Tucked into a quiet backstreet of Emeryville's 45th Street Artists Cooperative is the loft where Ana Lisa has worked since 1976, folding, wrapping, stitching, tying, clamping, and dyeing beautiful textiles. From Indiana to Japan to India to California, Ana Lisa's journey as a fiber artist has spanned six decades.
As I visited her studio to see both her new and past work, she reflected on her early days developing her techniques, cultural shifts over the decades, and her experience as a female artist now in her 70's and inspired by a new generation of other women over 70 making bold and important art.
Ana Lisa has built a multifaceted career for herself making intricate museum-quality clothing pieces, teaching workshops and DVD courses, creating affordable everyday scarves, making an assortment of beautiful statement clothing pieces, and fashioning large scale wallhangings. Her work has been featured in books like the artwear bible Art To Wear by Julie Schafler and Fashion and Anti-Fashion by Melissa Leventon. Her textiles are included in the collections of major museums including the Cooper Hewitt, the Museum of Art and Design, and the De Young Museum.
I knew of Ana Lisa's perfectly pleated vests and jackets from the pages of my artwear books; And was so surprised to find out from my friend and fellow fiber artist Janet Lipkin, that Ana Lisa's studio was just a short drive down the street from my studio. But maybe I shouldn't have been too surprised... After the universe shined on me in a way it rarely seems to when it connected me with Janet and she soon led me into the close-knit community of pioneering fiber artists that had helped put the Bay Area on the countercultural artwear map in the 70s. Many of those artists, like Ana Lisa, settled in the Bay to stay.
I loved visiting Ana Lisa's space. Maybe its the lighting or the entryway filled with greenery, that gives her studio such a peaceful, calming vibe. It also has a very remote feeling that one could imagine easily zoning in on work, even though it is actually located in a connected, urban area. Ana Lisa gave me a tour of her the racks of colorful clothing and scarves, walls lined with years of inspiring swatches and images, collected objects and large wallhangings. As we talked she spoke openly about the challenges of exploring new ideas in textiles, continuing to offering her client base the tried and true items they have come to love from her, all the while, navigating the challenges of creating an online presence, evolving with the changing art scene, and adapting with the many personal life events of an artist who has steadily created work over six decades.
What was your early childhood? How did you go from a small town in Indiana to the Bay area and did anything lay the groundwork for you as an artist?
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, my family was artistic, Before my mother was married, she had a dress shop in Cincinnati making clothing for wealthy young women. My sisters and I had a costume box of gowns from her shop that we could cut up and play with.
My mother sewed all our clothes and so I loved picking out the fabric for my fall or spring wardrobe, which were usually made of polished cotton with little floral prints. They became hand-me-downs and stayed in our family for years. people understood mending and tailoring because clothing took time to make. People also knew how to mend clothing, adapt, and short. I grew up with a strong feeling clothing was valuable and took time and was an important part of your personal expression. She made my prom dresses in beautiful, elaborate designs-- I think she really missed having her shop. She subscribed to Vogue magazine and it was like a fantasy world. Fashion to me is about narrative, escape and imagination. What appealed to me was the stories, like when you look at 1950s vogue and see these huge skirted ladies, I was just transported into the fairy tale. Fashion is often criticized for not being affordable, but to me it was just an escape world, not made up of things I actually expected to wear. I understand why fashion is viewed more critically now in terms of the politics of class and consumption, but I think that is a more important discussion to have with Fast Fashion.
Eventually I left home and decided to go to college in California. I think my parents were surprised because they had never been there, but they were supportive and understood that I wanted to get out of town and travel. California, being part of the Pacific Rim, exposed me to Asian cultures that I had never experienced before. I grew up in a time where people still recalled World War II, so Japanese influence was not exactly accepted and as China was communist then, so we didn’t have an picture of what it was like there, Particularly in the midwest at that time, Asia was the 'other'.
