Taking up Space: In Discussion with Hanna Washburn

Hanna Washburn in the studio, 2023. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Artist Hanna Washburn’s work is undoubtedly playful and lively. Soft forms bulge, sag, and spill over, camouflaged in bold and delicate floral patterns stitched together. The sculptures are unapologetic, taking up space and asserting themselves, challenging the expectations put on feminine bodies. Washburn often incorporates nostalgic items from her childhood such as dollhouse furniture and her grandmother’s curtains, and other recycled fabrics from her everyday life. Embodying a range from the maternal to the sensual, Washburn’s work highlights the complicated experience of being in a body that is constantly transforming and changing.

Both an artist and a curator, Hanna Washburn is based in Beacon, New York, and holds a BA in Fine Art and English from Kenyon College, and an MFA in Fine Art from the School of Visual Arts. She has exhibited at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, among others. Hanna has been an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Colony, and the Textile Arts Center. Currently, she works in the Curatorial Department at Storm King Art Center.

Hanna Washburn. Small Step. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your textile sculptures are so animated and lively. Can you discuss how you’re inspired by the body to create your sculptures?

There is so much of the body in my sculptures, a body caught in the process of morphing and changing. Something that is in flux and not static. I think of my sculptures as representing different versions of the same body in different moods and phases. A body that is slipping between different things, that is many things at once. 

I am also interested in capturing certain moods and gestures with the work, without being too explicit about what exactly is happening. [I use] shapes and movement that make you think of your own body in relation. There are parts of my work that are more unsettling, but I also try to capture the joy of being in a body and the idea that all these different feelings can coexist.

Hanna Washburn. Pink Pivot. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your sculptures assert themselves and take up space, challenging the associations and expectations put on women and femme bodies with forms that spill and sag over. Can you speak more about this concerning your work?

These things are all connected, what they look like and what they’re about—the body and expectations of femininity. They are layered in together. I construct my sculptures with this kind of patchworking as a visual tool, but it is also this thematic thing of these pieces of identity and body coming together, being stitched together.

I think especially with my freestanding sculptures, I am interested in creating something we have this almost one-to-one relationship with, like the way a viewer connects to it with their own body. This thing that’s standing, burdened but still upright—it’s struggling to stand, but it’s standing. And I think it becomes an exercise in empathy, to see something that is trying to maintain a certain balance. There is something of that I see in myself, and I believe others have that experience too. [Experiencing] how it feels to exist in a body, to feel certain expectations of your body, to feel the pressure of external definitions, so people can see and understand how to categorize you when we are really all un-categorizable. 

Our experiences in the home space are also a big factor in my work. I have a tendency to anthropomorphize things, especially in the home, like furniture. Something that is standing up has this bodily connotation for me, [like an] entity that has a certain stature. I have this irresistible urge to relate to it as a human or a living, bodily thing.

These things are all connected, what they look like and what they’re about—the body and expectations of femininity.

Hanna Washburn. Swell. Photo by Ally Schmaling. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You integrate certain childhood and nostalgic items in your work. Can you explain this inspiration further?

I am a big-time scavenger of things in the world but also of my own life, like clearing out my parent’s attic and pulling [items] that remain from my childhood as these kinds of fossils.

I incorporate things like my old doll beds, or toys or small little objects into my work. If I don’t still have the actual thing it often becomes about its memory. I try to recreate either something I had when I was a child, or an aesthetic that was formative for me. I think about childhood a lot, that identity-forming period. I was always really drawn to objects and creatures. 

I am also interested in the aesthetic of the suburban modesty of my upbringing. A lot of floral patterns, and a lot of muted domestic colors and textures. And again, sometimes I use literal curtains from my grandma’s house. But sometimes it’s about trying to recreate something that I remember or saw in pictures. I am interested in using that kind of modest aesthetic-to take its flatness and make it lumpy.

Hanna Washburn. Curiosities. Photo by Ally Schmaling. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I like how you use recycled fabrics and items from your life. It’s nice from an ecological perspective as well. Have you always been drawn to using textiles as a medium? Can you expand on your interest in using recycled materials and textiles?

Textiles are all around us. We wear them, we live with them in our homes, and we have so many attachments to them. It’s this intimate material we wear on our bodies and sleep in. I think a lot of people are drawn to textiles for reasons of comfort and familiarity. I’ve always really been interested in recycling things, both from an environmental standpoint, but also for the richness of something that has been around for a long time, that has changed hands and has its own memory. 

As far as sewing techniques, I’m a big fan of the whipstitch. It’s one of the first stitches you learn, this overhand, repetitive stitch. It also shows up in surgical stitches, so it has that bodily connotation. I love the visual of how it stitches things together; it’s just such an additive process. And my practice is very improvisational, so when I’m in the studio, I am making visual connections and directly responding and stitching. It feels like this extension of my brain in my hand.

I learned how to sew at home from my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. It’s a practice that I learned and inherited from outside of art school, outside the institution. It feels personal, as something that I learned from women in my family that I’m continuing as well as complicating. Having this practice connected to the personal and the familial makes a lot of sense to me.

Hanna Washburn. Rosy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Who are some artists (or other things) that inspire you and your practice?

I try to look at as many different things as I can, not just sculpture or fiber art. I like to engage with a lot of other forms of art, too. I love to go to the movies; I love to read fiction. I try to immerse myself in different kinds of storytelling because it adds richness to my practice, but also just as a person in the world, and the way I think about things.

I’m lucky to know so many artists, visual artists and other kinds [of artists] with all different practices. [We have] casual interactions talking about ideas, going to see things, having informal crits, creative exchanges, and collaborations. I think a lot of my daily inspiration comes from surrounding myself with people with that kind of energy. And I treasure it, because it is important to keep questioning and pushing not just your own stuff but looking at so many other things and learning about other people and their practices and their stories. It’s just so enriching. I have my list of visual artists that I turn to again and again, but that daily stuff is equally important to me because it feeds the [creativity].

Check out Hanna Washburn’s work in the upcoming exhibition Homespun, a survey of textile artists in the Hudson Valley at the Samuel Dorksy Museum – SUNY New Paltz, opening on February 4th, 2023. 

Washburn will also be part of the NYC group show, Paroxysm, curated by Alison Pirie, from February 8 – 23rd at Westbeth Gallery, NYC. 

Additionally, Washburn will have a solo show this fall at the Lake George Arts Project from September 23 -October 27th, 2023.

You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.

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