5 Questions with Caroline E. Hughes

Caroline E. Hughes’ "The Heritage of a Place" is an incredibly deep show that still retains its aesthetic beauty.

Hughes, a recent MFA Fibers graduate from SCAD, creates woven and wrapped textile work that incorporates elements like gold leaf and wood.

Born and raised on a farm in upstate South Carolina, Hughes’ artistic practice is influenced by the Craftsman movement and informed by her love of history.

click to enlarge 5 Questions with Caroline E. Hughes
Caroline E. Hughes with her work.

We talked with Hughes last week.

1. How did you come up with the idea for this body of work?

I have two backgrounds that factor into this. I live on a farm, grew up on a farm, so [I have] a whole different thinking and way of life. And I’m am 18th-century living history interpreter and studied 18th century textiles. One of my biggest interests in textile study is obscure technique, and so with a lot of the work I was doing, I’d explore different techniques. Most of the pieces are layering techniques.

For me, it keeps it interesting. But also, what I’ve heard from other people that I really enjoy is they can see my work once and see something, and the second time they see something new, and by the fourth time they can still see something that maybe they didn’t notice the first time. I really like that aspect that I can make something that people can enjoy repeatedly.

It’s also looking at different inherent material characteristics. Some materials shrink more than others, so when they’re wet finished, that’s why you get these textures. I like the surprise factor of it, so I just throw it in the washer. [laughs]

2. You pair your weavings with old photographs. Can you tell me about that choice?

My work does have these images next to them, and not strict titles, which is a little different than normal. I’ve been interested in the past two years with phenomenology. You have embedded information in work that is just there because of what it is, what it’s made out of, who made it. Not everybody will read all that information every time they see it, but meaning is something different.

Meaning is extrinsic to an item, not intrinsic. Meaning is something that’s applied by each individual. That’s why I may have a vase that’s really important to me, and it could just be a plain old milk glass that’s literally a dime a dozen.

So, the same thing happens with art—you see it and the maker probably had an intention, they made it for some reason. But you, as the viewer, place your own meaning in it. You tell your own story through it; you see it through the lens of your own experience.

I wanted to put images that framed my ideas around it and my experience, but that also left ambiguity. There’s a lot left unsaid. I was going for the ambiguous nature of it, that there’s enough information to give you the framework or context, but there’s enough blank space that you can fill in your own narrative on it.

3. How did your upbringing on a farm inform your practice?

There’s a lot of hard work and manual labor, but there’s also this interest in education and culture. Then the work isn’t just brute force. And that’s what brings in the rest of it. I’m really looking at Craftsman-like thinking, where you do a job well for its own sake. You’re really carrying the tradition of knowledge, but it’s not your standard scholarly knowledge, it’s called tacit knowledge. It’s knowledge that is learned through exposure and then through practice. It’s really knowledge of your hands.

The story I wanted to tell is, What do you preserve? We all have things we preserve, and along with a lot of this material of preservation and tacit knowledge, but there’s this idea of, is it the intangible that you’re preserving, or is it the tangible? We do have tangible that is preserved, we do have museums, but there’s a huge amount of intangible knowledge. But how do you carry that on? Why do you choose to preserve certain things and not others? Is it strictly for you, or are you sharing it?

4. Your work is very aesthetically beautiful. Is that intentional?

I want my work to be beautiful. Some people don’t, but I do. To me, to make beautiful work is...I acknowledge that there is a lot of unrest in the world. There’s a lot of upheaval, which is what I think a lot of artists are making work about. But I really want to make work about that. There is still beauty in the world. Even though there’s the horrible, terrible, humanitarian global crisis, there is still hope and beauty.

5. What do you hope people take away from seeing this exhibition?

I set it up so there are multiple things someone could or could not take. I’d love for them to see it as a phenomenological object that they could see. I built my narrative into it, that’s the intrinsic, but I’d really like them to apply the extrinsic, apply their own meaning. Hopefully, the images help with that. If what happens is they come in and say, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” and they have a moment with an object that’s really beautiful, that’s great too.


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