Always on the hunt for new experiences as a fiber artist, MartyO (aka Marty Ornish) upcycles old, damaged and discarded textiles into wearable art and art quilts . Her work relies on intensive hand and machine stitching, making for a meditative art practice. While she begins each piece with a vision, MartyO improvises along the way, allowing her materials to guide her.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
I love to work with my hands to garden, fix things, and create. My mother and grandmother taught me to sew when I was young. I made doll clothes and then in high school made my own simple clothes. Most of my life I worked as a clinical social worker. When I was thirty-five, I matriculated to law school night classes. I passed the bar on my first try, and worked as a legal researcher for a Superior Court Judge. Later I was as an attorney in private practice. After I had our two sons, I became a full time mother.
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In my fifties, after my children started middle school, I realized I needed to either “reinvent” myself or return to work. It was around this time that I discovered art quilting, art guilds and wearable art. Initially, I enjoyed learning to free-motion sew, and making upcycled, embellished jackets for myself to wear. I wanted to make unique clothing. Because of the enthusiastic response from my friends, I began experimenting creating wearable art.
One of my first efforts was a dress made out of seven old, damaged quilts. It is gratifying to take a quilt ruined beyond repair (that has no historical value) and breathe new life into it by transforming it into wearable art. This alchemy became my artistic voice and led to my evolution as a full time artist. My greatest joy is in exhibiting my work in museums, exhibitions and quilt festivals. That permits me not only to travel the world, but to meet other artists and viewers.
Where inspires you to create?
Whenever I travel, I make it a point to visit local galleries, museums, and to see street art which are sources of inspiration. I am a voracious reader of fiction, non-fiction and art journals and books. My taste in art is eclectic, from the Old Masters to modern and surrealistic art and installations. I also take inspiration from the “Zen” and wabi sabi aesthetics of Japanese art and gardens.
Viewing fine art permits me to better appreciate the use of color, light, and composition. My work is best embodied by the old cliché, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” For example, a rusting sewing machine I found on the side of the road during a walk in Jamaica became the foundation for this assemblage:
As Andy Warhol saw beauty in Campbell’s Soup cans, I appreciate mundane objects like twist ties or old Kodachrome slides; in them I see new materials for my next project. (I haven’t started my twist tie or slide projects yet, but ideas are fermenting in my mind.) This 2015 Viewer’s Choice Award in Wearable Art for All Tied Up!, at the Pacific International Quilt Festival in Santa Clara, California, was created by serging thin strips of pieces of damaged, disintegrating quilts with the interlining cannibalized from men’s ties.
If you could live during a different artist movement, when would it be?
My husband on more than one occasion has told me that I was born in the wrong century. He teases me about my “bustle period,“ as I am drawn to fashion from other eras. Why not, for I made a 1920’s dress with a bustle, and I wear bustles with street clothing?
I would have felt at home in Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salon, immersed in the Parisian, vibrant, avant-garde art world around the turn of the 20th century, with the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Hemmingway (although I don’t speak French). There was such a vibrant international literature and art scene in Paris during the turn of the century when women had more freedom to express themselves creatively as compared to the limited roles for women in the US.
Why do you work with vintage and repurposed materials, and what is it you are trying to express?
I was raised to be thrifty — a mindset born out of necessity for my parents and grandmother during the depression era.
The “fast-fashion” industry is wasteful and uses considerable natural resources to produce short-lived garments, all of which takes an environmental toll in terms of pollution created in the process. The average person in the US discards seventy pounds of clothing annually. Moreover, fashion houses incinerate clothing they cannot sell, rather than donating it.
My comfort zone has always been wearing hand-me-downs; for example, my prom dress was one my mother made for herself in the 1950’s, and my wedding dress was a white dress purchased at a resale shop, for which I paid $50. I have always dressed “out of style,” and believe that you can cultivate your own style by dressing uniquely.
By using damaged, vintage textiles as my palette, transforming old textiles into new creations, and giving new life to thrift-store garments, it is my hope that this will inspire others to live a more sustainable lifestyle, without sacrificing self-expression or style in their fashion. In these inflationary times, in addition to being more ecologically “green,” this approach is also cost-effective.
What are your go-to sources for your materials?
I frequent thrift stores and yard sales with close friends for pleasure. We look for good quality linen, silk or cotton clothing. There is a thrill in the treasure hunt for previously expensive, high-quality pieces of designer clothing or quality accessories at bargain prices.
When I began sewing with vintage clothing, I thrifted for old linens and quilts as well, but have done little shopping since the pandemic. As I have become more known for upcycling, I am often gifted vintage textiles from which to create wearable art. I typically will live with these damaged, old textiles for several years before my muse will speak to me about how to best use them.
Other times, I know in a moment how best to use a vintage (or more contemporary) textile (e.g., when the original maker gifted to me a resplendent 1940’s yo-yo (Suffolk puff) quilt, after she attended one of my solo exhibitions).
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or improviser?
