The Seduction of Skin
Kyra Markosian 16 JM tattoos a fresh piece of vegetable-tanned calfskin for a bag she made in a Wintersession studio called SKIN.
A shrill, electric buzz resonates throughout the studio as Kyra Markosian 16 JM tattoos a fresh piece of vegetable-tanned calfskin slathered with a thin sheet of Vaseline. Keeping a close eye on the pulsating needle filled with dark India ink, the junior draws crisp mountain ridges, moons and forest beasts symbolizing iconic moments from her past. The finely decorated scraps will be used to make a sturdy backpack with thin shoulder straps and a metal clasp.
“Drag the needle evenly across the material. That’s how you make precise lines,” Markosian demonstrates with a steady hand. “These tattoos tell stories from my life and Armenian heritage.”
Originally inspired by the complex symbolism found in Russian prison tattoos, the Jewelry + Metalsmithing major made the bag as a final project for Skin: Adornment and Crafted Barriers, a cross-disciplinary Wintersession studio taught by Swedish artist Sissi Westerberg, who teaches in J+M, and Maria Canada 14 AP/SC, an instructor in Apparel Design. Students in the studio translated the cultural histories, biological properties and psychological implications of human skin into body adornments and wearable pieces.
“For centuries this permeable barrier has captivated the minds of poets, architects, spiritual leaders, executioners and lovers,” explains Westerberg. “Skin has the tendency to excite and repel simultaneously. It keeps us separated from the world and it's also what keeps our bodies together. As artists it's interesting to think about what skin might represent in a wider context.”
In January, the 13 undergraduate students enrolled in the course visited Pergamena, a family-owned tannery in Montgomery, NY. There, they watched intently as raw animal hides were processed into luxurious vegetable-tanned leather and thin scrolls of parchment, leaving with armfuls of material samples for experimentation. “It was an intense experience for some,” notes Canada. “Many were surprised by the strong scents that waft throughout the tannery. You can't mistake the smell of flesh.”
Direct physical exposure to the tanning process yielded such eye-opening results as a pair of shredded leather pants Ying Bonny Cai 18 EFS stained with her own blood. The nude-colored garment reveals her affinity for the scars on her legs acquired while playing outdoors – and also her mother’s disgust at these wounds on her child. “To me, my scars embody the ability of my skin to absorb impact,” Cai says. “However, to my mother, these wounds are disturbing signs of how I’ve mistreated the pure body she gave me.”
Deeply moved by Scars of Beating Gordon (Louisiana 1856), an iconic photograph of a freed slave with ghastly scar tissue on his back, Fred Mezidor 16 AP made a powerful garment titled Ready-to-Wear Slave. The brown leather vest is accented with hydraulic metal and leather braiding meant to signify whips.
“Black culture is exploited for its ‘coolness’ when deemed acceptable by dominant institutions, but black people don’t receive credit as originators or innovators,” explains Mezidor, a Brown-RISD Dual Degree student who’s majoring in Apparel Design at RISD and Modern Culture and Media at Brown. “This piece showcases the part of history that’s ever-present yet conveniently ignored when one parades in a skin and culture that’s not their own.”
Wow Patamon Khoman 15 AP also didn’t shy away from visceral concepts in creating Memento, a translucent neckpiece made from silicon, with small black pearls used as buttons. When worn it makes the skin underneath look light purple, as if it’s healing from an injury.
“Bruises often become associated with violence – but sometimes they may be caused by genuine acts of affection,’ writes Khoman in her artist’s statement. “I want these pieces to invoke a sense of sentimentality. Rather than being covered, these marks are cherished.”
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