Tracy Austin was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on July 10th, 2019. Listen to the full interview here.
MK: So I’m here with Tracy Austin in the Barracks. Tracy, we’ve met I think twice now so far.
TA: I think so, yeah.
MK: And I think it was quite a few years ago, the first time, but last year I spoke to you a bit about some of your work here. So what kind of work do you do?
TA: I do miniature fashion sculptures.
MK: So there’s three things there, all combined together, and it’s always amazing. I’m sitting by some of your miniature sculptures this year, and these are brand new, aren’t they?
TA: These are brand new ones I did this year, yes.
MK: So tell me a little bit about these three here.
TA: The three that are there, one of them is from last year, a piece for the Fredericton Arts Alliance residency from last year, for the theme of “The River.” The other two are part of my series called “Weight of Power,” and they were the start of this huge project I’m doing that is about the weight of what our image that we put forward to the world costs, mostly working with women. Everything we express through life costs something, whether it’s something physical, emotional, or spiritual.
MK: So where did that theme come from?
TA: I think it was from the fact that I work with a lot of women and have a lot of female students, I just see the struggles that everyone’s putting forward to meet these expectations they either put on themselves or that is expected from them, either in the workplace, or through their peers, or life in general.
MK: So that’s a pretty big topic to potentially present. How do you start turning that into individual designs? And moreover, you’re turning it into not just one design, but multiple designs.
TA: Yeah, a series. I think I find the people that are most important to me in my life, I say “What’s the main thing I think about when I see them? And what struggles do I think they go through doing that?” Sometimes it’s people I see day-to-day, sometimes it’s myself, sometimes it’s close friends, sometimes it’s myself. It varies depending on the mood I’m going through as well.
MK: And do you kind of look at, do a piece, and see the people you were thinking about when you made that piece?
TA: I think so, yeah. Sometimes I’ll think about a person and think “Oh, that person is really courageous,” and I think, in my life, where did I feel like I was courageous, and what colours remind me of that? Or what was I experiencing when I was feeling that? Or was I watching them experiencing themselves being courageous? Things like that. So I try to bring in all the non-fashion elements, and then create fashion art from those different perspectives.
MK: Have you shared any of these creations with the people who inspired them yet?
TA: Some of them, yes. I’m waiting on finishing the whole series to kind of unveil all of them.
MK: Are people making guesses?
TA: Most people don’t really know that I have made these about certain people. So I think it’ll be a little bit of surprise for some people.
MK: So if we talk specifically about these three, I assume this swirling, multiple blue colour, that’s the one from water last year. How would you describe this?
TA: That piece I did because everyone was really upset with the floods. The first one; not this year’s, but last year’s. And I wanted to do something that showed this ferocity and untamed nature of the water, but also perhaps the silver lining that comes along with that. So there’s some little gold gems in there, and there’s this bit of harmony going through the piece. It’s still active and kind of aggressive, but it is also part of nature, and we have to accept that it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and we have to make the best of it.
MK: And it looks like it’s composed of small pieces of cloth rather than larger pieces.
TA: Yeah, it’s a lot of pieces broken down, weathered, put back together, deconstructed, and reconstructed, things like that.
MK: And what kind of material is it?
TA: Most of that one is a cotton, but it is on a silk base, and it has some refining and things like that.
MK: How long did it take you to make this?
TA: It took me the whole week of my residency, and then probably another 5-10 hours just adding details afterwards.
MK: It’s absolutely gorgeous. I think we said, when I talked to you last year, would you ever seen the full-size version of this. I mean, this is a fashion piece as well, something incredibly gorgeous to see that size, but it would be really hard to replicate.
TA: It is, yeah. The scale would be changing on them. I could replicate it, definitely. I’d have to take a different perspective on it, but sometimes too, while making them large, we start thinking about who’s going to wear them and where are they going to wear them, and that kind of sometimes takes away from the fashion element of things, because then we are thinking more about the person, the place, and event. Things like that.
MK: Have you ever thought of photoshopping your favourite models into these pieces?
TA: I haven’t, but that is an idea for sure (laughs).
MK: The two new pieces for this year, we’ve got a really tall red-and-black one. Do you want to talk about that one?
