Living An Installation
by Autumn Steam
Danny Mansmith is a maker of his own artful world. From the moment you step into his apartment in Seattle, Washington it is apparent that he lives for his art. His preferred medium is sewing with his simple strait stitch machine, found fabric and a rainbow of cones of thread. What he creates, is like nothing I have seen before. His research is his inspiration and that comes from walks through nature, encounters with city life, or everyday experiences.
Growing up in Chicago with, “…a tough Polish grandma who made everything and fixed everything out of things that people threw away. She made my clothes growing up. She had the junk room that we called, the sewing room, which was a stockpile of fabric. She sewed and made things there. I have memories of watching her on the back of Mom’s bed sort of falling asleep to her sewing. And I never thought of it when I was growing up, the thought of sewing or anything like that.” These formative years made a deep impression on Mansmith. His grandmother also, “…taught me art lessons when I was a little kid about drawing, proportion and how to draw the human figure properly. She supplied me with a million markers and drawing paper all the time."
Mansmith also watched his grandmother paint for the church. “She wouldn’t have said she was an artist, but she was an artist. She painted paintings for the church. I grew up Catholic and she was pretty close to the church. She painted all of their statues. So it was kind of amazing to go to church and look up at grandma’s work on the Virgin Mary; a life size Virgin Mary statue and grandma painted it in her basement. There was this kind of weird stairs going down in her basement and there was nothing but old saint statues... under the stairs. So it was creepy and weird, and I always wanted to get down there to them. I would look at them as a little kid and she was like, “What are you doing down there! Keep away from those things!” Cause they were like these old chalk crumbling statues in grandma’s basement.”
Being an artist came naturally for Mansmith, so he went on to art school right out of high school. “I lasted a year right out of high school, in Chicago, for painting. It was a trade school and more commercial based. You could become an illustrator or they really focused on the computer and I really didn’t have an interest in that. I kind of felt like they didn’t nurture individual thinking. I know that it’s good to learn your basics and to be able to draw a tree, a real tree, and not press the button on the computer and the tree pops up for you and you can manipulate it. I was really annoyed by the kids. They didn’t want to know how to draw, they were like, 'I want to work on the computer'. And they would go downstairs and have a smoke. In life drawing class, the teacher wasn’t there a couple of days, so the whole classroom would disappear and it would be me and the weirdo’s that were drawing frantically... So I lasted a year and then I dropped out.”
In 1991, when Mansmith was 21, he began teaching himself how to sew with all of his grandmothers supplies. “…she [grandma] had her stock pile of fabric still there and her sewing machine. So I started teaching myself with her tools and her thread and making these, just nutty, outfits. I mean onzies out of 70’s polyester that zipped up the front. When I thought about these first outfits they were bonkers. I started taking apart all of the clothes that I had, like jeans, with a seam ripper, to follow the pattern...I was making these... underwear with legs and those were my pants. They were kind of obscene... trying to refine and teach myself the structure of how to cover the body properly. So I would show up at the nursing home in these handmade clothes and my grandma would just be dumbfounded. She said, 'Your sewing'. She had this catch phrase of, 'You look like kiss my ass'. ...It was endearment and those were her first words when she saw it. She had lost her leg and [was] sitting there in her wheelchair. She had had a couple strokes but she was there and we laughed. ...Then she really started looking and said, 'You made that?' And I am like, 'Yeah, with your fabric and these are those drapes you found in the thrift store and this is that…' And she was just sort of balled over. We always drew together; she was a force and still is. I mean she’s right there on the wall. We were really close."
Since he began making clothes, he has come a long way. Mansmith now creates beautiful works of art but, “it is definitely a struggle to figure out how to feed my soul. It’s difficult, the business end of making art, for me. I am 41 and it is not any easier now, then from when I started. It’s been 10 years that I have been pushing myself and showing on the internet and posting pictures and... Facebook. It’s not any easier, if not harder, because now I don’t have my youth. That sounds silly, I am not that old, but the energy of the 21 year old, I don’t necessarily have that, and I feel that, and I kind of hate that, and it sucks. I really know my gamete now and my bubble of energy and it’s in the morning and it’s not boundless anymore, and that sucks too. I try to get to that point of happy creative space... and then balance paying bills and trying to make something that people really respond to... The idea of something functional...but how to make it my way in that it makes me happy and I enjoy it...”
Because his work is so varied it is hard to put a label on Mansmith. “People in the past have only thought of me as a fashion designer, or a clothing maker. Some people come in and they don’t ever look at anything... functional they go right to something that’s on the wall, that’s art. I think of all of it [as] the same. I think the world wants you to put a label on it. I understand people want to understand what you are, but it is better if you just hold your breath and take it in, this person who makes things, the maker of things, and that is kind of what I am. Ideally it is amazing to have the opportunity to have the space to... create an environment, a world, or an installation where I could have a garment, a coat, that would interact with things on the wall, things on the floor, things on the ceiling. Like a whole world of...all these things. Everything that I have made, that’s what I would love. I have had a couple opportunities to do that. And that’s where I am putting it together, I don’t plan anything out, and it is a scary thing because I don’t know exactly what I am doing but it’s this utter adventure and my heart is racing... I always love what happens.”
