October 17, 2022

Clothing for Poetry:a Conversation with Chelsea G.

By Addison Bale

 Photo taken by Ada Navarro

March, 2022. This conversation happened in the studio of Chelsea Gelwarg, a US-American textile artist who has lived and worked in Mexico City since 2017. Pre-lunch with Chelsea: like poetry for clothing - grandma - almuerzo y más - friends are my artists / artists are my friends (!) - “normal” is?


Her cloth-book project, Fuerza, was still fresh on my mind after seeing it at the Avant.Dev group show, Unidades Materiales. Presented as an open book on a pedestal in a brick-laden corner of the gallery space, viewers could turn the pages of the book, wearing cloth gloves provided by the artist.
Photo taken by Ada Navarro


Addison : Where does voice come in for you? You have poetry in your work; does that installation extend into the performance space, into the spoken space?

Chelsea : The installation of the book and how I plan to install my next book is performative– exactly how you just explained it: the time that you have to spend with the piece. Putting on the gloves is an action so that you feel like you're part of the pages, right? You're covered in fabric. And that's why I'm interested in more, more fabric.

A : I like hearing about your relationship with fabric because it's multifaceted. You source fabric locally here in Mexico City but you also receive fabric from your family. There's antique fabric; there's heritage that’s being re-appropriated through these pieces that then come to light as tapestries and rugs, in clothes and books. Can you talk more about fabric?

C :  I mean, my practice started, as it exists now, about six years ago, because I was such a high consumer. I had so many clothes. And I literally just started cutting them up to make new things. It started with like trying to make this “jean monster” Halloween costume, and then I turned it into like, one of my first signs, which then became this six year practice of dedicating myself to only using scraps and use materials and old clothes. So, collecting. Literally everybody has clothes in their closet that they don't want. It was so easy. So I've become more picky in the past years as the practice has evolved.

A : What do you look for in clothes now?

C : I'm always looking for texture. I go a lot to the pacas now and I'm always looking for silk and wool, which I can find in the five-peso piles. I always find it. And then collecting from friends or my grandmother who has given me so much material, so much material. She also works with textiles. She crochets more than anything now. But she used to work more with textiles, and just has boxes of things.

A : This family lineage with art in textiles always struck me as kind of unique in your case that you, your mom, and your grandmother have a couple of things in common. And you're not the only artist in your family. Although you might be maybe the most rebellious? Rebellious superficially, I don't know.

C : What do you mean by that?

A : Stylistically, perhaps? But I'm projecting. I don't know your family.

C : You're so funny. My grandmother is for sure an artist but I don't think she would ever or has ever really used that word. She's just like, I have to have something to do with my hands. I always have to have a project. That's who she is, but she's made like, 100 decoupaged chairs. She’s also someone that taught me about re-using materials. A lot of the furniture that she uses is stuff that she found in the junkyard and repurposed.

A : Did she teach you to sew?

Chelsea’s practice connects textile with text: Employing fabric as surface, device, and image, her work ranges from sewn compositions that function like paintings, to clothing, to cloth poems in ambitiously hand-woven fabric books.

C : In a way. Partly. No, I started sewing when I was 11 because my mom and I used to go into this quilting shop and the woman who managed the quilting shop came to my home after school and gave me sewing lessons. I actually still have this box of buttons that she gave me. I've literally had that for almost 20 years now. It’s in the corner right there.


Chelsea in the studio with costume pieces from her collaboration with Lina _Bailón_ hanging on the wall behind her.

C :You mean, how has the culture or the city influenced me? I don’t know about that question. I feel like you asked me that before… I feel like I’m… I’m just me here, I suppose. You know, I’m someone who always goes to the same places. I find the lunch spots that I like and I frequent, I know the people, we say hello to each other, I really get to know my neighborhoods. I love to know the street names and geography of a city. It’s super important and exciting to me… understanding the map [of Mexico City] I think that’s the thing that influences me, that’s what helps me feel at home in the center of one of the world’s biggest cities.

