MB – My name is Melanie Bernier. I do a lot of things – I work in music, and aerobics, and performance, and fiber art. I went to Mass College of Art for Studio for Interrelated Media, so I like working across different mediums. Since I graduated, I started working more primarily in fibers, which is actually like, the first thing I really learned how to do as a kid. I just didn’t really realize you could do it as an art form later on, you know? So primarily for the past couple years, I guess it started with me doing band art, I’ve been doing work for my band, and work for other people, and then work about being in a band.
EF – I interrupted you earlier when you were talking about liking this space, and being here for six years.
What happened was, this woman had been in here for 20 years, and there are artists on this floor who have been here that long. But she needed a sublet. When I started, I was just given a corner of the room. She ended up leaving; she was in her 80s, and it was a very lucky situation that someone left. This is obviously a prime space, there’s not a lot of art studios in Central anymore. It’s just banks now. So, it kind of worked out.
I guess at first, I was just doing things piecemeal, and I like doing things in series, you know? I started trying not to make any trash in 2013, which has been going pretty well. After doing a lot of band work, and thinking “what else?” I was super anxious about climate change, and wanted to do work based on the idea of cities going underwater, or disasters; I guess, now that I think of it, this was a way for me to express a lot of anxiety. I started saving my trash, which I still do – maybe it’s a little creepy – and I started making trash urns and buoys and things like that. This is a trash urn I made a long time ago, it’s all the trash I made between February and May 2014.
Then, in 2013 or 2014, a lot of show houses around here started getting shut down. I’ve always loved flags; for me, the simple graphics combined with strong imagery, I’ve always been attracted to. I was thinking about how to memorialize show spaces, which is when I started doing this series.
Everything on each of these flags is hand-done, so each one takes forever. But I like it, it helps a lot with – I don’t know if you have anything like this, but it’s a repetitive task that’s simple. Monday will be the day that I feel like I’m going to make all the designs for things, and then I can just sit down for a month and twiddle, essentially.
I’m a knitter for similar reasons, I totally get it.
I guess this project fulfilled something for me. I started working on it in like 2014, I’ve made six flags, and I’m working on the seventh. It takes up all the time that I’m in here, essentially, but show spaces in Boston have been a big part of my life, a major part of my 20s. Music in general has been the place I go to escape my family life, I guess it’s always been comfortable space, and show houses in particular are really intimate, they are actual homes when there’s not a show going on. I wanted to honor them. I’ve lived in show houses before and it’s a sacrifice in a lot of ways. You’re opening your home to strangers, who you’re not monitoring, obviously. They can do whatever they want there. You’re opening your house up to scrutiny from police forces, you can be evicted – you know the deal. To me, that was like, what an awesome sacrifice for the purpose of community and art that isn’t commercial. Noncommercial art spaces are really important, obviously it’s where things that are a little weird, or new and different can start to grow and thrive. So it felt fine to pour a lot of labor into this.
It’s also interesting, to me, as a way of publicly mourning without having to like, post about it on Facebook.
Yeah, it’s good to have physical commemoration. So many people have memories in these spaces, so to me that’s worthy of having a moment.
Exactly. I ended up doing two for the Butcher Shoppe. I thought I didn’t like the first one, but then I liked it more than this one, so this one is kind of like for nothing. And that was a little bit of a bummer, to work on something and be like, “oh, I liked the first one a lot better.” The seventh will be the last one, which I think will be more general. I thought of a slogan to go with it, I think it’s going to say, “you can’t bury me, I’m already underground,” something to be like, ok, these crackdowns are happening, it’s not going to destroy everything.
I really like denim, secondhand clothing but denim especially. It’s like skin, it shows its wear, it changes color so much over time. When it’s 100% cotton, it’s just a simple fabric, I like the weave of it. But also, you can find any color you want secondhand. Why even go to a store?
Other than denim, I kind of started playing around early with a lot of vinyl, and felt, and regular embroidery thread. Then a couple years later I found out about this material tencel, they sell it at Webs in Northampton.
I worked at Webs for a while. Actually I still kind of work at Webs.
Really? Do you like tencel? Can we geek out please?
What I love about it is that it has a shine that’s kind of similar to silk, in my mind. But it’s strong, it works way better than embroidery thread, it doesn’t catch, it’s really smooth when you’re applying it. When I started using it, I really enjoyed the earthiness of the palette, which over time I’m kind of wanting brighter colors sometimes, but whatever. It’s just the right thickness. I liked at the time what I knew about its process, being biodegradeable fiber made from renewable resources, but now I’m kind of like, it’s also synthetic which is kind of weird.
