I’m having dinner at Good Life Cafe in Park Rapids, MN.
I look over my shoulder and spot a poster advertising an Alec Soth exhibit at a local gallery. My first thought — there’s somehow a mistake. Why is Alec Soth showing at a gallery in a tiny town in northern MN? (I first became enamored with Alec Soth after seeing his show at The Walker in Minneapolis.)
Park Rapids never ceases to amaze.
I visited and was enchanted by Soth’s show at the Nemeth Art Center, as I knew I would be. But as I left the gallery that day, I’d fallen in love with an exhibit I never planned to see: Rachel Collier's Soft Landing was a revelation. At first glance, it was familiar, with echoes of textile art from my youth. But her vision pushed the medium into new territories. A melange of craft work, textile art, and a fresh take on pop art. I loved it. And it just so happened that Ms. Collier was visiting the gallery that day. I got a chance to meet her and we immediately shared our Instagram handles to set a time for a studio visit.
OPENING THE STUDIO DOOR WAS LIKE ENTERING WONDERLAND
A month later, on a beautiful crisp October day, I visited Rachel’s St. Paul studio. It had the kind of sky that is actually electric blue and humming with possibilities. When I got her address, I realized I had driven by this pie-shaped warehouse on St. Paul’s University Avenue a thousand times. But today, I’m stopping and getting a chance to peek inside the behemoth structure. I met Rachel outside on the sidewalk. She led me through a maze of dark hallways, ending at her studio. Opening the door was like entering wonderland. A technicolor explosion of thousands of skeins of vivid yarns, neon paints, stacks of works-in-progress and several enormous floor-to-ceiling pieces. Her use of color is quite simply stunning. And getting a chance to be immersed in it was nothing short of extraordinary.
She immediately gave me a tour and showed me how her air gun worked. This is the tool she uses to create her fiber “paintings” as she calls them. Rachel grew up in a family of artists. “I was told that I was an artist! It was never I want to be an artist. It was I am an artist…”
“A lot of my process as a painter is more subtractive and editorial. Even as I am just like, piling on the layers, you know, I’m covering something up. So it’s subtractive.” “I also approach materials as a necessary barrier between my hand and the canvas, I’m really not interested in rendering and showing off this special talent, you know? I really like that other people do it. And I’m so thankful they do. It’s just never been fully engaging for me to interpret an image in a representational way. I feel like I want to actively rebel against that. To me, it’s political—all aesthetics are political. There’s certainly a rebel streak to finding materials that people will question as being relevant to painting.”
And I can say with certainty that Rachel certainly does embrace the element of surprise. Her early work incorporates off-the-wall mixed media—spray paint, latex, stretch corduroy. And now, here we sit between massive textile pieces that have an almost fractal quality to them. The closer you get, the more you see.
RACHEL COLLIEROUTSIDE HER STUDIO
SLOWING IT DOWN"I WAS DOING SUCH FAST ACTION PAINTING THAT I WANTED TO FIND A WAY TO SLOW IT DOWN. I SAW THE SLOWNESS OF PAINTING WITH YARN, AND IT REALLY ATTRACTED ME."
A DRAMATIC ADJUSTMENT
At first, all that artistic energy went towards figure skating.
“It wasn’t just about being on-ice…it was listening for music that I wanted to skate to, and it was putting the beads and sequences on my dresses…I knew that I was going to be a figure skater for the rest of my life. Then I turned 17 and that was like, okay, skating isn’t as cool as I thought it was. So I made a dramatic adjustment and decided that I wanted to go to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
“There is a family history. I was named after my great-grandmother, Rachel, and she was also a painter. She lived on a farm in Iowa and used to save her money to take classes at the school of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1900. She was doing her own progressive things in her time—just by saying that her watercolor study was the finished piece was like radical, you know? But she really just did it for her own spirituality. My grandmother is the only reason that I got to skate or go to art school or anything. And she’s also an artist. And my mom’s an artist. So I’m the fourth generation that I know. But I’m the first one, I think, to only do that. Or try to be professional and make it a career.”
I pause for a moment, because I know how rare and special that kind of nurturing is. There are so many people who maybe have an inclination to be an artistic person, and no support system. At Whittier, we all consider ourselves artists. What might have happened if we hadn’t had people along the way to tell us that was a worthwhile pursuit?
And Rachel knows it, too. She fully acknowledges how grateful she is to have had that freedom to play and explore. She’s also glad that the School of the Art Institute of Chicago doesn’t make you choose a major. Their curriculum, like many art schools, is entirely pass/fail. During her time there, she explored the art of neon, animation, fiber, weaving, performance art, and basically every “intro” course she could get into. Ultimately though, she fell hard for painting.
“A lot of my process as a painter is more subtractive and editorial. Even as I am just like, piling on the layers, you know, I’m covering something up. So it’s subtractive.”
“So…here we are with rugs that I’m calling paintings. I really need there to be some element of surprise. I’m the kind of person who wants to see something happen in front of me, so I like to work with new things to get new surprises. It’s kind of that basic.”
So why the step back from traditional painting?
“It really came down to needing to slow down my process, I realized that my paintings were really just almost like a spiritual documentation—a meditation of paint. And I was doing such fast action painting that I wanted to find a way to slow it down. So I saw the action and the slowness of painting with yarn, and it really attracted me.”
I first experienced Rachel’s work firsthand in a gallery show at Nemeth. I had this immediate sense that I was standing in front of something so familiar, but so new.
As Rachel talks about the whirlwind experience of being featured in a gala, we eventually touch on something that the art world and the advertising world have in common: the need for generous creatives. Creators who are confident enough in what they do that they’re free to really explore the work of other artists. They’re interested in being exposed to new art purely for the joy of seeing something beautiful and building someone else up.
Rachel agrees, and is fortunate that lately she’s really surrounded by exactly those types of people.
“It’s a litmus test,” she theorizes, “Do you think there’s room for everyone or don’t you? And then that will determine the way you treat people. That’s a shift that’s happening with Age of Aquarius, because in the Age of Aquarius, since we source everything for ourselves then there is room for everyone. And it’s a beautiful shift that’s happening. And I fully endorse it.”
— By Montana Scheff
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Painting with yarn
Wrap them up. I'll take all three.
A CLOSER LOOK
The Nemeth Art Center
A double show featuring Alec Soth and Rachel Collier. This particular day Rachel was in attendance and teaching an impromptu textile class.
Teaching Textile Arts
Piles of vivid wool mixed with eager students.
Also a painter
Rachel's work takes her beyond textile arts. She's a master at vivid color combinations.
In Rachel's studio, literally nothing is overlooked. Dibs and dabs become fodder for a new piece.
Locked & Loaded
Rachel takes aim at a new textile piece.
I watched as Rachel began a new work.
A pile of vivid wool.
All in the details
A close up of a large 'painting'.
Entrance to Rachel's wing at the Nemeth Art Center show.