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Artist displays familial void of Mexican immigrants

New exhibition at Jacob Gallery features work by three artists using yarn, textiles

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Posted: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 11:16 am, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

In a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico, thousands of people have left to come to America.

While this is nothing new to many Americans, what surprised Carolyn Kallenborn was how many people in a small village have been affected by migration to the United States. People go years without seeing loved ones. Grandparents often don’t get a chance to meet their grandchildren until the kids are grown.

Kallenborn’s piece — “Ausencia,” which means “absence” in Spanish — at the new Elaine L. Jacob Gallery exhibition, “Material Spaces: Veneration Through the Needle’s Eye,” is inspired by the void created when people left their Mexican village to come to America. Hundreds of strings of varying lengths hang from boards suspended from the ceiling about 12 feet above the floor. The fabric is blue at the top and gradually fades into red, and a small rock is tied to the end. The strings are set up so the viewer can walk through the piece, with different entrance and exit points on every side.

From 2003 to 2009, Kallenborn, then a faculty member at the Kansas City Art Institute, took students down to the village in Oaxaca most years to learn about weaving and dying textiles.

After spending a few weeks there every year, they got to know many villagers and started hearing stories about how relatives crossed the border and never returned.

There was one woman who tried to get Kallenborn to check on her sons in Los Angeles. As she explained to the woman that she couldn’t because she lived halfway across the country, the woman was in tears. A man, whom one of her students befriended, would cross the border holding his belongings on his head as he waded through water that was chest-deep. That man would cross into the U.S. and stay for years at a time because of the danger in crossing.

“It was really amazing to listen to somebody telling this story,” she said.

After hearing myriad stories, she wanted to do something to help but couldn’t, so she decided to make a piece based on them.

“I wanted the space to feel sort of sad and have a feeling of something … that sense of something that’s going away and you can’t stop it,” Kallenborn, 49, said.

Each rock represents a person who has left or is leaving. She bought and dyed the yarn in Mexico, the red coming from cochineal, an insect that lives on cacti in Mexico and the blue is indigo dye. It is an age-old process of dying the yarn that predates Hispanics in the region.

“For me the red is really about that place,” she said. There is so much vibrancy and passion, very alive. So red, to me, invokes that. … There’s a sadness about leaving.”

Originally from St. Louis, Kallenborn studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for both her undergraduate — Bachelor of Science in textile and apparel design — and graduate degrees — master’s of fine arts in textile and design.

Currently an assistant professor in the Design Studies department at UW-Madison, she tries to tell a story or convey an emotion in her work.

“It’s incredible (living without loved ones),” she said. “I can’t imagine me — one person — living with that, but to imagine a town where everyone is living with that, I just can’t even comprehend it.”

Across from Kallenborn’s piece on the second floor of the Jacob Gallery, Beili Liu’s “Bound #1” stretches from one wall to the opposite, made of needles and string. On the walls, two figures — one male and one female — face each other as they are connected with thousands of pieces of string.

“The opposing gallery wall is very important for this piece because the distance is a longing,” she said. “They’re connected, but they’re separate.”

“Bound #1” is based on a Chinese legend of the red thread that Liu, who grew up in China, has based some of her other work on.

“It tells that when children are born, they’re connected with their soul mates by an invisible piece of red thread, and I thought that’s really curious that it’s invisible but it’s red,” Liu, 37, said.

Liu was born and raised in Jilin, in northeastern China. Now based in Austin, Texas, Liu came to the U.S. at 21 in 1995 to study graphic design at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

She came to Michigan in 2001 to get her master’s in mixed media from the University of Michigan. She lived in Ann Arbor for seven years before moving to Texas.

Her piece in the exhibition was supposed to be “Bound #2,” but the crate containing the materials was lost in shipping, so she had to think of something on the fly to substitute.

“To really respond to this space and figure out the alternative plan, we made this one,” she said.

She called Ann Arbor her hometown in America, and when she found out she has the opportunity to do this exhibition — which runs through May 19 — she looked forward to it.

“In America,” she said, “I’ve lived here the longest, so I felt, ‘Of course I’m going to go back.’”

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