A Studio Visit With The Textile Artist Diedrick Brackens

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The award-winning weaver discusses how he, and his work, have come to be. By Calvin Reedy. Photographed by Clifford Prince King.

 
 

CALVIN REEDY:
I guess you should, like, state your name and that you consent to this recording.

DIEDRICK BRACKENS:
Um, I’m Diedrick Brackens, and I consent to being recorded.

CR: Okay, great. And I’m Calvin Reedy [laughs]. I thought it would be a great way to start to tell me, who are you? What’s your origin story?

DB: Oh my gosh. I want to say that I was born from stardust, because I’ve heard someone say that before. I was born in a small town in Mexia, Texas, but I was a military brat. We moved all around the country. I’ve always made art, though. I discovered weaving when I was in the third grade.

CR: Oh wow, okay.

DB: Yeah, I used to make these little frame-weavings when I was young. I’ve never talked about that. I’ve always been like a tinkerer, a reader.

CR: You’ve told me before that when you were an undergrad, you moved over to weaving as the primary medium for your practice. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? 

DB: I rediscovered weaving in undergrad my second semester of school. I just had a professor who randomly was like, “Oh, are you a fiber major?” And I was making sculptures for this class, primarily using string and fabric, just intuitively. She was like, “Oh, you’re a fiber major.” At that point I’d never heard of such a thing. I thought I was going to study photography, mostly because it sounded like a job. At her urging I took a weaving class the summer of my freshman year and just fell in love immediately. You walked into this room with like, wood and metal contraptions, thirty of them in perfect rows, and then in the back there was a wall of yarn that was color-coordinated with all of these beautiful textures, and I was like, I don’t even know what this is, but yes.

CR: It sounds pretty fateful. 

DB: Yeah! I remember that first day vividly. 

CR: I know that weaving is a practice that’s rooted in various traditions and histories, and I’d love to hear about which of those histories are really important to you. I assume that you draw inspiration from a lot of different places.

DB: I was in London a couple of weeks ago and I got to go to the Victoria & Albert and see their tapestry room, and it just like, slayed me. To see the detail that someone can coax out of thread—it shocked me. They’re sort of like precursors to paintings in a way, right? There was a moment in history where you would have a painting made to make a tapestry from. That history used to kind of be flipped, right? Like, the textile was the thing at the top of the hierarchy. It gives me this feeling of pride [laughs]. And it was work that was made in community—there was not one single maker for a tapestry. It was a crew of folks. Not that that’s my practice, but it’s always exciting to think that it could move to a place where that would make sense. I wouldn’t want to be a factory.

CR: Right. 

DB: Those works really excite me. But textiles don’t always lead to textiles. There are other things in the world that really excite me. Like landscapes and being out in the world—nature. Going home to the South is one of those renewing forces that I think provides context for the things I want to make.

CR: Your work also parses through more general themes of movement, whether it’s as micro as you personally moving through a space that might be hostile or as macro as the African diaspora. I think it’s really interesting that that’s something that recurs in your practice, because I don’t immediately think of movement when I think of weavings or textiles.

DB: I think one thing that is always bound in the work has been this idea of “the search.” I’m always looking for peace, home, stability—all these things that I think in our day-to-day everyone looks for, but I think Black folks especially are always trying to find a stasis, even when you have means or some certain level of comfort. And I think some of it for me comes also from being a military brat and moving so often. As much as we moved, you learn quickly how to make home anywhere. You also learn what rituals make you feel safe and comfortable. I had a mother who, in her own way, was always a homemaker. She was very intentional about being some version of a stay-at-home mom, or having jobs that allowed her to be there to get me ready for school. She was this stabilizing force. And there was something really exciting about that. But this movement, for me, it’s like I remember all of these road-trips, and being in the car, being on the highway, going home to see family. I’m getting to this point in my life where I’m like, “Why don’t you just go back there?” And the act of weaving is very physical; you use your everything to make a weaving. There is so much three-dimensionality in the creation that gets lost on the viewer. I don’t think that people who look at one understand that there are all of these mysterious actions behind it. It’s still quite 2-D in the end. So, I think for me, it’s always important to reference the body in textiles, even when there isn’t a figure present, to get people back to thinking about the corporeal aspects of production while they’re engaging with the work.

CR: When I was looking up all of your work and looking at videos of you at the loom, I did realize how similar to working in clay it is. I thought of a potter sitting at the wheel and how you have to really put your whole body into it. You develop a muscle memory around the thing that you’re making. I’ve always thought of textiles as representational rather than as art objects themselves, I guess since you see it on the wall and you read it as a painting. But it has a texture and a shape to it.

