Interview by Adi Berardini
Using the language of feminism, folklore and religious icons, interdisciplinary artist Reilly Knowles visualizes the liberation of monsters living somewhere between life and death, male and female, human and nonhuman, and reality and fantasy – exploring the creative, liminal space between dualities. Drawing particularly from ancient Irish art and an eco-centric ethos, he constructs artworks which celebrate living entities that society attempts to tame into exploitable classifications, including the land itself. Knowles addresses how the western obsession with binaries hinders the spectrum of possibilities.
Working in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, textiles, and using natural dyeing techniques, Knowles creates art that explores how women, queer and transgender people are labelled as ‘Other.’ He envisions a radical enfolding of these bodies into an understanding of nature, with care towards women, queer people, and the environment as crucial components of working towards a healthier ecosystem. Recently, he also started a project called Swingout Sewing to document his process of hand-sewing a 1920’s wardrobe while conducting historical research, adapting the designs to meet his needs as a trans man.
Splitting his time between London and Milton, ON, Knowles is a recent graduate of Western University’s Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts program, with a Specialization in Studio Arts. He has exhibited work since 2015, showing in such venues as Artlab Gallery (London, ON), Good Sport (London, ON) and Holcim Gallery (Milton, ON). He is a recipient of the Gray Creative Arts Award in Visual Arts, the Mackie Cryderman Award for Excellence in Visual Arts, and the Kate and Robert Taylor Scholarship in Visual Arts, among others.
Your piece Nativity (2019) is a sculpture depicting a nativity scene, constructed from wood and painted, featuring straw and figurines. Can you speak more about how you use religious iconography, symbolism, and folklore in your work?
I’m really drawn to working with myths and legends. I love stories that use the fantastical to describe earthly experiences, like the cycles of life and death. I accumulate these stories over time, and they cross-pollinate in my imagination, sometimes reinforcing one another and retaining their recognizable points, while other times reassembling into personal mythologies that aren’t as easily picked out.
Stories are constantly changing, even though we might be able to trace their lineages into the far past. Biblical stories are interpreted in a wide variety of ways according to the disposition of whichever Christian culture, sect, or individual is telling them. Since these stories are meant to describe reality, the storyteller holds the immense power of ostensibly interpreting truth. For myself, even though I wasn’t raised an active Christian, I absorbed Christian stories and their messaging around gender and bodies on a deep level. Nativity marked the beginning of an artistic exploration into stories surrounding the Virgin Mary. I wanted to see what would happen to the Nativity if Mary’s presence was centralized, if she was liberated from a focus on her reproductive capacity. I think the result is a different kind of nativity – a birth into an exultant and independent female power.
How does your art explore the liminal gap between binaries, such as man and woman, life and death, and human and non-human? How do you find navigating this in-between space encourages you creatively?
Western society is very dualistic, but things aren’t nearly as black-and-white as we’d like to believe. For example, the male/female binary, which overwhelming favours males, collapses under a recognition of intersex individuals. The human/non-human binary, which favours humans above all other lifeforms and finds its logical conclusion in environmental destruction, becomes a mostly arbitrary distinction when we grasp the depth of our relationship with other living beings, like the trillions of bacteria that make up our bodies. These liminal gaps between binaries have immense creative potential because they’re so expansive. Embracing liminality is like getting to paint with infinite shades of grey as opposed to just that black and white.
One way I try to work with liminality is by combining supposedly opposing imagery. I like to create characters that are both male and female, plant and animal, or dead and alive. One of my favourite subjects is the mandrake plant. In legend, its root resembles a human body, and when torn from the earth, it kills its attacker with its piercing cry. The mandrake is at the fascinating intersection of fact and myth, growing and destroying, human and inhuman, and above and below. I like how it’s neither here nor there, and that’s precisely what makes it potent.
Your work touches on environmental themes, addressing how people attempt to classify and restrict living things including the land itself. In what ways do you address the environment and ecologies through your art?
I think my relationship with the environment is always going to be evolving, along with the ways I express that relationship in my work. I’m hesitant to make any definitive statements about what the environment signifies to me as an artist, because I know I have a long way to go in terms of fully unpacking what it means to be a white settler relating to the land in Southern Ontario. But in terms of what I’ve produced up to this point, much of my work has been about using religious imagery to frame my immediate environs as spiritual. I think that if white people put the same energy into venerating and glorifying the rivers and woodlands in our backyards as has been expended on cathedrals and illuminated gospels, then maybe we wouldn’t be experiencing environmental catastrophe.
By the land being classified and restricted, I mean that Western society teaches that humans are separate from the environment, when in reality we exist on a continuum in which we rely on and blend into one another. I’m trying to make art that collapses my body back into everything around it. One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by dyeing textiles with plants available within walking distance of my home. To be a responsible natural dyer, I have to learn what plants to use, and where and how they grow. I have to think about the seasons, the weather conditions, and the sensitivity of London’s ecosystems. It’s a slow process. It means I have to pay attention to and care about the land. It forces me to see first-hand that all art does have an environmental impact, one way or another.
Who are some artists that are influential to you and your practice?
Definitely Kiki Smith and Shary Boyle. Seeing [that] there were artists engaging with fairy tales, and that they were being taken seriously, really encouraged me early on to explore folklore without feeling apologetic. Also, Allyson Mitchell. A lot of her work operates at this intersection of crafting and queer culture, which is where I like to be.
I noticed that you have started a new project called Swingout Sewing. Can you explain more about the project and what your process has been like? In what ways do you think constructing vintage clothing can help navigate gender and queerness?
Swingout Sewing is a project where I’m documenting my process of hand-sewing a 1920’s wardrobe using historical research, while also adapting designs to meet my needs as a trans man. Right now, I’m working on the undergarment layer, which has involved reading period sewing manuals to figure out historically appropriate sewing techniques, as well as adapting original patterns. After each stage of construction, I post an article about it to the project’s website, swingoutsewing.ca.
I never knew I could be a man when I was a kid, because I didn’t know trans people existed. I didn’t see them in the media, and I certainly didn’t see them in history class. When you don’t exist in the cultural imaginary of the past, it’s hard to imagine yourself in the present or the future. So, for me, making historical garments specifically designed for my trans body is about imagining those invisibilized folks of the past we might today consider transmasculine, and connecting to them in a very real, material way through the act of getting dressed. It’s also about honouring my trans body and attending to its needs, about adornment over camouflage. So much advice given to trans men beginning their transitions is about disappearing into mainstream masculine tastes. I want to follow my passion for vintage despite the threat of a conspicuous masculinity, while also rejecting the problematic attitudes (namely racism, misogyny, ableism and queerphobia) associated with the past.
In addition, there’s something delightfully queer about transitioning to live in the world as a man but poring over antique seamstress manuals and perfecting my buttonholes. This act of learning vintage menswear construction actually involves learning a lot about historical femmes and feminized labour.
Do you have any advice for someone who is first learning how to sew or work with textiles?
My first piece of advice is that just about every community is going to be chock full of elders who’d love to pass down their skills. Online tutorials can be very helpful, but they can’t compare to one-on-one teaching from an experienced textile artist. If you’re in a larger city, then you may even have some textile guilds at your disposal. Granted, your mileage in these spaces may vary if you’re visibly queer, but it’s worth considering.
Secondly, you shouldn’t listen to the people who are definitely going to tell you textile art isn’t art. Textiles are devalued because they’ve tended to be made by women. If people look down on your practice, it’s not a reflection of your practice’s worth, but rather of their unexamined sexism.