In the Studio with John Paul Morabito

John Paul Morabito engages queerness, ethnicity, and the sacred through the medium of tapestry reimagined in the digital age. We met with John to tell us more about being a weaver, growing up in New York, and inspirations behind the textile medium.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

The role of an artist, I believe, is to bear witness to and reflect humanity, to make meaning for a public. Doing so requires both vulnerable introspection and the capacity to extend vision beyond the self. I have lived a creative life for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until some-time after graduate school that I was able to trust myself enough to be authentic in that particular way. Yet, I also believe our work as artists requires us to be in an ever-present state of becoming. So, ask me this again in 10 years and perhaps I’ll point to some yet-to-be event. I am an artist and because of that, I am becoming an artist.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up in the New York Italian third culture. While my family has been in the United States for three generations, we have stubbornly refused to let go of our ethnicity. Persistent, multi-generational immigrant identities are oddly American. In a strange way, the xenophobia and immigration paranoia written into the fabric of the United States has created the conditions (and need) for certain ethnic groups to maintain cultural identity. I’m not conflating my experience with that of more recent immigrants or BIPOC folks, but my ethnicity is distinct and deeply impacts my artistic practice. Family belonging was and is central. My Queerness creates a liminal partiality that places me within and outside of this particular group identity. Navigating that has become a central strategy in my making. The Italian people, whether religious or not, are Catholic.  As a Queer person, this particular cultural legacy is deeply ostracizing. I am working aesthetically to respond to the seemingly antagonistic encounter of Queer space and sacred space. The Catholic Imagination, as manifested by Italian American immigrants, creates an aesthetic landscape defined by tacky opulence. I think often of the parallels between my grandmother’s living-room recreation of the Vatican and the exaggerated glamor of a drag queen. This is the aesthetic sensibility I am working with; it is ethnic and sacred, and decadently Queer. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

When I was still a scrappy Queer kid in high school my teacher, Barbara Allen taught me to weave. Something sparked, and I’ve been bound to the loom ever since. I studied Fiber at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where I did my BFA. Afterwards, I returned to New York and began my career working as a designer in the Suzanne Tick Design Studio. At Tick Studio, the textile was a platform to consider new possibilities for materiality, design, and application. During my time there we had a partnership with KnollTextiles, and developed textile products for architecture and public interiors. As the studio weaver, I was tasked with pushing weaving beyond pattern and into the realm of material development. I would design live, moving between the computer and handloom to invent woven constructions. This speculative weaving engendered highly specialized knowledge that I continue to draw upon today. The five years I worked in industry were foundational and certainly as impactful as my formal education. In 2011, I left the design industry to reorient my path towards art making and academics. I relocated to Chicago to pursue my graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I currently hold an academic appointment. 

What’s the message of your work?

With sincere blasphemy, I employ the fallen glory of tapestry to reorient the holy image within Queer cosmology, temporality, and history. My materials – cotton, wool, synthetic gold, and digital matter – are at once exquisite and contrived, further reflecting the irresolute tensions between Queerness, ethnicity, and the sacred. New worlds are imagined where no resolutions can be made.

My work employs exquisite craft and visual decadence to mirror the sincerity of faith with Queer sensibility. In my current project, Magnificat, I remediate Italian Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child into digitally woven tapestries. With Magnificat, I draw upon the work of the great masters to complicate, infiltrate, and reclaim my cultural legacy. As the Queer child of an Italian American immigrant family, the Italian Renaissance is a heritage that represents an orthodoxy from which I have been ostracized. Italian people have been Catholic for 2000 years; it is a bond I cannot and will not deny. Responding aesthetically, I activate divested allusions to Catholic opulence within the woven image and extend it beyond the picture plane. Magnificat engages a Queer relationship with time, one that sees the future horizon through a Queer (re)imagining of the past in the present.

Who and what are your greatest influences?

Navigating the pandemic, I find myself thinking of Félix González-Torres. During the horror that was the AIDS crisis, González-Torres bore witness to our Queer humanity. He spun grace and desire into an inseparable form, redirecting the essential carnality of Catholicism into coded representations of the personal and body politic. This is a disruption of the anglo-protestant secularity which dominates contemporary art. I see his work as a Queer and ethnic tangent in which Catholic sensibilities are manifested within conceptual art strategies. As a Queer, Catholic artist working a generation later, my weaving might act as an anachronistic, adjacency that draws sensibilities of Queer conceptual art into the realm of craft.

