Under the Sun

Ann Morton's 'Violet Protest' Politicizes Fiber Art

Morton subverts homemakers' craft aesthetic in her work.
Morton subverts homemakers' craft aesthetic in her work. Robrt. L. Pela
Ann Morton didn’t like to refer to herself as a fiber artist. “I use fiber art techniques,” she said last Friday from a corner of her central Phoenix studio. “But I think of myself as a contemporary artist who uses a fiber aesthetic.”

Morton liked taking what she called “the rich history of homemakers’ crafts” and turning it on its head. “I can be sitting there crocheting cockroaches, and somebody thinks I’m making a doily. I love that subversive quality, and love that I can do it with textiles.”

After completing a master’s degree in fiber art in 2012, Morton quickly made a name for herself as a socially conscious public artist. “I was running away from the design practice,” she said of her earlier career in graphic design and at an architecture firm. “I already knew how to go to public meetings and work with teams and make proposals to the city, so the kind of projects I do came naturally to me, and quickly.”

Those projects have included "Ground Cover," an NEA-funded public art action commissioned by the city in 2013. Morton asked 300 fiber artists to create panels, then assembled them to form a 50-by-116-foot blanket she installed on a vacant lot in downtown Phoenix. Later, the blankets were given to homeless people. Two years later, Morton launched a community art project about recyclable trash. Participants made flowers from discarded plastic, aluminum, or cardboard. Morton then collected the flowers into a cascading display at the Arizona Science Center.

Her artwork had pretty much always been political, she explained, as a pair of cheerful dogs raced into the room. “And then I was hit hard by September 11. I made a promise to myself that I would find out why the terrorist attacks had happened, what was going on in the world that I had been comfortably numb to, and put it into my art.”

In a screen-printing class, Morton stitched bomb imagery into a piece of camouflage fabric. “It was very subtle,” she said as she escorted the dogs out of the room. “And the teacher said, ‘It’s kind of timid, isn’t it?’ That gave me permission to really start speaking out in my work.”

Morton plans to do more speaking out with a project she’s calling "The Violet Protest," in which she’ll mail 50 handmade textile squares, made by fiber artists in America and Puerto Rico, to every member of the newly elected Congress in 2021. The collection first will be displayed at Phoenix Art Museum in the fall.

“I need 26,750 squares,” she said with a laugh. “I’m estimating 4,000 to 5,000 people will be involved. Most are making five to 10 squares each, but a few people so far have signed up to make 50.”

Makers will create squares in both red and blue, regardless of their political affiliation, Morton explained. The finished piece will be purple, a blending of red and blue.

The finished piece will be purple, a blending of red and blue. “Fiber work is so meditative, and the makers will be knitting for hours on them, or sewing for hours on them, and thinking about what does the blue side stand for, what does the red side want. I’m sure I have Trump supporters donating squares and those who hate Trump making squares. We’re going to be putting these squares together, and that bringing together is the intention imbued into the cloth.”

In addition to the 50 squares, Congress members will also receive a letter from Morton about what she called “core values of civility and candor and compassion and compromise.” But not, she said, a word about politics.

While she waits for "Violet Protest" panels to arrive, Morton is preparing for an exhibit at Modified Arts in the spring, where she’ll show new work alongside artists Christopher Jagmin and Safwat Saleem.

“We’re calling it 'What Can I Say,'" she says. "I was thinking about the roots of my own white privilege, and the innocent cues I got as a kid. There were things in my house that kind of served to maintain that white structure in my psyche and my life.”

She held up a bar of Ivory soap into which she’d carved the face of Jesus. “We had this print of Jesus — the quintessential portrait of Jesus, with blue eyes and painted by a white American guy — in my dining room when I was growing up," she recalls. "I’m going to build a fragile pyramid of these soaps carved with what was considered the acceptable vision of Jesus, and I’ll make two hand towels, one with the word ‘white’ embroidered on it, and the other with the word ‘wash.'”

Nearby, a vintage tablecloth printed with a sleepy Mexican in a sombrero was pinned to the wall. Morton had painted the piece with the words “Us” and “Them” and embroidered the lyrics to Pete Seeger’s “This Land Is Your Land” over the icons. “These were the images in my childhood psyche, the stereotype of a lazy Mexican. It’s offensive. I layered all that confusion into this piece.”

Morton looked around her studio. “This used to be my living room. When I did the blanket project, it was piled with blanket squares in here. This time, with 'The Violet Protest,' there will be even more. I’m hoping to get thousands and thousands of squares.”

She paused. “Let’s assume that will happen,” she said, with another little laugh. “I don’t have a Plan B.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela