You know how often I reference the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in my blogs? A lot, actually, in part indicative of my familiarity with and respect for the institution (having lived and worked in Halifax for a number of years, and having curated and written about a number of its faculty and graduates). But mainly it’s indicative of the importance of the place; in the late1960s artist and teacher Garry Neill Kennedy utterly transformed a staid, provincial art school into a veritable power house that came to have international prominence. Conceptualism became indelibly linked with the institution, and even departments traditionally considered realms of “craft” (like weaving and ceramics) felt, even embraced, its impact. NSCAD is long past its heyday when it was arguably considered the best art school in the world (perhaps exemplified in John Baldessari’s lithographic print I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, done at NSCAD in the early 1970s), but the reverberations of what happened half-a-century ago continue to shape its path as it struggles for survival and relevance in the 21st century.
That being said, this has nothing to do with that. Okay, I’m not being entirely honest. The artist I want to talk of, Nova Scotia-based sculptor and weaver Dawn MacNutt www.dawnmacnutt.com, never went to school there. She hold a BA from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick (a small university town in the southeastern part of the province that, per capita, very likely has the highest number of artists making it their home), and her post-graduate training and education is in social work. Her textile-based sculpture is exhibited internationally, and she is represented in collections and through commissions in Canada and the US. Oh, and she’s taught in Canada and the US as well.
I evoke the presence of NSCAD in talking about this non-NSCADer (though she taught there as well for over twenty years) because it represents a way of thinking, an embracement of a new approach that transcends the norm. Which is precisely what MacNutt has been doing for decades: transcending norms, pushing at boundaries, taking weaving into the realms of the sculptural and the architectural.
Weaving is, in so many ways, about the human body – about clothing it, keeping it warm and dry – ornamenting it, even. Arguably, the human body is the root of the field, and MacNutt uses that as the significant aesthetic factor in her sculptural work, and for that to happen she employs that form of weaving we know as basketry.
Baskets, of course, also have everything to do with the human body, extending from their making to their function and purpose. MacNutt takes that to its logical end, for a large number of her sculptural works are constructed of basket-woven wood – like her many works made of willow. Like the work Column, for example. Long, slender branches of young willow are gathered and arranged vertically in a circle, woven together at the base and at five points within the verticality of the piece to form the titular column. It’s not clean at the top; the vertical branches extend to individual heights. Column supports nothing, nor could it, in fact, support anything at all beyond itself. Touch it and it would wobble. Push it and it would fall. For all its architectural reference, Column is fragile. Gentle. Right?
Well no, it’s not. MacNutt’s column defies such stereotyping, and it has everything to do with her choice of sculptural material. Willow is pliant. It will bend, but it’s strong, hard to break, and yielding (it must be noted) does not equate to fragility. Pliancy is about toughness, endurance, bending but not giving out.
At 200 cm in height, Column is also proportionally to a human scale. It’s visually equitable, approachable, experiential. It is so with her other woven manifestations of the column form; some of them are just over 300 cm in height (and cleanly terminate at the top with capitals that mirror their bases) – tall, but not overwhelmingly so. The relation to the human body is maintained. Physically overwhelming us is not part of her aesthetic agenda. Importantly, MacNutt resists the monumental impetus.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her woven figurative sculptures, works that are powerfully akin to her columns and so reinforce the body relationship. A cluster of such pieces – Rebirth, Forgiveness, and Resolution – are visually demonstrative of the link. Like the columns, many of the figurative works are made of woven willow. And they begin as tubular forms (as in the columns), though more misshapen, uneven, “wriggly,” even. Just like a human body. Many are pinched, the woven structure tightly tapering to a point, a narrowness from which it then widens, articulating perhaps the narrowness of a waist, say, or the neck that leads to a head. Abstract, yes, but demonstrably figurative in origins and intent. And while they vary in height, MacNutt will have none of the monumental. We are not to be cowed, are not to look on (and up) in awe. We are to be given relation, to be afforded a kind of equitable communion.
Woven willow is Dawn MacNutt’s primary sculptural medium, but not her only. She’s woven with seagrass, and with copper wire, as in arguably her best know body of work, Kindred Spirits, a series which possibly cleaves most closely and overtly to the human form. She’s also worked extensively with copperwire cloth. But wood – willow – is where her heart seems to beat strongest, and it has made for an ideal leap into the processes of casting metal, as in Timeless Figure, one of a number of works she’s rendered in bronze.
Timeless, yes. But ever resistant to the monumental.
By Gil McElroy