DB: There’s a very particular intimacy I think in making [a textile] that is mirrored in how we use them, like laying on sheets, or putting on clothes. I think it’s very similar in the way that you interact with and touch the loom.

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Their tapestry room, it just like, slayed me.

CR: So let’s talk actually a bit more about the South, and let’s talk about cotton. Because I know that you are very deliberate about using cotton.

DB: My mother’s mother was the last person in my family to actually pick cotton. I remember, even before I was an artist, always being curious and asking her. Because there’s something that happens when you’re young and Black where you’re just like, “I know slavery was a thing, and I need to understand when it happened.” I remember being young and asking my oldest relatives, knowing that they weren’t slaves, but asking, “Was your mom a slave? How did we get here?”

CR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. “How far back do we have to go?”

DB: And them telling me these stories, in the South especially, like, “Oh, we did these things,” “This is how we lived,” or, “I rolled cigarettes for white people, but I couldn’t lick them.” Random statements, where I was like, what? Like, how do I make sense of these things? Especially in the South, where at the same time I remember it being this kind of Black utopia, in the places that my parents were from, these little country towns where they didn’t really interact with white people all that much. There were a lot of things from my childhood that instilled this sense of love and pride for my Blackness, but I didn’t necessarily see that reflected when I left those little bubbles. But…cotton! It is literally the landscape; I remember driving to my grandmother’s house, through the backwoods, looking at cotton field on cotton field, thinking it was beautiful. Which it is, but then you learn all these ways that it violated, that it was brutal and violent to your heritage. I love to think about how we got here, to the world we live in now. It’s important to me. If my grandmother is telling me about how she had to bandage her hands because of carrying hundreds of pounds of cotton on her back, it’s like, well, I can do this…I’m privileged to work with this thing in this other way now. I get to make beautiful things, and I should. I should, in some way, pay respects.

CR: Because now you’re moving through the world, but with agency, and you can do what you want with the material. So it is that sort of respect to their labor.

DB: Yeah, for sure. And that there’s so many of my family members who, not in recent generations, but in previous ones made things. My mother talked about her mom making her dresses, and her mother talks about making quilts. But she’s always, again, like, “You had to.” She never was like, “Yeah, I found joy in that,” necessarily. It feels good to say, “Okay, I’m making an amendment to all of these things.”

CR: Right. Let’s talk a bit more about your own work. You have a practice that has one foot in pure abstraction and the other foot in figurative work. And I know a lot of artists go back-and-forth between the two in different phases, but I think it’s fascinating that you work in both of those styles. Is there a specific reason why that is important to you? 

DB: I think early on I had this very dramatic moment where I decided I could not make figurative work. And it was due in part to two things: one of them was, in undergrad and grad school, I had these moments where I felt like my white counterparts, or non-Black counterparts I should even say, were always reading into my work, no matter what, in a way that was based around struggle. And I was like, “What’s there that gives those reads?” And people couldn’t get beyond them, even if those were some of the things that I was leveraging. I intentionally moved away from the figure or references, like easy references to Blackness, because I wanted to. It was like a game in a way. I wanted to challenge the viewer to tease out a narrative from very little. And I was always afraid, like, “Okay, once these things leave my hands, there’s no telling how they’ll be contextualized,” so I wanted to be slippery. And I really felt served and fed by that way of working for so long. When Black death became a part of the media narrative, when the extrajudicial murders of black men became a moment, I felt compelled, like so many other creative folks, to talk about it. But I still defaulted to abstraction, because I feel like abstraction can say it all—can save the world, in a way. I would just have moments of rupture, things that felt good to have spilling out into the textiles. For me, all of these abstractions are still bodies. I got to a point where I was just like, “I’m tired.” [Laughs] “And this is taxing. I wanna make beautiful things that are beautiful.” And I’d just seen—let’s see, this was 2016 maybe? I can’t remember when it came out––but I had just seen Moonlight, and I was like, “This is everything.” [Laughs] Like, Black bodies; no—I feel like it calls back to that kind of utopia thing I was talking about growing up. All these black people, not a white person.

CR: Was there even a white person in that movie? I don’t think there was, now that I think about it.

DB: I was just like drunk on that. And also the movie is filled with these images of water. Like, Black skin, water. It’s just so—I don’t know. So I went into my studio and I was like, “I want to make figures again. And I need to make them at peace, you know? Not being violated, because that seemed so much the narrative that I was grappling with every day, and still am. But my Black life is just as rewarding and gratifying and beautiful as anyone else’s. So I just wanted to start making images of figures, like, luxuriating.

CR: Love that. Yeah. 

