Friday, February 13, 2009

Dale Eastman

I met Dale Eastman at the opening of her show at Zonal, where I was intrigued by her studies of language and the visual and conceptual space between words. Although I was quite intimidated by her own editorial background, we met again for this story.

Born in San Mateo, Dale Eastman was the second of six children. Her father had been a cowboy who would buy herds of sheep and eventually became a salesman, so the family moved several times:

"It was a lot of energy - emotional energy - and a lot of movement. It's astonishing how much time that can take up. I think I was kind of the visual guardian. We all kind of took care of each other because we moved around a lot, so we [the kids] became a little tribe"

With all the activity and interaction, Eastman didn't reserve herself for quiet things like reading or journal writing, but she did take up sewing and even considered becoming a fashion designer:

"Sewing was, I think, the first thing that helped me focus and I think really that was why I was drawn to it as strongly as I was. And my mom sewed most of my clothes and I really loved the idea of that, that she could teach me something"

But after studying History in college, Eastman began a career in journalism. Becoming an investigative journalist, Eastman's work involved in-depth, personal studies of subjects like Jesse Jackson:

"I think what I was trying to do with other people was what I couldn't do yet with myself. And that was ask every single question, probe every possible nuance of every sentence"

Eventually, Eastman's career brought her back to San Francisco to be editor-in-chief of San Francisco Magazine. In 2000, she left the magazine and began writing fiction, but after a childhood and career of focusing externally, Eastman struggled to capture her own feelings:

"There was so much even then, in the fiction, that I couldn't get out because the words weren't enough [...] Writing is a very spacial thing for me and I could sense these literal depths and I could feel myself at times reaching down and pulling things up. After years and years of feeling this and not even knowing what I was feeling, I thought, again, 'What if I don't reach down and pull that stuff up? What if I do something that allows me to stay down there and record that level?'"

To capture that emotional content that was beyond words, Eastman began experimenting outside of writing, with photography and sound installations:

"Just to play with a different side of my brain, I started doing little projects. They're mostly conceptual, but not with thread at all. I was trying to recreate sound and movement that I saw out on the street"

Eventually, she gravitated back to her passion for sewing, connecting fabric squares with abstract thread patterning that contemplated negative space and oriented lines in other ways than the left to right horizontal stripes of text:

"I was kind of just examining the energy that moves between moments that we identify"

With the act of writing revolutionized by computers and word processing, Eastman felt disconnected from the writing process and craved more physical engagement. She thought about sewing the dictionary, to both connect to the process of "making words" and also to reflect on literally feeling at a loss for words:

"It was this physical, spacial awareness [...] part of what I felt was I was just getting so far away from literally making a story"

Meanwhile, Eastman was frustrated with the impassive direction of work by contemporary conceptual artists, such as Damien Hirst, and the emotional deceit within the revelation of false memoirs, like that of JT Leroy. Seeking to embrace emotional authenticity, she took a 1500-word short story she had written and sewed it a word at a time on individual squares and then wound the story in a large glass bottle:

"[To make] people to feel as close as possible what I felt[,] I made a tangled mess and created a story where someone literally has to go through the same process I went through and felt"

Having bridged her writing with visual expression, Eastman was ready to move beyond sewing words:

"I think this is why I love writing, but I think this is why I love art even more: With words, we think because we assign a word to something, we understand it. But with this, I wanted to get to those feelings where: 'I can't describe it, but here's how it feels'"

Still working with thread on fabric squares, every morning Eastman began recording her emotional memories from the prior day. She then strung the squares together and hung the strips from wood, creating a linear pattern that reflected words on a page as much as days on a calendar. What began as a square per day, became strips of squares per day, but some squares are missing:

"[It's] expanding consciousness, so now I'm to the point where I can pretty much remember everything that happens [...] When I couldn't remember a feeling from the day before, I left a space. So then when it's up on the wall and the string continues, what you see is the framework that holds us up"

In this context, Eastman's threads create a skeleton and the cloth squares, each with their cardiogram-like emotional recording, become the bits of flesh hanging from the bones. But in contrast to a written autobiography, this emotional self-portrait is not recognizable:

"For me they're extraordinarily supercharged because of what I went through. So, again, it's something that's simple on the surface but behind it there's an extraordinary amount of generally emotional information"

By recording and displaying without writing, Eastman plays with the very notion of verbal communication. Compared to her earlier struggle to find words, Eastman now turns the expository nature of writing on its ear:

"I think writers [or] artists of almost any ilk have secrets and there's a duality to a secret: a secret isn't a secret if other people know about it, but if other people don't know about it, [then] they don't know you"

Going further with the notions of secrets, Eastman's next project involves sewing boxes, but not always revealing the contents. Thus, after years of writing, her visual creations are now taking her further from words and deeper into feeling:

"For me, art is a way into the psyche of first and foremost myself; but then, because I don't think I'm that much different from anybody else, hopefully the culture around me"

See Dale Eastman's "Making Something Out of Nothing" show at Zonal Home through February.

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