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Episode 135: Weaving Journals and Personal Life Struggles with Bryana Bibbs

In this week’s episode, LaChaun speaks with Bryana Bibbs. Bryana is a Chicago-based textile artist, painter, and art educator who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the founder of the “We Were Never Alone Project", a weaving workshop for victims and survivors of domestic violence. She is a current artist-in-residence at the Chicago Artist Coalition HATCH and serves on the Surface Design Association’s Education Committee. Bryana’s work has been on view at the Evanston Art Center, ARC Gallery, and the Bridgeport Art Center.


Bryana's Website

Bryana's Instagram

The We Were Never Alone Project

The We Were Never Alone Project's Instagram 




Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.

LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.

Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, GIST Yarn & Fiber.

LaChaun Moore: Hello. Hi, everyone. In this week’s episode, I’m speaking with Bryana Bibbs. Bryana is a Chicago-based textile artist, painter, and art educator, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in fiber and materials studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the founder of the “We Were Never Alone Project,” which is a weaving workshop for victims and survivors of domestic violence. She’s a current artist in residence at the Chicago Artist Coalition HATCH and serves on the Surface Design Association’s Education Committee. Bryana’s work has been on view at the Evanston Art Center, ARC Gallery, and the Bridgeport Art Center.

Hello, Bryana. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us today.

Bryana Bibbs: Hello. Thank you for having me.

LaChaun Moore: Absolutely. Can you start out by telling us about your background and where you’re from?

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah, so I am a Chicago-based textile artist, painter, and teaching artist, as well.

LaChaun Moore: And how did you begin working with textiles?

Bryana Bibbs: That’s a good question. So, I think like maybe most people, I really wanted to be a painter, a specifically abstract painter, and I really didn’t learn a lot about textiles until I’d gone to SAIC for my undergrad. I had entered SAIC in the painting department, the painting and drawing department, and I was really interested in how to grow my use of color, and to really convey how I was feeling through abstract art, but unfortunately that department didn’t work out for me, so second year at SAIC I was really trying to figure out what I was gonna do. Because I had had this idea that I would be in the painting department during my entire time there, so I was searching for courses and I came across this course called the Introduction to Fiber and Materials Studies, and I had no idea what it was, but I was really intrigued by it because there were things that I was somewhat familiar with, like crochet and knitting. I saw my mom crochet from time to time. Embroidery work was something that my grandmother, who I call my mima, used to do.

And then I was somewhat familiar with quilting, because my grandfather, who I call my Papa George, who was from the South, Alabama specifically, he has this kind of closet full of quilts. And I didn’t really understand the process of it. I just knew that they were something to keep you warm. But I was intrigued by learning more about the labor and process that goes behind those things, so I took the class and I think we started off with like crochet, and knits, and then we went to weaving, and I honestly thought… I was like, “Oh, I’m not gonna like this.” The process is so tedious, and it’s so long, and my amazing professor, Jerry Bleem, who is just fantastic… I always, always talk about him. He broke us up into groups, so like one group, they started warping the warp board, then after they were done with that, the next group would start to dress the loom, and then we wove. I think we wove these 10 by 10 inch weavings, and we got to use whatever materials were on hand, and I think I wove like this really kind of weird striped… I think it was cream, and like an evergreen color, and a burnt orange, and I remember that feeling of cutting it off the loom, and that feeling being so rewarding, and so satisfying.

SO, I remember at the time, I was living at home with my parents, and I ran home and was super excited about this small weaving I had made. And they kind of looked at me and they were like, “Yeah, okay.” Like, “Sure. If this is what you want to do, fine.” So, I really fell in love with just the process of it all. And then from that point on, I decided to take more classes.

LaChaun Moore: Yeah. That’s such an interesting way to sort of find yourself in weaving, and I absolutely identify with how daunting it could seem to begin weaving when you-

Bryana Bibbs: Totally.

LaChaun Moore: … have to figure out how to warp, and then the loom, and then the numbers, and the this, and the that. It can definitely be so daunting. And so, once you do finish your first piece, I could just imagine your fulfillment when you finished.

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah. And I felt… You know, it’s interesting, because I felt like a child again in this really kind of weird way. You know how when you’re a kid, and you do these kindergarten projects or whatever, you run home to your parents and you’re like, “Mom! Dad! Look at what I did.” I kind of had that same feeling and yeah, I knew that this was something that I needed to keep up with. And too, Jerry was… He just kind of came up to me at one point and he was like, “I think you found your nice.” And I was like, “Okay.” And he explained. He said, “I’ve seen you do other techniques and things like that within the fibers department.” He said, “But this one specifically, I think you found something here.”

So, with him saying that was a lot of motivation for me to just keep going.

LaChaun Moore: That’s so beautiful. And I’m really interested in kind of going back to what you were first saying when you were interested in abstract painting. I’m curious how that interest in contemporary art or… I don’t know if it would be called contemporary art, but I guess abstract art. I’m curious if your interest in abstract art kind of lives in the textures and the way that you weave.