At college, I made Japanese friends and studied Asian Art and ceramics and I fell in love with it. Eventually I moved to Japan and taught English conversation and worked in a student bar. I took the money I earned there and took the long way home, traveling through India and Southeast Asia, and it was really those countries that influenced me. Believe it or not, when I lived in Japan I really wasn't very aware of the textiles. At that time, people worn very simple Western clothing day-to-day because they were a country recovering from the war and trying to modernize. But in Southeast Asia, you saw women on the street in fantastic colored saris, and the cultural identity in textiles there is so strong.
Your journey into textiles coincided with the beginning of the
countercultural movement in the Bay Area, what was it like to be
a young artist in the midst of that cultural shift?
I got here around the start of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, a couple
years before the Haight Ashbury summer of love started. In 1966, there was still a
little bit of a Beatnik culture, but it was pretty fringe and a bit older scene.
It was an exciting time, you could feel that people were getting interested in new things.
The first thing I remember visually happening as the counterculture started was the
embroidery of old denim and making skirts out of old Levis-- something we all did.
So there was that first wave of hippie, Grateful Dead inspired clothing-- although I don't
remember when the label hippie started. It was sort of this hippie-funk-chic thing at first.
The actual beginning of refined artwear did happen until the 1970s, and even the early
phase of artwear was still more related to embroidered jeans.
The idea of something elegant and fashionably handmade was the next wave.
That is when Sandra Sakata and Obiko were very influential, because she knew how to
present and elevate artwear as fashion. She was a great stylist and could just put things
together. If you brought in something, she would pair you with another designer or if
you showed her something she would say 'oh! could you make me some skirts with
this?' and show you what she was doing with wraps and skirts. There was a sense of
collaboration with her approach. In terms of my career, she was instrumental. Without
her, I would have just made piece for here or there and I'm not sure I could have had a
full fledged career. Sandra had a fashion sense. Beyond the isolated pieces, fashion is
style and style is collection. She would have themed shows at Obiko and that dialogue
made everything richer and more interesting.
Moving to the Bay Area in 1966 to study, and having been immersed in beautiful handmade clothing as a child, how did you decide to pursue textiles as a career?
I moved here right at the beginning of the countercultural movement and there was a school called Fiberworks that had just opened by recent graduates from the UC Berkeley's Design Department. Ed Rossbach was a major influence on these students and the entire Bay area fiber scene. It was more like a center than a formal school because they had short workshops, extended workshops, lectures, and shows. People were very interested in process and very specific techniques and hungry to learn. Some resources and skilled teachers in process were becoming available for the first time-- like Indigo dying. I took a Shibori workshop there with Yoshiko Imamoto Wada. Because I had already visited Japan, I was very receptive to the techniques and in love with Japanese aesthetic, and Shibori just worked for me.
I had already learned how to weave and do some natural dying at this point, which was very typical in the 70s. I discovered that I was not a natural weaver-- I am more painterly and preferred working directly on fabric, getting something back, then following up, and continue to follow an idea in this way. So many of us were self-taught and exploring the techniques independently outside of formal education, and so I worked with shibori in a very non-traditional way. I think a thread that runs through everyone you will interview is that we are the classic renagade artists who wants to follow our own vision and discovery. If I had to do traditional Shibori, I don't think I would have devoted the years to mastering the repetition of traditional techniques. Shibori artisans would live in a family setting and do a lot of repetition to get a level of control and precision in their designs. Because the system does not allow variation, that kind of environment can stop creativity. You get locked into the standard and to deviate requires a risk, and risk has the potential for failure. And to be an artist you need to embrace failure, I mean, we can all tell you about the boxes of failed experiments we end up with. I marvel at the skill of the artisans of Japan who have honed their craft and Shibori is my teacher but it doesn't mean I have to do it the exact same way as the tradition.
So in learning here in California at a time of experimentation, I got a lot of interest in my early experiments because people at that time were very receptive to everything new and different, and that encouragement helped all of us pursue my ideas. It was a time with a great expansion in art and textiles into Artwear and the larger fiber art movement. There were shows, books, article galleries, happening all around us. You could barely earn a living but you could also live on the fringe more easily. For example, originally this studio was $75 a month.
So you could sell a piece potentially and pay for your studio.
