The Artist’s Way: Tschabalala Self, Artist

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by M H Miller

Tschabalala SelfSelf, photographed at her studio in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 15, 2021. Photography by Maegan Gindi.

I always wanted to make work that had mystery to it. Like, if you were to look at it, you wouldn’t quite understand how it was made. As a painter, I hoped to be able to add something to the larger lexicon and say, “OK, I contributed a new way of making a painting.” Maybe it’s an ego thing, but I felt like I had to create some kind of formal aspect that was entirely unique to me and my studio practice so that someone could look at a piece and say, “Oh, that’s a Tschabalala painting.” When I was in grad school at Yale, I focused primarily on printmaking. And I’d gotten a lot of success out of that, but there were also limitations. That’s how I started sewing fabric directly onto the canvas. It has a lot of the same qualities as printmaking: embedded colour, texture and design.

My mom collected fabric, and I still use bits and pieces of it quite a lot. She used to sew all the time, mostly as a hobby. So I thought of the sewing machine as a tool that could be used as a creative outlet. When I was growing up, my mom would tell me I should learn how to sew, but I never had the patience to sit down and do it. I ended up teaching myself in grad school. But I can’t really sew. My mom could make a dress, curtains — a whole outfit! I can’t do that.

Sewing is a kind of collaging. Before I found this way of working, people used to ask, “How do you see yourself in relation to your figures?” Maybe I have a Pygmalion-like relationship to the work — to the idea that you can actually build something that’s outside of you but is also an expression of an ideal figure or persona you have in your mind. Plus, people interact with sewn objects every day. And it has this association with my mom, who’s one of the most important people to me. Working this way feels like honouring her.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline: “The Artist’s Way”