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Artist: Elisabetta Balasso, Caracas, Venezuela

Interview 64

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Elisabetta Balasso is a writer and artist who moves between collecting, producing, transforming, assembling and staging artifacts, images, and words, as a way to translate life experiences into tangible manifestations. These in turn are intended to produce a new experience both in the maker and in the viewer. Her present work combines textiles with photographs, videos, cards, poetry and people, as a multilayered weaving process.

Born in Rome, Italy, Balasso was raised in Geneva, Switzerland and Caracas, Venezuela. She has also lived in Los Angeles, USA and Barcelona, Spain. Apart from her degree in Biology and Cultural Management, she has been studying the narrative present in world mythology and folklore tales. All of these experiences somehow inform her creative work. Her publications include an award winning poetry book. She has exhibited in Caracas, Venezuela, Barcelona, Spain and Munich, Germany.

She has worked at the Venezuelan National Art Gallery as the head of the Department of Education, and presently teaches an Introduction to Visual Culture at the Universidad Metropolitana, in Caracas, Venezuela.
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Artist: Elisabetta Balasso at home, wearing her mother’s bridal nightgown. Photo: Juan Lecuna.


Tell us about your work?

The textile part of my work consists primarily of interventions made over used dresses or clothes, previously worn by myself or some other member of my family, which subsequently become costumes of a theatrical wardrobe with their own narrative. By assembling and combining fabrics and clothing, I intend to reveal a story, as well as to redeem, honour and enhance a pre-existing emotional experience. Thus these pieces are called the TT Series: Therapeutic Textiles. I mend tears, past and present, with surgical thread and weave multiple relationships into a bigger tapestry.

My work deals with memory. It involves nostalgia, but at the same time it also looks forward, into a future where the change has already taken place. It is about dialogue, a way to make sense of the point I am at in my life.

The textile work is part of a system that includes a poetic text for four voices; a deck of 90 divinatory cards; photographs related to the textile process and videos associated with some of the dresses. Every part is designed to function separately, but they also work like blocks and different possibilities of combination add to each of the pieces. They are intended to be shown together as a transformative experience, theatrical in the Greek sense of the term, the subject being the journey in which a girl blossoms into a woman, just as Cloris turned into Flora.


The dress A LA HORA DE LA BRISA DE LA TARDE (WHEN THE AFTERNOON BREEZE WISPERS) illustrates a true dream: she was in a forest with her eyes shut, and had to distinguish the golden trees; a centaur helped her by means of a gold thread. The title is taken from a biblical verse which refers to the inflexion point finally announcing the exit from the garden, into the real world.

Materials: Appropriation of a personal dress; golden lamé; pieces of recycled fabric; hand sewn. Hand painted transparent screens, with a poem on the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Marina Moltedo.



From where do you get your inspiration?

By paying attention, I find creative inspiration almost everywhere: in nature's splendor, in tiny aesthetics details, in other creators' work, (photographer Tim Walker, designer Stefan Sagmeister, fashion designers Erté and Elsa Schiaparelli, to mention just a few). I feel a particular passion for maps and old atlases, as well as old books about sciences, (ab)original culture or landscapes.

But a precise creative process usually starts with an emotional insight, or with intuitive experimentation with materials in fortunate associations. It might spring from the investigation on a particular idea, or from an epiphany about how a mythological episode can shed light into a personal issue. Sooner or later both paths intersect and start to produce a combined, transformative result.




How did you decide on this medium?

My spin into textiles crystallized in the course of a natural progress that trained my eye and sensibility for the textile narrative. My grandmother herself made the ball gowns for her daughters (many times sewing the last stitches on the very same night they were leaving for parties). As an adult, I lived for several years in the Catalonian region of Spain, whose textile tradition is historically relevant and very much alive. In Barcelona I learned to use the high warp (haute-lisse). It was then when I started to find pride in the long, laborious and meticulous result, along with the profound symbolic resonances in the painstaking process of preparing the work. As I experienced Penelope's patience, from that understanding, I also began to explore the mythological references to textiles.

Sewing as an artistic practice was also influenced by a trip to a rural town in the Venezuelan Andes, where I had the good fortune to be in contact with the wisdom of weavers who still process the wool with traditional techniques. They dye their hand-shorn wool with herbs and lichens handpicked in the wilderness, and weave using looms inherited from the XVII century. They made me realize how deeply the textile subject was woven into my life.

When I returned home, I found inside old leather suitcases, a treasure of family dresses, charged with a bittersweet load of recovered remembrances, ready for transmutation.


