Lea Redmond is always looking for the poem hiding inside things: a salt shaker, a clothes tag, a hand gesture, a cloud. She is infinitely intrigued by the way experiences can slip from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and she endeavors to make things that hold this possibility. Lea crafts objects, writes books, and plays with ideas. See what she’s making at her online shop LeafcutterDesigns.com.
Odyssey Works: Why create experiences?
Lea Redmond: All of us are always already creating experiences, artists and non-artists alike. It’s not really a choice. Works of art (or bowls of soup at home) never exist in a vacuum; there is always a larger field: a museum, a park, a town, a farm, the amount of sunshine that day, a lifetime of memories, a mood, a dining room table, what we think to ourselves or say to each other in the moment of encounter. We can acknowledge this fact—listen to it, work with it, play with it—or we can neglect it. When we’re blind to the always experiential nature of everything we make and do, we eclipse possibility and our work is impoverished. We might still make something interesting, even wonderful, but we will have stopped short. I believe the world—and each of us in all our particularity—longs for artful experiences. We need them to help us become the best, most beautiful versions of ourselves that we can be. We cannot afford to stop short. It’s too sad.
OW: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WITH YOUR WORK?
LR: The heart of my work is to explore and offer new ways of being in the world, ones that I believe in and can get behind with all my heart. Specifically, this means cultivating playfulness, creativity, non-violence, and radical thoughtfulness. I do it for myself, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me. I hope to reveal that which is always right under our nose, seemingly out of reach, yet concretely accessible if we pay close attention: gorgeous clouds, ants on the sidewalk, a kindness from a friend or stranger. I’m pretty sure that any experience that changes us involves a particular kind of intimacy, one in which we are so close to something strange that we are prompted to make sense of it and thus expand our sense of what we can think, feel, do and be.
My devotion to experience design is coupled with my lifelong love of tangibility—of the marvelous materiality of life. So, in a way, I do indeed focus on objects, but always as nodes in a larger web of relations. It’s always object plus activity, object plus human being, object plus ecology. I offer a few examples.
For my Knit The Sky project, hundreds of people around the world are making the “sky scarf” knitting pattern that I designed and released as a free download on my website. The obvious object-ness of this is of course the yarn and needles, but the true world of the experience includes clouds, windows, eyes, 365 days of observation. It even includes the storytelling that happens after the scarf is done and the knitter is wearing it around town.
With A Pencil In My Pocket was a participatory adventure in which 150 people each received one colored pencil per month for 20 months. Each pencil had a unique hue and an unusual name, such as mahogany or fortune cookies. Each month, we all set out to have some sort of small adventure inspired by our color, which we wrote about in a journal (in the corresponding color of course). I scanned these entries and posted them online for us all to enjoy.
My last example goes with the image to the left. I perform “tangibles” for one guest at a time, oftentimes involving small, everyday objects. Tangibles are sort of what you get if you combine the aesthetic of a magic trick with the intention of a poem. In one of these, entitled Saltwork, grains of salt become stars and piles of salt become an opportunity to contemplate the scale of the universe. I compose Braille phrases with grains of salt. My guest gets to hold a single grain on her fingertip while thinking about our Sun. We gaze through a saltshaker cap as if it were a tiny planetarium. The experience is hopefully a fascinating delight. But even more than that, I hope that it resonates deeply enough with my guest that they might never encounter salt the same way again. This connection to the future—to thoughtfully following things out—is essential.
"I never set out to avoid the art world, but I just barely dip my toes into it. I prefer to find my audience on the street, in cafés, in knitting shops, in my online shop, in the folks who buy my books in bookstores."
OW: How do you understand your audience?
LR: I always assume that my audience is anyone and everyone. I acknowledge that there is an important place for more esoteric forms of art and inquiry. I think we need it all. But my favorite way to work is making things that are accessible to pretty much anyone because the only prerequisite is that he or she is a human being. Since my focus is on everyday life and infusing it with creativity and thoughtfulness, it’s potentially relevant for anyone who cares to connect with me. I never set out to avoid the art world, but I just barely dip my toes into it. I prefer to find my audience on the street, in cafés, in knitting shops, in my online shop, in the folks who buy my books in bookstores.
OW: What led you to your current approach to art-making? (What led you to start breaking traditional molds?)
LR: I didn’t go to art school. And I didn’t major in art. At my little liberal arts college I studied continental philosophy, cultural theory and environmental studies. I wanted to learn about the world, how things work, why we do what we do. So combine that with the love of making that I cultivated since I was a wee one, and it only made perfect sense that my college copies of Discipline and Punish and Walden had art ideas scribbled in the margins. For both better and worse, I am not good at compartmentalization. So my love for making and my love of ideas inevitably collapsed into one love.
OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?
LR: My grandmother was a collector—of teacups, tiny ceramic sheep, Asian cabinets and Eames furniture. She taught me to knit when I was seven, essentially showing me that it is a joy to make beautiful things and give them to others.
As a child, my family spent weekends wandering beaches and snorkeling through towers of kelp in the Channel Islands off of the southern California coast. My father would scuba dive, drawing up natural treasures from the sea floor. He would surface and hand me a beautiful sea urchin shell, wordlessly, before having a chance to remove his mouthpiece. This silently said: “Isn’t this beautiful world worth caring for?”
OW: We often struggle with categorizing our work. It can feel at once limiting and necessary in order to help others understand what we do. How do you categorize yourself? Is it within a new genre, or do you locate it within a particular tradition?
LR: To help others understand what I do—and so they can decide if they want to participate—I typically toss out a bunch of accessible terms referring to familiar things. For my “tangibles,” I say it’s like a magic trick plus a tea party plus a poem plus a teeny tiny ballet with saltshakers and seashells instead of ballerinas. For my Knit The Sky project, I talk about combining knitting with adventure, or journaling with knitting needles. I use categories less like buckets and more like tags, lightly tossing them around however seems helpful. In terms of categorizing myself, I feel no need. When people ask me, “What do you do?” I typically say something like: “I love to make things that invite people to be playful, creative, and thoughtful in their daily lives.”