Tina Struthers: Life in Fiber

Tina Marais Struthers, studio in Montreal, 2020, Photo courtesy of Josiane Farand

Tina Marais Struthers’ work develops from a rigorous, personal, and highly technical consideration of fiber as an evocative medium deftly addressing subjective experience, memories of place, and processes of change and growth. Struthers says she is fascinated by how fabric reflects and absorbs light, how it can entice us to touch, and feel comfort, or discomfort, by visual directing textures—”In this world during the pandemic, this need to touch, to feel textural comfort I think has really been amplified. I often challenge the notion of textile as being soft, in manipulating it to appear as metal sculptural forms.”

You were born and raised in South-Africa and came to Canada in 2008, based in Greater Montreal. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to work with textile in your art.

I was born and raised in Cape Town South-Africa, the Cape coast and the natural environment surrounding this region has always subconsciously influenced my work. The rocky shores, the strong southeaster winds (the cape of storms) were my playground growing up. Over time what really creeped into my work was seeing how human and climate change impact has started to transform this environment. I always end up imagining mutations in natural organisms because of pollutants, and this is often what I try to visualize in my work.

South-Africa is also a country of great contrast, of extreme poverty and wealth, inequality, innovation, creativity and filled with raw human emotions. It is a place where water is precious. This contrasts so starkly to Canada, one of the biggest freshwater basins in the world. As a textile artist, water consumption in the production process of the textile and garments industry is always on my mind. The origins of the materials that I use really influence the meaning of an artwork, and add to the depth of the expression of a work.

I originally studied visual arts, specializing in painting and drawing, but textile and textile practice has been interwoven in my day-to-day life for as long as I can remember. I started knitting and sewing as a child, and textural memories of garments and cloth are interwoven in my experiences and memories of people and places.

After completing my studies at the Open Window Art Institute in Pretoria, South-Africa, I studied pattern drafting, and worked as a costume designer for a few years, before including textile as principal medium in my visual arts practice. The tactility and textural qualities of textile and fiber-based materials really speaks to me. It is such an ancient method of visual expression, it is evident across diverse cultures throughout history and so relatable, as we are all swaddled in cloth from birth, use it to decorate our homes, keeps us warm and allows us to express our own unique visual identity through the clothing we wear. As my work progressed, I returned to studies in 2019, receiving the Dora and Avi Morrow Fellowship for Excellent Achievement in Visual Arts allowing me to work on a Masters in Fiber and material practices at Concordia University in Montreal.

In one interview on your work (ASLI Magazine, 2015), it says that installation art enables you to find a “creative balance between textile, design and visual arts.” How do you see the relationship between these 3 elements — textile/material, design/craft and drawing/painting in your work?

Materiality is really at the center of my work, but without strong making and pattern drafting/design skills, I would not have the freedom to create dimensional forms, and technically be able to construct some of my more complex mural and installation artworks.

I am a relentless collector, or gatherer of diverse material objects, and also textiles. Each object, or sample of fabric speaks to me of its textural qualities, historical connections, and of the origins and history interwoven in the source materials and manufacturing process. My drawing practice has always served me well in communicating sketches of concepts for projects, public artworks and documentation of ideas of works in progress. More recently I have started to combine all these elements again in my Malady series, bringing my drawings back into the exhibition space. Painting has become a tool, it allows me to transform with textile based paints and dye the richness, or subtlety of especially my sculptural works. These processes become threads or fragments with which I piece together the conceptual aspects of my work.

Let’s look closer at your work and start with your public art. What is the idea and process behind unité dans la diversité (2018)?

This artwork is a permanent public sculpture created for the town of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec to commemorate the city being recognized by the United Cities and Local Governments as one of leading cities worldwide for sustainable urban development through culture. The sculpture is composed of five wings atop steel columns. The wings are symbolic of movement, migration and represent various parts of the world. The patterns on the wings are derived from textile patterns used to represent cultural or national identity. The work was made with significant community involvement. Over 300 participants each selected and transformed a traditional textile pattern through a process of abstraction.