LA NOVIA MANCA (THE HANDLESS BRIDE) comes from the medieval tale “The Maiden without Hands”. She represents the feminine creative flow, unfairly interrupted, and forced to wander through the woods, in search of her hands and ability. This gown was the first of the cycle.

Materials: Family garments (including part of my mother’s wedding dress); wire; glass beads.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Amanda Revelant.       



What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

Sandro Botticelli is key for my present work, because of the many layers of symbolic meaning present in his painting "La Primavera" (Spring), in which the drama of Cloris transformed into Flora by the blowing of the Boreal wind, is so beautifully depicted.

Louise Bourgeois is a powerful artist who was constantly digging into her biography in order to find areas that needed reviewing and healing. I once read a quote from her, which has stayed with me ever since, almost like a magic spell: «I've always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It's a claim to forgiveness.

I particularly like the painting What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me (1938), by Frida Kahlo. Her willingness to put herself and her emotional and spiritual world right into the center of her painting is a constant example of courage and self-observation. It is easy to refer to her public image for the conscious conception and theatrical staging of her presence.

I always find a poignant comfort in classic Greek art. I am also grateful to the anonymous hands that wove the five unicorn tapestries, not only for the beauty of the work and the infinite and precise patience, but also because of the unsolved mysteries present in the result.


MEGELAS is based on a short film about the longing for the original unity, when differences and boundaries were absent from our garden. The umbilical belt represents the wholeness we search for in the other. It may manifest itself, for instance, in the soul mate, the imaginary best friend, or the lost twin.

Materials: Two found dresses; Japanese silk obi; ribbon. Hand sewn.
Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Models: Amelia Wefer and Verónica Revelant.




What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work?  

Many contemporary artists inspire me with either some specific piece, an attitude towards their work, or a particular way to express themselves, even though their influence doesn't necessarily show directly in my work.

Yoko Ono enchanted me with the delicate poetry present in her Instruction Paintings. I would also like to stir the viewer, although with no instructions.

Niki de Saint Phalle built a whole playground of expressive freedom and playful imagery in her Giardino dei Tarocchi. The deck of cards I designed and drew, also deals with universal symbolic images, concepts that are in turn reflected in my textile work.

Leonora Carrington is a fantastic writer, artist and a brave woman. I would put her along with Remedios Varo, in the creation of a dream-like imagery that I find very familiar. The latter has used the textile association in her paintings El Tejido de los Sueños (1935), and Tejiendo el manto terrestre (1961). She also claimed that she was more interested in the process than in the result, which is a charming thing to say, considering her results.

I love Sophie Calle's irreverent wit and creative approach that stretches our understanding of what daily life could be. I would like to highlight her special on-site installation at Sigmund Freud's house in London, Appointment (1999). Susan Hiller's version of the same assignment, After the Freud's Museum (1999-2000), has been a constant source of wonder and inspiration.

I was deeply impressed by Canadian multidisciplinary artist Shary Boyle, for her amazing treatment of antique laces in her series "Otherworld Uprising" in which she offers a profound re-interpretation of classical characters and myths.

Yucef Merhi, poet and digital artists, is not a fibre artist unless we start considering language like a virtual fibre; but he is definitely a conceptual weaver. His most recent work about the god Quetzalcoati, shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) website may be read as contemporary interpretation of time.


The corset MALINCHE POR LA LENGUA tells us about La Malinche, interpreter and lover of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror. Here, the difficult power balance is found thanks to the tongue, instrument for speech and lovemaking. The double heart indicates that she who loves passionately gets a further reward.

Materials: Appropriation of a cotton “habit trouvé”; pieces of recycled fabric; natural cotton filling; ribbon; magnetic clasps. Hand sewn.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Estrella Benmaman.




What other fibre artists are you interested in and why?

Annette Messager for the poignant use of soft toys, her acute autobiographical analysis, feminist viewpoint, and collecting/cataloguing obsession. Here is another quote (by her), that I find relevant: «Being an artist means incessantly healing one's own wounds and simultaneously opening them again in the process.

Tracy Emin for her confessional quilts of love and despair.

Rosemarie Trockel for her free use of all sorts of medium and materials, combined in a coherent discourse.

Janine Antoni, who used unusual and personal materials donated by friends and relatives, in the making of her piece Moor, which could be read as a coloured marine rope, umbilical cord, safety tie and enduring life-line, twisted with the help of a group of relatives and friends. It is a poetic gesture that exemplifies beautifully how textile art knits together fibres, memories and relationships into a unified whole. Following her example, we might as well consider learning to balance on a tightrope as the logical next step, after knitting Ariadne's red thread.

