These laborious handcrafts help Andrew McPhail process his feelings on illness, one sequin at a time

The Hamilton-based artist's meticulous textile works capture "the more ordinary and inelegant experiences of living with HIV."

The meticulous textile works capture 'the more ordinary and inelegant experiences of living with HIV'

Andrew McPhail, TEXTiles. (Andrew McPhail)

Contains strong language.

Embroidered in glimmering ruby and gold, the bedsheet exclaims, "i'm fucked." Another, pink and blocky against a wildflower pattern, reads, "SICK & TIRED," while a third — this one a pillow — just frets: "uh oh." Artist Andrew McPhail calms his anxious, angry feelings by writing them, a thousand sequins at a time.

In his long-running TEXTiles series, the Hamilton-based artist applies these sentiments over used bed dressings rendered in a meticulous hand with scads of the tiny, sparkling embellishments. The largest examples, sewn across king-sized sheets, include more than 10,000 sequins and take a month or two to complete. In the series' five-year span, McPhail has produced well over 100 TEXTiles. And, in the past month, selections have hung in exhibitions at Birch Contemporary in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Peterborough, SomoS Art House in Berlin and artist-run co-op the Assembly Gallery in Hamilton. Through repetitive and menial work, McPhail has developed a meaningful way to process his experience of illness.

The project was first inspired, the artist says, by the AIDS Quilt, which is a growing monument made by thousands of contributors to the people who've died from AIDS-related illnesses. As of last year, the quilt weighed approximately 54 tons. Its enormity "flabbergasted" McPhail. But as a survivor of the AIDS epidemic, it also made him think: "Some of us are still here and we'd like to have a voice, too."

Andrew McPhail, TEXTiles. (Andrew McPhail)

He set out to create something kindred that wasn't an "elegy or a fond remembrance," but instead captured "the down and dirty of surviving." The project would collect the more ordinary and inelegant experiences of living with HIV — ones of the "Holy crap I feel like shit today" variety.

The TEXTiles begin with bedding, which has "all those great connections to sex and death and sleep," says McPhail. He selects only used pillows and sheets because "they're an oddly human material"; their stains and wear spots, like the body's own imperfections and decrepitudes, evidence a life. Florals are best because they exude personality. And for his ink, he chooses sequins because they seem like "the ultimate gay material."

The phrases he sews are often sardonic ("despairing" and "complainy," he calls them). An incomplete greatest hits might include: "FAIL," "fuck up," "SICK & TIRED," "yikes," "lighten up," "whatever," "blah," "ouch," "UGH" and "The End." The occasional affirmation, however, also appears. Recently, the word "yes" got stuck in his mind, so he stitched it into a tiny swatch, 12 centimetres by 18, with just a handful of sequins. "It was probably one of the hardest ones to do," he says. He's repeated it a few times now, each a little larger than the last. He's getting comfortable, bit by bit, saying the word more loudly.

Andrew McPhail, TEXTiles. (Andrew McPhail)

McPhail has long been interested in writing, especially poetry and other short forms. With the TEXTiles series, he feels a bit like he's authoring a book — a memoir maybe — "except it's made of sequins and it's taking a really, really long time because I can only write a couple words a month." So far, he figures he's completed about a page and it'll take the rest of his life to finish the book. Which way this story will turn, like life, he says, will be a surprise to him.

If you came up to me and said, 'I want you to make something out of 70,000 Band-Aids,' I'd say, 'No way.' But you start small. Then, before you know it, you're back at the drugstore buying 40 more boxes of Band-Aids.- Andrew McPhail

For McPhail, in spite of the worries his sewing needle describes, making the TEXTiles is an incredibly calming activity. "It takes me away from the space I'm depicting," he says. It's not an escape exactly, but it makes the anxieties feel smaller and more manageable. His focus shifts to what he can control: "I'm just going to fill this space or I'm going to make this line. I can do that. And there, it's done."

Andrew McPhail, TEXTiles. (Andrew McPhail)

The artist has always had a curious enjoyment of laborious task work. Once he starts dusting, for instance, he can go for hours, he says. He remembers one summer as a child when he was given the task of removing all the pieces of gravel from the soil on the acre of land where his family lived. He spent days picking little rocks and filling bushel baskets. "I think my parents thought it was a kind of punishment, but perversely, I was into it." He likes adding things to make a mass or repeating something 1,000 times to make the perfect one, he explains.

Repetition is indeed a motion important to his art-making. In past works, McPhail has sewn together thousands of tissues to make a cloud, filled an armchair like a pin cushion, covered a gallery floor-to-ceiling in Post-Its, hand-tied enough surgical gloves to make a tent tarp and joined 70,000 Band-Aids into a lace-like veil that he performs while wearing. (His materials often reference the body, bodily fluids and the paraphernalia of illness. Bloodwork, and therefore needles and bandages, are ever-present for McPhail.)

Andrew McPhail, TEXTiles. (Andrew McPhail)

Immensity is never his initial spark, but it does reliably accumulate. "If you came up to me and said, 'I want you to make something out of 70,000 Band-Aids,' I'd say, 'No way.' But you start small. You start with two things and it takes on a life of its own. Then, before you know it ... you're back at the drugstore buying 40 more boxes of Band-Aids."

It is these qualities — an appreciation for the gradual, an ability to find pleasure in the process — that guide McPhail's art practice and allow him to build at such remarkable scale. If those senses seem especially refined, it is because they are the same qualities he applies to his life. "If you saw the whole scope of it from the beginning, you would turn away. But going through it day to day, you just keep adding, you just keep going, and before you know it, you arrive at this huge thing."


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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