Quilts of Flood, Fire, Collapse
We talk to artist Amy Subach about her series of quilts depicting the effects of climate change.
What first drew you to depicting the effects of climate change in your work?
My ever-growing anxiety about climate change, honestly. That and the political climate of the United States. It was easier to believe everything was going to be fine under the Obama administration. But the fact is, as long as we live under the oligarchy, as long as there is money to be made from continuing down the same path of resource extraction and inaction, as long as we are led to believe that if only we make the right choices as consumers, we are going to be devastated by climate change, and billions of people will be displaced, and millions of people will continue to die.
I think the thing that the super-rich and powerful don’t understand is that there is no escaping, even for them. I’m reading Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells right now, which I think everyone should read. That and Emergent Strategies, byadrienne maree brown. Oh, and Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein.
Has your relationship with the earth and its landscapes changed since you began this project?
These quilts are works of grief and acceptance and, I hope, a beautiful spur to action. I’ve been interested in climate change since I was in elementary school in the 1980s. Our school adopted a grey wolf and we had an assembly where we got to see a real life endangered species, a wolf, and howl at/with it. For a group of suburban Long Island NY kids, this was as much “nature” as any of us ever got! We celebrated Earth Day, we were taught that the world was ours to protect. I’ve been concerned about climate change ever since then, but not especially active other than getting involved in the active transportation scene in Portland Oregon, where I live.
I get really anxious being in crowds, or going on group bike rides. That being said, I go to protests when I have the ability to. Anyway, I think I’ve mostly become more reflective and appreciative of what we have right now, because it’s not going to last. And I have the occasional crying fits over bringing two little humans, the loves of my life, into this mess.
You work with various materials and textures. Could you talk a bit about the decisions behind these textile choices?
I don’t know what a quilt is going to look like when I start it—some of the quilts look almost exactly like their source photo, some very different. I work using raw-edge appliqué, reverse appliqué (which means that I rip through one or layers of fabric to reveal the underlying fabric), and machine embroidery. I use mostly—though not exclusively—solid color fabrics. I encourage the fabric to unravel in places, to fray. I like to work this way because I like to be surprised by what happens. I improvise as I go along. There’s a risk to cutting through and ripping away, and there’s no real way to erase or paint over what I do. Quilting may not seem like a risky medium, but it is the way that I do it.
Was your creative process for these quilts any different from previous projects?
It was different, in a few ways. Firstly, I knew I had a gallery show in a few months, so I felt the need to have a coherent, and new, series of work, about something that felt important to me. Secondly, I spent a lot of time looking for source images for these quilts. My previous work was mostly of self-portraits or text, though I made a couple of meme quilts, and the Golden Girls Tarot Queens. They’re also more overtly political, and less obviously personal. Though I would say that I take climate change very personally because there’s no escaping it for any of us.
There’s an interesting tension between the comfort of a quilt and the unsettling images the work depicts. Is this something you considered while creating the quilts?
A few years back, when I had just started out making “art” quilts—as opposed to quilts I intended to be used as blankets— I had the good fortune of spending a week with my former sister-in-law’s mother-in-law, the artist Mary Beth Edelson. I showed her the first art quilt I made, it was the first of my Erotic Selfie Quilts. She said “that’s not very interesting.” (Her comment upset me but I got over it, sort of.) Her mental state was in decline by then, she was in the early-to-mid stages of dementia, but we got to have a brief conversation about art. She said one thing that stayed with me, that she found it important to break the form. She gave me an example: make a quilt that falls apart, out of fragile materials. I took her advice to heart, but not in the physical sense.
I have been making quilts (and pillows) that are uncomfortable emotionally. Disturbing, anxiety-ridden, quilts. Quilts that hurt you. I live with this great anxiety about climate change, and these quilts make that emotional state physical. I’m also thinking about the relationship we have to our phones, screens, and how most of the images we see are ephemeral, we scroll past everything, having brief reactions but rarely sitting with and contemplating the images. Quilt-making is slow, meditative, and grounding.
What role do you believe art plays in the larger climate change conversation?
Art is one way to draw attention to what is happening. Art, especially political art, works alongside journalism, activism, and politics to inspire and create change. I think you can fall in love with a work of art, and love is the most powerful thing. What we love right now is money. If we could live in love for each other, and for the earth that has supported the evolution of our species, then we would have the power to work together to take the necessary and life-saving steps we need to take to survive.
What do you hope people will take away from your climate change quilts?
One, that it’s already happening. Two, that we need to do something about it, politically, globally, and locally. Three, that beauty and joy are still essential.
Amy Subach lives in Portland, Oregon with her two children and dog. Her artistic work investigates our relationships with technology and with each other. This includes several fabric series (Erotic Selfie Quilts, Meme Quilts, Negative Affirmation Quilts, Mean Pillows, Golden Girls Tarot Quilts), and a series of Forgiveness Pop-Ups. She’s the author of Paleo for Unicorns: Eat the Patriarchy, and has written and performed lots of songs. She’s an intersectional feminist who believes that we are all in this together.