Interview with Tess Murdoch by Julia Bass

JB- What does a studio day look like for you, are there any routines that get you into that headspace?

TM- I recently moved from Brooklyn to a small village in northern New York for a year-long artist residency so the last few weeks have been about setting up the beautiful loom here and studio. Since moving upstate, I have been doing much foraging and dyeing with people I love and that has been incredibly restorative. A big reason I am in this part of New York is access to abundant local flora, both invasive and native, to codify and dye with. 

I often wake up and go to sleep thinking about the current situation our country/world is in, has been in, and tend to project a lot into the future, which is really of no help to anyone. There are waves of grief that seem to roll in daily and I am still figuring out how best to remain grounded and of service to those around me. 

JB-The color in your work feels very seasonal, but I’m wondering what your relationship is to “seasons” of the fashion industry?

TM- I think on a subconscious level I am influenced by some widely-accepted seasonal color trends: warm tones for Fall; cooler, starker deep and pale shades for Winter, golds, and brights for Summer, more pastel-like, fresh hues for Spring...I think we all have palettes we gravitate towards that are inherited, some preferential, and some learned in response to our environments and cultures; for me, palettes seem to be shifting with time, what resources are available, moods, and the cyclical qualities of light. 

I am glad to see some designers, from big to small brands, turning away from producing four to six collections a year and committing to a slower pace of output. Most industries need not create anything new again, with the planet’s dwindling resources, it’s more crucial than ever to look at what we already have and reinterpret what those materials can offer. I think there are limitless possibilities within implementing alternative waste models and developing products using upcycled/repurposed/recycled materials; all we have to do is look to ancient indigenous knowledge systems to learn how best to steward our natural resources. 

JB-Ive been loving the idea that Fall is a time to figure out a “deep dive” for Winter. Are there some things you've been thinking about that might be your deep dive?

TM- The idea of fostering a quietly radical practice this Winter sounds pretty nice. Not sure what will be possible post-election, but I have been prepping for a very heady, research-driven kind of Winter offset by lots of painting, dyeing, and weaving. I have been meditating on this Ursula K. Le Guin sentiment, “All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them...we need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made for us by other people.” I think this time has shown me that it takes much mentorship, investigation, and deep learning (which absolutely need not be in a classroom) to foster an identity through madness. For gathering research and ideation, I have been using a digital platform called Are.na to organize thoughts and potential projects. The platform really enables me to sew threads of thought together into a usable, working quilt. I am all for DIY learning and building non-hierarchal academic camaraderies, so here’s to manifesting more of that this Winter.


JB-I know you spent some time on a ranch in Colorado, and now you’re based in New York City. Do you see these two places informing your work and are the sources of your materials connected to the place as well?

TM- I have been lucky enough to move around this country and live and work in very different places; learning so much from each experience and meeting beautiful people along the way, many of whom are now lifelong friends. I believe I absorb aspects of each town or city I live in, whether that be certain styles, colloquialisms, or even musical tastes; so the textures, techniques, and palettes around me do tend to inform what materials I use. For instance, I was lucky enough to source bolts of a rare Romanian hemp twill in Colorado from a man’s storage container on what was an old commune, (a bit of a long story), and that yardage ended up becoming the ground for each large-scale piece I would later make in grad school. I tend to ramble about, sometimes the influences in my work can be subtle, a kind of informed echo, but sometimes they are an obvious reflection of the world around me too.

JB- Textile is a very tactile and organic medium. Do you find yourself creating compositions in the painting tradition of the rectangle, or more like sculpture or somewhere in between?

TM- I gravitate towards planular compositions, collaging then sewing together dyed, woven, or knit textiles into altered states. The fabric, adhering to gravity but possesing its own drape and character, frequently wants to move beyond the two-dimensional plane and I am becoming less and less inclined to flatten it. In 1938, Anni Albers wrote, “We use materials to satisfy our practical needs and our spiritual ones as well.” She also used to say, and I am paraphrasing here, that one must listen to their materials for the materials will inform the artisan in how they should be used. I like to think about those lessons often. All that is to say, I have been slowly moving away from flat, rectangular painting traditions and investigating how the work might occupy space in more interesting ways.


JB-Do you feel that your training in traditional painting methods led you to certain sensibilities in your textile work?

TM- I never felt comfortable using oil paints, (although I still try to take them out once in awhile), or pursuing representational painting, they felt like muscles I was never able to fully build up and tone. I will say that certain lessons and sensibilities have stayed with me since undergrad; like learning to trust your materials/medium, embracing layering, encouraging transparencies and value play, as well as designing a balanced composition preliminarily that can later be abstracted in full...a different set of muscles I suppose! 

JB-Are there any books or films that you really connected with recently? 

TM- At this time of year, I often revisit Practical Magic and those kinds of movies...I have no shame in saying that haha; I believe a spoonful of nostalgia can be a welcome medicine. Mentally, I can only handle oscillating between documentaries and very, very nostalgic movies right now, but I never tire of watching Tarkovsky, Rohmer, Fellini, or something brilliantly hard to get through on Mubi.

I try to read several books at the same time; it helps me absorb the material by intensifying connections I wouldn’t normally make. I just finished Madeline Miller’s Circe, her prose is so gorgeous and it was a really nourishing read. I am currently reading, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals by the incredible Saidiya Hartman. In tandem, I’m reading, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Both books are extraordinary and are giving me much pause. 

JB-What are you excited about next? Where do you see your practice going?

TM- I would be lying if I said I don’t find myself overwhelmed by a mixture of fear, anxiety, and grief these days; it seems hard to plan for anything too far into the future. With that said, I am excited and grateful to be where I am, for the opportunity to pursue my craft in deeper ways than ever before, and to be creatively stimulated and nurtured by those in my orbit. Hoping for a safer, more humane, and equitable future for all.