Some madder root and a little bit of magic Emerging Hamilton artist explores myths and culture through textile installations

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Maria Simmons sat comfortably on bundles of polyester, surrounded by drying fabrics, corn brooms and flowers in her Cotton Factory studio. Unlike the florist she happily shares studio space with, Simmons prefers her flowers in a boiling concoction of natural dye.

Her admiration for natural colours and a bundling technique used to dye fabrics peaked in her third year as a fine arts student at McMaster University. She had previously thought of herself as a painter, but had felt increasingly frustrated trying to force her large ideas into a single painting.

Simmons began exploring other mediums, including textiles, sculptures and ceramics. Two years later, the textile installation artist’s bundles have become a characteristic component of her artwork.

The bundling dye process consists of wrapping fabrics, placing them in a dye pot, then unraveling the bundles to reveal the final product. Simmons found the globular bundles so visually intriguing that instead of cutting the cords, she cut the process short.

“I was always way happier with the way it looked when it was all bundled. There were always unintentional marks left from tying things and constricting something in a certain way,” said Simmons.

“So I started doing that to different objects, sometimes I would wrap things inside of fabric. [I would] explore this concept of constriction, but also preserving.”

Like much of Simmons’ art, the bundles serve as objects that exist in a certain space, but don’t always make sense with the environment. They are meant to evoke the viewer with a feeling of wonder, allowing them to come up with their own ideas and stories of what the artwork represents.

Simmons has been inspired by modern myth, folklore and superstitions through the lens of her Mennonite and Irish heritage. 

During the 2017 Equinox graduate show, one viewer took this level of interaction with Simmons’ art to the next level.

“This one woman came and immersed her whole body into the artwork. Nobody knew what to do because it was so bold… she dived right into it and stayed there too,” said Simmons.

The textile installations have a distinctive colour scheme of red, pink and orange hues achieved by natural dyes that Simmons often makes from madder root, pomegranate, willow bark and marigold. The bundles also vary in size and shape.

“It’s this strange process of everything being determined by my arms’ length and what my strength is. So it varies with the different kinds of [bundles] I can make at different points of time. Some days I would feel a lot stronger than others and the work changes based on that,” explained Simmons.

Simmons’ artwork has appeared in solo shows at the Hamilton Audio/Visual Node, better known as HAVN, the Silent Barn which is a community space for artists in New York and, most recently, as part of a collaborative commission for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Over the past year, Simmons has been inspired by modern myth, folklore and superstitions through the lens of her Mennonite and Irish heritage. She believes that myth has an underappreciated role in modern society and hopes her work sheds light on the stories and experiences around her.

“With a lot of my work last year, it was rooted with marriage superstition, which came out of a personal place because I was engaged and then not engaged very suddenly. So I was reading through all of these historical marriage myths and I found ones that were really interesting to work with,” explained Simmons.

Through textiles, sculptures and a performance piece titled ThreshHOLD, Simmons explored marriage superstitions such as rituals where people would jump over brooms when they would get married.

Since starting her full-time job as a curator at Gallery Stratford, and co-running the Chosen Family Collaborative Group, a print zine and online exhibition spaced based in Hamilton and New York City, Simmons has found herself very busy.

“One of the things that I held myself to if I was going to get a full-time job is that I had to continue creating work. The way I’ve done that is by focusing on more collaborative pieces with different people,” said Simmons.

With her more collaborative pieces, Simmons hopes to do more performance-based and interactive installations. She’s currently building glacier props for a Hamilton Aerial Group show, as well as designing an interactive sculpture made up of organ pipes from her childhood church.

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Author: Razan Samara

Arts and Culture Reporter Razan Samara is a second year Life Science student writer and community advocate. When she isn't taking a nap on a go bus, she spends her evenings watching crappy sci-fi series and mourning their subsequent cancelation.