Yeah, there was a recession in the early 70s and the US government subsidized a program to hire young artist to work in public places like senior centers and schools, creating projects and painting murals. It was called the CETA program and I worked with that program part-time in Emeryville schools to make ends meet. I think they paid minimum wage so you didn't make a lot but it took care of my basics which allowed me to work on my craft slowly and find customers and venues to sell my craft. Its almost like people forget about the past and these brilliant programs created during the Great Depression that gave jobs to artisans. The CETA project was based on that and I can't remember if it was state or federal program. That would be very important to have today.
I think there is an artist's soul-- just as there are healers and athletes and writers. Some people are just meant to pursue art. Which is what makes the world so interesting. But today, our education system is so dismal, it is shutting the doors on people using their hands. You need to have the doors open for all kinds of people to find out where they belong because you don't necessarily get that guidance from your own family. Now parents have to seek out and pay for programs for kids to take art classes and use their hands.
Obiko Boutique 1972- 1997
"My theory is that you could study the economics of any culture by their clothing & its certainly true of our culture today. Clothing tells our story-- & its a disturbing story"
Analisa's inspiration wall, featuring a tree embroidery from Oakland non-profit art center Creative Growth and shibori sample cards from Japan
Economics are such a part of how we live, there is always an economic story in clothing. My theory is you could study the economics of any culture by their clothing; and its certainly true of our culture today, clothing tells our story-- and its a disturbing story. The amount of disposible clothing people go through has a huge environmental impact. Having said that though, while there is now talk about the merits of slow fashion, its really hard to go back to those days. I have to ask myself: Do I really want to darn my socks? My mother spent a long time darning worn socks rather than buying new ones.
Its interesting thinking about value and priorities surround money. I was speaking to Jean [Cacicedo] about this. There are a lot of young people who have come to the Bay Area to enter the tech industry and have disposable income but their priority isn't in buying art or handmade clothing. Many upper-income younger people would rather spend $150 on a brunch than on a handmade shirt. The culture of food, wine, parties, and trips that signify their status are more appealing.
Yes, thats true, There's a lot of discussion in the art world among dealers about how tech industry workers are not buying much art. There is a push in San Francisco right now to draw more interest into art so it will be interesting to see if things change. In New York many of the buyers are in finance who look at art as an investment that will go up, so they enjoy betting in that way, but the tech industry has less interest in that. Although I must say, while people also aren't buying as much handmade clothing, people still spend a lot of money on purses and shoes and although the types of outfits are very different, I think people do still think about what they wear. These days people like to project the athleticism they aspire to with their clothes. Activewear is huge, like Lululemon for example. So even though it seems like clothing isn't important, its always important and speaks about our lifestyles and goals. I don't go into the city to eat and see shows that often, but when I do, I am very often disappointed because I want to see young women having fun dressing up. I know the tattoo culture is huge and young people are very intentional about the tattoos they get-- and I've seen tattoos that are just so beautiful. With the tattoo culture comes clothing that shows off the tattoos, so again, you get into cultural ideas and clothing and bodies. But I'm nostalgic for being in Paris where everyone who hits the street, regardless of their age, is intentional about what they wear on their bodies like "let me just throw this scarf around my neck before going out". I remember being at a conference in France and seeing young art students, who you know didn't have a lot of money, wearing inexpensive, plain clothing but then having these adorable little anklets on with high heels, making a statement like "I am a girl". She has made a choice that said something and had fun with it. I don't see that as much and on the Peninsula you don't see it at all.
Also, I notice a big difference when I shop for clothes. There seemed to be a lot more detailing and size diversity in the past because unique cuts and tailoring was more common. Then around the 80s-90s it became more about mass production efficiency and the bottom line for clothing companies and they started to drop a lot of that detail like seams, pleating and darting that cost more money. So now clothes usually only come in three size [S, M, L] and the cuts are more simplistic, and they want to maximize who will buy the item, so they don't do as many interesting prints. You don't see as much diversity in the market in cut and print, so you don't see as much diversity in the public's clothing. On the other hand, your clients have bought handmade pieces from you, how do you see them as being different from the general public?
