Wild Woman is an art collaboration that includes a luxury clothing collection and highlights women’s empowerment. The pieces are on display at the Portland Art Museum in conjunction with the museum’s Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism exhibit. We hear more about the work from creators Myriam Marcela De Anda and Laura Renée Maier.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Five years ago the Portland-based fashion designer Myriam Marcela De Anda teamed up with the Seattle born New York-based textile artist Laura Renée Maier. They worked back and forth. De Anda creates high fashion garments and Maier provides meticulously-embroidered designs. They call their project Wild Woman. Now their latest collaboration is on display as part of the Portland Art Museum’s Mexican Modernism exhibit. It is a regal cape inspired by a Frida Kahlo lithograph about her miscarriage. Laura Renée Maier and Myriam Marcela De Anda, welcome.
Laura Renée Maier: Thank you. David.
Myriam Marcela De Anda: Thank you.
Miller: Marcela first, what was the starting point for this collaboration five years ago?
De Anda: Five years ago? Gosh I can’t believe it has been that long. Everything started at the Women’s March and the presidency of the president before Biden that I don’t want to say his name ever. I attended the Women’s March and I just felt so much inspiration for the solidarity that I found that day and I came back to the studio with the feeling and the need of creating a collection that would deliver a message rather than a season and then I visioned these women’s portraits and that’s how I start my search to see which artists can portray this vision. And in my search, I found Laura and as you know her work is so freakin’ beautiful and amazing.
Miller: Well, I’ve seen it because I went to the museum and I’ve been studying up for this, but I’ll let Laura describe it in a second. But as a friend and collaborator, can you describe her work and why you were drawn to reach out to her to collaborate with?
De Anda: Oh my gosh, even my heart gets so wide when I think about her work because as couturier or someone who works by hand like my work does, I’m always so drawn to handmade things and when I saw her portraits just to begin with you see them and it’s breathtaking to see all those lines but you don’t know exactly what they are. When I went to her website, I noticed that they were made with a crank sewing machine. That just blew my mind because when I sew by machine I had a pedal, a motor, and I have a knee pedal thing that raises the foot of the machine. Well she doesn’t have any of that. She doesn’t even have electricity. It’s all cranked by her right hand. And then with the left one she turns these beautiful portraits. That just blew my mind. I continued to be amazed by that because I still can’t believe how she can do this. But that’s the beauty of it.
Miller: Laura Renée Maier, hopefully it’s not weird to have somebody just talk about you when you’ve been invited to talk to yourself
De Anda: (Laughter) She’s used to it.
Maier: Oh, I love it.
Miller: But before we do, I’d love to hear you talk about your own work and we will get to that. But I’m curious about the opposite. So Myriam Marcela reached out to you. Why did you say yes and what did you see in her work?
Maier: For me it was a lot of the same things. She had this amazing attention to detail and we both have this eye for those really small things. I looked at her pieces and even on the inside of every work she matches up the patterns perfectly. She is just such a perfectionist and my brain just lights up seeing her work. But also it came when I first started talking to her and she just has this passion that’s just so infectious and so exciting. And she started talking about her ideas for the project and I was just taken away by her idea. And so yes, she’s just so inspiring. And that’s what first drew me to her.
Miller: Can you explain? Because the media Marcela was, she gave us some sense. But to be honest I didn’t know what a hand crank sewing machine was until I read about your work. Can you describe how you do your work?
Maier: Yes. It’s a bit unusual. It’s an antique sewing machine. It’s a Singer sewing machine, it’s from the early 1920s. And these ones instead of being powered by a foot pedal, it’s powered by a hand crank that I turn on the side of it. And then I manipulate the fabric using only my left hand. It’s just a very simple mechanical object just powered by hand.
Miller: I’ve read that you often use a continuous thread for your work.
What’s the technical challenge of that?
Maier: Yeah. That is pretty much an underlying theme for my finding work, this one continuous line. For me this line represents time. It represents infinity. It represents our perception of time and that kind of passes over itself and builds itself up. When I’m building the form I start out with an outline and then these outlines for the different parts of the body become kind of like a highway to find the other and build the other parts of the form. Certain lines get built up more and become thicker and darker and stronger. And so this using one line almost is a way of creating different tones in the peace. It’s kind of like this meditation, this maze that I’m following constantly throughout the work.
