When faced with a lack of cultural understanding, one feminist artist responds by getting knotty. Jesse Harrod turns colorful paracord ropes into intricate macramé works that address social issues related to gender and sexual orientation. Harrod tells Creators that she regards knotting as a form of drawing that she uses to illustrate cultural struggles. "I am interested in the tension I can create with [macramé] physically and metaphorically. The way I use knot-making in my work can be understood as simultaneously restraining and supporting something."
In addition to being a practicing artist, Harrod is head of Fibers & Material Studies at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, but the idea for her macramé work has more bucolic roots than her current urban environment. "Before moving to Philly, I spent a year and a half living in rural Virginia, which was really hard because feminism, queerness, and diversity were challenging notions for many in my midst," says Harrod. Rather than shy away from the cultural hurdles she faced in Virginia, Harrod chose to double down on her creative expression. "I reacted by becoming further politicized. In my teaching, I had to start at the basics, in terms of familiarizing my students with the feminist art movement, which is a fundamental component of [fiber arts] history. While preparing lectures on early fiber artists, I decided to start experimenting with macramé."
Despite the historic role of macramé in popularizing fiber arts, Harrod says that she wasn't initially convinced that she wanted to work with the knot making technique because of its aesthetic associations with the values of previous generations. "Ultimately, however, I realized that the technique of using a visual language that references 1970's white feminism does something; it brings a layer of meaning that can enrich my work."
In contrast to the ropes made from natural fibers that are traditionally used in macramé, Harrod chose to use nylon paracord, a material that is popular with the military for its utility and versatility. "Formally speaking, playing with scale, color, and materials can connect macramé to the present, while remaining in conversation with the aesthetics of formative feminist art. Conceptually speaking, bringing components of my mother's generation of feminist theory and practice together with my current reference points and practice of queer intersectional feminism builds a bridge between feminist movements," says Harrod.
There is certainly a plethora of tradition behind these works, but Harrod still manages to utilize knot making in innovative ways by integrating some anatomical references into her elaborate compositions, allowing her to subtly comment on social issues. "The relationship between the rope and the abstracted figure is of great interest to me physically, visually, and conceptually. Knot making—be it macramé or other forms—has a rich history within textiles, shipping, and sex play. Much of my work references bodies: amorphous, indeterminate bodies."
And while tension may be a fundamental aspect of the work, Harrod recognizes that breaking up tension with wry exhibition titles like Toxic Shock and the Hotdog, Low Ropes Course, and Soft Hardware, is sometimes a necessity. "I use humor to relieve the pressure I experience in my life and work. Also, we need the world to look differently and I need my world to look differently. To help this process, I use humor in my titles to make propositions that are fun and over the top as ways to engage people in my own imagined space. It's also a way of providing some relief from the thick mire that we are currently facing. I need this."
Jesse Harrod recently published her first book at the LA Art Book Fair with Publication Studio, Hudson. She is currently working on a large installation for a biennial in Quebec that will open this summer. See more of Harrod's work, and find out more about her upcoming projects, on her website.