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

In a subversion of the classic relationship between weavers and painters, I employ Renaissance paintings as cartoons that I render faithlessly. This rests on mediated improvisation. In my weaving, mediation becomes immediate through submission to the systematic limitations of the loom, once there I can work freely. In her writing on tapestry, Anni Albers advocates for immediacy in weaving, “it is artwork; and, as in other plastic arts, it demands the most direct – that is the least impeded – response of material and technique to the hand of the maker, the one who here transforms matter into meaning.” I employ this approach as a strategy to produce woven live-form. Scholar Jenni Sorkin describes live-form as the artist’s body producing an immediate form in real time. To realize this at the loom, I engage an oxymoronic union that merges the predictable logic of digital weaving with improvisational making. Introducing the mixture of colorful threads live at the loom, I actively mutate the painting into an image that recalls its origin even as it becomes something new. That duality creates the opportunity for anachronism. My woven images waver between the ancient and the modern. They are retrograde and latter-day, decadent and pious, holy and blasphemous.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise? How has your art evolved?

I am defiantly a weaver. My stubborn devotion to the loom is a deliberate engagement with paradoxical specificity. Weaving is a transdisciplinary wholism that encompasses vast domains within a singular methodology. I imagine this as a kind of radical specificity in which focus offers expansive vision. As a weaver, I must contend with the visuality of a woven surface, the architecture of cloth, and the technology of the loom. If weaving is transdisciplinary, then I am a transdisciplinary weaver. My research, making, and pedagogy consider form-making through the mediated interface of the loom. I explore this through the transmutation of painted, drawn, and photographic images into textile matter. Mine is a hybrid practice integrating the hand and technology in the production of Queer tapestries, video, and live work. I understand the textile as a medium and conceptual apparatus through which ideas embody multiplicity. Historically, weaving has been positioned as adjacent to but outside of art. This, in my understanding, is a Queer orientation.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I am only interested in making work with meaning. However, meaning is not necessarily monolithic. Improvisational making lends an unpredictability to the form that produces a subsequent elasticity of meaning. I’ve learned to trust that my aesthetic sensibilities will inflect conceptual and political intentionality upon the work. Centering sensibility creates an ambiguity that makes space for many perspectives. I don’t want to tell viewers what to think, I want them to consider the dialectics. Any resulting ruptures or divergences are themselves catalysts for meaning that reflect the encounter of different positionalities. While the didactic might have its place, it certainly doesn’t engage me. I’m not interested in making work that relies upon or maintains a singular interpretation. Rather, I’m motivated by the slippages and multiplicities of meaning.

What are your goals for the future? 

Before 2020 closes, I want to hang an exhibition of my woven remediations of Raphael’s paintings. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino died on April 6, 1520 from an infectious disease. In 2020, the Vatican commemorated the 500th anniversary of his death with exhibitions, festivals, and the hanging of the Raphael Tapestries in the Sistine Chapel. There is a dark poetry that celebrations of his work are happening during a pandemic. Raphael was 37 when he died, the age I am at the time of this writing; I find further dark poetics in that. Amidst the pandemic and shifting shutdowns, a physical exhibition of my Raphael tapestries might not materialize in time, in which case, I’ll happily make a Queer, asynchronous response. In the meantime, digital experiences are fully possible. I’m currently researching virtual platforms and methods to digitally transform the Sistine Chapel into an opulent temple to the glory of a Techno-Mary. 

How have you been keeping creative during isolation?

For a number of years my making has relied on access to the digital jacquard looms where I teach. The COVID-19 summer has interrupted any regularity with which I can access these tools necessitating new directions. In response, I have reintegrated the floor loom as a central tool of the practice. At the loom color, materiality, and decadence are vocabularies through which I can urge plectogenic abstraction towards Queer form. As an artist, it is my responsibility to bear witness to the humanity of contemporary experience through my making. This must be filtered through the context of the immediate moment; a pandemic-induced global shut-down. Time feels unbound as temporalities bleed into one another. I write these words as a Queer, Non-binary, Gay person born during the early years of the AIDS crisis. While I was too young to have been on the front lines, I came of age and into my Queerness in the shadow of a plague. Since the 80’s, HIV and AIDS have defined Queer life (we are still within the epidemic). While there are important differences between the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 crisis, there are powerful parallels that Queer people feel viscerally. These parallels are driving my making and thinking right now. I want to bear witness to the Queer humanity of this moment.

We’d love to know your favourite book, song/album to work to?

I’ve never been one for superlatives, but there are constants, of course. Of late, I haven’t been able to get Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) out of my head. And Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody might just be the truest sound of joy. 

If we could transport you to one place where would it be?

There are many places in the world I would love to experience, but if there is one place I always wish I could be, it’s New York. I’d return in a heartbeat, even amidst the roiling chaos of the pandemic. Part of me never left.


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