Miller: Do you have to have everything mapped out ahead of time in order to achieve the kind of image you want?
Maier: I do more or less. I start out with the sketch. I start out by making all the proportions. I set everything the way that I want. But because fabric is this organic fluid material, the more I work with it, the more it’s penetrated by the needle, it causes damage and so the weave and the fibers will change and adapt so it causes distortion. It causes it to become textural and have dimension. It’s kind of this act of surrender. The more I try to control the way it looks, the more distorted it becomes. So I do set out how I want it to look. But in the end it ends up becoming kind of its own thing. It has its own life.
Miller: How much of your decision to use a hand cranked sewing machine, 100 year old antique sewing machine, is because of the final product you’re able to make with that as opposed to the act of creation and what it feels like to be moving that fully by hand?
Maier: Yes. This tool has become so unique to my process because I couldn’t make what I make with anything else. It is at the same time mechanical but very intimate. I’m moving the machine each stitch at a time with one hand. It becomes in a way an extension of my body. But it’s still in a way mechanic. Like it’s a machine. But I think that’s what’s so beautiful about it, it represents this moment in time. This is like a zeitgeist to when things went from being made by hand-it’s like fully manual– to when we started to create extensions of machines that could start to do things for us. Right now it exists as something so archaic and so old and so slow.
But in a way it exists in this kind of beauty in between those two things that it still feels manual but it is also a machine.
Miller: I’m thinking about a bicycle in some ways when you’re describing that at this point, an old machine that’s absolutely human technology and a marvel, but also feels sort of old fashioned and perfect in its way.
Miller: Myriam Marcela, how did this particular piece of the project come to be?
De Anda: My job with this Wild Woman is completely free in this project. When I work with a client, you usually have a budget and some inspiration behind what they want and the needs. But with this Wild Woman, we are completely free to do whatever we want. That being said, at the beginning of this project with the collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, Laura right away saw a full-figured woman. My job is to complement that and how can I provide Laura a canvas that can fit a full-sized figure. That’s how we developed the cape. And when we talked about the collection of 12, we always thought that the Cape was going to be part of the collection. We just didn’t know where on the 12 pieces so this one is number nine. And when the opportunity to collaborate with them and inspiration with Frida came to us, it was just a no brainer. We just thought about creating this cape now. My brain just started putting everything together once I saw Laura’s sketch and the idea that she wanted. And then for the rest of the Cape, it’s all based on Frida after I studied her home in Coyoacan and the amazing exhibition they have at the Portland Art Museum. My brain just picked up little pieces of what would Frida love. For me I built it especially for her like the intricate patchwork. It resembles her tiles in Mexico in her home and also her wardrobe; it’s all full of squarish necklines and the clasps in the front of the piece are also inspired by all the braces that she used underneath her garment to keep her body together. So, but this way I wanted to put it outside in representation of being out of that pain that was always hidden underneath and just to honor that and to show our flaws. The other thing that I thought about her is how she’s always on the paintings with her arms crossed in front of her because she wears a rebozo on her shoulders most of the time. This cape was also meant for her to have that kind of silhouette, So basically, my inspiration was her, my muse and it was always thinking what will she be proud of wearing? And I came up with this cape. Another fascinating fact for me is that the whole piece from the center front to the center back on the bodies of this cape is just one panel. So the fun part about this process is for me to find a kind of sculpture to balance it and to make it a cape all around. It was super fun to make.
Miller: Laura, can you describe the Frida Kahlo lithograph that was a real part of the inspiration for this work?