TA: Yeah, that one is my piece called “Passion.” It is part of my five-piece set for Weight of Power that is being produced through the ArtNB Creation Grant. So that was the first of the five that I wanted to launch.
MK: It’s got a very regal presentation to it.
TA: Yeah, it’s regal, but it’s also got this concept of “Is this black colour over top of it maybe trying to weigh down this passion that’s trying to escape?” But, the passion is going to do what it wants anyway, and it’s exploding and there’s flowers and things are blooming, and there’s different textures, and different elements of it just being wild and expressing itself that way.
MK: Yeah, the beautiful red underneath, and then it kind of flows up beyond the bottom as well. So was this about someone who’s being constrained in how they can express themselves?
TA: It was my perspective of people when like, someone’s really, really excited about something, and they just can’t help themselves going for it, and you can tell how happy they are. Then they kind of get halfway through their story and they kind of feel like maybe they’re being a bit too passionate, or too much, and they kind of try to tame themselves down. And I guess it was just that feeling, having experienced it, but also viewed it a lot, especially with younger people, especially my students. I see it, and I’m just “That’s so sad that you think you have to tame this passion within you.” So I kind of wanted to push for the idea that it doesn’t matter if you try to hide it, it’s going to come out, and you should let it come out and be free, and really grasp onto the things that bring you joy in life.
MK: That’s a beautiful message. Are your students also working in the same kind of materials?
TA: They’re working full-size. I am trained, traditionally, in full-sized garments, and I do work at the Craft College here in the fashion department; I’m their technician, but they’re all learning the basics for learning how to sow, drafting, design, and they do go on to create lines of clothing for their fashion show every year; it’s annual. And it can be any theme, any subject they want it to be. So yeah, we’ve got these students that are maybe really passionate about a certain time in history or about something in pop culture, and sometimes they go “Oh, maybe I’m a bit too excited about this thing, because maybe not everyone’s into it.” And I’m like “no, embrace that thing that really inspires you.”
MK: Is there a sense of working in a practical sense in clothing, or is it really about working on the art?
TA: It can go both ways, absolutely. And when you learn traditional sewing and tailoring and drafting techniques, that gives you a skillset that you can build off wherever you want to go. We’re one of the few schools in the country that does made-to-fit, which is it fits a specific person and not just a person of a general age. So when you have that skill, to be able to turn things into whatever you want, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing full-size or miniature, none of that matters because you have the ability to turn this into anything you want to. So we see people go on to do their production lines and do various things, but you have others that makes costumes for theatre, and then people that go into the medical side of things where you’re making braces and medical equipment, and they’re still using that skillset.
MK: You definitely have a theatrical nature to the stuff you produce; it’s immediately evocative. Have you ever portrayed some of your work in a fictional setting? Where you combine them together to tell a specific story?
TA: Yeah, I have done that before. Some of pieces do fit certain dolls, so I have done that before. But I also showcased the pieces on their own a lot, where I will build an environment for them to be in. Or I’ll photograph them in an environment I want them to be in. When I’m working on these pieces, I always like to grab non-fashion elements that inspire me through these things, and one of these things is always places, and things that would inspire me through that as well. So I kind of have this concept of what it is, where it will be kind of thing.
MK: So are you capturing references then? With photographs or otherwise?
TA: Yeah, some things I’m catching when I’m out or experiences I’ve had in places I’ve been, but also places that I haven’t been that I would love to go, or places that other people have seen.
MK: So the third piece we have, that I have sitting beside me here, is almost like a waterfall, starting at the waist of this beautiful dress. Tell me about this one.
