inspiring textile innovation: Erin Lewis, visionary By Line Dufour

Erin_Lewis_Earthquake_Skirt_

Earthquake Skirt, collected debris, kinetic movement based on live data feed of earthquake activity on the planet, 2011. Erin Lewis. Photo credit: Erin Lewis.

Textile designers and fibre artists have been exploring the potential for integrating electronics and current technologies into art, textiles and clothing since the 1960s. As these artists and designers strive to seamlessly integrate technological trends and advances into everyday objects  and art, these forays continue to endlessly fascinate and intrigue us as new creations are imagined and fashioned.

Scientific inquiry often begins with an observation that piques curiosity or raises a question. The question narrows the focus of exploration and identifies the parameters of the experiment. Data and research is collected and then a final conclusion is drawn. Creativity is sparked by our capacity to envision, and imagine new possibilities with what already exists. Erin Lewis embraces both these processes in her artistic practice.  The idea of informing the  viewer of factual data so vital to scientific inquiry and practice and a role which is most often delegated to the computer in our daily work lives, is disguised in art installations that Erin creates.  She often incorporates real time data feeds into her installations as a rhetorical device. Her projects are often platforms for her social conscience and political awareness. These strategies and approaches imbues her work with many layers of meaning, making it multidimensional in more than one sense.

 As in scientific experiments, there is always uncertainty about what the outcomes will be. Erin encounters failures with humour, intelligence and positivity. She is not shy to admit that she may lack the experience she requires, for instance, as she refers to recent weaving endeavours. She embraces the adage made popular by the Paul Simon song, that “you have to learn how to fall before you learn to fly”, and perhaps, for us as craftsperson, that is the most important message we need to be reminded of as we may become set in our practice.

 

Erin’s seemingly endless curiosity is one of her biggest assets as an artist and it has led her to explore, experiment, play, create, and live life in the most intriguing, passionate and intelligent of ways. This very same curiosity led her to weaving, just one of her many forays into craft oriented practice. Like a pioneer, she constructs new connections and applications between technology, science, biology, chemistry, software programming, color, materials, functionality, movement and texture. She weaves ideas, methods, new and old technologies as well as materials together to form new objects of art, sculpture and clothing, challenging our own perceptions and assumptions. Each work is imbued with the magical, a word that often comes up in Erin’s conversation.

 

Erin Lewis received a Bachelor in Fine Art in 2012 from the Ontario College of Art University with a major in integrated media and a minor in Wearable Technology. Erin has learned to speak Spanish fluently and more recently took a course in human tissue engineering.  She has been teaching  the Wearable Technology and Smart Materials course through OCADU in the Department of Continuing Studies which continues to be offered. She is a senior researcher at the Social Body Lab, part of OCADU’s ongoing research of wearable technology. Her work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, CBC poetry series, Science Centre, Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, and has been exhibited in New York, Las Vegas, London, England besides Toronto.

 

Erin’s trajectory regarding technology has to some extent come full circle. As a child, she grew up in a tech friendly environment. Her father, a software engineer, also had a background in electronics engineering.  She describes him as being inventive and creative and she makes it  clear that he has had a huge impact and influence on shaping Erin’s knowledge of  and enthusiasm for technology. Her two brothers also contribute to her knowledge base and expertise in this area. Though technology is almost second nature to Erin, this is not what Erin always did.  She ended up being employed out of high school   working in the community with underprivileged and at risk youth as a health care worker and then later spearheaded and managed programs for the same demographic. Ten years later she applied to the Ontario College of Art, where she quickly reconnected with her early childhood technological experiences and ignited the passion she didn’t realize she harbored for it.  

 

From 20,000 dreams  collected over the last 100 years or so by the University of Sacramento psychology department, Erin searched them by demographic  and was able to narrow her search down to the dreams of blind women. “I was curious to know what senses blind women expressed in their dreams. “ Using software, she did a text analysis that would select all senses being expressed in different terms such as see, look,  touch, feel , smell in all their different configurations of language. In her search for the dominant sense, she was surprised to discover that sight was the word and sense they most often referred to. It wasn’t the answer she was expecting.  Most were legally blind and less than 5% were not blind at birth. The result of this research led to the creation of a felted  piece entitled Blind Dreamers that incorporated large Braille nodes that you  touch. The Braille script spells out the word SIGHT,  the result of the text analysis. She hopes in future that she’ll be able to integrate an audio component, so that when the node is pressed, a recording of a woman telling the dream is played.

