Two in the Hand(made)


v51a6332-editElaine Kinnaird and Missy Litton.

Written by Brett Levine // Photography by Beau Gustafson

When people speak of artists’ collaborations, they usually understand this to mean a partnership first, then the creation of work. For artists Elaine Kinnaird and Missy Litton, it was a mutual affinity for the other’s work, as much as a shared respect for materials, that led the two to embark on the project that generated a month-long installation process and its resulting Monkey’s Slide—on display during September at Ground Floor Contemporary.

“We both attended Birmingham-Southern,” Kinnaird begins, “although I was a few years ahead of Missy.” While there, Kinnaird, who trained as an art historian, emphasized studio practice as well. “I did a Master’s degree in fiber art, and since then my work has focused a lot on repetition and the small act.”

Litton begins by explaining her process, which also is not what could be considered traditional work. “My background is in sculpture,” she remarks, “but I don’t do classical sculpture in terms of making discrete objects. At the same time, I am not trained as what you might call a fiber artist, so at times it was difficult to transition to working in installation. I had to keep reminding myself to interact with the space.”

What results from their collaboration is a rhythm of natural materials that weave, literally, throughout the space. Crepe myrtle bark, hand-spun cotton thread, wall drawings, the play of light and shadow, and the architecture of space all come together in harmony to comment upon the processes and practices of making.v51a6354

“One aspect of working with Missy on the project was how she helped me to see aspects of the space I mightn’t have seen,” Kinnaird observes. “I have a studio here as well, so I’ve spent time in the gallery space. Sometimes that means that you don’t notice some of the physical elements it has, like the pipe near the front entrance, or variations in the baseboards.”

Litton describes creating Monkey Slide as a process of interacting and reacting. “For example, we brought in materials that we didn’t know what to do with—some of the materials in our studios we had simply been looking at too long—and we exchanged them. We knew that we wanted to focus on natural materials, and to work within the parameters of landscape.”

Viewing the exhibition becomes like taking a walk in the woods: branches, leaves, and cut logs lift and move through various elevations; over the course of the day, the natural light dims, bringing forth the varied shadows that Kinnaird and Litton have deliberately cast on the walls. They term this intervention their ‘fake shadows,’ which throw from lights that are not seen. “While I was working on this project I was reading Carl Jung, and thinking about the shadow self,” Kinnaird begins. “Jung explains the shadow self like a trickster, and when we began to think about it, this led to a lot of connections; the crepe myrtle tree is also known as the ‘monkey tree’ in some Asian countries, so we thought that was perfect. What animal is more of a trickster than a monkey?”

Their collaborative dialogue is also unexpected, but it worked perfectly for the two. “We work different hours,” Litton explains, so we weren’t here often together—it probably only happened three or four times. So, we would communicate by leaving each other notes, and by thinking about what we could do with the materials.”

Kinnaird often likes the solitude of working in silence—an outcome, she explains, of a hearing issue that she has recently undergone surgery to address. “I work with children,” she remarks, “and I began to think about how the idea of quiet worked well for the space. Part of it was, in a sense, a comment on the notion of a loss of nuance, which is something you can face when it is difficult to hear.” The work could better be described as tranquil, for it feels as if it is almost whispering and moving in its own wind. The natural materials, limited palette drawn from the landscape, constructed shadows, architecture, and expansiveness all serve to engage viewers.

Kinnaird describes the work as perfect for where she is at the moment, meaning it is just right for Birmingham. “I had done works in Detroit that always seemed as if they were on the edge of decay, but that just isn’t what felt right here,” she observes. “I love installation work, you just can’t do it that often.”

Litton agrees. “It is about understanding what you can do with the materials, and working collaboratively meant that we could work in ways we normally wouldn’t, yet complement each other at the same time.v51a6350

“Both our works embody a lot of repetition,” she continues, “whether it is stripping bark, working with waxed thread, or weaving branches. It is very much focused on the creative process.”

“It is,” Kinnaird explains, “like small details invite intimacy. Making these works can be, for me, like a mantra.”

Standing in Ground Floor Contemporary, it would be difficult to tell where one artist’s hand ends and the other begins, which for Kinnaird and Litton is not a criticism. “We have our materials and supplies,” they explain, “and we react to them. We experiment with different things, and we see what speaks to us.” And speak to them it does. Audiences can only hope they continue to listen to the power and subtlety of their collaborative conversation. 

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