Local Fabric Artist Jessie Van der Laan Explores "the Spaces Between Things"

Jessie Van der Laan, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee's MFA program in printmaking, works with fabric, fiber and other found materials. Lately, at the invitation of the Knoxville Museum of Art, she regularly works as a volunteer in the weaving room of Anne Wilson's site-specific installation Wind/Rewind/Weave. Wilson's show has inspired a months-long series of related events at the museum; Wilson, who is interested in issues of time and labor and how they relate to each other, has invited the community to help produce a tapestry by winding bobbins with thread which weavers then turn into cloth. Van der Laan spends her time winding bobbins and writing an ongoing blog (j-localindustry.blogspot.com) for KMA about her personal experience as a worker in the show.

Van der Laan's current exhibition of her own work at Oodles Uncorked on Market Square, on display through March 31, is a timely contrast to the Wilson show. Much of what she does is free-form and intuitive, involving monoprints along with sewing, drawing, and sculpture. Van der Laan has previously worked at installation scale, filling large spaces with a variety of webs or networks of fiber as well as floating fabric forms that could be kites or parachutes. These larger pieces, while appearing to flow loosely, give evidence of painstaking labor; fabric pieces are heavily stitched and otherwise marked or printed. For this show, in an intimate space, Van der Laan offers a selection of small-scale works. These highlight her attention to detail and repetitive hand craft—what she calls, in her artist statement, "the ritual component of my work."

It is particularly interesting to hear Van der Laan describe volunteering with others, since her own work is comparatively private. For Wilson, time is a process, an ongoing structured experience. By comparison, time stops for Van der Laan while she works. Creating is a meditative state allowing her to think about, if not experience, something like the timeless liminal state mentioned in religious writings. In a recent blog entry, Van der Laan wrote, "yesterday's winding was not the meditation I have previously fallen into. I felt hurried and slightly agitated. My thoughts felt more fleeting and less concrete."

In Van der Laan's work small stitches embellish, connect together, or pleat mostly irregular pieces of fabric, indicating her ongoing interest in "the spaces between things," she told me recently. While she says oppositions like "inside and outside" or "open and closed" energize her work, she herself treasures the juncture at which they collide. She apparently thinks of that juncture as a space—something open or empty, a metaphor for stop-time and meditation. When Van der Laan fills a paperboard rectangle with tiny circles drawn in an irregular array, leaving open areas and lots of space at the edges, so that the dots have the potential to stray, she describes openness. One strong work in her present show, "Stars," shows small chalk dots raining down on a black page in uneven columns. Delicate and deliberate, these stars are traces of her meditative thoughts.

Van der Laan values hand stitching as a tactile way to make lines and marks. Thread, then, is a variegated drawing material as well as a means to join things together. Thread is raised; it appears and disappears, and has texture and irregularities with sculptural possibilities. Hand stitching forms a personal, non-uniform, and permanent trace of her careful labor. In "Marriage," myriad tiny pleats on paired forms leave a real space between sketched tiers. The delicate "Finished," a series of tiny, carefully bound holes in cream thread on gray cloth, takes texture, space, and form to a high level.