I don't do as much clothing anymore, but I still make a lot of scarves. I think my clients really are interesting getting something that is one-of-a-kind, and they certainly appreciate that they are handmade. I think although a handmade scarf may be relatively costly, a scarf completely changes an outfit and you get endless wears out of it, so it really doesn't cost much if you think of it as a purchase for a lifetime. Scarves never go out of fashion and you can use them to dress up a very plain or inexpensive outfit.
Analisa's workshop DVDs for Stitch Resist, Arashi Shibori &
Itajime Shibori, available here
The patio outside Analisa's studio
What do think teachers and peers you met early on think about what you have done over the course of your career?
I think they are kind of amazed (laughs] because because I am all over the map: I made clothing, then pieces for the wall, and then working on paper... Right now, I feel liberated. There’s a challenge in being an older woman artist and its kind of exciting, actually. And I’ve noticed that recently a lot of women artists in their 80s and 90s are being included in the Whitney Museum in New York and there was a piece in the New York Times a couple years ago of them with headshots— wrinkles and all— and I thought 'whoa... these women looked so interesting'. And I’m thinking, this is the challenge now because our work changes and to continue through physical challenges, family demands, widow-hood, grieving. Some people can find that they can be creative through that but many can not.
You never think you’ll grow old and then suddenly you do, and I find it becomes ‘now or never’. I love what I’m doing now, and I didn’t always think it would be that way. You know, creativity is always peaks and valleys… People will be interested in your work and you’re energized and meeting expectations and deadlines and its all exciting, but then there’s a slump and you wonder if people know if you exist, and you don’t want to repeat yourself, and nothing is selling and galleries are closing... That’s just life. But, I think its so interesting to be in this phase of life-- and in a way I'm trying to talk myself into it. I have a friend name Kay Sacamatchi and she has entered her 90s and she is still working and she’s remarkable. And the work changes because she's not threading the loom and has some physical challenges compared to when she was very young, so she has entered new dimensions of her work, like making jewelry from found objects. She is curious and lively and she attributes her longevity to the curiosity of being an artist. We may not be rich, but compared to a lot of other ways to live, we have our vitality and curiosity intact, and wow... being an artist is good.
How do you compare your experience with creating & selling wallhangings to wearables? Sometimes I find that if people aren't inclined to wear a crazy handmade piece I made they might be more likely to buy a wallhanging so its good to offer your work in a variety of formats...
I never had as much luck with the wall pieces as I did with the wearables. With the clothing, I always had shops I partnered with to sell them and help get them out there. With the wall pieces, I think I missed out on the collecting mania of a certain time when people in my generation were building their homes and decorating them. Now many people my age are selling their homes and downsizing, and I'm finding it hard to sell to the next generation. I am trying to figure out now how to establish more presence online and reach younger people. People now don't even visit websites unless they have a specific reason to-- its really all about social media and newsletters and I think all of us artists find that really challenging-- we would rather be in the studio making art.
"I love what I’m doing now, & I didn’t always think it would be that way. You know, creativity is always peaks & valleys. People will be interested in your work.... & its all exciting, but then there’s a slump & you wonder if people know if you exist, & nothing is selling ....
That’s just life."
My newest interest is in working with Indigo because its intergenerational, people are very interested in indigo again, it goes with everyday outfits and its a natural dye. But to tell you the truth, when people make a purchase, they may say they value natural dyes but at the end of the day they will buy based on what they like, not just on the process. So I have found people like natural dyes but the ultimately it comes down to whether they love the design of the piece or not.
I have a friend named
Kay Sekimachi.... & she attributes her longevity to the curiosity of being an artist.
We may not be rich.... but we have our vitality & curiosity intact, & wow...being an
artist is good.
Ana Lisa Hedstrom is an artist based out of Emeryville, California known for her signature textiles based on contemporary adaptations of shibori. Her textiles are included in the collections of major museums including the Cooper Hewitt, the Museum of Art and Design, and the De Young Museum. Her work has been exhibited and published inter- nationally. She has taught and lectured at numerous international Shibori conferences and schools. Her awards include two NEA grants and she is a fellow of the American Craft Council.
To explore more of Ana Lisa's work:
visit her website : http://analisahedstrom.com
find her instructional DVD's : http://analisahedstrom.com/dvds/
or contact her at: email@example.com