Humankind has a penchant for creating social molds and insisting everyone fits somewhere. In the art world, particularly the academic art world, the expectations are heavily tied to the conceptual; pieces and exhibitions are meant to reflect or impose on audiences some higher insight into the human condition. But I would argue that many artists don’t fit that mold, hesitating to consider themselves artists under such conditions. Audiences typically can’t look at a byproduct of concentrated effort without more heavily weighing the byproduct over the hours upon hours spent in its creation. So what mold fits the visual artist who prefers process and material over making an obvious statement?
Alison L. Bailey struggled with transitioning from the time-consuming conceptual art of academia to engrossing herself in process while balancing a full-time day job. She had to change her idea of what it means for art to hold value. “[Now,] I don’t agree with the art-school idea kind of elitist version of what counts as art. … I struggled with that, feeling like, ‘I shouldn’t participate in the Willy Street Fair—I have a masters in metalsmithing. I should be applying to be in big-name national art shows and galleries.’ But that kind of attitude needs to be knocked down, and we need to foster any kind of creative anything that anybody has right now. Let’s just call it all art. That’s fine with me.”
Tradition and nostalgia very much define Alison as an artist, making her journey to becoming the artist she is today all the more expected—the very things she attaches herself to are the focus of her work. It goes back to when Alison’s grandmother died. “My grandmother was a quilter and crafter of all kinds of things. Most of it was made from fibers, so knitted or crocheted or stitched. She died when I was young, and I got a lot of those fibers. I got a lot of her stash.”
The comfort and connection fabric and pattern provide Alison really started developing in undergrad and grew throughout grad school. One of the quilts her grandmother made was even hung up at her thesis exhibition. “I still have it, and I’ve had it since I was in first grade. Textile artists would cringe at this quilt because the top of it, the patchwork part, is all polyester. Real bad 70s polyester.” This is what distinguishes her as an artist. Concept being represented to fruition then back to concept isn’t as important as the unspoken layers of nostalgia along with the comfort it brings.
Still, there was a time when she focused on concept and being the artist who had something to say. Alison grew her metalworking skills with work focused on the women’s rights movement in the United States. She also has a series of spoons fashioned through the eye of a jeweler, sawing out intricate designs into them until they were functionally useless, yet delicately striking. To Alison, they’re about family tradition and comforts associated with food and fond memories. I find they punctuate her Anxiety collection, a series completed earlier in her education. Where the spoons show something meant to be adored, each piece in Anxiety presents inner turmoil concerning the presentation at the expense of self.
A stabbing fork-tined corset sends the point home, but it’s a metal quilt that serves to connect her past to her life in academia. “It’s like a crazy quilt kind of thing. I just cut brass, nickel, silver, and copper and would just draw patterns on them and then cut out the patterns. Then drill holes around the sides and stitch them together. Then it got too heavy, so I had to do barbwire-type reinforcements. And it’s hanging on my mom’s wall in the living room. From a distance, it’s like a comforting and nostalgic nod to handmade quilts, but if you get too close or accidentally brush against it, it’s actually quite treacherous.”
When Alison thinks back on that quilt, she not only considers the cultural significance and work she put into concept, but her world when she was putting in the hours to make it while Grey’s Anatomy played in the background. “They’re stitching people up after surgery, and I’m stitching my metal quilt together. Forever, whenever I look at this quilt, I remember what person I was living in, what house I was living in at Whitewater, how much I loved that house, the weird quirks of that house.
“Process is what drives me. I don’t want to just have finished pieces; I want to have that eight-hour experience in the studio of trying to frantically finish something for a show and trying this and trying that and something falling apart at the last second because I procrastinated and waited until that last second. And then problem-solving. This has to be photographed in the next 10 hours then taken here or shipped off there. It sucks when you’re going through it, and it’s ridiculous that you’re excited to get into it. Then that piece in the end, it’s having something to show for all that emotion and turbulence and wonderfulness that you just went through. All the ups and downs. It becomes its own nostalgic piece of that moment I had in the studio making it.”
The academic art world spends a lot of time insisting artists tap in, whether it be to some deeper universal truth or some unexplored facet of the zeitgeist. When Alison’s father died in 2017 and then her brother married the next year, Alison decided it was time to tap out. “I just deleted Facebook. I had an Instagram at the time, and I erased that too. … I’ve never made a better decision in my life.”
It’s been roughly a year and a half since Alison reentered the world of social media, and she’s currently embracing process-focused art with her production jewelry line, Unapologetic Jewelry. “Making this simple jewelry lets me just warm up and play and has become a fun way to get back into the groove of making new and more-detailed pieces that still speak to ‘Seeking Comfort.’” Her intimate pieces feel like looking through grandma’s jewelry box after she passes, providing connection to something that once existed as perspective shifts to an uncertain future.
To see her recent pieces, visit Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton, or go to Unapologetic Jewelry on Instagram and check out alisonlbailey.com .
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.