By Zachary Johnson
In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. For the past week and a half, I have been wearing the work of Alyssa Roach, a local printmaking and textile artist and recent graduate of Grand Valley State University. I spoke with her last week to learn more about her work and her creative process.
ZJ: While you were majoring in art at Grand Valley, how did you land on your current trajectory with the work you’re making now?
AR: I’ve always been really interested in clothing and fabric. In all of my classes, it was this constant choice of materials. Even in sculpture classes or technology and art classes, if I needed a material, and I needed a lot of it, I would use bedsheets that I had or spare clothing. The material really resonated with me for a lot of reasons, and when I got to printmaking, I would ask my professor different ways I could make prints of clothing; I was so curious about it. It started off as experimenting with doing etchings with soft ground, where I would imprint clothing into the soft ground and then etch it onto a plate. But I noticed when I did that, some of the soft ground stuck to the fabric, so one day in the studio I just thought, “Oh, I’m just going to try to print this and see what comes of it.” It was a cuff that had been pressed into a plate of soft ground and then went through the press with a piece of paper, and I loved the look of it. It was so much cleaner and simpler than etching and it seemed like it could be a lot more flexible. So from there we just started experimenting with ways we could start inking up clothes and make prints from them. It was a whole semester of just experimenting and taking notes.
ZJ: Have you been sewing and working with textiles from a young age?
AR: Yeah. I’ve been sewing since I was very young. I would always sew when I was a kid. I’d do things like stitch things into my dolls’ clothes or change their clothes. Then when I was eleven or twelve, I helped make costumes for a dance performance that I was involved in.
ZJ: So you’re currently making socially-engaged work. Were you always making that in college or did you just decide one day that that’s what you really cared about?
AR: I feel like the subject matter that I’m working with was something I was always inclined to include.
So I guess at first it wasn’t the objective, but it felt really pointless to me to make prints of clothing without that [focus on labor practices]. I mean, if you’re going to make artwork about clothing, it’s within the material, so it took a little exploring, but in the end it just needed to be there. It wasn’t my starting goal, I just sought the issue through working with the material.
ZJ: What is fascinating you lately? What are you really into right now?
AR: I’m really interested in sculpture lately, and working with that as a medium. My mind’s always drifting to different sculptural ways of working and how that looks within the subject of clothes and sweatshops.
ZJ: Do you have any ideas for that yet or is it something that you’re just interested in at this point?
AR: I feel like I have too many ideas at this point. Which is a problem because I can’t tell which one’s are good, so I think it’s time to start just working a little bit with it. Sculpture takes up a lot of room though.
ZJ: See, that’s my problem. I’ve been more and more interested in 3D, but I feel like I don’t have the lifestyle to support it.
AR: Yeah, with all the materials for printing already take up so much space in my room, makes it so messy and chaotic that I can’t imagine adding sculpture, but I’m really interested in it.
ZJ: How have you been experiencing sculpture?
AR: Mainly through researching fiber art and 3D fiber art. I’m following a fiber art account on Instagram right now, and it’s really good.
ZJ: Are there any artists in particular that you’re inspired by right now or that you were inspired by during your development?
AR: One artist that doesn’t work with fiber arts at all, but her work is very rooted in social justice is Sue Coe. She’s a printmaker, and she makes work about animal rights. And she was the first artist that I saw working with a topic so rooted in social justice that it just kind of make me realize – see, in art school people talk about that kind of artwork as separate from the rest of [fine art] or [saying that] people aren’t interested in viewing it, so then when I stumbled upon Sue Coe, I thought, “Ok, this is someone who’s been doing this for thirty years, she’s reaching people, her work is resonating with people.” I connected a lot with her work and I still think about her and her work a lot. Her images are really powerful.
ZJ: Do you think that activist art has a special strength versus the other forms of art?
AR: Yes, I do. When you take art and a topic in social justice, I feel like it’s really powerful because it’s not just the information people are getting, it’s also engaging their imagination in another way, so I feel like it creates a super powerful experience. Right now I feel like information is really omnipresent, especially in social media. You can go onto Facebook and in your feed see so many important, relevant articles, but you can view an article, and be really shocked by a scene or really motivated to do something, but then the post right below it is a really cute cat or someone’s adorable child, so you’re simultaneously being shocked and consoled. So I think what’s really important with art and social justice in the twenty-first century is finding ways to get people to look at it and pay attention to it. Because people know about sweatshop labor. They hear about it and probably see it in their Facebook feeds, but they’re desensitized to it, and I think art has this ability to present it in a different way where it sticks with people or it hits them in a different place where they actually feel motivated to do something about it. It’s more memorable.
ZJ: It has an emotive power.
AR: Yeah, and I think that’s really important now because you can ask anyone about sweatshop labor, and they know about it, but it’s just information to them. So, I think the intersection of art and social justice has the ability to bring back the emotion when it comes to these issues.
ZJ: So you graduated recently, and you’re having a show right now at Lantern and you’ve just had one at Sparrow, so what’s next for you?
AR: I’m trying to go to grad school. I’m spending the next year making a second body of work for when I apply. And I’m working on all of my letters for the application process. So, it’s not until January, but it feels like a new project. It would be for my MFA either in printmaking or fiber arts. And I’m not sure [which]. I really feel split down the middle.
ZJ: Finally, what about the act of creation do you enjoy? Can you verbalize it?AR: With printmaking, you do all this prep work, you ink something up and roll it or use your brayer and finally you think it’s done, and then there’s this moment when you peel [the material] back, and that is my favorite moment. With the process or printmaking, there’s so much planning and cutting and carving and inking – everything is so time-intense, but then in just ten seconds you pull it away and that moment of seeing the culmination of all of your hard work is really powerful to me. Even if it’s something I’m not happy with, it’s still my favorite part. It’s like opening a present.
Alyssa Roach’s work is currently on display in a solo exhibition at Lantern Coffee Bar and Lounge through April 1. Lantern is located at 100 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.