Catalogue Essay by  Sara Ahmed for the exhibition Paper Jam, Pulp Fiction
LAKE COUNTRY ART GALLERY, July-August, 2018
As a literary critic and feminist academic, I revere paper as it conveys the ideas and thoughts of others in the form of text or image, transcending time and space—and makes my own thinking and writing possible. In a sense, you might say, paper enables me to be me. But here I am thinking only of paper as a conveyor of a message and forgetting about its materiality—easy to do when I write upon a computer screen with only the ghostly semblance of the original paper in front of me. Carin Covin’s recent work interrupts that thinking, jams that sense of paper as a medium and asks me to think of the object itself. What does paper mean for the woman artist? This question is one of many posed by Covin’s compelling and beautiful presentation of her work, of women’s work.
As art historian, Dr. Carolyn MacHardy points out, paper and the cloth from which it comes have traditional associations with all sorts of things in the home, in the domestic realm—traditionally, the woman’s realm-- such as bandaging, pattern making, and sewing, wrappings as in gifts, and keeping items of value, both for protection and in order to evade detection. Ragging, weaving, knitting, embroidery—all associated with women’s work, were also means of artistic expression for women who had no access to paint, canvas or clay. Women’s search within the home for the particulars by which they could express themselves records their long history of repurposing non-traditional materials associated with craft. Covin’s exhibit at the Lake Country Art Gallery (August 2018) repurposes this craft and this craftiness, this story of diligence.
At the exhibit, Paper Jam, Pulp Fiction, I encountered paper in three dimensional form inhabiting space and speaking of itself as temporal process: here, paper is no longer merely a means, but has become the work itself with a palpable (pulpable?) sense of history: there is certainly some magic in this. Coloured spools of paper are arranged along the initial wall, dyed, we are told, by means of an organic process called cyanotype. Covin employs paper made by Laura Widmer (Widmer paper) from repurposed or natural fibres that are often recycled, such as an old t-shirt, soaked and processed, then printed by Covin by means of the light of the sun. This printing process, colloquially more familiar to us as blue printing, has a domestic application as well, as the blue tinge was not always deemed suitable for aesthetic applications, but found its place, in the 19th century, in what have come to be known as blue prints. Covin revives this technology in her current work, which imparts a cyan blue tinge to all the works in the exhibit and signals the reintegration of the human actor in the organic world. She offers a blue print.
While paper is often associated with the ground upon which a drawing or text is etched, Covin’s paper is incorporated in a series of works which are created through conventionally domestic methods such as knitting, weaving, rug-making, transforming the everydayness of knitted and hand-made elements of the home into a gallery installation. Rather than floors, windows, and tabletops, these weavings gain another dimension hung on the wall of the gallery, directing our focus to their materiality, their history, their uncanny strangeness—haunting yet so very familiar. This re-purposing moves these items from the background to the foreground and, in so doing, those pulpy fictions--about just what is, or isn’t, art--are relocated as well.
The initial spools I encounter are actually skeins of hand-made cyan printed paper, coiled around similarly hand-made yarn bobbins [reference photo], while the next work in the series presents the additional process of knitting: the paper yarn has been knitted on giant circular needles, presented three-dimensionally on the wall, revealing its texture, variations in colour and dye and even a dropped stitch that is never recovered [reference photo]. Covin’s piece refuses perfected mechanistic production; rather, the missing stitch is our assurance of the very human person producing this pattern and a record of the serendipity and spontaneity of any art practice. It is the symbol of the subject as a woman at work. The temporal dimension of the creation is also recorded by the dropped stitch, where the weave drags down, weighty, pulling with it the paper yarn, creating a gap, a space for a paper jam.
Jamming suggests many things: the spontaneity of a group in collaboration. Then, also paper jam might be an impediment, a blockage, a resistance, or redirection. Holding these ideas together despite their tension— tension is, after all, essential to the knitting process--we engage in a field of spontaneity, community and redirection. Might we share in this relocation as a repurposing of this pulpy, jammy, messy medium of women’s work?
Jamming has a sense of simultaneity--linked provocations of artists--women artists—jamming, dialoguing, reproducing, repurposing woman’s historical positioning in the domestic sphere—a positioning that has often been derided in its imposition of exclusionary practices keeping female artists at home. Reclamations of women artists from the past have often necessarily been accompanied by reclamations of different art forms, particularly those associated with the domestic sphere, folk art and craft, for instance. This dual reclamation draws attention to the ways in which certain forms of artistic production gain prominence and meaning from the patriarchally inflected social and cultural norms with which we think about art and gender. Women’s work is domestic and men’s is public—a long standing and imposed notion. But when Virginia Woolf first called for the woman artist to have a “room of one’s own” in which to work, she was not excluding the domestic from the realm of art: rather, she was moving the domestic into the world of art. This is an important point that bears repeating: this is not delegating or denigrating the domestic as the sphere of the woman, but designating the woman’s sphere as that of the artist. Feminism is home work.
