Interview: Margaret Leininger

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Could you please describe your studio practice?

My studio practice is informed upon a foundation of art theory, craft theory and technical expertise in a wide range of media including many textile related skills along with performance, photography, sculpture and other media. Recently, I have begun to include many forms of social practice into my studio investigations that encourage, seek, and rely upon public interaction.

What are the key concepts you explore through your visual work? Could you describe one or two specific projects?

Site, place, temporality are all things I explore in my work and have been a constant throughout my career as an artist. In addition to these main themes, I also explore the notion of connection, complexities, and systems as it relates to both intimate and distant relationships we have as human beings to each other and this earth. One work that demonstrates such concepts is Industrious Anarchy which is the latest project of mine. The work consists of weaving site specifically informed cloth using sustainably procured fibers. The cloth will then be marketed through alternative market structures. Through these actions the work explores the complex interconnections between materiality, environment, social economic structures and the complex systems that we navigate on a daily basis such as how we define ourselves within a material culture.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

My environment influences much of my work. As does my deep interest of sociology, economics and sustainability. Often, my work stems from direct observations of the varied histories of globalism from the ancient Silk Road to the present day issues of clothing workers in Bangladesh. My interest in cotton and sustainable agriculture, for example, comes from daily immersion among AZ cotton fields, produce fields and hay fields. I often ask myself how I can contribute my viewpoint through a visual expression or artistic action as that is the power or gift I have that allows me to participate in a broader conversation beyond myself. Often, though, through research I discover that of course nothing is black and white. That would be too easy. Rather, there are a multitude of grays out there, and my work attempts to illustrate just one particular viewpoint.

Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, what type of projects have you worked on and what was your role?

I have worked collaboratively on many occasions. I have worked on two projects specifically that have served to promote humanitarian issues in our society. These include Care Packages where 17 Uighur detainees at Guantanamo received hand made pieced and quilted prayer mats and Found Objects where I collaborated with knitters around the country to raise funds to support the National Coalition for the Homeless through the knitting and placement of 365 miniature sweaters. When found by the public, the attached tag instructed the finder to make a monetary donation to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In both of these projects I was the creative lead, but I have also enjoyed working amongst a group of creative artists of all disciplines to work towards common goals as in my teaching practice as an artist in residence at Snow City Arts that provided art instruction to hospitalized children.

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As a weaver exploring issues of production, labor and intellectual property rights associated with textile manufacturing, do you also investigate the environmental impacts of textile manufacturing?

Yes. I am particularly interested in the environmental impact of textile manufacturing especially as the post-industrial economy demands over production of goods. Just by going into a large retailer or big box store, you see that there is no way the local economy can consume all of the textiles in the store for example. Where does this surplus eventually end up? Dumped into a landfill or the ocean. There are some organized movements that are urging larger corporate entities to think more responsibly when it comes to the materials their products are made from as well as the environmental impact of such overproduction. Such organizations are urging large retailers to re-think their carbon footprint and to utilize this as a marketing strategy to offset the cost of higher production. EcoTextile is one such organizing group making tremendous strides among larger contributors including Wal-Mart, The Gap and others. As a weaver, I am most focused on utilizing locally sourced sustainable products in my work to emphasize the connection between the environment and our tactile sensibility.

Does your activism enter into your artwork?

Most recently, I find my work containing some form of activist element whether in a more direct approach as in the ARTivention projects or more subtly in the Industrious Anarchy project. By making specific choices related to materiality, marketing and purpose, much of my work aims to activate the viewer in some manner.

Do issues relating to food ever enter into your artwork/activism?

While specifically food itself does not enter into either my work or activism, I do find a direct correlation to food as it is a primary need that is essential to human sustainability. Creating a textile often includes very similar actions to producing food. It takes knowledge, planning, tending, adjusting and an understanding of organic processes. In addition, with the current development of an urban fiber farm in the city of Chicago, I am hoping to partner with a local CSA, or agricultural model, to create a space where the community can directly make the connection between clothing that they wear and the land around them. So, similar to the CSA, or other urban farming initiatives, the dependence and connection between us and the land is paramount. Thus, the similarity between food and cloth.

What kind of environmental initiatives or organizations are you involved in?

I am an avid follower of groups supporting non-traditional methods or re-visiting traditional methods of production that aim to eliminate or reduce the environmental impact of textile manufacturing in both a cottage and industrial system. Such groups include Ecotextiles as I mentioned earlier, the CA Fibershed, and various other initiatives in the U.S. fighting a good cause. While I am definitely not the first to make the connections between local producers, CSA models, and sustainable practice, I do hope to create a unique model of urban farming that includes fiber production, harvesting and textile manufacturing that invites the community to become more invested in their local neighborhoods, in themselves and each other. Similar to farming and other agricultural practices, textile production is often a very social, collaborative method. It invites dialogue, exchange and interdependence that we as a culture need to embrace.

Could you offer some advice as to how to become involved in local, national, and global environmental programs? 

First, I would invite people to investigate their own backyard. It is very interesting to see what’s going on in even the smallest of communities. By starting local, supporting those who are keeping traditions alive, and the power away from GM production, we are guaranteeing the survival of many species of plants and animals. It is important that everyone participate in even the tiniest of ways by making clear conscious consumer choices to move away from the corporate identity of name brand products and mass produced food/clothing elements. These actions, even if only a couple a week, a month or year (depending upon the type) contributes to a broader, richer cultural heritage.  Each choice that results in not choosing a mass produced good by a corporate identity takes away power from a larger, often national and/or international identity, and empowers a local maker, farmer, producer. Support Industrious Anarchy by contributing to a crowd source funding mechanism through USA Projects, (click here) for example. By making a tax deductible contribution, people can become involved in the foundational support of Chicago’s first urban fiber farm. And there are many more projects and ways to support our collective creative community that provides us with food, shelter, warmth and comfort. It’s just whether or not people will actually take action NOW.  

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By Sarah K. Benning

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