Maier: Yes. Before we made this piece, we were fortunate to see a list of all the works that we’re going to be included in the exhibition to find inspiration. And I was just so drawn to this piece. First of all it’s a lithograph which is a medium that freedom never used. This is the only time she ever did use this medium and she ended up burning or destroying pretty much all of the proofs that she ended up making of it. And it was just so raw, so textural black and white so different from everything else she does because she is so colorful. To me it spoke so much because I could see so much rawness and so much vulnerability in this piece. The more research I did into it, I learned this was her first miscarriage. She happened when she was actually in Detroit. She was there because Diego was painting a mural and she was also working so she was away from her home. She was in this foreign country that was probably not very welcoming or embracing. She had this super traumatic, really painful thing happen to her and she turned to this medium that she’s never used before and you could just see this part of her in this piece, so exposed. All of her techniques that she’s so used to using in her painting, you could just see this very beautiful, vulnerable, part of her. And also the lithograph itself is this self portrait, her nude standing fully exposed around her is an embryo, some roots. It’s just this act of her just opening up completely and this very feminine act of finding strength through vulnerability. So we were both really, really drawn to that feeling.
Miller: Myriam Marcela, what was it like for you personally to work on this particular piece?
De Anda: It was very emotional because we encountered a moment where Laura’s vision figures around this Magdalena, the full figure and she made a hand, she made a heart and when the time came to create a third piece she kept seeing this embryo and she let me know that the embryo was coming back to her vision and that she felt a little afraid of putting it in the cape. So when we were discussing this process, I asked her if she had a miscarriage before and she said no. And then I opened up about it. I did have one when I was 12 weeks along and when I was speaking with Laura about this experience, it was just normal, it was something that I healed, that happened, that it was okay to talk about it because it has been long ago. But then Laura left that night for the day and I kept working. And when Laura works, like she said, the fabric gets distortions so my job is to make it the best way possible after her process is done so had to go through an applique process where you trim the whole figure and then you apply it into a new piece of fabric very carefully; you have to do many rows of matching thread around the pieces. I was doing that on the woman figure and all of a sudden I just felt this avalanche of emotion towards this particular theme that is the miscarriage and my eyes went super cloudy and I just started crying, crying, like sobbing and and I was like what is happening so I just stopped working and all of the sudden I just let myself feel everything that I was feeling. It was like some sort of going back to that day that Myriam went in the surgery room to get this taken out of me, it was a very hard process in my life and what comes after. As women, sometimes we are silent about it, we don’t speak about it, we feel guilty for so many years. I felt guilty that I did something wrong and that I lost this baby because I did something wrong. You end up having that guilt for a long time until you heal. I immediately called laura and I said do it, Laura, do it, just to honor all the women that have had this experience and that we are silent about it that we don’t talk about it and also for all those babies to honor because I felt somehow that I just forgotten about it and all of the sudden it was so real and so vivid. I felt honored that Laura, the next day, came back to the studio and started creating this embryo; and, obviously after she created it, I had to cut it and then applique it onto the new piece of fabric. And I cried all over again but it was a good cry, it was like an honorific cry, letting go and feeling whatever I had to feel and acknowledging that it’s okay to be in pain sometimes. It was an emotional experience for me.
Miller: Laura Renée Maier, has working on this collaboration with Myriam Marcela changed the way you think about your own work, your solo work?
Maier: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s made me realize how connected we are– that what I create is connected and has an impact on other women and other female-identifying people. That my muse of femininity or this divine feminine that I I tried to express in my work really means something to other people and that’s something that I don’t take lightly. So as much as it is a self expression, I think as an artist our role is also to interpret what is going on in the world and how people are feeling. And that always happens with my collaboration here with Marcela. I’ll be creating from a very personal place, but as soon as I show it to her– as she was I put it out into the world–it suddenly means something so much to someone else and they see so much of themselves in it as well. And I think that’s been a very powerful thing. And also just this kind of the beauty of sisterhood of bouncing ideas off of each other, of learning from each other from her experiences and also her encouraging me like at the very beginning. She was just talking about how much she loves my work. And also this is the story of the fetus that we put on the piece. I had fear around it because I didn’t have a personal experience with that, but I felt like it was something that needed to be said, especially what’s going on in the world right now as far as the Roe v. Wade and her just saying no, we have to say it, you have to do it. That support has been huge for my development creatively.
Miller: Laura, Renée Maier and Myriam Marcela De Anda, thanks very much.
Maier: Thank you. David,
De Anda: Thank you so much for having us.
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