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Tina Marais Struthers, Unité dans la diversité, 2018, Lexan, stainless steel, 487 x 365 x 400 cm, photo courtesy of Josiane Farand. This project is made possible thanks to financial support from the Government of Quebec and the City of Vaudreuil-Dorion as part of the 2017-2020 Cultural Development Agreement

An active part of your art practice includes the development of cultural mediation and social outreach projects. Tell me about two projects in that context and how do you perceive the role of engaging with the public in your work?

The project La Danse des main is inspired by the feeling of linguistic deafness and the dance of the hands that follows to be able to communicate across these barriers. It attempts to visualize our emotional reaction to the feeling of the sound. This sculptural installation was created with the participation of the Salle Pauline-Julien and participants from Collège Gérald-Godin, principally adults immigrants in French language learning courses as well as special needs students from the Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board and the general public.

When developing and presenting such projects, the interaction and collaboration with participants is at the forefront, the process becoming even more important than the end result. It is the creation of moments of time, where we can exchange, interact, build new friendships and bonds across cultural and language barriers within our community. It assists in creating a sense of attachment to place, community and each other.

As an immigrant from South Africa, when I arrived in Quebec and during my first francization class, I felt for the first-time in my life what it feels like to be deaf … not that I couldn’t hear, but I did not understand anything that I heard. It’s a very isolating and terrifying feeling. I knew the people in my community spoke only French, and out of respect for the country that welcomed me, I fully invested myself into this process. What I observed during this period of deafness, was the speed with which our other senses adapt to respond and read body language, facial expression, and the inevitable dancing hands in the middle of the conversation. I realized that as human beings we are all so interconnected that if we really wanted to communicate and understand we would always find a way, this was both comforting and reassuring. Since then, I have witnessed so many conversations, which, limited by our deafness caused by linguistic diversity, have become real dances of hands, beautiful and powerful.

It is with this concept of exploration of expression by hand movement that this project was born. As visual artists, we can create the illusion of movement or a moment of pause allowing the viewer to complete the scene. The large textile sculpture format in the form of an infinite loop materializes this concept — a reflection on the infinite circle between our senses and the impact of sensory stimulation on our emotional reactions.

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Tina Marais Struthers, La Danse des mains, 2019, Cotton, wire, paper, acrylic paint, 182 x 365 x 91 cm, photo courtesy of Josiane Farand. The project La danse des mains was presented as part of the Cultural Bridges program presented by the Montreal Arts Council and its partners, Culture Montréal, the Quebec Arts Council, Place des Arts, and the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Arts Council as well as Quartier des Spectacles in Montreal

Le Rassemblement / The gathering was created in collaboration with my friend and Mosaic Artist Monica Brinkman, and we have just been awarded the prestigious Artists in the Community prize for 2020, by the Quebec Arts council and the Arts et la ville organisation. The projects focused on bringing the community together, but more importantly, creating inclusion and social awareness of marginalized groups within our community, such as those at risk of exclusion or low income. The objective is to bring together different members of our community during creation workshops for a large-scale contemporary collective work representing a woven tapestry. The inspiration for this tapestry comes from the Quebec expression—everyone pulls on the blanket—we want to create a feeling that everyone is welcome under the same blanket, that no one is forgotten and stays in the cold.

To carry out the project, we worked as main partners with the Cercle des fermières de Vaudreuil and the culture team of the city of Vaudreil-Dorion. Our idea was to combine two target groups to create improbable but warm encounters, and to have participants from the Farmers’ Circle present at all the workshops. It was a great opportunity to showcase the cultural dynamism and the rich diversity that make up our community life.

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Tina Marais Struthers and Monica Brinkman, Le Rassemblement, 2019, textile and mosaic, photo courtesy of Myriam Frenette
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Tina Marais Struthers and Monica Brinkman, Le Rassemblement, 2019, textile and mosaic, photo courtesy of Myriam Frenette

Tell me about your installation work the last couple of years and how do you think it has evolved since your earlier work?

My installation work has evolved especially since 2017, when I have become much braver in the sense of the pure scale of my work, and also launching myself into longer term projects. Especially the development of permanent public artworks, which has a very different approach and use of materials than my previous works. I think the more I have pushed the barriers of my comfort zone, the bigger the liberation within my artistic expressions.

