Conversations with Strange Beauty: Janna Brown

Tangled’s Communications Coordinator Lindsay Fisher takes the opportunity to meet the artists while they’re installing their work for Strange Beauty and gets to know more about their practice and the work they’re showing. Janna Brown was Tangled’s Sharon Wolfe Artist in Residence in 2014.

I remember seeing the beginning of this body of work displayed at Tangled’s 2015 season launch and seeing it now and how much it has expanded is remarkable. Can you tell us about the process that went into making this work?

I definitely couldn’t have predicted – the four pieces that I showed in October were the first four pieces and the form is basically the same but the style starts to evolve in the following seven pieces and I think it’s because I started to think about it as a duration of pieces only later. But what happened was I began carrying all of the pieces in my bag everywhere and as I started becoming more familiar with spending these long periods of time stitching and embroidering, they started to take on a style that I couldn’t have predicted and I’ve shared in a couple of different contexts, about how there was a real reflective process taking place between myself and the pieces as I thought about what they meant symbolically for my story. Some of them are representational and the more that was added, the more layers happened, the harder it was to get the needle through and sometimes I didn’t pay attention to the signs. I’d say that I did actually break more than one needle because I was losing the connection. Sometimes I found there were very clear boundaries with the pieces about when they were finished. I couldn’t have predicted that because at first there was more a carefulness about it and very controlled. I actually started layering pieces of this childhood quilt of mine in fragments and it was when I introduced that element, it kind of exploded a bit.

That image of you breaking needles is wonderful because it reminds me of skin or the fragility of the body but also the toughness of the body, the impenetrability of the body. I can see that in your work.

Thanks for saying. They’re very miniature at the same time and so there’s a tension there because they are small and at the same time very thick. One of them wouldn’t fit in between two pieces of glass because it’s so inscribed and I feel similarly that they’ve developed a real skin, porous and also very thick at the same time.

These pieces for me are full of contradictions. Even for me after being so familiar with them they surprise me. I guess that’s what I’m after is that space between two things. It may appear as something initially and then you’re invited to be with the pieces and with the story. There’s a lot of contrast, a lot of contradictions.

Janna Brown's framed body of work laying on a table in a gallery space.You define them as mixed media but if I were to come in as a new viewer I might recognize them as textile but what’s great is that they’re moving away from what we associate with textile art – the decorative, ornamental – and they might be seen as sculptural or painterly.

They feel sculptural to me and if I were confident enough to say it, I would like to say that I feel they are sculptural because they’re really full of texture and form. They’re kind of inviting to touch. When people have asked me to describe the project, I’ve had real difficulty describing the pieces themselves. I’ve yet to be able to describe it very concisely. So mixed media seems like the best umbrella I could give.

Can you tell us exactly what the medium is that you’re working with?

Some of them are on leather so they’re embroidered representational abstract pieces of embroidery on leather and on fragments of a quilt that is from my childhood and I dissembled the quilt and started to use it as a base for the embroideries and also using fragments as a collage into the layers. The other element to the work is a poem that I wrote that I had this desire to animate in some way and so what took place was I took photographs of all the pieces in different scales and I ended up making sort of a digital story using the poem as a text but, basically the video, in terms of it’s imagery, looks like a kaleidoscope of thread which is made up of four to ten layers of images of the embroideries. So each frame isn’t exactly how you would see these or experience the embroideries but it’s many many layers built up of different contrasts and then there’s very simple drawing forms that appear so I think that describes the mediums.

How would you visually describe in your own words what the work looks like?

I would describe it as a piece that would fit into the palm of the hand and maybe a little bit bigger and there’s a softness. If you were to hold it in your hand, the back would be both soft and knobby. The edges of the pieces – there’s a rawness about them so you would feel a texture around the exterior of the piece. If you were to feel the top of the piece, you would feel a variation of small and large stitches – not a uniformity about it and on the fingertips, there’s a real texture. The colours that are continuous through the pieces. In the background mostly, there’s a deep blue colour and a very goldy ornamental colour and then the colours range anywhere from really deep and light blue tones to vibrant magentas in pink and warm colours. What you would notice from the beginning and end of the series is that the texture expanded. A really big expansion took place in terms of my style and being able to let go of some of the control. It goes, I would say, from maybe sombre to a little more impressionistic and very full of layers in the tones. So there’s a dynamic-ness of them in their texture and their colour. In their overall size they’re a miniature scale but in terms of their thickness and they’re breadth, they’re very weighty.

I know you did these during your residency with Tangled last year. Did you know you were going to do this before you came to do the residency?

My original proposal for the residency didn’t include textiles so much and it was just something I was starting to immerse myself in a little more. But now when I describe the process that took place I talk about how the involvement of time at the residency to find that form and it wasn’t something that I had a planned. This practice sort of took off in a way. What’s interesting also about the way that the video was made was that it really was informed by my process of embroidery and I don’t think I could of created the layers or even the way that I started to animate the text without having had so much time to explore my practice. When I made the video, rather than mapping out the conclusion, I started to explore texture in video form and now I have a way of making video that is really connected to my practice of embroidery. That was a very steady space with lots of time to just be with it.

Janna Brown measuring the wall in the VMAC GalleryWhat made you decide to start making work with embroidery?

It’s so funny because when my grandmother gifted me with this embroidery floss. Up until that point I had stitched a little bit but I had this real desire to paint with thread but I didn’t know what that meant so I just needed to figure it out. Technically speaking it’s quite raw and the way I’ve rendered the stitches are not precise or polished in certain ways but yeah, it’s something that started I guess in 2013. I’ve yet to figure out how to negotiate with the equivalent of my writers block when I’m creating and embroidery seemed to be my best strategy to be able to do that. It was steady and there was rhythm and once I got caught up in the process I stopped being so heady about it and thinking about what came next and it really allowed me to be present with the work so that was also a gift that I couldn’t have predicted. With painting, I’m sort of my own worst enemy sometimes and I can’t get over myself enough to just be present with it.

There’s something in the rhythm of labor, it is very valuable in that it takes you somewhere.

That can be tied up in so much for different people. I can only speak for myself but embroidery is similar to baking bread for me and the way my body is engaged in kneading bread or working with clay or baking – there’s something magical that takes place where I stop being heady and just being in it. That’s really nice.

What I like about your work is that they remind me of fossils.

I look forward to seeing the ways that people receive them but I would never thought of describing them as fossils but yeah, that conjures up so much for me because there’s tension between with text that I used the pieces to animate the text. There’s a suggestion or allusion to a past that’s painful that’s beyond words to describe – an experience that I’m carrying around with me in the city but I never fully unfold – other than to describe a feeling of porousness in my body or a return to a painful encounter with someone related to this past – this sort of wound in my childhood. What’s interesting, in using the childhood quilt, it’s like a symbol and emblem of so many different things for me – of comfort, of nostalgia and also a trace of this pain and so describing them as fossils – it’s like taking that material and revisiting those traces on the body and at the same time seeing the fossil in a new context. I was able to take the memory and position it into a new context for myself. And I guess even thinking about how the pieces are framed now, it’s like I’m lifting them into a different moment in life and I hope that translates for the audience.

Janna studied Literature (B.A., Mount Allison University); and Disability Studies (M.A. Critical Disability Studies), and, Visual Arts (OCAD University). She was the Tangled Art + Disability Artist in Residence in 2014.

Janna Brown will be providing an artist talk Saturday April 11th at 2pm in the VMAC Gallery, suite 452