Linda Friedman Schmidt
Linda Friedman Schmidt is a self-taught artist known for her emotional narrative portraits created from discarded clothing. She was born stateless in a German displaced persons camp, the first child of Holocaust survivors who discouraged her interest in art. She graduated from Brooklyn College with a BA in foreign languages and became a New York City high school Spanish teacher at the age of 20. In artwork filtered through a postwar immigrant childhood, she fuses a traumatic personal history with present day social, cultural, political, and feminist issues. Her thought-provoking work has been selected for invitational and juried group shows of both contemporary fine art and textile art in the USA and abroad.
Today’s rising irrational hatred, senseless violence, and divisiveness is reminiscent of the past and my family’s Holocaust history. My activist artwork is an outcry for human rights, children’s rights, tolerance, equality, peace, and unity. It is a reminder that we share our common humanity, that no human beings are disposable, that all human beings are of infinite worth. I draw attention to disturbing themes to reach people on an emotional level, to provoke action and positive change in the face of indifference and apathy. My artwork has conceptual underpinnings: Discarded clothing is my paint, a metaphor for discarded humanity. A self-taught version of rug hooking is used to depict the downtrodden, to expose injustice swept under the rug, to celebrate and elevate rags and rugs onto gallery and museum walls. In my process I dismantle the world and and piece it together differently, create unity from diversity, metaphorically repair and refashion a world torn apart. Just as fabrics of different colors and prints can mesh beautifully, so can different races, religions, and ethnicities if we give them a chance.
Interview with Linda Friedman Schmidt
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Even though you’ve always identified as an artist, you didn’t begin pursuing a career in visual art until 1998. Can you talk about this period in your life and what lead to this decision?
For many years I stifled a desire to pursue a career in visual art because I was untrained and uncomfortable with traditional artist materials and techniques. I thought I wouldn’t be a good enough artist without an art school education and degree. Several years of psychotherapy provided the confidence.
Your parents were Holocaust survivors who met and married in a displaced persons camp following World War II. How has your experience with intergenerational trauma impacted your work?
I am haunted by intergenerational memory. I live in the dual reality of today’s world and the world my parents survived: I see what happened to my parents in today’s current events. Both worlds are always relevant and referenced in my artwork.
Trauma is healed when it is shared and disclosed. I overcome my personal history by making art that expresses the trauma and brings it into the light. I disclose (disclothes) the trauma on the surface of my work, recreate what haunts me, and thus rewrite a troubled history. My artwork heals me while empowering and inspiring the viewer; it gives other women permission to acknowledge and release their own anger and redress their lives.
Once “clothed” in sadness with a disturbing past, I shed and transform discarded clothing and myself. The process of deconstructing, cutting up, and transforming old clothes is part of the cure. There is a need to destroy the clothes in order to reconstruct them, to tear them apart and put them back together again differently, to make a new whole out of the fragments. I make physical order out of emotional disorder, take control, re-experience the past and see it in its objective and realistic proportions.
My work explores not only personal “mending” but also collective repair. I am metaphorically mending not only the fractures in my personal psyche but also repairing a world torn apart. My artwork is my outcry for peace, unity, justice, and compassion.
While growing up you were discouraged from making art, but you discovered a way around this by redesigning thrift store finds into garments for yourself. Can you talk about your continued use of discarded clothing as a material?
I use clothing as a strategic communication tool, an embodiment of my voice. I am textile messaging. Textiles and clothing are metaphors for the human condition. Humans are fragile like cloth; both need care, attention, and protection. We are all “cut from the same cloth,” all of us threads entangled together sharing a common humanity.
Unwanted clothing is laden with the symbolism of forgotten past lives and rejection. I associate piles of discarded clothing with my family’s past and also with myself. I grew up feeling unwanted and used, the real me was discarded. I was manipulated, controlled, loved only for academic achievement, expected to make up for those relatives who died in the Holocaust. By breathing new life into discards I rescue, honor, and give new life not only to discarded humanity but also to myself. The discarded clothing transformed is the sad life discarded and reinvented. I shed, shred, and transform the layers to reveal my true, joyous identity.
I grew up disconnected from family and community. Recycled clothing links me to others, gives me an opportunity for exchange, a chance to weave a web of connections with diverse people. It enables me to connect with countless others long gone whose garments wear on in my work. I thread one generation to the next, connecting with my mother and all the women who picked up hooks and needles before me.
You’ve mentioned the ability of clothing to register memory. Can you elaborate more on this idea?
My artwork created from discarded clothing is autobiographical, based on remembrance of traumatic moments. Clothes are reservoirs of personal experience alive with everything they have witnessed. Textiles hold memory, recall memory, record, and sometimes obscure memory. Our associations with clothing stimulate intellectual, sensory, and emotional memory stored in our bodies and souls. Clothes conjure our tactile memories and trigger emotional memory.