TA: That piece is called Hope. It was part of my three-piece Weight of Power section that I got the grant through Art Kitchen, which is an event at Connexion Art this year. That piece was one of the three pieces that I did for a series of emotions you go through when you’re dealing with depression. This was the one called Hope, while the other two were called Destruction, and Despair. They were on the darker side. The Hope piece is, whether you suffer from depression or not, I think it’s this shining beacon in my collection, because I don’t usually work in blue, so I had this bright blue working with it, and it’s just kind of exploding everywhere with this desire to bring happiness to people and look for the better in life. And it’s multi-layered too, to give it a glow of different colours and things like that. But it’s not perfect, those are pieces of tool that I cut up and pulled and stretched, and they’ve kind of gone through their own experience to get to that point. And there’s this kind of water-wrapped, vine thing that’s going around it, because even when you have that little nag in the back of your mind going “maybe things won’t work out,” but I find that, if you’re hopeful, you push forward anyway, and I wanted this piece to draw that attention for people where that’s the first thing they see, and they really wanna know and talk about it, and they want to look under and see what’s there. I think that’s really important for everyday hope.
MK: You were talking about the vine, and how, in the conception of it, it’s sort of a negative element, and element of restraint, but it looks beautiful.
TA: I didn’t want to do something that looked too sharp and dangerous, because I think we need to understand that those nagging feelings of being unhopeful can’t hurt us as long as we keeping moving forward and being positive about things, even if you have your doubts.
MK: And the little specks of blue in there as well…
TA: Yeah, it has little beads in there that are intertwined with everything.
MK: So with these two pieces, was this another week-long project in each case?
TA: No, those were longer. The pieces in Weight of Power are very detailed, and these are moreso month-long creations. My original plan was to do five and be done by May, for the Art NB grant, but then I received Art Kitchen on top of that. So I ended up having to do eight pieces in five months, which didn’t work. I didn’t have to get an extension, but because they are a solid month of work… I have most of them conceptualized but I also have to test different techniques, make sure everything’s gonna work; most of them have dyeing techniques on them. And then after I’ve built the structure, I have to do a lot of handwork on top of these, so it’s a lot of small little pieces that have to be put together.
MK: Do you ever start cursing yourself when you’re up late at night trying to do that last delicate piece?
TA: Every time (laughs). I wonder “why did I do this?” Why do I suffer? Why do I push myself to do this? I know why, because it’s going to be exactly what I want it to be. It’s going to show that work, and it’s the heart of my work really; those tedious little details. You don’t get the sewing machine, just the hand.
MK: So at this point, how many of these have you created? Ever stop to take count?
TA: Of this level of work, I wanna say probably about seventeen, if I were to take a guess.
MK: So you would definitely count these as a higher tier.
TA: Yes. I do have two tiers. When I worked under my own name, Tracy Austin, it’s my high-end shelf pieces, which is what you’re looking at here and am working at this week. I do run a small business called Steampetal, where I make clothes for dolls as well, but those can only be a certain level of difficulty, otherwise they don’t really fit the production line of things for what people are looking to afford for clothing. So I have them split completely, where one has dolls and are always seen as dolls, and then this set of work that has deeper meanings and high quality workmanship, is all my set of pieces that are gallery-ready pieces.
MK: It must be sometimes tough to work in a sort of bounded art, where you have to limit yourself for practical reasons.
TA: Yeah. I worked basically ten years on just my production line, and I found myself thinking “I’m not being challenged, I need to do more, I really want to express myself, I have all these things I want to say.” I’m really involved in feminism and art culture, and wanting to be able to express these things through art. So I decided “Hey, I need to take another direction in things,” so I kind of let my production business take the back seat for a while while I worked on these pieces. So I’ve been working on this couture-style garments for the last couple of years now.
MK: So let’s talk about the piece you’re working on right now, because you’ve got another piece that, I presume, is the beginning of it.
TA: It’s the start of it, yeah.
MK: And you have a lot of small green and brown pieces, and they’re of irregular shapes.
TA: They are, yeah. The theme this year for the Fredericton Arts Alliance was “Trees,” and I had to jump on it because I have been following a lot of things going on in the city about our elm trees, so I’m creating Lady Elm, and she will be the embodiment of the elm tree spirit, and what I think she means to Fredericton, and also what possibly we are kind of overlooking. I find that a lot of my art deals with women and feminism, but also a lot of things about botanical nature, but also there’s the whole concept of fast fashion that’s ruining the world. So this piece kind of relates to all of these things at the same time; about things maybe we take for granted, and then destroy, and then we’re missing later. So it’s kind of my ode to the elm tree, and celebrating it regardless of what happens to it in the city; I’ve got my celebration of them.