An example would be the research and creation grant project that I presented in 2018 and 2019, titled Le flue de l’or bleu (the flow of our blue gold). This project explores the fluidity of life, water being a fundamental element of its functioning. Without the presence of sustainable water sources life cannot exist or flourish. This work becomes an aerial view, mapping the natural ever-changing borders created by rivers and flood lines. The artwork explores the effect of climate change on water levels, questioning the sustainability of shifting natural boundaries created by waterways and oceans. The flow in the works evokes the feeling of this tide of change impacting our time. The choice of reclaimed denim as principal medium questions the impact of textile and fast fashion industries on fragile freshwater resources globally. The flow of water does not follow borderlines, and the impact of water pollution is never solely localized and inevitably is border-less in its impact. The installation consists of two walls 40 feet in length, and 10 feet in height, as well as 3 large scale mural hangings, and a series of smaller studies surrounding this theme.

More recently I have been expanding my Codex I & II, 2017-2021 series of works, this collection of sculptural and mural abstractions vary in scale, but here I have started focusing on the impact of lighting and shadow play created by these installations. Attempting to amplify the emotional response to the work by exaggerated shadows, and the added dimension that this creates. I have explored this method further in Wounded waters, 2019 as well as some of my works that made part of the Ubuntu 2020 interdisciplinary project. My work is in constant Flux, and I am constantly questioning and exploring how to push the limits of textile and fiber sculptural, structural and installation works.

Let’s take a look at your soft sculptures. At times you manipulate fiber to look like something else, metal for example, and in others you explore the juiciness of the material itself in form and color. Can you elaborate on that in relation to 2 recent sculptures of your choice?

All too often I question the role of textile and fiber arts in the contemporary arts context, and how to push its materiality beyond the reconditioning as a craft-based practice, into the visual and fine arts domain. I think at the basis, it is the consideration that you are an artist first, with a message to communicate, or a true voice of expression. Following this there is the choice of materials as means of expression, an attempt to communicate this message. I happen to choose textile and fiber. Embedded in this choice however is a rich history of women’s work, of craft, of historical, socio political contextualization, and of sexism in the art world. My deliberate move toward concentrated artistic development in a critical and supportive context, is to attempt to break some of these traditional views. I am constantly seeking ways to make textile speak as metal for example, merging the feeling of feminine and masculine materiality.

In Metamorphosis I combine metallic lycra covered buttons, with bottle caps covered in metallic wool knit. The sculpture at first glance reads as metal, but on closer inspection, you discover the repetitive action of covered buttons reflecting on craft and women’s work. It is this juxtaposition and contrast in visual reading of the hard and soft, that I hope to allow the viewer to question traditional views on textile-based arts practices. In the work Metamorphosis IV, you can see the versatility in combining different materials and techniques to create emotionally powerful textile surfaces and abstract sculptural forms. I include both traditional and non-traditional techniques in all my projects focussing on the emotional reaction to texture and form, it is in this way that through practical expertise I attempt to share my deep commitment to advancing the aesthetic and social role of crafts through textiles.

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Tina Marais Struthers, Decay, 2017, spandex, wool, embroidery thread, photo courtesy of Mary E Black Gallery Halifax
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Tina Marais Struthers, Metamorphosis IV, 2020, velvet, ceramic beads, leather photo curtesy of Josiane Farand

Tina Marais Struthers, 2019, Metamorphosis I, Lycra, buttons, velvet, fake fur, photo courtesy of Myriam Frenette

Besides exploring the possibilities in form and material, color seems to play a central role and it runs the gamut from elegant neutral tones to vibrant pinks and reds. What is your approach to color and how do you choose it for a specific work?

I think I have some level of color crisis at some point of my creation process on each artwork. Due to my background in costume design, I learnt early the undeniable power of colors to communicate a message. I always try to explain this through imagining a single figure standing on a stage in a spotlight—no music, no sound, no movement. if She is wearing white dress, your innate emotional response to what is to follow, will be very different to if she was wearing red, or black for example. It is this emotional raw reaction to color that guides me. I have been working mainly on four distinct bodies of work the past 6 years, Codex which focuses on imagined mutation in microorganisms due to climate change.