I generally have a vision in my head, and then the rest is improvisation. I rarely sketch, but enumerate a list of ideas that I keep pinned to my studio wall. When I am inspired by the right materials, only then will some of these ideas become manifested.
For wearable art, I typically begin by pinning and draping fabric over a dress form until the fabric “speaks to me” as to how it will best work as a garment, and improvisation takes over. I audition many other fabrics and trims on the base fabric until I have “ah-ha” moments. More often than not, the end result is at variance with what I initially envisioned the design to be. Rarely do I use patterns. My goal is to use a different construction process for every piece of wearable art I create, rather than simply creating variation on a theme. This is the challenge and keeps me engaged and excited about creating something fresh. Friends who drop by will offer their input, which I value since I typically work alone.
Do you have a dedicated space to make art?
I have a medium-sized bedroom that I converted into my studio, as well as a 2-car garage that houses my loom as well as innumerable bins of materials and supplies. So much I encounter I envision in future work. (My husband teases me that I am teetering on the edge of hoarding). I’m not OCD about maintaining my studio, but I strive to be meticulous in my construction.
My studio tends to be on the messy side, but reorganized between large projects. That said, I store buttons and other notions in clear large olive jars, while I keep materials and accessories (e.g., glue, seam binding) in labeled drawers. My thread is on a wall-mounted rack, and trims hang from several 10’-long rods along the wall. Lace trims are wrapped around folded old manila file folders and stored in a drawer.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Tools of the trade include a new large-throat sewing machine to which I recently upgraded. It is much easier to sew large, heavy items without cursing. I had intended to wait until my Husqvarna Designer 1 sewing machine broke (which has a 3.5” floppy drive), but I realized it might never become unserviceable. (Recall I was raised to waste nothing). Having a large throat machine to sew on saves me time and frustration, since I can maneuver fabric more easily under the needle.
I also rely on a cutting table, whose height and pitch are adjustable, and an ironing station. My jet-air-threading serger is also indispensable. Occasionally I will also sew with friends, since I have more than one sewing machine in my studio:
I have two quick release clamps over my sewing machine area that support the weight of the fabric away the needle plate — another lifesaver. And every artist’s studio needs a cat such as Mango.
I am fond of my tiny tools, such as a bodkin for pushing out corners, a hump-jumper for sewing over thick seams, an electric seam ripper for deconstructing old clothing to reuse, and a sewing machine needle holder to make sure I insert the needle correctly. I use wax paper a lot to help reduce the friction of cloth when seaming multiple layers of fabrics. Lastly, I am a huge fan of my Teflon, rolling and zipper feet. I use these in unconventional ways and to solve many problems sewing on tricky fabrics.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t sketch unless required to do so for an exhibition. When traveling, I jot notes when I see things that inspire me, but later have difficulty deciphering my journals. I have files of pages ripped out of magazines and art journals that I review periodically for ideas. I keep an oversized homemade calendar in my studio, which I use to track upcoming exhibitions to which I’ve applied and been accepted. In addition, I keep a list of ideas taped to my door, and my calendar and lists keep me organized.
What plays in the background while you work?
Often my art studio is silent. I talk to myself when sewing, to solve problems or express whatever I am feeling as I sew. I once had a small sign saying “breathe” by my machine to remind me not to hold my breath while sewing. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was working on a solo exhibition with a looming deadline, I began binge-watching TV series and movies that didn’t have complicated plots. If I need energy, sometimes I crank up 1960’s rock ‘n roll, or Gypsy punk music such as Gogol Bordello. If I want something more meditative, I’ll listen to Tuvan throat singers from Tannu Tuva. (Traveling to Tannu Tuva, which borders Mongolia and Russia, is on my bucket list).
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually have at least three projects concurrently. Each project requires approximately three months to complete. If I feel stuck on one project, I move to another so I use my time efficiently. Often I find by the time I circle back, I’m unstuck.
I have dress forms in my studio (bought at thrift shops or on Craigslist) with projects at various stages of completion. For my art quilts, I use a design wall. I work best under deadlines, since they keep me focused, for without a deadline I’m less productive.
While the design stage is slow, the middle phase can go quickly. The finishing details are always excruciatingly more time consuming than I imagined, since my work is handwork intensive, for I love adding small, often hidden details to surprise and reward people who look closely at my work.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come to be?
The Oceanside Museum of Art in Oceanside, California, invited me to enter a garment with an avant-guard theme for their fashion fundraiser. Since my work to date did not fit this category, I welcomed the challenge. Because the invitation was during the coronavirus lockdown, I was limited to using materials from my “pack-rat” collection. I remembered I had a discarded vinyl poster advertisement for a jeans company that had been salvaged by a friend who knew of my proclivities to transform the ordinary into art. I had used the back of the poster as a drop cloth for painting projects; fortunately, the front of the poster was unmarred.