The close contact of clothing to the body gives it the the ability to record personal and intimate stories from the past. Traumatic memory is like grandma’s vintage dress: I can wear it, or have it altered, or cut it up and create something totally new from the fabric.
Who were some of your early artistic influences?
I didn’t have much exposure to art and artists. As a child I remember admiring the work of Renoir that I saw in library books. In later years I liked the work of Alice Neel and the German expressionists Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix.
How were you initially drawn to rug hooking? In what ways do you feel your approach is unconventional?
I was never interested in rug hooking nor in making rugs. I knew nothing about hooked rugs nor folk art until I saw a book from the UK titled Rag Rug Inspirations by Juliet Bawden while waiting for my children in the public library. I had been looking for a way to transform discarded clothing and found the answer in this book.
Rug hookers traditionally use wool yardage they purchase and then cut by machine into uniform strips to create a simple picture with little detail. Most rug hookers pre-cut all the wool they use. All of the strips they hook are uniform in size and shape and loosely hooked. They are unable to depict fine detail. My work is created with hand cut pieces that are not cut in advance. I hand cut and rip worn clothes into strips, stripping them bare to expose brutal reality: the wear and tear of life, hidden feelings, vulnerability, suffering, and traumatic history. Although a self-taught version of hooking is my technique, the connection with rugs is conceptual. I use rags and rugs as metaphors for discarded and downtrodden humanity. My aim is to uncover everything shoved under the rug, to disclose (disclothes) the unvarnished truth, the reality hidden beneath the surface.
Rug hooking is a repetitive and time-consuming process. Do you find working this way to be a natural progression from crocheting?
Hooking is a progression from crocheting only because the same type of tool is used and loops are pulled. Crocheting and traditional rug hooking are repetitive and can be mindless activities pursued while concentrating on other things like TV. Although I use a hook and pull pieces of fabric through a backing cloth, I am not a rug hooker. My work involves much looking and thinking about expression of feeling before hooking each and every strip I hand cut one at a time. I hook one strip, then decide on the color, texture, and feeling I need to elicit with the next strip before cutting it. I alternate hooking with cutting one strip at a time. I hand cut pieces of different sizes, thicknesses and textures. I think like a painter layering very small pieces of many different types of fabrics, very close to and even on top of each other.
Do you usually work from source imagery, memory, or a combination of the two?
I work from a combination of source imagery and memory and sometimes I also use a mirror. I have files of images of people expressing feelings torn from magazines. Before depicting any one part of a person’s face I look at multiple images (as many as 50 or more) focusing on that part of the face and searching for the feelings I am interested in conveying.
Your work reflects a connection to both personal and universal narrative. What stories are you most interested in telling?
I am interested in telling stories rooted in personal history and experience: Stories that explore the human condition, stories that are usually shoved under the rug, stories of the murky layers that make up our lives, psychological pain, struggle and strife, the aftermath of war and genocide, stories of those society overlooks: immigrants, refugees, the disappeared, the displaced, women, children, old people, the faceless, the dehumanized, the voiceless, the hungry, the unwanted, disposable humanity, stories that touch upon identity, alienation, separation, oppression, displacement.
The figures that appear in your work are vulnerable and visceral How do you explore ideas related to identity? And emotion?
I explore ideas related to identity and emotion through my medium and process.
Clothing is the frontier between the self and the non-self. It is a tool for self creation, for fashioning an identity, and also for concealing one’s true identity. Once I used clothing to hide my true self; now I use it to expose the real me, the humanity hidden beneath the layers. I am interested in exploring who people really are underneath their clothing. Clothing used to conceal is deconstructed to reveal the naked truth. I uncover a world of disguise to reveal the pain, sadness and grief that lies underneath. I hand cut and rip the clothes into strips, stripping them bare to expose brutal reality: the wear and tear of life, hidden feelings, vulnerability, suffering, and traumatic history.
Castoff clothing is an emotional medium imbued with emotional layers: It references what came before, it tells real life stories, evokes memories, captures personal experiences, and deep feelings. Discarded clothing is the “second skin” that holds the living substance of its former wearer, their essence and energy. It contains residues of emotion and DNA. Evidence of emotions like fear and excitement, stress and strain remains on clothes through traces of indelible sweat, skin cells, stains, and tears.
I reduce clothing to its emotional essence: I grew up “clothed in sadness.” The sadness was something I wore for a long time, clinging to the old feelings. Enveloping textiles are likened to enveloping emotions in my work.
