Artist Ophelia Arc Welcomes You Into a Psychological Web of Her Own Making

Somewhere between Faith Wilding’s 1972 crocheted “Womb Room” installation and the sculptural works of Eve Hesse exists the work of emerging artist Ophelia Arc. Her corporeal crochet sculptures and collaged drawings invite viewers into a psychological web of her own making. Prompted by the concept of “wound dwelling,” coined by author Leslie Jamison, Arc unpacks the trauma of her lived experience, revealing snippets of her life sourced from childhood diaries and family photos. An idealized concept of home meets reality here, where home is as much a physical dwelling as it is an intangible feeling. In revisiting past experiences, Arc reclaims the narrative of her trauma and invites people in. The show includes a number of crocheted sculptures installed and a suite of never-before-shown drawings that altogether create a densely packed, psychologically intense installation. Arc is currently the subject of a solo exhibition, “we’re just so glad you’re home,” which is on view at 81 Leonard Gallery in New York through June 1. To learn more about the show, ARTnews spoke with Arc by Zoom.

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ARTnews: How did you approach the show?

Ophelia Arc: The curator of the show, Nakai Falcón, and I played around with some ideas, but kept coming back to this idea of home. It really got me questioning what constitutes a home. Home can be a physical structure, which always exists in my work, but it can also be a feeling. I’ve referenced this dollhouse I had as a kid as the original home off of which I like to base things. I moved out really young, so I also associate the concept with this feeling of homesickness as well. Home is something to be embodied through experience and the skin.

Home can be something that you carry with you. The materiality and tactility of your work also lends itself to that. Who, then, is the “we” referenced in the title of the show?

I have these states where I dissociate from myself, as if I’m a collective amalgamation of things that are existing. So, all of me is glad that this is a space in which one can kind of feel and prod a bit. There is a lot of myself in the show. And I think that I’m letting people in, in a way that is puts myself on display in a really intimate way. When you let someone in your home there’s an amount of trust that’s given. And so, I’m letting you in and inviting you to see what belies behind the facade.

But, within this framework, it’s your choice what to show and how much of yourself you want to share with the public.

For sure. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because as more stuff happens and more people start to see, I get a little worried about letting too many people inside or that too many people will take notice. But I found it really therapeutic, too. It’s almost this slow burn release. A lot of my work is not blatant, but I like the idea of rewarding the patient viewer. If somebody wants to piece together my life story, they could make out a good part of it, but it would take a lot to notice the small details, which I believe function as a barrier of entrance or a protective layer.

Installation view of Ophelia Arc's exhibition "we’re just so glad you’re home", 2024, at 81 Leonard.
Installation view of Ophelia Arc’s exhibition “we’re just so glad you’re home”, 2024, at 81 Leonard.
Photo Roman Dean

What are some of the more personal moments in the show for you?

There are a lot. I have legible bits of my diary from when I was was like 11. I carry a journal with me everywhere, and I scan it and annotate it. I do it in parts because it’s hard for me to read through it. I’ve also put medical documents in other pieces, as well as a lot of family photos.

All of the works in the show work in conversation with one another. Every month, I made a mind map and it bridges off into a number of different connections that kind of circle back. I like to be like my own archivist, so everything is logged. And I’m just constantly making as much stuff as possible. Since the work is crocheted, it all has to be done by hand. I started teaching myself how to crochet when I was very young. I’ve very fidgety and it became a way to project my nervous energy into something. It also becomes a kind of proof of existence or a time log. If I’m worried about something and I start crocheting as I’m experiencing or working through that feeling, it becomes a tangible way of marking what occurred.

Your work is very autobiographical in that regard.

I think of my work functioning as a memoir since it is my perspective and there’s no truly authentic memoir. I’m talking about myself and my relationship with other people like my family or my experiences growing up. There’s this idea of the object that I create being only a memory of the last time I remembered the original event.

The concept of memory is so interesting because every time you recall a memory, it becomes distorted.

Every time you recall a memory! That’s been tripping me up and I think of that all the time. My brain is collaged.

It’s funny how our minds trick us or play on these moments. And, obviously, it’s colored by our own personal experiences as well. Beyond the crocheting, there a number of drawings in the exhibition as well. How did that come into play?

I’ve never shown drawings before until this point. I’m one of those people that always has their sketchbook on them, but I had this permeating fear that I wasn’t good enough at it. But a lot of my professors at RISD [where she is studying for her MFA] encouraged me to turn my sketches into drawings. Once I had that permission, I started going big. And once I got into it I started seeing them more as collages. Because I go back in and I rip and I sew and mend. The paper functions like a skin that I work into. I see these works functioning with more immediacy than crochet, and certain ideas just need to come out in this way.

I know you drew inspiration from a concept coined by author Leslie Jamison called “wound dwelling” in her 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams. How do you see that manifesting in your work?

There’s a quote in which her boyfriend calls her a “wound dweller.” As in, she dwells in her wounds. And I liked that idea as a kind of reclamation. I like going in and peeling at things that feel like they’ve scabbed over and then watching this regrowth again. There’s this repetition compulsion in this mindset and the work that I’ve made. It’s this masochistic tendency in wanting to make sure it happened, checking it happened, and going back in there again. It’s like this constant loop.

Ophelia Arc: rumination loop, 2024, latex, tulle, hand dyed yarn, human hair and wire rings, 24 by 14 by 6 inches.
Ophelia Arc: rumination loop, 2024, latex, tulle, hand dyed yarn, human hair and wire rings, 24 by 14 by 6 inches.
Courtest 81 Leonard. Roman Dean

There is definitely a cyclical nature in both the trauma and memory of reliving something again and again, as well as in the physical action of crocheting with the same movement over and again on itself.

Yes, it becomes muscle memory. It’s really weird, but I can crochet now with my eyes closed. I can do the motion without the yarn and hook there. Even without the source, one can keep reliving or experiencing. This is one piece estranged and pathetic [2023] considers this idea of being able to untrap yourself, but staying anyway.

People often question why those abusive situations, for example, stay. Technically, while many can physically leave, it becomes engrained their neural pathways. The trauma quite literally becomes part of them and how they think.

Another piece rumination loop [2024] considers this idea of consuming, ingesting, digesting, and then regurgitating. I do a lot of medical research in scientific journals and I came across rumination syndrome, wherein those affected cannot keep what they put into their body. It got me thinking about the idea of a rumination loop that exists in the mind, like when you’re stuck in a thought pattern. A lot of my work applies this form of soft logic to a hard fact, and considers the paradox that happens there. It creates a really interesting tension.

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