POETIC LICENSE: Organizing Chaos with Irma Sofia Poeter
Artist Studio Visits by Chi Essary
Walking into the adobe studio of textile artist Irma Sofia Poeter, we are greeted by a huge Virgin of Willendorf set on a pole well above head height. Stitched together from swatches of knitted pink and white yarn, it is one of the last remaining pieces from Poeter’s solo show at CECUT, Tijuana, Mexico (“Cosidos”, 2001). “It’s made from second-hand baby blankets,” she says in her satiny, soft-spoken Mexican accent. She smiles as she looks up at it lovingly, touching its belly gently, and slowly turns the enormous fertility figure so we can see its true-to-form voluptuous bum and billowing breasts. The sacred nature of the piece mixed with the traditional women’s work of sewing and knitting is no coincidence. Celebrating femininity and spirituality is an important part of Poeter’s life and creativity. She even constructed a sweat lodge on her property in which she regularly holds sacred ceremonies with locals.
Deeply recessed windows in the thick adobe walls of her studio let in the soft spring light of the desert. Neatly folded against the back wall are stacks of fabric. Sparkles, iridescent sheens, natural fibers and embroidery tease the eye with each fold. She pulls down one piece after another. “This one is from Thailand, this one Italy, Czech, Africa….” She lays down the gorgeous textiles from around the world—in yellow and raspberry swatches, deep blue and orange designs, and a woven black and red double helix. From one sparkling pile she pulls a fabric with flowers sewn in sequins, explaining that she likes to mix fine fabrics with plastics, and vintage with contemporary. “It’s a sort of un-fashion.” She smiles mischievously, showing her gentleness flecked with humor.
From a neat stack she picks up a square of folded fabric the size of a couch cushion. Unfolding the material—it is easily 10 feet by 10 feet—she drapes it off the enormous work table on all sides. It is a huge mandala constructed with jean pant legs radiating from the center. Each pant leg is adorned with the Virgin of Guadalupe sewn in sequins. She created it after her two-year residency in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, she interviewed 50 migrant workers who had returned from the United States. Making personal visits to the families, she learned the impassioned stories and diverse reasons for their return from the U.S., which inspired the work for the exhibition. “Most didn’t like being in the U.S. They missed their family, their traditions and culture,” she explains. One young man had almost drowned and realized he wanted to be with his family. For that piece, she covered a lifesaver with brightly colored embroidery from his region. She confesses that, after two years of researching and creating the exhibition, the gallery opening was strangely disappointing for her. Suddenly she becomes very animated, passionately clutching the air with her hands. “It was so human! So real! We cried together—it was very emotional….” The excitement drains from her eyes and she looks a little confused by her emotional response. “The opening was just ‘eh’….” I imagine the usual art opening of cocktail attire and something to sip on; the image does pale in comparison to the intense emotions and powerful human experiences that must have been shared during her research.
Looking at the mandala of radially arranged jean pant legs, Poeter explains that as time passed after returning from the residency she realized it was time for her to tell her own story of returning to Mexico. Poeter explains that there, in Oaxaca, she had a very powerful spiritual transformation: She realized the lack of the feminine in our modern lives. The ostensible “macho society” had this powerful feminine infrastructure shown in its incredible handcrafted textiles, the strong community life and the connection to the earth.
Later, we talk about her residency in Italy and how she put studio visitors to work. I laugh as I say, “They’d show up and you’d give them flowers to cut out?!” “Oh, yeah! They loved it! We’d sit down and have wine and chat … working with the hands is so healing. People need it,” Poeter replies earnestly, motherly. Looking at the huge mandala draped over the table, she touches the fabric and says, “Art is a very spiritual experience and a healing experience,” revealing that mandalas are a meditation for her. “Whatever you’re organizing here,” she says, laying her hand on the mandala, “you’re organizing here—” gently tapping her forehead, “—and here,” even more gently tapping her heart. “You’re making sense of things.” She pauses. “That’s what I’m doing with mandalas: visually making sense of the chaos.” Explaining that her work is a response to the lack of balance in the world, she says, “We all have masculine and feminine parts to our psyche. We all need both characteristics. We should balance ourselves—have both sides.”
We walk outside to have a look at the gorgeous domed studio she is building for an artist-in-residency program she hopes to start this summer. Five-gallon glass water jugs filled with water punctuate the walls, refracting light-arches across the newly bricked floor. There’s plenty of space and privacy for an artist to create, and in the artisanal tiled kitchen, she muses that a chef might one day enjoy a residency too. I realize this is yet another way that Poeter is creating space for people to be creative in— in a very personalized and intimate way. Whether it is giving visitors to her studio an opportunity to work with their hands, creating a sacred space for a sweat lodge ceremony, or hosting her own artist residency; her personal and intimate approach impresses on me the importance for her, of creating community, slowing the verve of life down so we have time to see, touch, and interact with more than a passing smile and a glass of wine at a gallery opening. An integral part of her creative process seems to be bringing people together to connect, to work with their hands, spend quality time together, sharing a deeper part of themselves, possibly to make sense of, and balance the chaos of modern life.