Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Marina Dempster: Markings in Yarn


Yarn-Painting the Body
Reminiscent of tattoos, Marina Dempster’s markings in yarn bring her voice to the Huichol craft tradition.

“Multicultural ethnography meets haute couture” is how Marina Dempster explains her work. Her hybrid practice is born out of her own hybrid cultural identity: born in Mexico, to British and French parents, Dempster has lived in Canada since the age of three. Nonetheless, her family’s connections to Mexico (her grandparents also lived there for years, and her brother is now based there) provide ongoing inspiration for her fiber art.

Dempster’s adopted tradition of “yarn painting” continues to be practiced by the Huichol people of northwestern Mexico as a means of cultural record keeping, as well as a source of supplementary income. Dempster learned of the craft from a Huichol artist, Alejandro López Torres, during his visit to Canada eight years ago. Today she chooses to refer to her work as sculpture but explains that she is referring to sculpture’s secondary definition as “a natural indentation or other marking on a plant or animal.” Mannequin legs, glove molds, and shoe lasts—an odd assemblage of severed body shapes—offer the three-dimensional forms onto which she works her yarn paintings.

Following the traditional techniques of the craft, Dempster works a mixture of beeswax and pine resin over the surfaces of her chosen forms. The mixture is “warmed and softened in the fingers and massaged or spread on the surface like a layer of skin,” she explains. This pliable surface is then embedded with yarn as well as other materials, such as beads. Beyond the forms she chooses to use, the major difference between Dempster’s work and traditional yarn painting is that her motifs and palette are informed by personal choices rather than cultural motifs. As a result, her work offers the possibility of multiple interpretations, dependent on each viewer’s personal associations with the colors and patterns she selects.

Her technique is akin to an extreme body tattoo. But in an ironic way, the pattern Dempster adds to her forms also takes away its function. In her most recent work, she explores shoes, objects she finds intriguing because they “act as a closely fitting protective exterior and an essential part of our balancing mechanism and have become the sensory receptors through which we transmit information to the brain about the terrain over which we travel.” By exchanging plastic and wood for thread and wax, Dempster offers us the shoe that can be admired but cannot be worn and would certainly not withstand the wear and tear of walking. Similarly, her densely decorated mannequin legs suggest the rich pattern of women’s winter-weight tights but are solid, refusing to let us slip them on. “Personal mappings or tracks” are how she explains this labor-intensive work. More like diaries than parts of the body, they are intricate charts worked out in a language of color and symbol that viewers must translate for themselves.

FiberArts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2007: 44-45)