Inspiration comes from all over. “I see beauty in unexpected places. Not necessarily in the pretty thing but I like the crumbling building... The urban setting where people are right next to each other, there was something exciting about that. I lived in Chicago, for 20 years, [but] I kept looking for something else... I am changing now and I want to see more green. Now I am here in, Seattle. That’s why I came here with my boyfriend. To see more nature and organic shape. Feeling that I am this little, little thing and being immersed in a forest where these trees are hundreds of years old ...there is this magic, and it feels like there are these spirals of energy that you can see in the water, and on the tree, and the wind around you; like swirling, all connected thing. I don’t know how to say it. It’s god or what it is. …I am trying to feel that, and taking it into my heart, and I am hopefully then manipulating it somehow. I love people. I don’t always necessarily get along with everyone since I am an introvert, but I love good, down to earth, real authentic, people. I love the different cultures and ethnic backgrounds and tribal people. And the different ways people adorn themselves... that is inspiring to me. Everyday life is inspiring to me. Something bad happens, it sucks, we lose someone in our lives, but that’s sort of an energy that I use too. It’s a lot of things.”
Mansmith continues to draw and experiment with other mediums in addition to working with the sewing machine. “I have been playing a little bit with watercolor, but very little. Most of the time my inspiration to work in materials is the sewing machine and thread. But I love paper cuts. That kind of happened because of Alexis, my boyfriend. We were drawing one morning and he often draws and then cuts his drawing out of the page. That sort of sparked something in me... that’s amazing! In my paper cuts, I don’t draw first and then cut it out, I just wing it. I think that ability to judge a distance and shape comes from drawing in thread on the sewing machine. It pushes you away from being so tight...there is not a computer, it is just straight stitch with the reverse button and manipulating this fabric around the machine and I think that has helped me to have more eye hand coordination...”
He works with materials that are given to him or that he finds in unexpected places. “I sort of try to use the things that are around me. I had a studio for a couple years in Chicago. It was a store front space, so I had a little store front. And people realized in the neighborhood that, this guy uses fabric. So a little bolt of fabric, every now and then, would show up crammed in the doorway of the studio with no note, just here, use this. Some people then, through a couple years of showing your work, would realize, oh you make things with fabric. So these little things would trickle down [through] friends [and they] would give me stuff. I ended up having a bunch of ultra suede pieces...so like the paper cuts,... I made necklaces...and earrings; something that you could use. ...Maybe I will do it again, but then it just kind of passes on to someone else.”
The internet and social media is necessary for Mansmith. “It is a schedule or a pacing of yourself as an artist that you just kind of have to fall in sync with. I know some people hate documenting their work. They just make it and then no one sees it because you haven’t taken a photograph of it or showed it. Using the internet is such an amazing opportunity for artists because there is so many things you can do for free. When I first got the computer I tried to realize how I could use this to my full advantage and take every opportunity. You don’t have to show in a gallery but you could be showing on the internet and show to the whole world. I have fallen into a pattern of you make it [then post it]; and I guess I am really a hard ass on myself and I am disciplined in that. I often take photos of the in-progress shots, because as I am working, I think this is so beautiful. ...my intention is to inspire others...to show people that they can do it. Look what I am doing, and share that. A lot of people are afraid of people copying their work and I know that is a problem, maybe I am so naive, but I never worry. How can I worry about you copying exactly what I do, when this is from my heart? You won’t be able to copy it. Everything is one of a kind.”
Mansmith thinks, “… it’s a responsibility of an artist to show people. For me it is to share as much as I can. I am an artist because I love making things and I make with my heart and its joyful to me. I want to try and share with others as much as I can and to try to help you think of life in different ways, and how you can see life and see more beautiful things in life and not be so closed. Cause our society, even though it’s a free place, it seems a little closed sometimes.”
He creates because, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do it. It’s how I respond to the world. I go out and see things happening and how people are relating to each other and situations and life and the hustle and bustle. I guess my response to that is to come home and be quiet, not talk to anyone, and create this little bubble in this corner studio, and make something with my hands. I feel renewed and optimistic, and I feel taken away.”
Picking a favorite piece from his body of work is almost impossible. He thinks everything is connected and he is, “…not necessarily so satisfied with the work that I am doing right now. I would love to wholeheartedly throw myself into an amazing project. But I don’t know how to do that just yet, because, this is a new city and I am just really trying to live in the moment, and unfortunately trying [to] make money. [He is trying] to make smaller things but still try and make them special and... a little bit more accessible to people out there. I know people are struggling, it’s not just me, it’s this economy and all of that. It’s a struggle for everyone. So how can I still offer something that still is art, that’s a luxury, to so many people and they don’t have it in their lives. How can I offer it, just a little something, to brighten someones day. So that is sort of what I am having a dilemma with now.”
Mansmith has recently uprooted his life in Chicago with his boyfriend, Alexis, and moved to Seattle, Washington. “I am starting completely over. We are 6 months here now in, Seattle. We knew a friend of a friend, and we were introduced to a couple, but other than that we knew really no one. I am building everything from scratch. I came out to see the big trees. So it’s a challenge.”
You can find out more about Danny Mansmith at www.dannymansmith.wordpress.com or visit his store at www.dannymansmith.etsy.com.