I initially experimented with using the vinyl poster to create sculptural forms that could be worn on a runway, but the vinyl was too stiff to sculpt. I loved the huge face on the advertisement, but also wanted to disguise it and make it more surreal. My aha moment occurred when I realized I could cut the face into vertical strips, and then reposition the strips to create a cubist-like face with three eyes and three noses – quite fun to play with.
Next, I had to figure out how to make the stiff fabric comfortable and more cloth-like. So using my serger, I added a denim-colored fabric as the lining. I further added ripped, shredded and washed strips of blue jeans to the edges of a cape that I constructed out of the remaining vinyl poster.
Then, I cut off and braided the flat felled seams on the jeans. Then I stacked them up and sewed them together into a wide-neckpiece (or crown, depending on the wearer’s preference). The resulting garment was a zero-waste design. As usual, I worked with no pattern or sketch, but let the textile guide me in the creation process.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
That’s a great question, for I think it is both. While some artists have an inborn talent (e.g., Van Gogh, Picasso), I also believe children are born curious and creative. Much of this is stifled in the name of conformity as we are socialized. One can nurture creativity, for example, by letting children be messy, have unstructured play time, and time to daydream rather than structuring every minute of their day. Creativity can flow from boredom if parents would check their impulse to relieve a child’s boredom with screen time, but instead provide creative outlets such as sewing, drawing or free play time.
As an adult, to reconnect with that natural curiosity and childlike wonder, we need to allow ourselves time to daydream and be messy and playful. I am grateful for having been raised by a mother who encouraged me to be messy.
Moreover, exposing oneself to a wide variety of art through museums, on-line videos and websites and art classes as a matter of habit will help to develop your creative side and be a source of ideas. Carving out time to take artistic risks, even if it results in “bad” art, is essential to one’s development as an artist. Failing spectacularly can be great fun — if you can maintain your sense of humor.
Be willing to look at the world from a new perspective. It was Marcel Duchamp who looked at a porcelain urinal and saw a sculpture, and Allan Kaprow who created “concrete art” out of everyday perishable materials changed the very definition of art. For Kaprow, “art” was no longer an object to be viewed hanging on a wall or set on a pedestal; rather, it could now be anything at all. States Kaprow, “The everyday world is the most astonishing inspiration conceivable. A walk down 14th Street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art.”
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
When I feel I have mastered a technique or finished a series, I look for something artistically new that will challenge me creatively. Since I collect lots of odd things, I have been creating jewelry and sculpture/assemblages that defy categorization.
Primarily I use broken sewing machines and sewing notions and other sewing machine parts, as well as adding doll parts to my wearable art and art quilts. I still gravitate to textiles, and want my work to have a strong message. I find I am using more hidden and 3-D objects, as well as lighting, in my recent work.
For example, my most recent solo exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art represented a fork in my evolution as an artist. I transitioned from creating beautiful wearable art ensembles and art quilts out of worn, deconstructed and reconstructed patchwork quilts to using this medium, along with embellished objects of domestic life, for commentary on the stereotypic, disempowering and repressive roles projected onto women in our society over the last century.
I examined the 20th century’s changes in women’s roles and cultural mores ushered in by women’s suffrage in 1919, the Social Security Act in 1935 and “the Pill” in 1961. Themes included the satirizing of the mid-century idealized “Leave it to Beaver“ homemaker role and white picket fence fantasy, the feelings of invisibility all too common in women and the double standard of our culture’s expectation that women be chaste before marriage. Yet men had bragging rights for their “conquests”. My work further explored the creation of art as an avenue to healing from trauma. The erosion of women’s reproductive and voting rights, made most poignant by the recent laws passed in Texas, triggered this new direction.
This intimate wearable art ensemble, A_Dressing Shame, shown below in the gallery at the Oceanside Museum of Art, speaks to insights gained during my 8-hour MDMA-augmented psychotherapy session. Family secrets, boundary violations, and shame are revealed on this graffiti-written wedding gown—a medium for continued healing.
What is on your “someday” creative wish list?
I hope to have the opportunity to exhibit at WOW — the World of Wearable Art — in Wellington, New Zealand. WOW is the ultimate venue for wearable art. I would also love the opportunity to do installation art in a museum, for which I would create a large piece.
Tell us about your website, and what do you hope people will gain by visiting?
One hope is that through my work people will become more interested in repurposing what they already have in their closets rather than consuming — to be kinder to our planet. I hope my work will encourage others to buy less, and when they do purchase clothing, to buy enduring quality rather than quantity. I hope others can take the “red pill” and step out of the allure of cheap, affordable fast-fashion, especially since the stitchers in other countries are economically exploited and work in sweatshops. My hope is people will feel inspired by seeing my wearable art made out of damaged textiles and be inspired to upcycle their own clothes, create their own sense of style and take some fashion risks.
Learn more about Marty and her work:
Marty’s website www.marty-o.com
Marty’s books can be purchased on her website
You’ll also find a menu of live and remote lectures, workshops, classes and trunk shows.
Follow Marty on Facebook
Follow Marty on Instagram
Interview posted March 2022
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