This series you will see a lot of reds, blacks and greys, it evokes life, danger and death. Then there is the Voyager series, here I explore transit, displacement and cross border illegal trade, such as ivory, human trafficking and the simple act of souvenir shopping that scars fragile ecosystems and economies. For this body of work, I create in whites, ecru and creams, contrasting the vulnerability of the defenseless victims for capitalist material greed. This brings me to the Flux de l’or bleu, which I discussed earlier, where I work with reclaimed denim and blue tones on the themes surrounding our fragile freshwater ecosystems.

Lastly and most recently, I have been working on a new body of work titled Malady, here the work reflects on the satire of the pink ribbon business, surrounding breast cancer. Evidently the start contrasts the feminine innocence and cultural connotations to pink as a color, versus using it as a color that also represents flesh, scaring and bodily mutation that is such a reality in breast cancer treatments. Color holds infinite visual power to evoke strong emotional reactions, it should be considered with great care.

Tina Marais Struthers, Waiting for a Pink Ribbon Paradise, detail, photo courtesy of Myriam Frenette

Tell me a bit about your source material and how you typically start your sculptures.

As I always attempt to directly or indirectly open the conversation to the incredible impact of the fast fashion industry and general consumerism on the environment, I do use a lot of recycled or repurposed materials in my work. When sourcing materials it is a very intuitive, intimate and organic process for me. I am extremely tactile, and the feel, drape, weight and texture of cloth and other materials often dictates my choices. For my Metamorphosis series for example, the work often starts with quick sketches, flashes of ideas and feelings, and then constructing these in drawings or sometimes just a clear mental image. After years of creating patterns, I have a slight rebellion to the constrictions and mechanism of this process, and I often draw with chalk directly on cloth, cut and stitch together my base forms. Following this I mold and manipulate these forms when filling them with batting until it visually meets my expectations. After this I hand stitch surface texture, beads or dimensional elements to complete the sculptures.

When creating larger scale works, I often build an interior structure using a variety of materials, from stainless steel armatures as for Plus haut plus loin, 2015 a 14-foot suspended quilted dimensional hot air balloon installation, to plumbing pipes and constructions of reclaimed materials then covered in cloth as for Decay, 2017, and Je m’atache a la culture, 2014.

What are you working on in your studio these days?

The past few months my work has shifted to investigating illness. In 2019 life threw me a big curve ball, and I had finally managed to return to my studies, pushing my art practice intensely, and pursuing multiple fascinating projects. I was forced to re-evaluate how I structured my life and create my work. I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer. Following almost 20 months of treatments through the pandemic, I needed to digest it. Trying to make sense of the shock and trauma, I have been focusing on a new body of work that I call: Malady. Malady n. pl, mal·a·dies. is defined as any disorder or disease of the body, especially one that is chronic or deep seated. any undesirable or disordered condition: social maladies; a malady of the spirit.

Through this series of works, I am attempting to reflect on how we care for the ill, and how we chose through social barriers and structures to talk about illness and the discomfort these subjects bring. I started delving into the impact of illness on our vitality, quality of life and ability to experience our environment. Thinking specifically about the invisible imprisonment of the body by those suffering from chronic pain, illness and isolation. Through my own recent experience with illness, my interactions with doctors and nurses, and my observations of patients in hospital spaces, I want to reflect on the process of healing, but also on our relationship with the ever silent and omnipresent subject: the inevitability of death.

So, I am tracing a few steps on the invisible path of those that disappear into the shadows and folds of ongoing medical treatment. I am visually attempting to explore the feeling of imprisonment in an ill body. I am responding to the current space in time through which we are navigating, the collateral damage of the impact of the current health crisis caused by the ongoing Covid Pandemic on patients with other maladies. I have created three distinct series of artworks, each becoming its own process of biopsy. This body of work is deeply personal, an exorcism of sorts.