DB: So the first one was in part inspired by Moonlight and it’s called… “Under Moonlight”? Oh god, I can’t remember. And then after that I was just like, “Yes, this feels good.” And I kept making that imagery, which in turn folded back in on itself and informed some of the things that I was making that were abstract. For me they feel like they come from the same place because they address the same concerns. But the figurative work I think is what’s given me critical attention.

CR: And I know with the figurative work specifically you’ve talked about them being pieces of a story. So I was wondering, are any of them autobiographical? Or when you see something or you’re living through a moment, do you know that you’re gonna go to the studio and produce a piece of art out of that? How do they come to you? What’s up? [Laughs]

 
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DB: [Laughs] It’s a bit of both. I think all of them have a little bit of my actual experience in them. But then it’s sort of pared down and retold in a way. But there’s one—all of the works that I made for the Hammer* were about an interaction that I had or wished to have had with men, particularly Black men. There’s one work called “In The Decadence of Silence” that’s about several things. It’s about interacting with the state in a very particular way. I lived in Oregon for a year and I was assaulted there by a man who worked at a bar.

CR: God that sounds terrible. 

DB: Yeah. And then I had to interact with the police. And basically the bar functioned in such a way that it was clear that they had done things like this before. And not necessarily to just Black bodies, or queer bodies. It was like a bar that had a gay night, and it was the only gay bar in town. The gay night was called Freak Night. [Laughs] Like, this is already problematic.

CR: To say the least. 

DB: And basically this man assaults me and then the bar moved around and cleared everyone out. And I was just, like, held in a chokehold until the police arrived. 

CR: Jesus. Oh my god.

DB: And when the police arrived they let me go. The police also walked over to one of the guys at the bar too far away from me to hear what they’re saying. Then they come over and they’re like, “Lay down on the ground. Hands behind your back, or we’ll tase you.” 

CR: Oh my god. 

DB: I’m like, “Okay…” [Laughs] They spent more time talking to the people who worked there, who had cleared the street of any witnesses. And then they come back over and they’re like, “Okay, you can go.” And I was like…

CR: “Excuse me?”

DB: Yeah. And at the time I didn’t know this, but once I got home, my face was bruised, scratched up, bloody. My teeth were chipped from being slammed into the concrete. I had bruised ribs. Nothing was broken thankfully, but just, like, awful. 

CR: Yeah, you were harmed significantly.

DB: Yeah. And the police officer was like, “Just go home.” And I was like, “No, I’m gonna press charges, so I need you to take the report.” And he was like, “Okay, fine.” So I start telling him the narrative of the night. And he’s like, “Mhm. Mhm.” And I’m like, ‘He’s not writing anything down. What’s happening?’ So I’m finally like, “I guess I’ll go home.” Went home. Cried myself to sleep. Called my parents—my father’s a state trooper in Texas. So part of it was like, “I don’t know everything, but I know what’s going on here.” Like, I had that inside knowledge. My father’s freaking out. He’s like, “I’m gonna do some research on Oregon state law. You need to go to bed. I love you. Get some rest.” So, all of that to say that for me, I have a complicated relationship to the idea of policing and the law; my father’s also in the army. And so for me those dogs [in “In The Decadence of Silence”]… they represent the state. I’ve always had uncles and cousins who have, like, Rottweilers and big scary dogs that are also police dogs, historically. So I’m always curious about how Black folks take these markers of things that have historically violated us and then they’re taking it for their own power. For me, I wanted to try to sit in that tension between embrace and terror. Like, having these dogs leaping for my throat but calmly waiting for that moment. 

CR: Yeah, like very calmly just looking at them. 

DB: And, you know, I was looking at a lot of police dog training videos, protest pictures, images from the Civil Rights movement and the current day. There’s that image that went around a couple years ago of a black woman at a protest and she like has her arms outstretched, and it looks like the police are, like, falling backwards.

CR: Right. And she’s just like there and graceful and like a pillar of calmness and everything. 

DB: Yeah. All of those things inspired that piece. I’m always interested in putting my own vision of the world in things. But then, falling away from that being the grand narrative, if that makes sense. “opening tombs between the heart” is specifically thinking about this thing that I saw happening in the work. There’s always this singular figure or figures that don’t touch. And I was just like, “Huh.” And I started thinking about that relative to the distance I often feel between myself and Black men, or just other men in my life. How prescribed our interactions can feel. So I was curious about all the ways that I really love and celebrate my father, but there’s also this way that I’m like, “He’s the greatest person in the world; I haven’t talked to him in three months. My mom tells him how I am.” [Laughs] And I was really thinking about what would be at stake if we were to be tender with each other. And there’s always biblical content going through my work that I don’t necessarily mean. But I think that’s just the South. It’s like fire and brimstone and revelation everywhere you look, so, whatever.—