Baltimore, MD – May, 2018
Annet Couwenberg’s work has been a personal inspiration for a long time. We have inhabited the same worlds – both living in Baltimore and working at Maryland Institute College of Art, but didn’t officially meet until this year. Annet’s work is bold and often large scale but not without nuance. Her ability to harness modular and repetitive ways of working creates beautiful and dynamic pieces. Her Dutch heritage and connection to design and textiles often shows through in color, surface, and display choices. Annet Couwenberg is currently faculty in the Fiber Department at MICA. I visited her home studio late in May where she graciously greeted me with homemade muffins and coffee.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND HOW DID IT INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?
I grew up in Rotterdam, Netherlands, which is actually a sister city of Baltimore. I was educated there. I taught there for quite a few years and was really influenced, more than I want to admit, by the Dutch culture. My work is deeply marked by the strong cultural traditions of my Dutch heritage as reflected in a proverb my mother would repeat to me many times, “Act Normal and That’s Already Crazy Enough”, strongly advising me that a steady state of restraint, discipline and self-control were highly valued norms. The Dutch stress that the ordinary is the standard, subtly discouraging individualism and cherishing collectivism. My work is rooted in civic responsibility, in a work ethic tempered by socialism and Calvinism, in austerity.
My Dutch self was formed in this crucible. Since I packed my bags with all my worldly possessions and my sewing machine to embark on my journey to study in America the same question is still very present. Is there an intertwining yet conflictual relationship between citizenship and immigration, a state of anxiety that defines our contemporary condition? Being Dutch and living in America has meant to me that I am in my life and artistic process entwined on two continents. I really had to embrace this hybridization and conflict; that fraught idea of immigration, what that means. What do you leave behind? Where do I belong? What have I learned to desire and what do you desire myself? I think my work in that sense is mostly about that conflicting relationship, or dependency and interdependency. I love the idea that there is a certain harmony in those conflicts. So, what I’m trying to do by making what I make, is to preserve and celebrate differences between the two cultures, but it also encourages me to explore beyond the constraints of simply replicating my heritage, to innovate, to test the boundaries.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN YOUR CURRENT STUDIO?
Twenty-eight years in the basement of my home.
WHAT MATERIALS OR PROCESSES ARE YOU INTERESTED IN RIGHT NOW?
I’m very much interested in staying as close to my own medium, which is textiles, but introducing emerging technologies at the same time. So any kind of pliable, flexible materials or techniques that have to do with craft and textiles that I can move in another direction. I have always been interested and invested in what occurs when information is translated from one source to another, especially, where meaning shifts and migrates, and the resulting data becomes malleable.
Through textile processes and material concerns, I do question the intangibilities of our daily lives through embodied knowledge, while drawing upon a wide range of cross-disciplinary materials ranging from yarns, plastics, buckram to paper. I am mostly drawn to materials that I can manipulate by hand but also use new technologies like the CNC router and the laser cutter. I have been interested in moving into the intersection of the traditional and digital craft. The digital has the word “digi”(tus), finger in Latin, imbedded in it, and digital technology contributes an entirely new set of design tools and in combination with the historical textile techniques, like the jacquard loom and the hand, it generates new ideas for me.
WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING THEMES IN YOUR WORK, WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
The underlying themes right now are looking at the hybridization of my own identity and orchestrating between traditional craft and digital craft. How can they feed each other? How does the information move from the immaterial world to the material world? And back? What I would like to achieve is always very hard to say, I am very process oriented. I don’t always know in advance the whole outcome, I believe in “making through research, research through making”. Understanding through making is to bypass the problematic divide between the conceptual and sensorial, the theory and practice.
Making reveals the evolution of the object and material and its intrinsic qualities and leads me to anew. Observing through the digital world while making through the hand gives me physical and digital knowledge about who we are and what we do and what makes us human
HOW DO YOU KEEP MOVING FORWARD IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO MAKE MEANINGFUL WORK?
As a young girl, I often sat in the corner of the living room observing and listening to the chatter of my mother, grandmother and aunts as their hands were busy, as they sat around a table during their weekly sewing sessions. Later in life I realized that my memories of these women, my role models, were filled with beautiful images of threads and textiles, pins and needles, mending and constructing. And it occurred to me that their methods of making reflected their personalities, culture and tradition and how they viewed their proper roles in life.
I recognized that a big part of the formation of our identity arises out of the material conditions from which we emerge. I am still searching for answers, that’s what keeps me going and sustains my practice. Only by understanding the self will we have the power to understand others and repair our relational fabric in today’s society. I have faith in that the composition of cloth, with the empowerment of mutable technologies through time, becomes a prism for introspection to distinguish between what we were, what we are, and what we might be.
DO YOU HAVE ANY HOBBIES OR INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE?
I love cooking for my family and friends. Love reading. A lot of times the reading is more connected with theoretical, critical art and design writing, but I do read novels too. My daughter, Mara, is a great source for what books to read, we swap books and titles.
HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT DIVIDING YOUR TIME, AS AN ARTIST, PROFESSOR, HOME LIFE, ETC?
Not always easy, but my family comes first, and then I am an artist/educator, they are all intertwined. I do feel that during the semester, teaching takes over, but I’ve learned to withdraw a little more, now and then. It’s very hard during the semester; it takes a lot. It’s not only the teaching itself, but all the other things I want to be involved in. So how can I be a facilitator in the city I love? The last eight years I have had the honor to be on the board of the Baltimore Design School (BDS), have been part of it from the beginning, it’s been an amazing ride. Great team work, a lot work has been done on curricular issues, community building in and outside the school etc, things I love to be involved in and on top of it, working with amazing people, can’t get any better. I am on the board of Baltimore Clayworks, another great institution in our city, I feel I can be a facilitator with my experience in teaching and as a working artist myself. Although small, I can help facilitate, hopefully move us all forward, give back to our beloved community. It’s been very fulfilling.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS OR EXHIBITIONS COMING UP THAT YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE?
I am very excited and honored to be part of a show curated by Joshua DeMonte and Susan Isaacs at Towson University. They have invited national and international jewelers and sculptors to send their 3D files to be printed for an exhibition called form.print. They can print in lots of different material, and Joshua has been amazing in assisting me to think through my process and different materials. The show opens January 2019. In addition, I am already working on a show that seems to be far away, but isn’t, I have been invited for a one- person show at the Center for Art Design and Visual Culture at UMBC opening in 2021.