Walk the Line: MFA Jack Michael Weaves Large-Scale, Trans-National Installation on U.S. Mexico Border

Posted On June 28, 2018

This past Monday, Ernest G. Welch MFA Jack Michael woke up in Bisbee, Arizona, drove to Douglas, AZ, and then crossed into Agua Prieta, a city in Sonora on the U.S.-Mexico border. There, she laid out her materials and began weaving. In and out of the corroded border fence, her hands guided the soft, earth-colored fiber. Her gestures were inherently meditative and the work invited participation of onlookers. The sun beat down and her boots kicked up dust as she moved down the barrier that separates the two countries. Her expedition there took months of research and preparation, but her artwork had to be immediate and intuitive, set into motion the moment she got legal clearance. Visible to both sides of the border fence, this was her first trans-national installation.

An Atlanta-based artist, Michael has been working in the Southwest this summer for a month-long residency with Central School Project (CSP), a nonprofit arts and cultural center in the Sonoran Desert. To get there, she rode 2780 miles on a solo bike expedition, cross country, camping and taking in the landscape along the way. Since her arrival, she has run copperplate etching workshops, given an artist talk, and exhibited work at the Ida Power Gallery, made in response to the land and “the conflicting dynamics of natural and manmade systems on the Mexican border.”

Michael’s plans were to make the woven work on the border a symbol, to let the fence serve as a large loom. The soft, threaded tapestry, would be contrasted against the rusted, metal slats of the current barrier, recently the subject of much conversation. In a recent interview with VoyageATL, she has explained her recent focus on incorporating textile materials and processes into her work: “I’m inspired by the labor intensity, gendered history, tactile intimacy, and meditative nature of weaving…but also its ties to Industrial Revolution history and the subsequent über-capitalist invasion of the American economy, psyche, and natural environment.” This has even more significance in a location that straddles two cultures of historied textile traditions and similar ecologies and industries, if not economies.

Border lines have always been a subject and place of civil, political, and societal discourse, from ancient migration to the forming of nations to the division of lands and cultures. Leaders cross borders to sign treaties, immigrants cross borders in pursuit of a different life, and both mechanisms of defense and invitations of freedom are stationed on these national lines. As preoccupied as contemporary and historical society has always been with these lines of geographical division, what is natural to our earth has always existed outside of these fixed and guarded boundaries, thriving and spreading freely. Marine life crosses seas, species fly south & north with the seasons, and seeds of plant life travel airborne without limitations. But what happens when the mechanisms of defense, division, and nationalism affect the wildlife and environment we have drawn a dividing line across? Georgia State MFA Jack Michael is asking that question and sparking a new kind of discourse.

Jack Michael joined the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design as a printmaker, but she works fluidly in painting, installations, sculpture, and textiles as well. She has a family lineage of textile factory workers and a mother who quilted. She incorporates all of this media into her work. She has a keen sense of place and material and the conversation those can spark when poised in dialogue.

Through the work she has produced at the residency, she is raising awareness for the impact an impermeable border wall between the U.S. and Mexico—currently up for vote in congress—would have on the wildlife and natural habitats in the area. Her printmaking series which coincides with her border weaving, are comprised of handpainted & sewn copperplate etchings, blind embossings, and sandpaper paintings that “explore the tension of one ecosystem stretched across two nations.”

In addition to the impact of the proposed wall, she has been learning the effects mining has had on a town founded for its copper. She has been researching the history and dynamics of the local mining industry as she created her copperplate etchings and works embedded with copper leafing. Michael is acutely aware of the significance material can play in a piece. Much of her work all made use of natural and gathered pigments found in the local landscape of Bisbee. Her grandest efforts to respond to the land and local dynamics culminated with her border installation,  taking into account the adjacent and closely-related towns on either side of the national dividing line.

To avoid conflict and ensure execution of the project in a location of high security, she reached out to the U.S. Border Patrol. When they respectfully declined her proposal to create the project state-side, she turned to the Border Arts Corridor, a local organization “dedicated to cultivating arts and cultural programming that explores the complexities of the borderlands so that social borders will fall and bridges materialize.” Despite her efforts, and because the installation wrapped around what is considered “no man’s land,” she had to deinstall the work after its completion. The remnants of project will travel on however, and be in an exhibit at the cultural center in Agua Prieta.

Though ephemeral, the work in just a few days has already been covered by the Sierra Vista Herald and Jack Michael was interview by Univision TV, the largest national, American Spanish-language broadcast television network. On air, Michael explained her vision and alternative border solution that she hopes her work will inspire: “a permeable border that works in harmony with the Sonoran environment, simultaneously protecting these precious ecosystems and employing out-of-work Americans to secure our shared border with Mexico in a way that supports neighborly trade and humanitarian relations, and saves taxpayer money.”

Jack Michael is the founder of Lucky Hand Press, the former Gallery Director and founder of Paper Plane Gallery, a member of Atlanta Printmakers Studio, a Luminary Award nominee, and the recent co-curator of the exhibition, “Pulp Reality,” at Notch8 in Atlanta. But through a short lifetime of many hats and all kinds of trades, Jack Michael has become a connector and collaborator whose experience in both urban and rural, left and right environments has made her a great empathizer and communicator. We at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design are excited to see how she will continue to spark conversation during her final two years of the graduate program.


All images courtesy of the artist. For press, contact Ernest G. Welch Public Relations Coordinator, Jac Kuntz, at jkuntz@gsu.edu.