See artist Ely Urbanski’s creations of monoprint portraits on fabric from donated clothing

Photographer Beth Mann sat down with artist Ely Urbanski, whose exhibit “hu.man.kind” is on view until August 13 at The Carrack Modern Art in Durham. Urbanski’s images carry the energy and memories of the items they depict and their owners.

The opening reception for “hu.man.kind” is Friday, August 5 from 6 to 9 p.m., and will feature a special performance by Common Woman Chorus.

Urbanski will also be at the venue to collect clothing donations and record videos on August 9, 10, and 12 from 12 to 6 pm. There will be an artist’s talk August 13 at 2:30 p.m.

Click on the photos and read the Q&A

What is the genesis of this exhibit and technique?

006In the beginning I was in Japan, and I didn’t have a studio so I asked my friends if they would be models. And I’d do some kind of simple drawing, outline the body. But then, I always needed a model. So then I started using clothes. What I used to do was printmaking in the traditional way, using press on paper. But one thing that always motivates me is the human being and their stories. And I saw that this was a way to put my personal interest and artistic interest together.

How has the clothing changed the process and direction of the work?

When I came here I started collecting clothes. Friends gave me shirts. This pillowcase came from my friend Wilma. That is, now she’s my friend, but at first she was just a visitor of my exhibition. And that’s also when I started recording videos. There’s a whole video about the pillowcase. The original owner, Elizabeth, came from Germany during the war. She didn’t have close family, so she passed it on to Wilma, who also used it for a long time. It was all torn, so she decided to donate it.

And what do the video stories add to the pieces?

When you see the stories, you can transmit part of the energy of the story into the piece. They’re complimentary. Well, it is part of why I titled this show “hu.man.kind” — because I wanted to include the word human and the word kind, because in all these videos I saw the strength of friendship and kindness. Here’s a quote from a video:

“A few years ago, I lost everything — my house, my kids and wife, and I was going to be homeless. Someone let me stay in their cabin (with no heat, just a fireplace). So I stopped by a gas station to pick up some firewood, and I saw the hat sitting there, and thought, ‘Firewood will last me one night, but the hat will keep me warm every day.’ And I still live in the cabin, but I’ve got firewood now, so I’m donating the hat.”

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How do you make these pieces?

I soak the piece of clothing, then I put it on the floor with layers of fabric. Then I add a wood board and then myself! I’m the weight! Because they’re big and I don’t have such a big press! And even though I’m small, it’s enough. Especially for the bleach, which reacts very fast. The colored pieces are the bleach, and the ones printed on white use sumi ink.

How has your process changed?

003In the beginning it was just the clothes the way they are, but then I started taking them apart. You can still see the form, but it’s deconstructed. With the whole clothing, you see the whole thing — “Oh this is a skirt, this is a hat” — but I think I did it because I connected these pieces with the stories and memories. After [some time], if you have three people talking about the same event, they’ll talk about it in different ways. And I think when I start taking apart [the clothing] it’s like what happens inside our brain. We may have all the parts and can connect them together, and while it may not be exactly what happened, it’s what you kept in your brain and in your heart.

You mentioned you can only have so much control over the output. How does that work?

No matter what kind of printing you do, there is always some kind of surprise. Sometimes you put many layers, and each layer has a different effect. Depending on the material — each material is different — it comes out in its own way. Also when the fabric is new, if you don’t wash it it’s one way or if you do wash it it’s another. The work has life. You’re a facilitator, and sometimes you have a project in your mind, but you start doing it and it’s something totally different. And then you have a decision: Do you want to keep your original project and force the result, or if you can accept what came and decide how [you can work with it].

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How might you change or expand your technique in the future?

I use sewing sometimes. Depending on the material, I can sometimes do three or four prints, and I might make a work putting them all together. Here I’ve sewn into the piece to indicate plants and life growing. This piece was a donation from my friends Paulo and Renaldo, and Renaldo passed on, and so even though he’s passed, there’s somewhere he’s still growing.

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