MK: So I know for painters who I’ve talked to, there’s often a sense of discovery while they’re painting; they have an idea in their mind, but as the process goes on, it changes maybe, because of a stroke that went a different way than expected. Is that how it is for you, too?
TA: Absolutely, which is why I’ll usually draw them in sketching pencil designs. I have the idea of where I want to go with things, and usually something changes along the way; usually with the detailing side of things. So I did the story with all these tiny little pieces I’m working on at the moment, but I felt that I really wanted to replicate the concept of bark, and the way to do that is through different textures and slight colour changes, and just building things that are more organic, and really fine and constructed. So I’ve been using a technique that I used on one of my other pieces earlier in the year, and it’s where I burn and change things, and I’ve brought that into this piece as well, so I can get pieces I don’t have as much control over to then layer into the pieces that will be bark, on top of the already-established large skirt and corset base and all that that I’m working with.
MK: So using flame as that brush.
TA: Yeah, and of course, fire reacts differently to different material, so my silks are burning and making an awful smell, but the fabric changes colour a little bit when you activate it, but also, it gives it a really organic edge to it, whereas when I use my tool, which is this plastic kind of netting, it ends up with a very different texture with melted bits and stuff like that. So that when I layer them on top of each other or something, some of them look like the pieces of bark going together, and then the plastic pieces can kind of look like the moss growing on top of things.
MK: Obviously you cut your material as well, but when you’re burning it, you have so little control over it. Does that make you nervous? Or is it exciting?
TA: It’s kind of exciting, because I know what level these things burn at, so I know how close I need to get and things like that. But I think the part of being organic is that you have to let nature and chance take over a little bit, so fire is going to do what fire wants to do. And sometimes you just completely ruin it, so you go to the next piece. But that’s why I do all the smaller pieces first instead of working away at the main piece, in case anything happens. But I apply them afterward, if any burning has been done.
MK: And is fire in this case just a technique or the actual part of the piece?
TA: It’s a technique, but I think there’s something to be said about taking something that’s destructive when we’re talking about the destruction of elm trees as well.
MK: So you have a lot of things you want to put into this piece. What are some of those elements? You mentioned we may have under-appreciate or under-realized elements; how do you want to represent that?
TA: This piece has to have a lot of layers to it; right now I’m just working on her underskirt, which will go over top of her corset, which is the structure on the trunk kind of idea, but after that, I’m putting on what’s basically the foliage of this piece, which will have a large skirt with beads and things all in between the layers to show growth. But I’m also building these wire structures that will have leaves on them, that will kind of be enveloping around her, and some of them will be more alive than others, and it’s also kind fo going to be her protection a little bit. She’s trying to protect herself from possibly the destruction of trees and things like that, so I think we’re looking at destructive and reconstructive elements again, which is really common in my work. I think that can translate very well to the transition of Fredericton needing these elm trees, but at the same time, we’re destroying them.
MK: I wouldn’t be surprised to also see just a direct element of strength. There’s already a poise in the model you have; there’s a very strong nature to them. But even in the centre part you’ve mapped out here, you can see these long, straight lines.
TA: Yeah, I’m building the structure around the corset, which is a structure-based garment, into this skirt that goes kind of wild, which is what we’re looking at; the foliage of the tree. But also, the skirt is wide at the bottom because the trees give off a huge amount of shade, which is needed for a city like ours. Without these trees, we’d just kind of be this hot concrete jungle kind of thing. So the trees bring something that not a lot of cities have, and maybe we should think about that before we destroy them all.
MK: Well I have a feeling this is going to be a beautiful piece. You’re probably not going to finish it in just your time here I take it?
TA: Probably not. I think I’ll probably get the majority of the base parts done; I don’t know if I’ll get her giant halo of leaves done. It will be done for the show that’s happening in September I believe, through the Fredericton Arts Alliance.
MK: Is there a place that people can follow your work online and find out more about what you do?
TA: Absolutely, yeah. On Instagram, under tracy_austin_atelier, or at tracyaustinatelier.com.
MK: Awesome, thank you very much, Tracy.
TA: Thank you.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2019