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Tina Marais Struthers, cellular mutation, 2021, leather, beads, lycra, wool, photo courtesy of Josiane Farand

In Biopsy 1 – Memento Mori – A Hairs Breath (Video) – Trophies Of Illness (mural installation) both video and mixed media installation examine further my fascination with the experience of losing my hair due to chemotherapy. Relating this experience to the Victorian practice of creating intricate hair wreaths and floral hair arrangements made as tokens and souvenirs of lost loved ones. Fascinatingly, the romanticized idea of giving a lock of hair to a loved one, which is an element of the decaying process of the human body. As a fiber structure or a thread, hair is so connected to our identity, to our connections with sexuality, and a sign of a sort of coming of age when puberty is reached. Hair also reminds us of our primal origins.

Memento Mori is a token and a visual reminder in the arts and literature regarding the inevitability of death, usually represented by a skull, a withering flower, a candle or other symbolic objects (Bennett Carpenter 2008:69). Here I want to think about trophies of illness and social discomfort with the morbid. What do we collect as we navigate illness? What do we keep of our lost loved ones, and how do we display this in our environment? Considering which objects we treasure as symbols of our bravery and to remind us of our most vulnerable passage as we navigate illness and death.

Tina Marais Struthers, A Hairs Breath, photo courtesy of Eric Tschaeppeler

In Biopsy 2 – Keeping a Breast, photo and floor installation, I attempt to question the concept of the breast cancer warrior, when in fact we are caught in a duel to the death within our own body. I draw reference to the bizarre imagery of Saint Agatha of Sicily the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and bell-founders (due to the shape of her severed breasts). She is often depicted in romanticized paintings holding a tray containing her severed breasts. This feeds into the book “The Undying ” by Anne Boyer, where she reflects on the reality behind the “cancer business,” and the often-hidden struggles within societal romanticized ideals regarding illness.

I extended my research and questioning into our relationship with our bodies, especially the female body, sexuality and sensual identity with physically altering side effects and scarring due to invasive treatments for chronic illnesses. Through this process, I examine the breast as a function of nurturing, physical desire and feminine identity. This strange relationship with our mental being and physical visual identity. Looking at scarring and the sense of loss through surgery or amputations. The connection to mothering, care, and sexual identity, and our innate ability to use humor as a creative psychic defense against culturally normative and idealized aspects of the breast.

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Tina Marais Struthers, Keeping a Breast, 2021, leather, silk, fake fur, beads, lycra, wool, photo curtesy of Eric Tschaeppeler

In Biopsy 3 – Waiting For Pink Ribbon Paradise (mentioned before), put on your rose color glasses, stay positive and come, sit, and wait with me. Wait with me for the moment when we can pin a pink ribbon on your chest, like a medal given to a brave war veteran. A ribbon that symbolizes a marathon of hope and waiting. A waiting process riddled with insecurity, with unanswerable questions, doubts, but insistent hope for better target treatments, and more successful outcomes. This work is also the process of acceptance, as the body is contorted into submission by medication to treat cellular mutations.

What is happening in my studio as we speak…?

As I am preparing for another cancer related surgery, I am working on a series of skins, thinking about scar tissue, facia and metaphors for the body as a landscape of stories.

Tina Marais Struthers, Harnessing the power of fear, 2020, wool, velvet, embroidery thread, photo courtesy of Josiane Farand

About the artist:

South African born and Canadian citizen Tina Marais Struthers has exhibited her visual and textile arts, through solo and group exhibitions, in Canada, Europe, the US and South America and participations in various international textile and fiber arts biennials. A highlight was being selected for the 16th International Triennial of Tapestry (Lodz, Poland, 2019) hosted at the central museum of textile, this is one of the oldest and most renowned contemporary textile arts exhibitions globally. Marais Struthers also creates commissions of both public and private artworks and has received various bursaries and awards. In parallel, during the past 10 years she has developed over 50 works of participatory social outreach public art and community arts projects., varying in scale, but often uniting hundreds of participants from diverse cultural and socially diverse communities. Collaboration and social exchange feed her creative practice in this context.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com