Insisting on the collaborative nature of this project-- between women and water and pulp and sun, Covin particularly highlights her work with her dear friend and fellow artist, Laura Widmer (who makes the paper with which Covin works), but also overtly acknowledges other women artists, some present, some absent, some paper-bound, textual friends. One of the latter, who is a key impetus for the current project, is the Canadian poet Bronwen Wallace (1945-1989) whose collection, Keep that Candle Burning Bright and other Poems (Coach House: 1991), has particular resonance.
Wallace’s feminism repudiated the academic trends of the time that were turning to postmodernism and poststructuralism in order to deconstruct received knowledges and the autonomy of the subject, the self. For many feminists, artists and authors at that time, the questioning of subjectivity and of the possibility (or impossibility) of the autonomous self, just when women were beginning to be able to assert a subject position in the larger society, was suspect to say the least. In response, Wallace mused, “Who needs Freud and Lacan?”  Instead, Wallace produced the poetry of the every day woman in all her wonder, articulating the imagery of our daily experiences and refusing the abstractions of high theory, validating those “schools of slithery thought where most of us spend most of our time, just swimming along”(Keep that Candle Burning 45).
We don’t always know, observes Wallace, whether to be grateful or terrified, when witnessing the miraculous of the everyday as
we all try to make sense of ourselves
that way, which parts we hold on to, which
we hold at arms’ length, squinting
just as we do the photo
of that face some people see
on Mars these days, seeing if we can
make it into mountains.
can we do?
Despite her repudiation of grand theory, what Wallace does share with Freud, is an interest in the homely and the strange. What in German is called the heimlich—the familiar (“familiar,” “native,” “be- longing to the home”) is haunted by its deeply connected (and necessary) other--the strange, the unfamiliar, the unheimlich. In English, this is generally understood as the “uncanny” (un-kenned/unknown): that “species of strangeness embedded in the familiar” –that strangeness that often arises in the every day. In Wallace this is caught in her fascination with the expansive expertise of the already dead in the tabloids, like Elvis or Jesus. Or when she recounts the visitation of a friend, a dead friend:
on the anniversary,
to the day, of a friend’s death, she appeared,
in the laundromat where I was folding underwear,
by the dryer, putting in a load of towels. (Candles 56)
Or when she writes,
….It’s just how we look
at the world sometimes, tensed
with the effort that makes our brains
hurt, all that work, rejecting what
the senses tell us. No wonder we think
We have to look so hard. No wonder
We stand here, blinking.
Grateful and terrified.
In Covin, this uncanny strangeness is provoked when the everyday creativity of the home, such as making jam, hooking rugs, weaving, knitting, also reveals the haunting of the home by the historical and ongoing dismissal of domestic activity and the displacement of the woman as artist. In Covin, we glimpse the unseen other-- the behind the scenes--that has us “blinking./Grateful and terrified.” Covin’s historicized sense that the male artist had better access to the public sphere and to the means necessary to communicate in that sphere is “jammed” in this exhibit by her return to the “domestic” work of paper production and women’s aesthetic practice, exposing the unnecessary fiction that genders the pubic and private divide. Perhaps paper would be more available to women artists, muses Covin: it could be found here and there by those with little disposable income, maybe available to make shopping lists, to write notes, to create art. Covin’s process is to recycle the everyday, quotidian and domestic objects and transform such an object exposing it to the bright light of the sun. This process of making the everyday domestic do its work as art is a blueprint, to my minf, for the reclamation of the historical weight of women’s work.
Covin’s work is communicative and collaborative, building on processes visible and invisible, recorded in its very palpable pulpy history. In this sense, the hidden and haunting history of female artistic production is woven into the present, giving weight to the linkage between traditional women’s work-- weaving, knitting, creating connections—and the weight of the these sculptural forms. The domestic jams the public, relocating women’s work in place.
Dr. Jennifer Gustar, UBC Okanagan
Kelowna, British Columbia
Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.
Erin Moure and Bronwen Wallace. Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987.
Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets (1993). Susan McMaster, Ed.
Bronwen Wallace. Keep that Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems. Coach House
 Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP: 2017. P.7
 Erin Moure and Bronwen Wallace. Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987.
Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets (1993). Susan McMaster, ed.
 Bronwen Wallace. Keep that Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems. Coach House Press, (1993).