle or even just photos of food. My masks are photographed against a sanitised white square, I know there is often chaos, mess and noise just beyond the margins of that photograph in reality, the messiness of life doesn’t make the edit for social media. Along with the online curated life comes the constant grooming to overshare, I believe personal privacy is precious and it is fast becoming a thing of the past. The hashtag I use “anticeleb’’ encapsulates some of this for me, the striving for exposure or fame for fames sake.
The work I was making during my degree was also about privacy in the early 2000’s, I have continued this stand of enquiry as I find it an intriguing area to consider.
Can you elaborate on the significance of scale in your work? (from choosing to display on social media which is mainly viewed on mobile devices, to larger scale works in Dublin and Kilkenny. Additionally in the transition from masks to full-body).
Scale in terms of the size of the photographs or film I show is something that I have experimented with. Showing work on social media was an organic process, it began as a form of documenting what I was making and slowly developed into a platform that I used to showcase the portraits, it was not planned. Realistically it was timing, if the platform Instagram didn’t exist I would not have had the outlet, sign of the times. That format for me was less about scale and more about access and control, I could show my work to an audience that functioned outside the art world on my own terms. I found my footing in this space, where images are freely shared, throw away almost.
In relation to the large scale outdoor photography pieces, I like the unexpected. To begin the process with the undervalued domestic craft of crochet and end with a large scale piece on the street, usually the domain of the male street artists interests me and I want to follow my impulses. Interestingly I was making larger than life portrait photographs of wearables during my degree 15 years ago. It’s an itch that keeps needing to be scratched obviously.
Moving from mask to full body wearables I believe will allow me to use more story telling devices when exploring possible future narratives. It will allow me to play with the scale of multiple characters, use larger forms, explore further - stance and body language. My feeling is I will be able to evoke more emotion if I can expand the image beyond the head and shoulders.
What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
Impossible to answer, I see responses on social media and when I have been in the company of people viewing my work and I now realise that the viewer will project their meaning and interpretations onto the masks no matter my intent. Sometimes I’m aghast at what people perceive, it can be both amusing and disturbing. I would hope people are intrigued by the work and it would encourage them to want to spend a bit of time contemplating what’s possibly going on in the image.
Plans for the future?
Working on a photographic series using multiple performers and currently exploring in the studio extending the mask forms to the full body. I would like to show more work outside the gallery space and off social media. I had a chance to throw up some large images outdoors on the street last year in Dublin and Kilkenny this is something I will pursue more of. I’m looking to work with a graphic designer on an anti-surveillance project with the masks too, if anyone is interested get in touch and we can chat!