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Weekly Weaving ~ An Interview with Jennifer Mao

You might know Jennifer Mao as a Gist pattern designer and former Weave Quarterly artist, but she’s also known for her weekly pay-what-you-wish weaving series, which she shares on Instagram. In this interview, she shares more about that practice. Enjoy!

"To Bend But Not Break" by Jennifer Mao

Can you tell us about the background behind your weekly weaving series? When/how/why did you begin this practice?

When I was learning how to weave at the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing a lot of experimentation with different materials as I was learning fundamental techniques. Through this process, I amassed a sizable collection of small samples that I didn’t quite know what to do with. They felt too imperfect and unrefined to justify keeping, but too precious to throw away. So I started looking for a way to utilize them as a foundation for something else.

During lockdown, I was spending a lot of time revisiting books in my home library, and felt particularly drawn to artists that work with text: On Kawara, Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Kreuger, Jenny Holzer. One day, I re-encountered Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, and couldn’t get one out of my head: “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy”. It felt especially poignant and resonant in an uncertain and terrifying time. I embroidered the phrase onto one of my samples, and that was the starting point for the idea of pairing woven material with text.

I began embroidering phases I encountered that struck me onto these woven samples. They felt like time capsules capturing whatever was on my mind. I started thinking about developing a self-imposed structure to hold myself accountable to keep making, keep going. Towards the new year, I made a resolution to make (and release) one woven piece per week. I started the experiment on January 1st, 2021. Four years later, I’m still at it.

How did you decide on the Pay What You Wish model?

I was primarily interested in making sure the weavings were connected to recipients that would truly value and appreciate them. Since I’m not a full-time artist (I have a day job that pays the bills), I have the luxury of exploring alternative ways to share my work. In early 2020, so many people were furloughed or had lost their jobs, or were alternatively putting themselves at risk as front-line workers. Conversely, I had transitioned to working remotely, had financial stability and safe housing, along with free time and resources to create work. I was acutely aware of my privilege, and my ability to create from a place of abundance. It felt important for that ethos of abundance and generosity to be reflected in whatever mechanism I chose to release the pieces.

I settled on the ‘pay-what-you-wish’ model because it felt like the best way to facilitate the active engagement and connection I wanted to foster with potential recipients. I view it as an act of generosity that recipients are willing to participate in the (sometimes uncomfortable) act of choosing a price that feels right to them. I deliberately have never shared any parameters or guidance around cost, in order to encourage folks to think about a price that feels truly appropriate for their circumstances. Many people choose to share background context around why a particular piece resonated with them, which I’ll use as the deciding factor in choosing a recipient if a weaving has received multiple offers. There’s definitely an element of magic in it for me - an exercise in putting generosity out into the universe, and being open to whatever returns.

I’m looking for a way to subvert the traditional logic of how artists have to price and sell their work in order to survive in our current capitalist system. This system dictates that the guiding principles for economic exchange must be rooted in individual self-interest, maximizing profit, and the aspiration for endless growth. I’m interested in finding a way to challenge those principles, and envision an alternative way of structuring exchange that prioritizes different values: cooperation, mutual respect, and reciprocity.

"Quietude" by Jennifer Mao

How has the work evolved over time (and/or) what have you learned from this practice/how has it shaped you?

I think of these weekly weavings as perpetual prototypes. If a visual idea feels promising, I’ll make a mental note to revisit for another future iteration. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so creating within a weekly cadence keeps me from getting too precious about things.

For me, one week is just enough time to try something out, without getting overly caught up in the details. It’s a useful exercise in non-attachment; no matter how much I like a piece, it must be released. It’s also allowed me to prioritize process over outcome. If something doesn’t work out the way that I want, I’m still able to let it go into the world, and move on. It’s been nice to experience the continual flow of making + releasing, in order to make room for new ideas to enter and take hold. It keeps things moving, and keeps my mind (and apartment!) clear.

"Try Anyway" by Jennifer Mao

Writing is such a big part of this work—what is your writing practice like?

I’m pretty lo-fi. I have a Note on my phone where I jot down random phrases and snippets that I encounter that strike me. I’m interested in the slipperiness of language, and am drawn to phrases that feel prescriptive on the surface-level, but ambiguous enough to a multitude of interpretations upon closer inspection. Sometimes a phrase feels interesting and resonant enough to use for that week’s weaving. Other times, I collect phrases on the off-chance that it might feel relevant later.

The phrase I choose for each week’s weaving is a litmus test for whatever I’m feeling and thinking about that particular week. Sometimes it’s informed by external forces, other times it’s inspired by a more private interior reflection. The written caption that accompanies each week’s weaving is my way of following a line of inquiry into questions, rather than a search for definitive conclusions.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

I go outside.

What do you like to listen to while you work?

Most of the time I weave in silence, if I’m being honest. The jingle of the heddles, the whirring of thread unfurling from a shuttle, the creaking of pedals and cranking of threads under tension. It all feels so subtle and immediate that I try to stay present with it when I can.

What inspires you?

At risk of seeming hyperbolic: everything! It all feels connected: the weirdness and vastness of everything in the world. It feels wildly improbable to me that anything on this planet exists (including us), and that kind of naive amazement lends itself to a certain type of openness.

As a general rule, it feels like a good practice to try and remain receptive to the possibility of being – or becoming – fascinated by anything and everything. Anything can be interesting, if you think about or look at it enough.

About Jennifer Mao

Jennifer Mao is a textile artist, weaver, and natural dyer based in Brooklyn. Her woven works explore themes of reciprocity, collective wisdom, alternative economies, and individual agency within a deeply interconnected world. Every week, Jennifer creates one hand-embroidered weaving, which she releases on a ‘pay-what-you-wish’ basis. You can find more of her work on Instagram.  

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