Rachel Blythe Udell
I became interested in working with fibers and textiles several years after my mother passed away. It began with my needing to confront her clothing, which for me, still held her essence. As a little girl, I’d rifled through my mother’s clothes in her big walk-in closet. They were packed in close- a dizzying array of consistencies, colors and patterns. Cashmeres, silks, angoras, linens, tweeds, flannels…the textures and scent of my mom in that closet were very heady-intoxicating. I have childhood memories embedded in cloth, rich fibrous material with the capacity to contain perfume for years and years. Remembrances can be triggered by the weave of a skirt, the sheen of a blouse, a delicate, diaphanous lace.

My mother died just a week and a half before 9/11. As the world grieved, my own life had already become incomprehensibly altered. I didn’t know how to process her death and the surrounding events and circumstances. I longed to connect with her, to find a way to express and work through what I was feeling. So I began to make her a part of my work, a sort of collaborator. It was part of my fractured grieving process for my mother, and for my lost childhood. Over the years, I’ve used her nightgowns, pajamas, sheets, skirts, sweaters and scarves, among other materials, personally significant or not.

Shortly after my interest in textiles as a medium was sparked, a close friend convinced me to sign up for a crochet workshop. I didn’t think I’d be good at it- I’d never seen myself as a particularly crafty person or someone who would enjoy “domestic” types of work. Once I picked it up, I didn’t make scarves or sweaters or hats. Instead, I began making these odd, yet familiar forms and shapes, plant-like and creature-ish. Stitches became the basis upon which cellular/organic structures were built. The forms that emerged were mysterious and surprising. I worked intuitively and didn’t consciously know how they would turn out.

I’m interested in the functioning of the human body as well as the origins of its pains. This involves the capacity to truly thrive as well as physical and psychological breakdowns. The process of making these pieces became an antidote for anxiety and depression, states I’d grappled with all of my adult life. I found that long sessions of crocheting, or stitching in any form, could be meditative and calming.

My sculptures evolved and became more complex. Palpable, textured materials enabled me to create forms that feel alive. They evoke nature itself: rich, complex, patterned, and wild. They grew into varying biomorphic bodies in dialogue with one another. As such, they became metaphors for a connectedness, specifically related to how human beings exist in the world. We are not self-contained biological organisms, but part of an interacting, breathing membrane, transmitting and receiving the stuff of life between social and psychological systems, ecosystems, solar and cosmic systems. We are all made of the same stuff: we are distinct entities and yet we flow, physically and emotionally into our surroundings.

I think my pieces are at once inviting and repulsive. While their lush softness invites touch, some of the forms suggest internal organs, the parts of the body that are only touched or seen when diseased or dead. Other times the amalgamation of patterns, colors, and shapes, along with the clumps of appendages and growths, seem sinister, monstrous even. Still, the pieces are comforting to me for the most part. I think they are fantastic and dark at the same time. To me they feel sentient, as though they are extensions of myself, yet they also seem to take on a life of their own. I watch and listen to them. They twist and change, and ask to be hung differently. I try to accommodate them.

As a human being, I try to reconcile myself with the overwhelming vastness of the world, to not get lost, and to try and find my place and the meaning for my existence. In the face of unspeakable horrors and miraculous wonders, I seek through my art making, to transcend the unnatural state of human isolation. My art is a channel through which I attempt to come to terms with the polarizing experience of existence, and strike a balance between these extremes.