I kind of feel similar to tencel as I would about like, I don’t really eat meat and sometimes I eat fake meat. Soy isn’t that great for the environment, but it’s not as bad, necessarily as raising livestock. So it’s just like, the cotton industry, and definitely petroleum-based fibers, those aren’t that great, and at least tencel an alternative? And about the shine, tencel is a kind of rayon that I think was kind of meant to mimic silk, it’s like a wood pulp that’s like “digested” and then extruded. I think the original process of all of the plant-y shiny things was maybe not an alternative, but a way to emulate silkiness.
You asked a question about quilting patterns and stuff, usually what I make, I’ll do a stencil first. So this bristol board is my favorite, it is super smooth and it will hold up.
Do you pin them down on the fabric?
Yeah, I pin them down and then trace them.
I have an art show coming up later this month and I wanted to see if I could do one piece in a week, which I kind of have done, if I can finish this. I was thinking about this incident a couple years ago where my mom’s dog attacked me, essentially, and she took the dog’s side in the matter. It’s like, I can’t go to her house anymore, she kept the dog and it’s biting people. It’s a rescue dog that she didn’t train, it left two giant holes in my leg, but her response was like, not good. It was like, “oh, now i’m going to hear about this for the rest of my life, don’t go to the hospital because I don’t want them to make me put my dog down.” It opened up a whole world of issues. This has always been going on, but it was like, “oh, you’ve never really been a mom,” So yeah, this is kind of to do with – since that happening, and since I had a panic attack on tour, and thinking about these things over time and dealing with anxiety and stuff, I wanted to do a series that was a little bit about that, like how you need to create your own temple and your own stability.
That feels really similar to something that I talked to Haley, from Home Body, about – she was talking about how people make jokes like “Home Body? But you’re always on tour” but it’s not mutually exclusive – you have to be able to summon that feeling for yourself.
Yeah. Maybe I’m wrong, but like just through my friends and talking to people, it kind of seems as though people are attracted to underground music, punk music specifically, because it does have that community feel to it.
I guess, while I’m here, what I’ve found, and I’m sure what you’ve noticed about different artists is, they’ll have some things that they’re like “THIS.” For me, it’s a couple things, but this ruler is like the best thing in the world for me. This ruler kind of opened up the ability to do more graphic work, it’s just a quilting thing, but it’s the one. Talk about your babies, this ruler, this plastic piece of shit.
Definitely, I have a few things that I’m like, I don’t think I could do this without this exact thing, that are really silly. I think I have a ruler that’s kind of like that consistency plastic, that has ring sizes on it, like the length that you would have to cut a piece of metal to make a ring that size. It’s a strip you can bend into a circle into whatever ring size. I got it for free in the mail with an order from some jewelry supply company, and now I’m like, “I’m never getting rid of this.”
It’s always the weird, stupid plastic shit that you’re like, “Yes, this is it!”.
Earlier, when you were introducing yourself, you were saying that the first thing you started doing was fiber arts, that was your first medium, but you felt like it wasn’t legitimate. I’m assuming that you felt it was legitimized at some point by an outside source. Whether it’s like the utilitarian thing or that fiber arts are a women’s work kind of thing – I’ve felt that way. Both of those, really.
How I started was that my grandma was a seamstress, that wasn’t her job but she sewed all of her clothing growing up, my mom’s clothing, she also was a dollmaker and had this creepy room full of dolls.
My grandma also did that for a while.
Did she really? It was so creepy. So, my grandma taught me how to sew when I was in kindergarten or something, super young. I would sew my own stuffed animals at that point, then she taught me how to use a sewing machine. I don’t know if you remember like when you cut a pair of corduroys up the side and then – I would do that all by hand, stay up really late, as an 11 year old, sewing shit into my corduroys. I have eight siblings, so you always shop at thrift stores, and I got hand me downs, and it was just a way of personalizing my things.
I grew up in a house without any art, my parents aren’t into it, so I hadn’t really seen or noticed that fiber art was its own art form, you know? At my high school, we did the traditional ceramics, drawing, photography. When I went to Mass Art and there was a fibers major, I didn’t know what that meant. Which is so funny, because you do it your whole life, and you’re like, “What the fuck is fibers?” My close friend was also going there, and she was like, “it’s fabrics and textiles and stuff.” I couldn’t even…so while I was there, I started seeing how people were applying it.
In a way it was like, I thought when I was in school I should be doing stuff I wouldn’t have access to in my own life. To me, sewing was just a thing I did. But then when I graduated, I was like, “no I really enjoy this, why wouldn’t I do this?” but I get what you’re saying. I think a huge part of it is just like legitimizing something that was traditionally a women’s craft, or even a foreign craft in some ways.
Melanie Bernier is an artist and activist working in fibers, music, performance, and aerobics in Cambridge, MA. An involvement in underground and DIY culture influences her artwork and projects, including Punk Rock Aerobics, an alternative aerobics class, and Bardo, a house gallery in Cambridge. She was photographed in her studio on July 16, 2016.