You cannot deconstruct unless you know how to construct. - Alexander McQueen

Donna Rhae Marder’s Nonillusionist Drive permalink

Perhaps it makes sense that Donna Rhae Marder has never made wearable garments aside from Halloween costumes. Pieces from her “Paper, Scissors, Thread” collection seem to be tailored to fit phantoms, the shapes molded by all of the small disappointments of girlhood. “In 2001 I began working on a series of little girls’ dresses. These works are material manifestations of lost girlhood. They are physical expressions of small disappointments, like unfulfilled parental fantasies, and large tragedies, like lost and missing children. The poetic foundation for this work is poignant but not hopeless. Despite heartache and loss, we can recall the bright hope and promise of every child and retire our fantasies. Finally, I named the pieces for specific girls, though I could have probably named them all for my own little self.”

snapshot dress (for catherine) 2004 sewn photographs papers and buttons suze 4 dress.jpg
Marder’s “Snapshot Dress” (for Catherine), sewn photographs, papers and buttons size 4 dress

Formally educated as a painter, Marder didn’t feel that this was the right direction for her. After some experimentation stitching various materials onto her paintings or life drawings, she did a piece about quilt-making stitching together postage stamp-sized pieces of coat lining and window screens, achieving the goal of translucence. The time it took to do this prompted her to buy a sewing machine, and it quickly became clear that she was not a seamstress. Then came the fateful day when she passed a National Geographic map through the machine, setting her on a twenty year course of sculpting sewn paper. “My work has evolved over a lifetime. Some aspects have remained pretty constant. For the last twenty years I have worked out of my house. I fell into using a sewing machine as a sculptural tool and consider myself a sculptor. Even when pieces are designed for the wall I conceive of them as objects like quilts, not illusionist surfaces…Because of the way I work, the topic of homemaking is always part of my subject…Often the work is an homage to unending domestic chores and finiteness of life.”

donna marder oilcloth (Lace) dress for joanie 2003 sewn mexican oilcloth size 2 dress.jpg
Marder’s “Oilcloth Dress” (for Joanie), sewn Mexican oilcloth size 2 dress

twinings dress (for maddy) 2005 sewn teabag wrappers and buttons size 4 dress.jpg
Marder’s “Twinings Dress” (for Maddy), sewn teabag wrappers and buttons size 4 dress

donna marder flight map dress for julia 2--5 sewn maps various papers and acrylic size 10 dress.jpg
Marder’s “Flight Map Dress” (for Julia), sewn maps, various papers and acrylic size 10 dress

Marder’s creative process is time-intensive and can often be fueled by irritation. The construction process and materials used seems to be of the utmost importance in defining her work. She doesn’t follow any strict agenda, so as time marches on her finished creations have unavoidably changed shape from their starting point. Here she reflects on how her work in general has evolved: “Over time, my use of thread has become richer. I have moved from single strands of relatively neutral thread to double strands of brighter, variegated and metallic threads. The amount of piecing has increased with smaller and smaller bits of paper. I have also taken to recycling old work so you may see material that has been worked, reworked and re-reworked.”

donna marder stellita 2003 sewn mexican oilcloth and mylar size 2 dress.jpg
Marder’s “Stellita”, sewn Mexican oilcloth and mylar size 2 dress

donna marder the penultimate dress for kathy and viola sewn paper buttons and irridescent paint size 4 dress.jpg
Marder’s “The Penultimate Dress” (for Kathy and Viola), sewn paper, buttons and irridescent paint size 4 dress

donna marder the final dress (for jessica) 2006 sewn photgraphs, old buttons and various papers size 10 dress.jpg
Marder’s “The Final Dress” (for Jessica), sewn photographs, old buttons and various papers size 10 dress

In her “Photo Constructions” made between 2000 and 2002 Marder explored the question of how far apart fragments can be spread and still create a surface using webs and nets to fill voids. (I like to spin this question around our modern lifestyle.) How voids define shapes or space and how they can be filled to define life itself seems to be a large part of her work. “I like the way saved teabag wrappers, coffee filters or rejected photographs can be resurrected. And now that my reputation has made me the repository of stuff that other people couldn’t throw away, I am really racing against time.”

donna marder break it to me gently photographs space and thread.jpg
Marder’s “Break it to Me Gently”, photographs, space and thread

donna marder break it to me gently photographs space and thread detail.jpg
Marder’s “Break it to Me Gently”, photographs, space and thread, detail

The value of Marder’s sewn paper pieces goes beyond the gallery exhibition. Some are formed based on resurrected dress patterns from her past. The possibility of coming full circle and using cloth to translate them back into wearable garments is very tempting.

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11 Responses to “Donna Rhae Marder’s Nonillusionist Drive” 

  1. Donna Rhae Marder Says:

    Thanks Katie! Made my day.


  2. chris conway Says:

    This is a wonderful article on the why and how behind a unique sculptor’s work. Donna’s dresses are beautiful and evoke the fun and fantasy of childhood.

  3. chris conway Says:


  4. Polymer Clay Notes » sew what? Says:

    […] donna rhae marder uses her sewing machine as a sculptural tool. the charming little-girl-dresses below are fine examples of marder’s attention to detail and if you look a little closer, you will see that the material she sculpts is not fabric, but paper. marder’s splendid stitched paper sculptures boast social commentary and explore questions such as: how far apart can you spread fragments and still create a surface? see more of her dress series and read about the meaning behind marder’s art work here. […]

  5. laure Says:

    amazing !!!!! I’d like to see more details !!

  6. Sherry Chandler » Harry’s links Says:

    […] Donna and Rebecca, my queens of the needle, might love this knitted digestive system, though looking at the rectum I think some Preparation H might be in order. […]

  7. Sherry Chandler » Money Says:

    […] H/T Donna Rhae Marder. […]

  8. Barbra Holiday Says:

    I make it my business to look for fiber art, re-cycled art, for anyone who is unique and pushing the envelope (literly)
    What a great find!
    You are a inspiration to the trash artists of the world.
    Thank You for doing what you feel.

  9. Sherry Chandler » Blog Archive » Stuff # 11 Says:

    […] Thanks to Donna Rhae Marder […]

  10. » Blog Archive » Donna Rhae Marder’s Lace and Wire Teapots Says:

    […] For folks near Cambridge, MA, the Mobilia Gallery is showing “The Teapot Redefined 2010″ now until at least November 6th. Donna Rhae Marder’s sewn lace and wire teapots are included in this exhibit, which “explores the possibilities of the teapot form” using a variety of techniques and materials. […]

  11. I live in crawdaddy country | Sherry Chandler Says:

    […] Thanks to Donna Rhae Marder for 22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other Regional accents are a major part of what makes American English so interesting as a dialect. […]

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