How do you usually conceptualize titles for new work?
When reading sometimes certain words on the page suggest a title for a work in progress. Other times I research the topic I am depicting and will find words I like. I try to connect the title with medium and process, make use of metaphors, homonyms.
Can you tell us about your current studio space? Do you follow any daily rules or rituals?
The studio in which I create my artwork is attached to my home. It is a former sunroom bathed in natural light from large windows. A large wall opposite the windows has floor to ceiling cubicles filled with discarded clothing arranged by color. Opposite this wall are windows that look out to my garden. A large custom made frame stands in the middle with a full length mirror off to one side.
The clothing arranged neatly in piles evokes the concentration camps in which the property of victims (disposable, discarded humanity) was separated and collected in neat piles.
My husband is an architect who designed a second studio space in a modern carriage house next door. I use it mostly for conservation of artworks in my possession. I also use the space for mounting artwork, preparing it for hanging and shipping. There are large white walls on which I install artwork for photography and studio visits.
Would you say your way of working is structured or more intuitive? Can you lend some insight into your overall process?
I hand cut each strip as I work, not in advance. I hook one strip, stop to decide on the next color, fabric, and type of hook necessary then hand cut that one, and so forth.
My work is both structured and intuitive. I keep notes on ideas for future artworks. Because my artwork is very time consuming I take a long time thinking about meaningful subject matter before beginning new work. I believe that artists are an unconscious vehicle for something beyond themselves, and feel that I am often guided in the creation of my work.
How has your work developed over time and how do you anticipate it evolving in the future?
Early on there was a desire to escape the association with rug hookers. I began looking for ways to differentiate my work and continue to do so. I started hooking only the main idea/subject and then mounting the work on stretcher bars and painting the background. This evolved to cutting out my portraits and figures and creating more of a three dimensional aspect by attaching them to flat canvases, sometimes canvases covered in textile remnants.
My portraits have become more refined, more heavily detailed, and layered. I anticipate my work becoming looser, more free, and abstract.
Has your previous success as a business owner been an asset in your navigation of the art world?
No. The art world is harder to navigate, less transparent, more secretive, and mysterious. Without a dealer it is easy to fall through the cracks. I found my financial independence, my confidence, my freedom in the retail clothing business. It is difficult to achieve financial freedom solely through art making alone.
In the business world a need exists or you create a need for your services or products. It is hard to convince the public that they need art. Art is a piece of the artist. it takes a piece of your self to be a good artist. You have to (metaphorically) bleed a little on the canvas. How do you sell a piece of yourself?
Do you have any advice to offer artists who are just starting their careers?
Have patience and persevere, never give up. Have a regular daily art practice and an artistic style that is recognizable. Have continuity in your work. Stick to one medium that suits you and grow with it. You must develop a thick skin, not take rejection personally. Enter open calls for exhibition without fees, never pay anything to show your work. Live near a big city with galleries whose openings you can attend regularly. Meet other artists, curators, gallerists. If you cannot make a living through your artwork alone, find a day job that makes use of your talent. The success of many businesses is dependent on good visual presentation, something at which artists naturally excel.
Who are some other artists working in textiles that you’re excited about right now?
Jenni Dutton, Zoe Schlacter, Charles LeDray, Marie Bergstedt, Faig Ahmed
How do you spend your time when you aren’t making art?
Going to the gym, dancing ballroom salsa, gardening, reading, cooking, keeping up with social media, taking care of family business and home maintenance.
I know activism is important to you. What is your perspective on the potential of artists to activate social change in our current political climate?
I have a passion for making a difference in the world, for fighting hate, prejudice, racism, division, intolerance. Social change has often been brought about by artists who dare to say what few want to hear. Artists make images that make people think, and through this thinking, change can come about, the world can be healed. Artists can bring injustice to the public’s attention, force awareness of little-discussed issues, awaken others from their complacency, Art is a universal language that can humanize issues that may seem too distant or unfamiliar to some. Emotional artwork can touch even the stone-hearted by revealing how it feels to be affected by hatred, discrimination, oppression. Art can be a mirror reflecting the world as it is, even if we are not ready to see it.
I am peacemaking through my piecemaking, mending by uniting pieces of people in hopes of creating a better world, a peaceful future. I use my story to wake people up to the horrors of war’s aftermath.
What are you working on in the studio right now? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news?
I am developing a way to make my soon-to-be completed artwork reversible and easy to install from either side. I am also conceptualizing my next piece. Currently my artwork can be seen in the group show IRL: Investigating Reality at The Untitled Space gallery in Tribeca, New York City.
I have been very busy with the upcoming weddings of two daughters marrying within four months of one another in 2019.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Linda and her work, check out her website.