Also, any artist on this web site is an amazing source of inspiration!


MANDORLA ANGELICAL. Materials: Recycled underwear; vintage lace, plastic pearls. Hand sewn.
DENTRO DE MÍ (INSIDE MYSELF). Materials: Found underwear; ribbon. Hand sewn.
FÜR CHRISTINE. Materials: Second-hand underwear; wire; patchwork.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli.


What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

What is happening with textiles reminds me of a Drawing Biennale in a contemporary art museum in Caracas, several years ago. The jury ended up by accepting all the submitted works, understanding from the received material that the concept of "drawing" had expanded so much out of its borders that it was very hard to separate what was a drawing from what wasn't. Interconnectivity is a keyword in our systemic world.

That being said, I prefer sewing by hand.


“La Máquina de Hilar”  (spinning machine). Ensambled object. (The keypad says “to spin”). This object is associated to my poetry book which has the same title.

Photo: the author.

DRAMA EN CNOSSOS (back & front) refers to an island under the spell of the Bull, Taurus. The king Minos made him offerings; his wife offered herself: the result was the Minotaur, the Labyrinth, Ariadne abandoned in some other island. Here we see her hanged, in a moment of despair, while Theseus sleeps deep inside the maze. But she will be rescued by the great god Dionysus.

Materials: Appropriation of a cotton “habit trouvé”; silver Mexican ex-votos; red and silver thread; vintage glass beads from a family dress. Hand sewn.
Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Sonia Agosto.



Can you talk a bit about the commercial viability of fibre art and do you find it more difficult to show and sell your work than non-fibre artists?

The nature of the textile materials may create some issues of conservation, especially if these materials mostly consist in worn-out fabrics (in my case), which are very fragile, with original hand-sewn thread that are in the process of disintegration in many spots.

At this moment, however, I am not interested in selling the textile part of my work, because the dresses are characters in a complex mythology that has not yet been completed, and they are intended as part of a multifaceted presentation.



NIEVES EN CHIPRE is about Snow White (white, red and black) who turns into Aphrodite (shining sea spray). The princess has some unfinished business with her mother, and maternity, to solve before she might be ready to awaken from her dream into the alchemical process of spinning straw into gold.

Materials: Appropriation of an organza shirt by designer Carlos Arturo Loreto; organza family undergarment; coral; glass beads; nylon and cotton thread. Hand sewn.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Adriana Rondón.


When did you first discover your creative talents?

I am afraid talent is but a tiny piece of the equation. Much experience is needed to give solidity to the body of work, as well as maturity to interpret and re-work fruitfully those experiences. Endurance is part of the equation too, as Shackleton has so beautifully shown us. I have taken precise decisions in order to give space to my creative expression and I am discovering my talents along the way, as I go on.






How does your early work differ from what you are doing now?

As far as I can recall, I have always been translating my personal interpretation of life experiences in many different ways, mostly like secret altars, not intended for public view. I guess I tend to consider my creative work more as an experience, than a commodity.

However, in the last two years I've been unfolding and interweaving my themes into a unified whole, a process increasingly satisfying with every step. Feminine characters from literature, fairy tales and mythology have been showing up and distributing their wisdom. Since text and textile share the same linguistic root, it made perfect sense to combine my writing with the thread and the powerful healing needle. Drawing the divinatory cards danced in and I have been greatly enjoying the possibility to engage my friends as little spiders and models for the dresses.

The Therapeutic Textiles series developed from an early work that consisted of interventions over pieces of clothing received from friends, as a reflection on the relationship that bound us together. On the other hand, the mythological costumes have a theatrical, almost magical power. It all has to do with spinning straw into gold.


Untitled (Dad’s ties). Digital photograph by the artist.

I frequently take pictures of textile elements, acknowledging their visual values. Sometimes it’s part of a process in which they turn into a Therapeutic Textile costume, sometimes it’s a spontaneous textile moment.


Please explain how you developed your own style.

I really don't know how to answer this, if it isn't by doing. A style of one's own can only be fully developed by doing, doing a lot, going off route and getting back in. Sometimes there is no compass to check if we are truly on track or not. Ideas aren't the result, words aren't the result, and at times not even the result is the result.

What is very clear in my creative process is the importance of the narrative thread, which works as Ariadne's, by leading me into and out of the maze.


Working on the HANDLESS BRIDE’s bracelets. I don’t use a specific area for a studio: my whole home is a working space. You may find me sewing on the couch, on the terrace, in the kitchen or on top of my laptop. Photo: Juan Lecuna.


