by Lisa Kinoshita
Anna Matejcek is a La Junta, Colorado-based artist who creates soft-sculpture environments out of recycled yarn. For this year’s Ocean Fest, she has crocheted a spectacular, 30’ x 15’ Pacific Northwest seabed teeming with vibrant fish and marine creatures that she herself “hooked” (with a crochet needle). In this mesmerizing environment, a fiber kelp forest sways gently overhead, while below, the ocean floor is literally blanketed with a soft layer of crochet. Visitors are invited to enter the art installation, to gaze and touch.
Curator Lisa Kinoshita caught up with Anna for a chat about the challenges of creating a squeezably soft sea world on dry land.
OCEAN FEST: Hi Anna, please tell us about Spring Tide, your amazing art installation for Ocean Fest and the Seaport museum.
ANNA MATEJCEK: My installation is based on plant and marine species found in Pacific Northwest waters. I am trying to capture the beauty and mystery of ocean life in my work. I want to inspire others to take a second look at the variety of life teeming in the ocean’s tidepools, reefs and kelp forests. I attempted to crochet and sew fibers (yarns of various types and fabrics) to mimic the colors, textures, and shapes of this region’s diverse animal and plant life, as well as their beautiful habitats.
OF: What are some of the sea creatures populating this world?
AM: My installation includes a sea nettle, a lion’s mane jellyfish, a tiger rockfish, a wolf eel, a school of sardines, a sunflower seastar, a bunch of ochre seastars, bat stars of various colors, giant plumose anemones, giant green anemones, painted anemones, a few nudibranchs, different types of corals, and, of course, kelp forests – just to name a few. I am interested in the way all of these animals and plants coexist and depend on one another in their natural habitats.
OF: Were there any particular struggles in creating this artwork during a time of pandemic?
AM: I always planned on using recycled materials as much as possible for this project, but working on the installation during the pandemic came with some unexpected challenges. Normally, I would have gone to recycling centers, thrift stores, and garage sales in search of materials, but covid made this nearly impossible. Instead, I had to scour the internet for old crocheted blankets, fabrics, and yarns that I could repurpose….
I tried to use recycled/used materials as much as possible to help promote conservation and environmentalism. To source my supplies for the project, I used old and used crocheted and wool blankets off of eBay and from thrifts. Once I had the blankets, I took them apart and rebuilt/re-crocheted/re-sewed them into animals, plants, rocks, etc. I also began re-dying some of the yarn/fibers/fabric pieces to better fit the natural colors of the creatures and plants they represent.
OF: And after that, how do you go about creating a complete environment out of yarn and fibers? How does it all come together?
AM: After I have the smaller pieces assembled, then I sew or crochet them together to create larger sections of the installation. Once I have all of these sections put together, I create an updated diagram/sketch/photo collage to show how all of the sections go together. I basically envision a handful of these large pieces that can fit together like a giant, flexible puzzle….For the “ocean floor”, some of the area is already covered with crocheted sea-life, and other areas are sparse and ready for community members to set or add their own creations. [Ocean Fest is offering zoom parties for the public to crochet and create their own sea elements to add to the installation].
OF: And you also have crocheted kelp hanging from overhead beams, along with ocean waves made of dyed cheesecloth that filter the light.
AM: I created Spring Tide with the intention of making it an immersive experience for the viewer. I think the biggest challenge was trying to visually mimic the near weightlessness that many plants and animals have while swimming or floating in the ocean; trying to capture that look of buoyancy on dry land is definitely a challenge!
I wanted it to look and feel like you are walking under the waves, exploring the kelp forests and cold coral reefs from a marine animal’s perspective. I hope that when people view and interact with the artwork, that they feel connected to the ocean and all of the amazing life that calls it home. I hope it inspires people to keep exploring and keep fighting to preserve this unique and vital ecosystem.
OF: Where did you grow up, and how did you study to become an artist?
AM: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and while art has always been my calling, science has also always had a special place in my life. My parents were both scientists and educators, so I spent most of my childhood either playing with snakes, skeletons, and mice in my parents’ biology and ecology labs, or outside running wild and exploring nature….As an adult, I earned my BA in Art Education cum laude, from Maryville University, in 2006. In 2014, I moved to Boise, Idaho, to pursue my Masters degree, and in 2017 I received my MFA in Visual Art from Boise State University.
OF: Your Masters thesis deals with the experience of growing up as a child with learning challenges, and how it actually made you a better artist. Could you tell us about that, and your discovery of the neurodiversity movement?
AM: When I was growing up in the early 90’s, I was always told to keep my learning disabilities diagnoses hidden. All the adults in my life treated it like some shameful secret, and that had a negative impact on my sense of self. Art was the only subject in school where I naturally excelled, and so art became my therapeutic escape. My grade school teachers had very little interest in supporting a student like me, and so for the most part I had to figure out how to teach myself. But later, all of these bad educational experiences became the main reason I wanted to go into education. It inspired me to be the type of teacher for students that I had needed and had lacked. I also wanted to teach others how they could use art as a therapeutic tool and path to self-actualization.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to talk about my experiences as someone whose brain is wired differently. And once I started to share my story with my students, I got overwhelmingly positive responses. Many thanked me for my openness and willingness to talk about something our society still thinks of as largely taboo. I realized that so many of my students were still experiencing the same shame that I had felt growing up in the 90’s and that really bothered me….I realized that I could make a positive impact just by being open and willing to talk about this stuff, so it was an easy decision to just embrace it and try to make things better.
OF: Has nature always been an important source of inspiration for you, in the places you’ve lived?
AM: I have always been inspired by the natural environments around me. One of my favorite ways to find inspiration for my artwork has been to get out into nature and just see what catches my eye. In Missouri, this was usually the songbirds or the flowers I found in my backyard. In Idaho, I was inspired by the vastness of the high desert and the flora and fauna of the Sawtooth mountains. Now, living in the dry prairie and desert tablelands of southeastern Colorado, I find inspiration in the sagebrush and cacti-filled canyons near my home. I love to travel, and I visit state and national parks whenever I get the chance. Creating artworks based on the animals and plants I have encountered in my travels is especially rewarding. I particularly love the coastal region of the Pacific Northwest. I have created art based on marine life on a few previous occasions, but never anything as large as the Ocean Fest installation! Exploring and artistically documenting the life in tidepools is one of my all-time favorite activities.
OF: How do you think artists can best contribute to conservation efforts?
AM: If you look back through human history you will find that every civilization has created some type of art. Why? I think it is because creativity and creating art is a key part of what makes us human. Humans have always known that art has a strange, undefinable power. Humans from ancient to modern times have used art in sympathetic magic, in rituals, in festivals, in gathering places, etc., to bring about unity, community, and positive social change. Creativity is a language we can all share. And if art is a lens through which to view the world, then artists can help focus that lens on important issues, such as ocean conservation. Art can be a window into a different reality, it can open minds and hearts, and it can inspire generations while contributing to societal progress. At its best, art does all of these things simultaneously and effortlessly. Why else would we have sayings like, “a picture is worth a thousand words”?
OF: Your artwork truly expands the boundaries of fiber art, eco art – and crocheting! Thank you so much for sharing your art and perspective at Tacoma Ocean Fest, Anna!
Anna Matejcek’s art installation will be on view at Tacoma Ocean Fest June 6, and at the Foss Waterway Seaport through summer 2021.