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Second Skins: Paper Garment as Metaphor

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
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Erica Spitzer Rasmussen  is an artist working in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rasmussen teaches studio arts as a full professor at Metropolitan State University and as faculty at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Her sculptural and wearable works are exhibited internationally. I am a papermaker working in garment form. I use clothing as subject matter because it provides me a ground on which to investigate identity, corporeality, and family stories. The garment defines the body as would a second skin. I use handmade paper as my primary medium because it alludes to the flexibility and fragility of cloth and skin. I often embellish the paper with unconventional media in order to support the narrative aspect of the work. For example, when I was a little girl, my father told me that eating tomatoes would make me "big, strong, and hairy chested." So for years, tomatoes and hair were staples in my papermaking practice as I grappled with issues of sexual identity. For Sprout (2001), I employed tomato paste and human hair to construct a calf-length garment that addresses the fuzzy lines between the ideal masculine and feminine bodies.

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When working in the studio, I use two different methods to cre¬ate a semblance of fabric from paper. I will either cast a mixture of cotton pulp and Elmer's glue around three-dimensional forms or create yardage by overlapping and adhering dried sheets. When using the latter technique, I am able to cut and sew the paper much like fabric from a bolt. Cotton linter, flax, abaca, and cattails are favorite fiber choices in my wet shop. Occasionally I will incorpo¬rate the handmade paper of other artists when the situation calls for reinforcement. A paper garment often begins with a personal experience. For instance, Juju Dress (2003) materialized when I was in my mid-thirties and wanted to start a family. Unfortunately, I found myself dealing with infertility. I took constructive action by seeking medi¬cal assistance and conjuring a wearable talismanic garment.  I began the artwork by deconstructing a comfortable sleeve¬less summer dress of my own, turning it into a sewing pattern. Because I was "battling" infertility, I looked to armor for design inspiration. I used fifteenth-century Italian armor as my primary reference because I found the complexity of the multiple plates aesthetically stimulating. While I was contemplating the materi¬als most appropriate to embellish, a memory resurfaced from my childhood. When I was small, my girlfriends and I believed that swallowing a watermelon seed resulted in pregnancy. I admit that I tried swallowing a watermelon seed, but to no avail. Later, my husband and I ate great quantities of watermelon, and I saved the seeds. After washing and drying the seeds, I drilled a hole in the center of each one so that they could be attached like beads. I cast cotton pulp in diamond-shaped cookie molds. I painted the cookie castings with acrylics, applied gold leaf, and drilled holes in each corner. Using wax linen thread, I connected the plates and added a seed to each juncture. I lined the interior of the dress with Julie McLaughlin's Big Ass Paper that I laminated to tracing paper for additional strength. I wore this paper dress to my monthly fertility procedures as a way to enlist magical forces in my reproductive quest. The nurses told me they could hear me coming as I rattled down the hallway of the clinic. I now have a healthy little boy in tow. The dress has since been retired and resides on a clothing hanger as a sculptural object. Another work that simulates a traditional garment is A Portrait of My Father (2010). This work came about when I received an invitation to do a residency at PapierWespe in Vienna, Austria. Be¬ing the daughter of a Viennese Jew who escaped the Holocaust, I decided that it was high time to make some artwork about my rarely discussed family history. In addition to speaking and teaching at PapierWespe, my personal charge was to visit a piece of property that my family still owned, gather plant material, and process the fibers into sheets. My residency became a family affair. My husband, son, father, uncle, and aunt all came along. In a remarkable coincidence, I booked rooms at a bed and breakfast near PapierWespe that turned out to be my father's childhood home. I had the premonition that the trip would be an emotional pilgrimage, but I had no idea how intimate the return to the homeland (and the homestead) would be. Among other revelations, I realized that my son was the same age as my father when he was forced to abandon his home. Seeing Vienna through my son's eyes, I was impacted by how devastating this must have been for a small child After returning home with sheets of paper made of unidentifi¬able plant matter gleaned from the family land, I pieced the sheets together. I then began the pattern-making process by deconstruct¬ing a pair of my son's short pants. The resulting paper lederhosen are modeled after the ones my father wore as a child in the early twentieth century. In order to provide this garment with dimen¬sionality, I installed plastic-coated electrical wire in the suspenders, waist, and hem. When it came time to exhibit the lederhosen I made a brash decision. Because the diminutive scale of the sculptural garment made the work too sweet, I painted the exterior of the lederhosen with bovine blood. Given the sinister scenario that caused my fa¬ther's family to flee for their lives, the addition of the blood acts as an imperative counterbalance to the adorable nature of the work. As with much of my sculptural work, I strive to juxtapose physi¬cal attributes—beautiful/repulsive, masculine/feminine, saccha¬rine/sour, comical/horrifying—to create an engaging emotional response. My work may at first appear to be an exercise in self-absorption. Indeed, the making of the work is often a cathartic experience. But gauging by the reactions of others, I would dare to say that my work addresses the very nature of being human. Like the innumerable generations who came before, I am involved in the universal tra-dition of crafting objects and telling stories.