While sitting and waiting to have tea with Xenobia Bailey, the phrase, ‘Angels Don’t Wear Watches’ , suddenly skittered across my mind. Not that I minded waiting for Xenobia. She had suggested a place in upper Manhattan, named Settepani (http://www.settepani.com/) that was a perfect setting for a late afternoon meet-up. I ordered a pot of tea, dragged out some subway knitting (projects so simple you can whip them up on the train) and proceeded to be content. Sure enough, a few minutes into the sitting, she turned up wearing one of her own creations. – a calm colored jumper which was livened up by a few discreet beads at the neckline- but no watch. She explained that she never wore one since they have a tendency to go wonky on her.
Those of us who have met (or googled) her are aware of the outline of Xenobia’s history: Born and raised in Seattle Washington, her discovery of her creative “voice” came in increments. She attended the University of Washington, but a more authentic artistic influence came through her work with a local theatre group as a costume designer. When a colleague suggested she investigate Pratt Institute, she took the suggestion to heart, applied and was accepted. At Pratt she received her BA in Industrial Design, but, ultimately, that environment was not to be the forum for her creativity. Driven by a need to express and support herself through her art , she continued to explore. As a result of a serendipitous meeting with a crochet artist, she learned the myriad possibilities for expression inherent in the craft and started producing wearable art in the form of hats, jumpers and dresses.
Thanks to selling her work at craft and fiber fairs – and wearing her own designs on the street – it wasn’t long before her conceptual hats were noticed and picked up on by magazines and costume designers. Coverage in Elle Magazine and the New York Times led to work on three Spike Lee films, the Cosby Show and Another World, where her mythic inspired creations branded her work as Bailey works of art. So recognizable was her look that the Absolut Vodka brand devoted an ad to her!
The evolution of this artist continues and is most vividly on display on her website: xenba.blogspot.com. Here she uses the modern-day blog as a way to describe not only her own aesthetic, but to showcase those of other artists and activities. On this day, however, it was Xenobia’s philosophy, as detailed on her blog, that brought me to meet with her.
We discussed, among other things, how using “cottage crafts” is a way to retell the history of women and how one way that the African American feminine story can be interpreted is through the use of those crafts. An obvious example here are the Quilts of Bee Gee’s Bend. As Xenobia explained, “Those women were not intent on doing works of art. They were intent on using the most basic materials to create useful items . The beauty and artistry came about because of the spirit that each brought to it.” It’s the domestic and daily rituals that motivate life and bring a powerful thrust into one’s day.”
Bailey has devoted herself to spreading the gospel of “funk”. To paraphrase her philosophy most simply: Funk is best described as the raw basis of culture. Funkiness comes from a passion, a personal taste, and not necessarily from training. It comes from not having the materials you need to make what you want to make. There are no rules–whatever works, works. Often, what starts as raw individuality gets polished, and then “funk “ is forgotten. *
It is through her blog, as well as her art, that Xenobia expresses this philosophy – profiling the everyday occurrences in her world that motivate her life and artisty and bring energy to her readers. It is also the way in which she states her avowed mission in life: To repossess life through its aesthetic funkiness as well as through the lens of her feminine spirit. “I see my femininity as the closest thing I (and we) have to a magic wand. In fact, everyone has magic within them. It’s the suppression of the magic that denies our humanity and stops us from evolving in a truly human way.”
One of the most potent expression of that magic can be seen in Xenobia’s Mandalas, the circular expression of the universe which is often used as an aid to meditation, and which she powerfully creates using crochet.
Xenobia manifests her humanity in many ways, Not the least of which is her deep sense of community. During our meeting at Settipanni, we were pleasantly visited by at least 5 different people stopping by the table to say hello. The group ran the gamut from the owner and her daughter, to a NY Times photographer, a literary agent and a musician whose name in the jazz world is well known. The respect and affection flowed back and forth in an effortless way and was so abundant that I felt completely included. That is perhaps one of the most valuable things about coming into contact with Xenobia and her work – the sense of inclusion that it generates among all who are lucky enough to come in contact with it — and her.
Xenobia’s work is currently being exhibited in Milan at the Triennale di Milano (http://www.triennaledesignmuseum.it). In June, a show of her work, “Repossessed” will open at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (http://www.jmkac.org) where it will be up for a year.