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

Since my home is also my working place, it has become little by little also a sort of a showroom, more in the ways of the wonder chambers (kunstkammer) of the 17th century, with allusions to my favourite subjects: the Garden of Eden, duplicity, the journey of the handless soul in search for identity and love, and the three colours from Snow White.

The Handless Bride sits in a beautiful antique English armchair, in a privileged situation. She's a little gory, but in a fashionable and elegant way, reminding me of the importance of the meaningful journey and the inevitable happy ending, eventually.


Working on NIEVES EN CHIPRE. Photo: Juan Lecuna.


What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?

Isn't it always the project we're working on right now, the one that gives us the most satisfaction?

I am particularly happy with what I'm doing at the moment. Many pieces I had worked on in the past have found a place in this big tapestry I am weaving now. The webpage dedicated to the Therapeutic Textiles is the place where all the small pieces join and interconnect together, while the momentum for the full show builds up. With every entry I add, I have the feeling that the threads tighten and the design becomes increasingly clear. The satisfaction I experience is related to a sense of meaning that is deeply personal, but at the same time also taps into the universal.


AGUA AL PUENTE (WATER FOR THE BRIDGE) is about abundance, flood, inundation, deluge, the river flow, tidal overflow, rain, tears, Aquarius, and Temperance: water in exaltation, unrestrained emotions. But when there is a riverbed, there is also the aquatic desire for a bridge.

«Water to the Bridge», a transparent blue tunic embroided with aluminum scales, represents the river, flood, deluge, mermaid, Aquarius, the Arcane called Temperance, and is the costume for an action in which I walk, with a jar, pouring water from my home to one of the few historic colonial bridges that remain in the city, over the now dried Quebrada Anauco.

Materials: man-made fabric; recycled aluminum; colored glass beads; ribbon. Hand sewn.

Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Corina Fortoul.



Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

The natural progress of the Therapeutic Textiles includes the presentation, both by themes as well as the whole show in full, with all its elements (textiles, videos, photos and text), publication of the book La Máquina de Hilar (The Spinning Machine) and the Handless Bride deck of divinatory cards.

Next comes the (explorative/curative) intervention of garments offered by friends and relatives (Retratos Blandos - Soft Portraits), as well as a textile work on scars.

I am curious to see where the path of the Handless Bride and the rest of the costumes lead. Once the Therapeutic Textiles cycle is completed, I would like to start a whole new cycle centered on the subject of pleasure.


Preparing the shot for ARTEMISAL/LASTIMARÉ.
Photo: Maurizio Donelli. Model: Corina Fortoul.

ARTEMISAL/LASTIMARÉ (ARTEMISIAL/WILL HURT) is a dress dedicated to the virgin goddess Artemisia/Diana, inflexible Lady of wild beasts, jealous guardian of her own freedom, the one who isn’t owned. Careful! She is potentially dangerous to her offenders.

An antique iridescent satin ball gown, overlapping a girl’s dress, in which skirt vertical eyes have been carved in tapestry brocade and embroided with small glass beads. Both dresses are green, although in different shades; both have the same ornamental treatment in their chest, but one is machine-sewn and the other was hand sewn and worn by my mother and her two elder sisters, stained with anticipation and transpiration. The palimpsest of both dresses (with a silver crescent moon tattooed on its right shoulder) makes an offering to the virgin goddess Artemisia, patron of young girls, savage beauty, and freedom in wilderness.

Materials: Two vintage silk dresses; used brocade tapestry; colored glass beads; silver thread. Hand sewn.
Photo: Maurizio Donelli.


What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

It's a fantastic effort to bring together a number of artists devoted to such widely different aspects and possibilities of textile artwork. It provides support, reflection and visibility, as well as enhancing the interest in fibre art.

The web page is a beehive of creative motivation. It must be tremendously encouraging to participate in the Festival and witness so many different approaches to the concept of "textile".


Mending for ARTEMISAL/LASTIMARÉ. While restoring family dresses, I wonder how this training (sewing with such precision, patience, and endurance) might have informed their young minds, how much do we learn by the labour of our hands.

Photos by the artist.




Is there something else you would like us to know about you or your work?

I would like to add that I take great pleasure in the shared moments between friends, weavers/knitters. It makes me think of the times when women would gather around a fireplace, in long winters, sewing, mending and knitting while telling tales of folklore wisdom.

For a recent occasion when I had to meet a particular deadline and was way late, several of my spinning lady friends came and spent most of the evening in my studio-home, needle in hand. It was a lovely moment and I am very thankful to them.


The semantic curtains WHITE: EIGHT WAYS TO SAY IT. Organza and cotton thread.
Photos by the artist.




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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.