"The Best Art In The World"
By JONATHAN OROZCO, April 2022
Have you heard of this craft called quilling? Most of the people I talk to have a vague memory of it because their grandma or mom did it, or they did it as a child. Kirsten Hassenfeld, a highly remarkable fiber and paper artist is a practitioner of this almost forgotten craft, and has childhood memories of it.
Hassenfeld, like many artists using materials that are often overlooked as substandard for artmaking, has no fear in incorporating things like doilies, stamps made out of foam meat trays, and even plastic bags into her practice. Her work is a direct descendant of multiple craft traditions, but craft that has been thought through to make high art. This interview considers Hassenfeld’s recent practice in relation to the traditions that inspire her.
Jonathan Orozco: What are you up to now? Can you tell me what you’re working on?
KIRSTEN HASSENFELD: I’ve been making large scale circular fiber works, with the warp strings pinned directly to the wall. I had been accumulating all these ephemeral bits, trimmings, fabrics, and they all got included. But taking the weaving off the wall and putting it back up was not so easy. I realized it was probably better to find a more permanent way to keep them on a frame. I retrofitted my earliest pieces, but then I also started making smaller pieces which are permanently attached to a base.
The ambition is always, “I’m gonna make this huge thing”, but sometimes it’s just better to have some smaller stuff to work out ideas, with less pressure. I’ve always veered in the direction of immersive environments. I think maybe, in part, because the materials I work with are not traditionally heroic, so in order to “elevate” the work, I expand the scale.
I get old handicraft materials given to me, or I find things like doilies in thrift stores. I crochet and make my own versions as well. If you pick something up like an old doily or handkerchief and it’s from over 40 years ago, you can pretty much guarantee that it was made by a woman.
JO: One thing that really stood out to me when you were saying that is the elevation of craft. There’s this ongoing competition between art and craft, where art has basically won.
KH: The debate over the link between craft and art rages on I guess, but I’ve let go of putting importance on the distinction. I might be using the plastic bags to weave a rug, and in the end, I think I’m going to use it as a rug, but it could also be hung up on a wall. I was looking at these Moroccan rugs, and they were definitely made to use, but they’re just the most stunning things in the world. If the intention was that it was going to be on the floor, it can be on the floor, and it can be appreciated like that.
JO: I definitely relate to that, there is a historical purpose, but I’ve talked to a lot of artists that are very much, “art is the only thing that matters and that is what I do. Craft is something else.” Some people really see a big distinction between the two. Personally I don’t care, to me art is art either way.
One thing we can transition to is quilling. I’m just so fascinated with it. Quilling is like a forgotten art form even though it was a really big thing. When I speak to my colleagues in Omaha, they sort of have a memory of quilling from their childhood, they have a mom or grandma that did quilling.
KH: That’s when I did it too, I did it at school when I was really little. They told us it was Dutch, but that’s maybe just because we were in New York State and there were Dutch settlers. I think it’s a tradition in many different cultures.
One of the first pieces I did when I got to New York was this stacked, quilled abstract thing that was in my window of my apartment that let the light filter through it. It was freeform, all these tiny little stacked quilled pieces, and the idea was that it formed a scrim for me to see the world through, because I lived in this really abrasive part of town, downtown Brooklyn, super trafficky, really loud, has tons of billboards, and is not very aesthetically pleasing. It felt like an assault in a way. It didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities to the neighborhood except that I could afford a space to work in there. The quilling lined up with all the things I didn’t want to look at, and then the parts of the window that I left open showed some beautiful architecture and some trees. It made a kind of sense to me, to make this piece where the paper was a protection.
JO: That’s quite a beautiful way to think about quilling because whenever people see my own work, they think it’s either imitating lacework or ironwork. It goes back to the Renaissance when nuns would cut off the edges of gilded bibles and imitate gilt work. I guess it’s small scale architecture in a way.
KH: Anything where you use a line and you set up a system of decoration, it’s all gonna relate to each other, it’s going to relate to iron work, embroidery, or the way that traditional decorative vases are embellished.
I worked briefly at Sotheby’s when I first moved here, so I had access to this tremendous amount of material, images of decorative historic artworks and objects. It wasn’t that the internet didn’t exist, just that there was a lot less on the internet. The auction catalogs, when they were done using them, they would just put them out and you were free to take them, and so I amassed this huge collection of auction catalogs of decorative ceramics, rugs, jewelry and everything you can imagine. For years, they were a big source of inspiration.
JO: Even looking at your background, I’m thinking of 1960s/1970s debates on women’s work, Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Shapiro especially, and the redemption of craft. Your work is so beautiful.
KH: Miriam Shapiro has been a huge inspiration, absolutely. But also many anonymous women with incredible talent, I find their needlework at thrift stores all the time. They were in a completely different context, but they also wanted to speak through the power of objects. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author