In honour of current Art Gallery of Mississauga fibre art exhibition F’d Up! the AGM has invited Sarah Liss, author of Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro, to write a guest post on the AGM blog about activist and fibre artist Will Munro. Sarah will give a talk about Will Munro at the AGM on Thursday, November 7, 7 pm. RSVP on Facebook or on Eventbrite.
From the time he was a kid, a well-behaved Alex P. Keaton wannabe with a yen for sweater vests, Will Munro liked needlework. When he was growing up in the placid suburbia of Meadowvale in the ’80s, he happily became a Boy Scout—and not just any Boy Scout, but a super-high-achieving one—not because he liked campfires and orienteering, but because scouting offered him the opportunity to mark his achievements by sewing badge after badge after badge on his sash. A childhood pal recalled that Will was easy to spot at community picnics—where his peers had a handful of badges, “Will literally had no room on his big red sash for even one more single badge. He must have had 150 all up—I was quite certain they would start sewing his next row on his forehead.” By the time he was 14, Will was a Queen’s Scout, the title given to the ambitious few who manage to collect every badge there is to collect; according to his mother, he was the youngest candidate to receive such an honour. Years later, as a member of the West Side Stitches Couture Club, an utterly fabulous craft circle–cum–social gathering, Will would have another occasion to express his sash-love in all its glory, though badges didn’t factor in quite as heavily. Instead, he and his co-sewers drew names from a hat and made beauty pageant–style banners for one another, tailoring categories—World’s Biggest Sissy; Hottest Punk Queen—to their chosen subjects, who’d wear those sashes with pride.
Well before those sash bashes, though, Will was working with fibres. In his tweens, given the assignment of looking after an object (a variation on the classic floursack-baby sex-ed project), he stitched together a stuffed frog, and photographed it in de facto dioramas all over his house. The resulting images—a misshapen beanbag slumped atop a toilet tank, or cuddled up beside a West Highland Terrier—are weird, wonderful, and intentionally hilarious. According to his mother, Margaret, Will’s skill with a needle and thread was hereditary: “My grandfather on my mother’s side had been injured in the war, and he did some amazing needlework,” she said. “He did samplers—one was a rose, in really thick embroidery. It was just really beautiful.” When she saw Will’s work, she said, she was struck by the similarity.
As an adult, Will’s fibre-art work mixed the decorative and the sculptural, but there was always a sense of play—a cheeky wink—in everything he did. He made his name while still a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (then still OCA), when, in 1997, his thesis project, on display at the Nora Vaughn Gallery in downtown Toronto, became the target of conservative pundit Michael Coren’s ire. The offending exhibit was composed of dozens, maybe hundreds of pairs of white Y-front boys’ underwear, sewn together and formed into a massive architectural installation in the space. On air and in print, Coren raged against what he deemed “child pornography” (disregarding the fact that Will was barely out of his teens at the time); in the process, he gave the then up-and-coming art-school student a bonanza of free press and, ultimately, helped establish Will Munro as a provocative talent to watch.
Underwear became a go-to medium for Will. He went on to create dazzling reconstructed briefs—like Underoos for adults—out of reclaimed and recycled concert T-shirts, sequins, bric-a-brac and more, designing undergarments that demanded to be put on display. By tailoring these items to a host of bodies and genders, he also infused every piece with a clear political message: To put on a pair of Will Munro’s y-fronts was to participate in a statement about liberation.
Liberation was also a theme in Will’s more delicate handcrafts. Through sewing circles, quilting bees, and embroidery projects, he lived out the feminist principles that were key to both his ideology and his art with every French knot and appliqued decoration. For 2004’s “The Pavilion of Virginia Puff-Paint,” created in collaboration with the Toronto artist and designer Jeremy Laing, he gathered together lace, pearls, velvet, even nylons—materials beloved of the blue-haired set—and repurposed them as part of a delightfully twisted installation-slash-performance piece that became a book and DVD. From the statement that accompanied the book: “Peer through the glory hole into The Pavilion of Virginia Puff-Paint, porn superstar of the glittery craft underworld. Watch as this insatiably versatile vision of hand-stitched poly-sexuality tickles multiple lacy orifices with detachable foam-stuffed spandex cocks in a heavily embellished and much anticipated triple crossed-stitch debut release.”
That combo of perversity and craft was evident in Will’s work right up until the end of his life. His final show, “Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy,” which ran from February 26 to March 27, 2010, featured a host of handiwork—work that was made all the more remarkable because Will was painstakingly stitching and knotting, through sweats and pain, while living through a debilitating illness. As a whole, the show is stunning, merging themes of Egyptian spirituality (a subject that fascinated Will when he was working to come to terms with his own death) and subversive gay male sexuality (a subject that delighted Will throughout his life). But it’s the most homespun elements—macramé holders for a collection of spider plants, a cozy afghan adapted into a sturdy sex sling—that send a real jolt through your heart.
Thank you to Sarah Liss for this post!
Book your free ticket to Book It! Sarah Liss at bookitliss.eventbrite.ca..
F’d Up! is on view at the AGM until November 9. The AGM is Fibre’d Up as contemporary directions in fibre-based art create a radical vocabulary around material invention and sculptural ambitions.
For more information: artgalleryofmississauga.com