A : Are you thinking about stuff artistically right now that you haven't described yet or that you feel are bizarre thoughts, concerns or unrelated things that are coming up for you?

C : Shoot, I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about applying to residencies recently. I did one. I recently delved into the collaboration of costume work and choreography for this recital with Lina, which was a fascinating experience. My work is usually very solitary. I mean—not solitary. Like, I can sew around anyone and be in conversation while I'm working. But it's mine. So sharing that was, I think, an incredible experience and really important and difficult and interesting.

A : How did you do that? Navigate the collaboration and develop the idea together?

C : Lina came through with a really clear color palette: she wanted to work with flesh tones. And then it was a series of conversations. She also was really interested in having all of the orifices visible and highlighted while covering other parts of the body and came to me with the idea of being inspired by burlesque dancers. And then we went to the pacas together and picked up a bunch of fabrics, everything from the five-peso piles in the color palette that we created together. And then we just had a lot of conversations, and were here sewing together. I have more textile skills, right? She has more choreography. So I mean, I think it was really beautiful. It was difficult. It was interesting. It's definitely a meeting of egos. The end result was so satisfying, to be honest, and it was so inspiring for me—I want to keep making costumes. I've been thinking a lot and actually my application for this first residency, I applied with this idea of combining my loose page series and a nice idea of textile books with my knitwear and costume work. So I'm interested in making an outfit that includes embroidery patchwork, and knitwear that is wearable. But also a book you know, like legible fashion. Delicate, soft.

A : To me it seems to be that you do not discriminate your work as art or fashion.

C : All the fashion I make for me is part of my art. And it's part of my practice. Dude that’s so— I [recently] met this person who is an artist. Well known. Everyone loves his work, (and he’s ultimately a really cool person, I enjoy him) but when I first met him, he was like, really interested in seeing pictures of my work. I told him that I also make sweaters and knit clothing. And he was like, “Oh, I want to see but I only want to see it if it's not normal.” Like, me dio tanta risa pero whatever I was like, of course, the knitwear I make is not normal, knowing all of the history behind how I found this yarn. I make the patterns from scratch. I taught myself how to do all this, like—

A : The word “normal” is also just so nondescript.

C : But that's also really interesting, because the conversation around selling these sweaters later— people look at it as fashion. And people have a certain budget for fashion and they think about it differently than other people. But I took a month to make this sweater and I mean, and that's really interesting to me too. Because like, obviously, I make money because I have to participate in this world. And yes, I'm interested in putting a good price on the time and energy that I spent making something but I also want things to be accessible. He saw the sweaters and immediately was like “these are normal.”Not in person. He didn't see the sweaters in person. He didn't touch them. He didn't try it on. He didn't smell them, you know? But again I’m just like, you know nothing. I wasn't offended. I just was like, I am now discrediting all of your opinions.

A : Just talking about that language again, “normal,” that is very goofy to me.

C : It’s goofy! The piece is normal because It has two sleeves, a back and a front? Anything made by hand isn’t “normal.” People don't put time and energy into the normal.

A : Accounting for normal as an inherent negative.

C : Exactly, and I also don't want to do that to the word either. I hate negative, even positive connotations. I feel like you should be able to use language in a very expansive way. I mean, that's why we're poets.


Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Chelsea napping in the studio. 
Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Chelsea Gelwarg:

I am originally from New Jersey and I have been living and working in Mexico City since 2017. I have been sewing since I was 11 years old. I work entirely with used fabrics, donated by family and friends and collected at flea markets and discount bins. Each time fabrics are recycled or reused they are given a new narrative, a new opportunity to be experienced. I feel connected to the practice of quilting in this way, the saving and gathering of intimate fabrics and patching them together generates an archive of memory which I believe makes any piece I create into a book even if it doesn't take on the stereotypical form.

Follow Chelsea:



Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online:

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