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Dear You: Monique Crabb

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Monique Crabb remembers the day that musician David Berman died: August 7, 2019. She remembers, not only because she was a fan of his band, Silver Jews, and had been hoping to see him on tour with his new solo project, but because a few days after his death, her brother Johnpaul disappeared.

Johnpaul struggled with schizophrenia most of his adult life. His illness had a seasonal component, flaring up in the hot August weather of their Houston home, running in cycles of disappearance, arrest, institutionalization, and jail. Two years prior to his disappearance, in May of 2017, Crabb began working on a quilt about her brother, which came out of a deep need to give her swirling emotions a place to live outside of her own body. The result, entitled “Dear You,” is masterful. Delicate hand-ap- pliquéd symbols adorn the quilt top and intentional stitching traces these objects of memory. All of the fabric was naturally dyed, a finicky process even with the most practiced hand, but fabulously expressed by hers.

Crabb doesn’t have the traditional story of learning these craft skills from her mother or grandmother—she didn’t have much of an artistic upbringing at all. It wasn’t until she was twenty and her father had passed away that she even considered college, mostly as a way to help her get out of Houston. “My father’s death was devastating for so long,” she says, “but it also gave me the opportunity to change my trajectory.”

I Just Need a Hug, 2018

Working at a photo lab after losing her father, Crabb reconnected with a high school art teacher who convinced her to give college a chance. She was accepted to MICA and moved to Baltimore to study photography, but she hoped to also experiment with other media. When the Fiber Department purchased a digital printer, she jumped at the opportunity to use it for one project but otherwise didn’t find ways to cross disciplines.

While still at MICA, she began working at Current Space, an arts collective and gallery in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District. After graduation, taking on an administrative role allowed her to stay involved in the art community although she wasn’t making much art. Crabb left Current in 2014 when she gave birth to her daughter, and she worried that her connection to the arts would disappear. Instead, she experienced a rebirth, finding time to fall back in love with art making.

Before her pregnancy, Crabb had begun to conceive of a new type of art practice. She found a quilter on Pinterest, Maura Ambrose of Folk Fibers, who was working in a contemporary style that inspired Crabb to give it a try. She borrowed a sewing machine and pieced together a baby quilt on her dining room table with no prior sewing experience and no instruction, just videos and pictures that she found on Instagram. She finished the quilt and gave it to a friend, but then promptly returned the machine, finding the process to be much harder than it looked.

 

9 Eyes, 2018 - 2019

 

But a desire for sewing was planted and her impulse to create intensified. Crabb drew from her photography background and made cyanotype prints about her father, exploring loss and longing through a combination of photography and fiber art. To capture her father’s image, Crabb layered film negatives over photo-sensitive fabric chemically treated in darkness. She then exposed the cloth to sunlight, transforming the negative’s white and gray areas into a wash of indigo hues. In the final composition, ghostly images are stitched together, offset by white lines over a barely blue background, resembling lines of text interspersed with photographs, to be read in rows like a newspaper.

This cyanotype quilt brought Crabb into the world of natural dye, falling for its “magic.” While the process can be a scientific exercise in precise measurements and ratios, for her it is intuitive. She loves the variables and how they insist that she stay focused in the present moment. The number of factors that influence final color in natural dyeing are infinite—from the time that you pick the plant to the pH of the water that you use in the pot. Two people can work with the same dye under seem- ingly similar conditions and come out with completely different colored cloth.

Gathering materials and making colors have become a method of self-expression beyond the finished piece. Although she is pragmatic, she admits there might be something about her spiritual alignment with plants that contributes to the success of her dye experiments. Perhaps having a sibling whose behavior seemed driven by seasonal cycles made Crabb the perfect conduit for color: She admits to feeling acutely tuned into the cycles of nature.

Crabb’s quilt-making has become a painterly exploration where fabric choices function like dabbing color from a palette. Her work has shifted from geometric shapes to more emotionally expressive and conceptual pieces, and the rectilinear shapes of a traditional quilt have evolved as she strips away conventional function from the form.

Originating at the quilt’s central “eye,” threads spill out across mottled fabric like water drops but remain suspended, holding tension, never quite allowing a feeling of release.
Rebecca Juliette
Mexico City, 2018

“Mexico City,” composed of small square scraps in varying orientations, marks a stylistic jump from tightly patterned layouts, combining odd shapes from Crabb’s fabric stash joined together in a manner she refers to as “intuitive piecing.” The design creates a narrative drawn from her memories of flying from Houston to Mexico City as a child, simulating the peacefulness of an aerial landscape, and the color pops that delighted her young eyes in flight.

In the Soft Body series, Crabb moves even further from traditional quilt function and design, leaving the edges unfinished. In “If We All Cried At Once,” threads hang sorrowfully from the terminus of her stitching. Originating at the quilt’s central “eye,” threads spill out across mottled fabric like water drops but remain suspended, holding tension, never quite allowing a feeling of release.

Heat Rises, 2019

She says that the quilts from the Soft Body series came from a deeper, more subconscious place. She began working on a quilt for her brother, wanting at first to make something like what she made for her father, but the photographs felt too literal, too personal. Instead, she looked for a more universal feeling through the use of symbols.

Crabb started with photos of her parents when they first met, finding the story of who they were before they got together. She traced childhood bedrooms and symbols that reminded her of some challenges in her brother’s life—handcuffs, prison cells, pills, and needles are dotted across the surface of the quilt. This representational telling of her brother’s story helped her make sense of his life, a story that many can relate to. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 25 adults experience serious mental illness each year. An estimated 1.5 million people in the US live with schizophrenia, and 8.4 million people in the US are caregivers for people with mental and emotional health issues.

Textiles are a beautiful place to focus energy. The medium is naturally absorptive and can act as a container for the things you need to release, the words you want to say.
Rebecca Juliette

“I put a year and a half of a little bit of my time every day into making that story and then when I finished quilting it, I set it aside,” she says. Four months later, her brother went missing. A few days later, Johnpaul was dead. Crabb’s mother, overwhelmed by what had happened to her son, attempted suicide. Crabb boarded a plane to Houston with the quilt in tow and hand-stitched the binding that brings all of the layers together while sitting at her mother’s bedside in the ICU.

At the time, Crabb was fresh into her first semester of graduate school in UMBC’s Intermedia and Digital Arts program. Returning to school after those traumatic events, Crabb struggled to find purpose in the program. During winter break, she tried to push through the depression, setting a goal to continue her conceptual textile work. Even in a digitally focused program, she gave herself “the opportunity to make some weird shit” without judgement.

Textiles are a beautiful place to focus energy. The medium is naturally absorptive and can act as a container for the things you need to release, the words you want to say. Textiles offer that release for Crabb, but she doesn’t consider herself a fiber artist, simply an artist working with textiles as a means of expression. “We are all traumatized in one way or the other. It has to go somewhere, otherwise it sits in your body and destroys you,” she says.

“Dear You” was a tangible way for Crabb to grapple with her brother’s struggle while he was alive and find solace after his death. “There was no life around him, there was nothing beautiful for him,” she says. Instead, Crabb made something beautiful about him.

 

 

See more of Crabb's work at her website: moniquecrabb.com

This story is from Issue 09: Craft,

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