A two-story-high, black-and-white-striped boatneck tee made of sailcloth and sized for a giant hangs from the ceiling in a corner of the Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY-Ulster in Stone Ridge. The sleeves of the enormous shirt are suspended from rigging, allowing them to be raised and lowered like sails on a boat. At the moment, in the configuration in which the rigging was last left, the garment appears to be dancing on its own, arms bent at the elbow, an invisible wearer swaying to an unheard beat.
The giant shirt shares the gallery space with two more colossal constructions suspended from the ceiling: a room-height, unbuttoned camisole of translucent white sailcloth spilling onto the floor – its bodice cleverly boned with actual whalebone – and an 18-foot-long pair of pristine-white sailcloth overalls, one strap artfully dropped as the garment appears to float off towards the sky, only contained by the ceiling in the room.
The exhibit is called “Between the Lines” and the huge garments are the work of New Paltz-based artist Kate Hamilton. A costumer for art performances, dance, opera and theater in New York City and abroad, her gallery exhibitions of enormous attire take clothing to the next level: off the actors and onto its own stage. Clothing becomes metaphor for human experience in her hands, and the unexpected sight of the shapes so familiar to all of us rendered huge breaks through our usual associations.
Walking into the gallery at SUNY-Ulster, dwarfed by the gigantic garments, one’s childlike sense of wonder is evoked. The reaction is one that Hamilton says she hears often from gallerygoers, who tell her that the experience of interacting with the huge items of clothing reminds them of when they were little and adults were big. That sensation is heightened with the garments into which one can enter: Standing inside the black-and-white-striped “shirt-house,” as Hamilton refers to it, suggests the childhood experience of being in a fort or hidden away in a “secret space.”
The first time that Hamilton created a huge garment – which, by the way, she sews on a regular Singer home sewing machine – was for the set of a stage show in Zurich. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, and it was a challenge,” she says. “But it was exciting to try something where you have to figure it out, and because I knew how to make clothes, I knew that if I expanded the pattern pieces they would still work together. I knew exactly what it would become in terms of its shape, but what I hadn’t thought about was structure and gravity; it can’t stand on its own.”
She raised that first giant shirt using tent poles. “And when I looked at it, it just made me laugh,” she says. “It made me happy. And that happens every time I put them up, now; there’s something about the interaction people have with them that makes them happy.”
Hamilton says that her work is always experimental. Her gallery exhibits sometimes include elements of performance art, offering a chance for viewers not only to engage with the work, but also to have impact upon it. For the opening reception of “Between the Lines,” she invited the students of Michael Asbill’s 20th-Century Art History class to make original art to project onto the garments using overhead projectors. Cheyenne Rossler, one of the students, says that Hamilton gave them free rein to do whatever they wanted to do; but after hearing from the artist that the stripes on the shirt referenced lined paper in her mind, and that the black-against-white striping was suggestive of the contrast of death and life (more on that in a bit), it inspired many of the students to use text along with visual images for their projections. Some of the students employed thoughts about grieving and others made observations about the roles that clothing plays in our lives. A video of the experience plays at the exhibit, and the students’ projections are attached to the windows of the gallery for viewing while the show is up: through Friday, December 11.
The exhibit is a personal one for Hamilton, dedicated to the memory of her Mom, Helen S. Hamilton, who passed away a year ago. As playful as the giant black-and-white shirt seems to the viewer entering the gallery, it has associations for the artist that go to a much deeper level, created as it was during a year of coping with devastating loss by working through it. Whether that comes through for the viewer is questionable, says the artist, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, with the observer free to make his or her own associations. “It’s an experiential thing,” she says. “It brings up the questions of structure, of clothing as shelter…and it asks the question of what’s bigger than us, or are we so expansive that we think we’re that big…you can think what you want to think.”
But for the artist, it’s part of a memorial. Not only was her Mom fond of wearing similar striped shirts (as is the artist herself), when the black-and-white lines began to suggest lined paper to Hamilton, that made her see the shirt as a communication vehicle, she says, on which she could write to her Mom by projecting letters to her onto it: that desire that we have when losing someone still to be able just to talk to them. She was intrigued with the concept, but being a private person, didn’t really want to put her personal thoughts out there for all to read. The project with the students at SUNY projecting their own voices through thoughts and images onto the shirt at the opening seemed like a good way to explore the idea.
And in working through her grief, Hamilton also wanted to honor the things that her mother loved to do. Her Mom was an illustrator who loved to weave, so Hamilton took a drawing class and a weaving class at the Women’s Studio Workshop, although neither were things she herself really enjoys doing. “I was just trying to understand,” she says. In the weaving class, she learned how to spin thread from mulberry paper, which can then be woven into any type of shape. “So I wrote a letter to my mother, cut the letter up, and spun it into thread and wove these tiny shirts…shirt after shirt after shirt.”
The exhibit at SUNY-Ulster includes six of these palm-sized intimate little treasures, the last one with a strand of inked paper left hanging to reveal the process of their making. Having always worked on a grand scale, Hamilton found it difficult to work so tiny. “It took a lot of time, and gave me a lot of time to think and to just sit there and do this little tiny thing. I’ve always liked to work faster, and I’ve only worked large until this, but it was interesting; I was curious about exploring the difference between something tiny and something big.”