 

Erin Lewis Blind Dreamer

 

Blind Dreamers, Felt, Erin Lewis. 2012

Erin has been wanting to weave for a long time. She began looking at textiles for their sculptural possibilities and feels compelled to marry them with electronics and technology. She willingly admits she knew nothing about weaving when she constructed her first ideas and projects that incorporated and/or referenced weaving. When Erin first discovered fibre optics it was clear to her that the material begged to be woven and despite her efforts could not include it in her courses at OCADU. Instead she decided to build a (very basic tapestry) loom on the wall of her studio. “I really had no idea what I was doing.  What I ended up with was a really interesting piece of textile that showed its inherent sculptural possibilities.” She attached RGB LED’s to the work and programmed them to twinkle according to the real time activity of the Northern Lights, and gave the sculpture the same title.

   
Erin Lewis Northernlights
         
      Northern Lights, data-driven woven fibre-optic textile, 2011. Erin Lewis.  Photo credit: Erin Lewis.

In 2012 she again used fibre optics  in her life sized canoe installation entitled Vessel. She constructed it on a knitting machine that she also taught herself to use.  Again, she programmed real time date taken from Lake Ontario. Erin describes Vessel as  “.... an illuminated sculpture that immerses itself in the symbolism of the canoe, while situating itself in the here and now by integrating wind gust data as it blows over the surface of Lake Ontario.  With its outer shell constructed as a light-emitting textile, the canoe illuminates with wind activity, gaining frequency and frenzy at its most active points, and relaxing into calm at its lowest points. Fibre optics spill over the edge of the canoe like water splashing up its sides. The mythical, metaphorical, and contemporary canoe is alive with wind and water. The result is a poetic data materialization that seeks to join together the past and present world.”

 

Erin Lewis Vessel 2012

 

Vessel, data driven fibre optics, nylon monofilament, LEDs, electronics., 2012.
Photographed by the artist.

 Originally she thought of the Canoe more as a Canadian symbol but began to see it as an object  common to many indigenous cultures across the planet.  This  echoes North America’s multicultural composition and parallels that of weaving. Canoes, like textiles, didn’t just serve pragmatic ends -  to enable or enhance survival, or to get us only from point A to B, nor are they only symbols of colonization, craft practice or cottage life. Erin believes that canoes also played a spiritual role. There were burial canoes and marriage canoes.  In myths, literature and poetry , canoes are metaphors for  the journey of life, or the passage to other worlds. “ I’ve held on to the idea of the canoe because i understood that it has many different meanings to many different people.”

Most of Erin’s constructions marry contemporary and current technologies and data, with the old and traditional. She employs rhetorical devices stitched with irony, respect and humour to convey her message and the data she collects. Erin is a beacon of what the future holds for textile practice. “The most significant potential for innovation in textiles and fibre art is materials.” Lynne Bruning, Surface Design Journal, Spring 2013.

 To see more of Erin Lewis’s work go to: www.erinlewis.ca

Line DuFour: Bio

Line Dufour studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, the University of Guelph  of and the University of Toronto.

Her tapestries have been exhibited extensively, such as at the American Textile Museum in Lowell Massachusetts, Eider Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, Kentucky and the Scarfone Gallery at the University of Tampa.

She has received numerous awards, grants and scholarships to pursue her weaving. Her tapestries can be found in many collections, and she has received several commissions for her work. Her most recent grant from the Ontario Arts Council enabled her to create a tapestry installation in which 250 people worldwide participated in co-creating.

Numerous publications have featured Line’s work, such as the National Post, Hamilton Spectator, Shuttle, Spindle and Dyepot, Southwest Art and a book entitled Tapestry, published by Phaidon Press and written in Great Britain by Barty Phillips which placed Line in the "Contemporary Masters" chapter.

Line has been teaching weaving for the last 25 years and writing articles about weaving and weavers for various publications, as well as on her blog. www.tapestryline.com