Tapestry Artist Alisa McRonald and Her 2020 Search for Black T-Shirts

4 August 2021

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Textile artist Alisa McRonald spent much of the fall and winter of 2020 searching in vain for black T-shirts.

She was working on a weaving called “Pierrot,” the last in her “My Little Arcana” series of works, and finding the materials she needed was proving to be a struggle. We chatted about her tapestries, and about the unexpected challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic had created for her.

Alisa ordinarily finds the raw materials for her projects at thrift stores and yard sales, seeking older and used clothing to keep her projects sustainable and her material costs low. But this project demanded a large number of black T-shirts—sixty-seven of them, in the end—and store closures meant she simply didn’t have access to what she needed. She resorted to raiding her friends’ closets for cast-offs; the scarcity of materials meant that her project took many more months than expected.

Alisa began crafting when she was very young, and says that textiles had always resonated with her. She studied fine arts at Concordia University, specializing in sculpture, and upon graduation moved to the U.S., living first in New York City and then Los Angeles. She and a partner worked together for eleven years, creating multi-disciplinary art, bringing together textiles, animation and performance, even taking two large-scale shows to Japan.

In 2008, Alisa returned home to Canada. Keen to learn more about the materials she worked with, and with a view to honing her technical skills, she took a job at Wellington Fibres, a fibre mill in Guelph, Ontario; and she went back to school. She enrolled in a series of educational programs through Ontario Handweavers and Spinners, and the Haliburton School of Art and Design  , focused on hand spinning and textile dyeing, and she studied tapestry weaving with acclaimed artist Ixchel Suarez.

A gifted teacher herself, Alisa has offered doll-making classes for adults and children, and through the pandemic has been teaching intuitive weaving as a meditative practice.

image: the artist Alisa McRonald standing in front of her finished Pierrot weaving project, with a joyful expression

The artist with the completed “Pierrot.”

Like any fibre crafter or textile artist, Alisa finds herself painfully aware of the volume of scraps left over when a project is complete, so she makes an effort to use and reuse them in her work and encourages her students to be resourceful and creative in their material choices. Although she’s a great proponent of creative mending, her work goes one step further, using damaged or discarded clothing as the basis of entirely new projects. And it’s not just fibre, either; recent projects have used discarded paper and junk mail.

Alisa’s broad skill set drives her multi-disciplinary approach to fibre arts; repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain in her arms require her to change up her techniques frequently, meaning many of her works combine multiple materials and methods. In 2017, she exhibited a collection of dolls, “Ladystar: My Jukebox Heroines,” depicting female musicians, her influences and inspirations. The dolls were constructed using traditional methods: papier mâché heads on fabric bodies, all in fantastic outfits with sewn, knitted and crocheted elements. You can get a glimpse of the show here.

Pop culture and its influence on her is a theme that runs through a lot of Alisa’s work. “My Little Arcana” is a group of large-scale tapestry weavings. Each piece is a face, representing a moment or a character that shaped Alisa’s life, her beliefs, and her art. The collection includes “The Witch,” her muse; “The Princess,” Leia, that is, ‘a rebel and a smartass with great hair’; and “The Rockstar,” Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, a key inspiration for artistry, boundary-pushing, and sexuality.

Her main project over last fall and winter was the last piece in this collection, “Pierrot.” The black-and-white-clad clown is a stock character in pantomime and theatre, as the avatar of the performer and other creatives. Often depicted as alienated from the larger group, the miserable mime has become a trope, the “sad-sack artist.” Alisa’s presentation offers an ebullient, colourful rebuttal to that trope: Her work is anything but sad, and never lonely or alienated.

The “My Little Arcana” series is all about the connections she feels with her heroes and their work. Together, the pieces tell the story of finding her place in the world, about the key connections she has made to help her grow into who she is: the talented and joyful “Gen X, feminist, witchy queerdo from a small town.”

Her next project is a series of weavings, using techniques that go back hundreds or thousands of years to reproduce that most modern of art forms: rock and roll posters. She envisions it as a collision of kitschy 1970s rug hooking with medieval tapestries. Follow her work as it develops on her Instagram account.

All images used courtesy of Alisa McRonald.

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Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

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