Interview: Natalie Purschwitz
For Natalie Purschwitz, getting out of bed in the morning and slipping on a pair of her favourite jeans or a pair of store-bought socks is a novel and welcome experience, given that she spent the last year of her life engaged in an art and research project that involved wearing only clothing that she had made herself. As she says on her blog, makeshiftproject.blogspot.com, “The basic premise for the project is that for a period of one year starting on September 1st, 2009, I will only wear things that I have made myself. Initially this may seem like a reasonable task, but it will include all of my clothes, socks, shoes, underwear, coats, jackets, hats, bathing suits, accessories and anything else I might need to protect my body from the elements while trying to lead a fulfilling life.”
It was, she says, an investigation into the relationships between ‘clothing’, ‘making’ and ‘living’.
It was also, she says now, much more difficult than she anticipated and she is happy to move onto other projects. One of those projects (it overlapped with the Makeshift Project) is a part in the Kizuna exhibit now on at the Japanese Canadian National Museum. Titled Trace, the work is comprised of a path made up of fabric-covered rocks.
Purschwitz earned a degree in intermedia from Emily Carr University, although not before earning a degree in archaeology from the University of Calgary. She now works as visual artist, clothing designer and costume maker.
Interview: Natalie Purschwitz
You spent the last year wearing only clothing that you made yourself. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Was there a point when you said to yourself, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought?
Yes. About a week in, my first and only pair of shoes fell apart while I was on Gambier Island. Luckily I had started another pair and I did a much better job with this second pair, but it was my first indication of how time-consuming the project would really be.
What was the biggest challenge?
Shoe making. And finding time to squeeze in all of the making.
What was the first thing you did when you reached the end of the project?
I put on some of my favourite clothes from before the project (some jeans and favourite cardigan for example) only to find that were not as comfortable as I had remembered. And a week later I bought a pair of running shoes!
Is there anything you learned from this experience? Has it changed the way you see things or the way you live your life?
I’m still sifting through it all in my head but a couple of things are that:
– Without sacrificing style, as a fashion designer, comfort will now weigh in a lot stronger.
– clothing really does affect the kinds of things we do and how we do them. It made me aware of how many different specialized ‘garments’ we all have that all have specific purposes or better our world in some way. Rubber gloves, sunglasses, safety gear, slippers to name a few.
You lived your life very publicly for a year, blogging about yourself every day. What kind of response did you get?
I got responses from all over the world. From Iran to Luxembourg to Kenya—it was pretty amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I also received press all around the world, often without even knowing it until later when suddenly my blog viewership would spike. Most of the comments that I got were words of encouragement and occasionally someone would be interested in developing a deeper dialogue.
You grew up in Radium Hotsprings, BC. Tell me about growing up there.
My dad was born in Germany and my mom in Japan. They met in Egypt, lived in Japan for a few years and then moved to Canada in 1969. My mom was the only Japanese person in our town – I think she still is! It’s a really small town but actually quite diverse. My mom has always been very social and used to organize “international fashion shows” where people would model their national costumes. She always had an adventurous approach to fashion and that inspired me when I was growing up. To this day she still teaches Japanese flower arranging (ikebana), language and cooking courses in Radium.
I was also inspired by Rolf the Woodcarver. He could make just about anything with a piece of wood and a chainsaw. And some wild stuff he did make indeed. I really appreciated that he always lived his life exactly how he wanted to live it without worrying about what other people thought about him.
You studied archeology at the University of Calgary. Would I be correct in guessing that this interest in archeology has informed your work as an artist, and if so, how?
Even though I’m not practicing archaeology, it does tend to sneak back into my artwork and into my clothing design (my label is called Hunt & Gather). My mom studied archaeology too (in Egypt, where she met my dad). It shows up in unusual ways. In a way, the makeshift project was a kind of anthropological study.
How did you come up with the concept for your segment of the Kizuna exhibit?
It was a bit of a winding road to arrive at the piece I created, so it seems appropriate that the piece itself is in the form of a path.
When I first started going through the collection at the Museum I had a hard time narrowing it down because there were so many things that were interesting—I could do this, or I could do that—but then at the very end I started to notice all these subtle and quiet repairs people had made. I was looking mainly at textiles and clothing in the collection, and I started to notice that people had taken the time to do real careful repairs on things and it made me think about the time when we actually cared about repairing things. We live in this disposable culture now and things don’t get fixed. So there was this loss of that kind of repair culture. I found this one repair in a piece of clothing that was just so subtle and so carefully done. The fabric—the weave and weft—are perfectly aligned so you can barely even notice the mend . . . there was something really nice about it and that was in my mind the most when I left the collection. I was looking at patterns woven into textiles and sewing patterns for example, but I was also interested in the kinds of social patterns that I could see emerging.
Then I came across Mary Ohara’s display upstairs at the Centre. It had just a few things in it but it suddenly reminded me of my own past. A photograph of her sort of reminded me of a photograph of my mom—fashionable . . . and I felt a connection to her life. We even had the same pin cushion. This pin cushion is fairly common and it’s just a small thing but there were lots of little things like this that were small but meaningful, somehow.
So I met her at her apartment and we just had a lot of connections. We’re both really interested in clothing and she brought out all of these bits and pieces from her own collection. I was there for hours, just talking about things. She told me about her whole life. She told me when she and her sister went back to Japan after the war, people were really into western style clothing and they didn’t have a lot there at that time. So people would bring them their old kimonos and Mary would design the clothing and her sister would sew their old kimonos into western-style clothing. And it just reminded me of having to be industrious in my own project—it’s kind of about survival without sacrificing style. I really liked that about Mary’s approach.
We discovered so many other parallels and common interests in our lives. She was very willing to tell me so many things about her life. The basis for our connection was our interest in clothing, and by that I don’t just mean fashion. I found that the clothing she had collected held important memories and bits of information about her past and this helped me to realize how stories are woven into clothing – they have their own histories that are independent from ourselves. Everyone has a story and even though our paths are different, they share so many points of intersection. These personal histories are the starting point for my piece.
The work I made for Kizuna is a path made from rocks and stones that I have collected and then covered in clothing. I collected the rocks from all over— Radium Hotsprings, around my Vancouver studio, my sister’s place, Gambier island where my boyfriend’s family has a cabin, Burnaby where Mary lives and many other places. The clothes and fabric have also come from different places. In essence I have collected histories, both my own and shared, and created a path that is specific to me but common to other people in my life. If you walk along the path you will become a part of this collective story.
It’s an homage to Mary’s sometimes difficult but always colourful life and a personal walk through my own past.