Look closely at the textile art of Amy Meissner and signs of her evolving career emerge. The attention to detail and use of fine fabric show her background in the fashion field. Bold blocks of text reveal a writer’s sensibility. Children’s drawings done in stitching suggest she knows how to tell stories through illustration — and that she’s a mom.
Taken all together, her textile art demonstrates a transformation in Meissner’s art.
“I really had a crisis of faith,” Meissner said in a phone interview from her Anchorage home last Friday. “I really wanted to be in the clothing industry, but I stuck it out 12 years. And then I did the same thing in the publishing industry. It was time for a reinvention.”
Meissner shows her work in an exhibit through June 30 at Bunnell Street Arts Center. Metalsmith MarkKaye Denkelwalter, who also has worked as a textile artist, also displays her jewelry. Meissner had works in Bunnell’s recent 10×10 show and the Earth, Fire and Fibre and the All-Alaska Juried Art Exhibition shows, but this was her first opening with a large collection.
Meissner, 43, has a collection of degrees demonstrating a professional background. The oldest of four girls, after high school she wanted to go to Parsons School of Design in New York to study fashion design. Her father said that would be too expensive, so on a full academic scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno, she got two degrees that would be close to fashion design: a bachelor of arts in fine art and a bachelor of science in textile and apparel merchandising with a minor in business administration.
She married her husband, Brian Meissner, lead architect for the Homer Public Library, when they were both young and worked in the fashion industry while he was did his master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
“I had a number of types of jobs and just burned out before I was 30,” she said. “It’s a tough industry to be in if you’re a sensitive person.”
When the Meissners moved to Alaska in 2000, Amy Meissner went back to school to study creative writing, earning a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction in 2004 from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Meissner then illustrated children’s books for Alaska Northwest Books. But as with fashion, she did that for about 14 years before wanting to do something different.
Born to a Swedish mother who emigrated to the United States, Meissner grew up sewing, learning to crochet at 3. That childhood background in handwork led her back to fabric, needle and thread.
“To not be using that at all felt sad. It felt like a loss. It felt like I wanted to explore that,” she said. “And so there was this other possibility to do textile work as an art form.”
When Meissner had children, Pelle, now 9, and Astrid, now 6, the demands of writing and illustration became hard to do. Like her mother, though, she could sew with children underfoot.
“I could sit and do handwork with them right there,” she said. “They were bugging me and wanted to do it, too.”
Meissner let Pelle and Astrid help out. For some works, she felt she needed something playful around the edge. She gave her children purple ink markers with ink that disappears when it dries.
“To watch them put their hand down and put that mark with absolute intent was a beautiful thing. ‘Now I’m going to draw a unicorn. I’m going to draw a fire truck,’” she said.
The domesticity of a craft and of being a mother also lead Meissner into another exploration in her art.
“What does that mean to have a professional career and then have children, and then have that identity change and your artwork change as a result?” she asked. “I don’t think I would be doing that work if I didn’t have children.”
Because she uses techniques of quilting and handwork, Meissner said she struggled with the classic art vs. craft debate. She found affirmation in her work as art when she applied for and won an $18,000 Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist’s Fellowship last year. She could have chosen to apply in the category of craft, but chose visual art. She said she felt it important that her textile art got recognized as visual art.
“That really got the ball rolling,” she said of the Rasmuson fellowship. “I have spent the last year feeling really focused and able to devote a lot of my time because of that grant. It gave me a lot of validation.”
Meissner works in vintage fabric, buying material at thrift stores or wherever she can find it.
“They just arrive in my life. It’s very strange. I’m given fabrics,” she said. “They just start coming. That part is pretty interesting and feels sort of cosmic in a strange way.”
People who give her fabric should know she will cut it up and alter it, she said.
“But they’re revered. There’s a reverence in the act. They’re being given another opportunity, another life.”
Some pieces come with holes, which she works into the art. One hole she has sewn around with the word “mend.” Meissner adds found objects like bones, teeth and wood, surrounding them in silk organza mesh like little pockets.
Many of her works use big bold text, with phrases like “keep forever,” “scrub harder” and “why do you always say that something hurts?”
One large work, “Acquisition of Language,” elaborates on that question with “right here this pain this cut this chill this …,” a litany of complaints repeated in the work.
It’s clear the writer side of Meissner asserts itself in her work, something she was asked about at her opening.
“The idea that there is that distillation, the understanding that you need to be able to distill an idea and also being able to let it go,” she said of the influence of writing. “You’re not in control at this point. You just have to let it do what it needs to do.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Duo show with MaryKaye Denkewalter
Bunnell Street Arts Center
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday through June 30