Chantel Mierau is a Winnipeg-based artist who works in textiles and video, always finding new forms to express her critical explorations of homemaking. I sat down with her at a favorite pub; Chantel with a Saskatoon Sour (whiskey, egg white, Saskatoon berry syrup and lime), me with a G-and-T, and we got down to brass tacks about her work, her inspirations, and why she has a problem with the word “metaphor.”
Have you always identified yourself as an artist?
I considered myself an artist before I knew what an artist was. I thought an artist was the person who drew the pictures for Disney—that was my frame of reference—but as far as what I thought I would end up doing? No, I didn’t always think I would be an artist. I thought I’d be a pastor/teacher/nurse—one of those—until I went to University and had to pick a major and realized that I wanted to major in Fine Arts. So I changed programs and schools.
Did your artwork proceed from traditional media, traditional forms, into more adventurous territory?
In art school, everybody started with basic design, drawing and art history courses, and from there you specialize. I ended up in drawing, which operated more as an open media course where people were working in mixed media, so you could pick and choose what you were working with. When I was given the option I would always end up doing something with fabric or string.
I was never really drawn to paint, probably because I’m more interested in lines than in color. Paint is messy to clean up and I’m not a big fan of cleaning. Ironically, a lot of my work is about cleaning, though!
You write in your artist’s statement about how, inspired by your Mennonite roots, you search for beauty in simple materials. What kinds of materials are you working with now?
I work in video and textiles and printmaking, but textiles are always at the core of what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m more drawn to the process of making something or wearing something, which lends itself more to a video or performance piece. Other times it’s more about the object, which tends more toward the sculptural or two-dimensional.
Because we wear textiles all the time, and they’re close to our skin, they seem to be inherently about our identities, our skins. But there’s a vulnerability to them, and in making them, time, labour, care, home—all these are bound up in the material, and those are all things I’m interested in exploiting.
What role does humor play in your work?
Often, projects that have been the most successful have been ones that make me laugh. In Lethbridge, Alberta, where I did an artist’s residency this summer, I was working with burlap that had a strand of gold in it, as well as rope, and snaps, and threads from a mop. I cut a mop head off and used that for the guts of a creature with its organs exposed—which I then wear as a costume in a video piece.
I find that I’m drawn to slapstick humor alongside tough questions. So this video piece, in which I wear the costume of this creature, is about tripping and falling and failing. But I think it’s a loveable creature with a lot of struggles that are relatable. We all come up against physical barriers in everyday life.
Is the creature a metaphor?
I think I shy away from the word metaphor, but that’s what it is—although I’m struck by how rarely I hear it used in an art context. But the word metaphor can have a cheap or pretentious overtone to it—not that it can’t have broader meaning, but that unless it leads you there, you can’t just say, “Oh, it’s a metaphor for oppression and suffering,” unless those themes are actually present in the work.
I think that’s why I’m always covering or obscuring the features of my body when I’m using my body in my work—its not really about me. It’s not about a 20-something white girl. It’s more abstract than that, so I abstract the body.
I made a video in which I wrap my hand in fabric and I’m struggling to free it. The hand begins to look like a cocoon, but knowing that it’s a hand brings it back to the viewer again. That’s another reason that I don’t like the word metaphor—both of those things are present in the work and it’s the drawing together of them that is intriguing. Metaphor implies standing in for something else—but both of those things have to be present to get the viewer wondering about that connection. The connection may not be straightforward or apparent, but those two ends are there. And there’s a web in between.
How do you make your art a priority? How do you structure your week in order to stay focused on projects?
That’s an ongoing process. I have limited my day job to four days a week, and I’m lucky enough to be able to make that work financially. So I work Monday to Thursday at my day job, and Friday and Saturday are art days, plus whatever evenings I can make available, and Sundays are for friends and housework. And I have a business day that is dedicated to the business of being an artist—Fridays. There are some things you just can’t do on the weekend.
Do you feel like you have to be making money from your art for it to be justified/valid?
No, because very few people do. It helps to look at your peers and say, “Well this is just our circumstances.” I had a professor who said a number of times, “Nobody in the art world cares how you’re making your living.” Your peers aren’t going to say, “Oh I love her work, but she has a day job, so forget that.”
You are clearly not afraid of complexity in your work. I find your video work, especially, both courageous and funny. Is that how you see yourself?
Comparatively, no—there are a lot of people who are way more courageous than I am. Sometimes you see people in the worst situations and they have the most amazing sense of humor. Maybe funny kind of guides my work, but I think honesty is more of a guiding force for me. My work is a quest for honesty, which I guess requires courage—and funny helps.