Bryana Bibbs: Totally. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think all of my work is just one big autobiography of my life and things that I’ve gone through, whether that be things like The Quarantine Series, and more recently The Journal Series, where it’s kind of this daily documentation, versus my larger scale pieces, like That Bad Space, Cold-Play, are kind of about these really dark times for me, and me processing and reflecting those dark times. But all of my work is abstract.

When I was documenting my Journal Series to add more pieces to my website last week, I kind of had this moment where I was like… I think a lot of what I had learned in the painting department as far as color really carried over into my work, because any and everything for me goes with color. I am such a huge fan of color. I’m a huge fan of Kente cloth, for example. I studied a little bit of that while I was in school. And the way that they use color, not only color, but pattern, to tell the story of an individual I think is so powerful, because I think we often look at stories as being text. But what happens when you eliminate that text, and you create something that’s more abstract or representational about an individual? I think that is incredibly powerful.

So, with all of that being said, a lot of the work that I was doing in the painting department was mark making, experimentation with color, experimentation with materials. I think my first year, I used like sugar in one of my paintings, which was like such a bad idea, because you know, ants are a thing. But yeah, I used sugar in one of my paintings, and a lot of people were wondering what it was because it was kind of glistening within the oil paint, so people were kind of questioning what that was. But I feel like there’s a certain amount of freedom that you have with textiles that you don’t often get with painting. I feel like… I don’t know. I feel like for me, anything kind of goes when it comes to textiles.

So, I think I wanted that in my abstract painting. I think I really wanted that freedom.

LaChaun Moore: Yeah. I mean, I absolutely understand where you’re coming from, because I feel like with fiber art, there are these very sort of like strict parameters for making something, whether it be stitching, or weaving, or sewing, or construction, but then within those parameters, there’s so many avenues that you can explore and so many different ways to sort of express yourself, and so I definitely understand that. And I’m really curious, if we could dive a little bit deeper into what you were saying about how your work is sort of like a journal, or documentation of your experiences in life. You describe your work as being based on your love for journaling and your struggles with mental health, acceptance, relationships, and other personal matters. I’m curious as to whether you can talk about how some of these themes live in your work specifically, or… You know, I absolutely have found myself working with fiber arts for its ability to lessen my personal anxieties and to kind of like ship me away from a lot of the ways in which life can kind of take you. And I also in little ways kind of put little notes in my work that only I can really recognize, and I’m just curious if you do that as well, like if it’s an aesthetic representation as well as something that’s just physically good for the body and the mind?

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah, so I guess I’ll start, just kind of brief story of my journaling history or journaling past. I used to journal all the time when I was a kid. I remember, because I’m a ‘90s child, I had this really awfully-printed denim sticker journal that I always used to write in, and I still have it, like I still have all of my journals. I try to keep all of them, even though I’ve never actually finished a journal. But yeah, I used to write in that journal all the time as a kid. Never wrote on the lines. Always was like angrily writing across the entire page. But I enjoyed it, because I was taught to always kind of keep what’s going on within the family, within my own emotions to myself. Same thing with friends and relationships. You know, whatever you’re going through, try to hold it in.

So, I did, and the only way for me to really express my feelings was through journaling. So, then I went to art school and I was able to try to tell my story visually. And I still do that, right? I still try to tell my own personal stories about mental health through my work, my own personal stories of having gone through a decade-long relationship that was full of narcissistic abuse. I tell that… I mean, somebody asked me a few weeks ago, “How long are you gonna make work about that?” And I have no idea, because it was 10 years of my life. And it was the important years of my life, you know? Like tail end of high school, through college, after college, so it’s a process, but also too, I feel like these things need to be talked about, right?

We’re talking about mental health now, which is great. I think we need to discuss it because it is a very real thing that I think everybody knows someone with mental health issues. But narcissistic abuse is another thing. And I feel like personally, that’s not being talked about. So, I try to talk about those things in my work through the use of title. Cold-Play is I think a really good example of what I had gone through in that relationship. In that piece I used materials that are used in a wedding gown. I had 12 five-inch-wide strips that are roughly 55, 56 inches long maybe, and I had hand sewn them all together, but coming out of that weaving is this cathedral-length veil, right? So, it’s like that piece for me was a piece about being presented this future constantly. Anybody who’s been through narcissistic abuse knows that you’re constantly presented with this will work out in the end, we will have a future together, we will be happy, but that’s never, ever the case.

So, that piece for me was really about kind of the brokenness of that relationship, but still being hopeful that I will be happy in a relationship one day. So, my use of materials in that is a little bit more direct, but in pieces like You’ve Never Really Had a Purpose, which is this large red piece that is strip woven and hand sewn together, but then has these really kind of aggressive red marks on them, that one… You know, everybody has their own experience with that. That piece. Which I appreciate about my work. I don’t always want to be direct in what my work means, because I think artwork is powerful when people have their own experience with it.

And I think with that specific piece, some of the feedback that I had gotten was there’s a lot of strength and power in that piece, and if that person feels that way, that’s great. Now, their use of the word power might be different than my use of the word power, but still, they’re having their own experience with the piece, which I think is great. But most of the time, whatever I’m feeling about the piece that I’m making, I always try to put some subtle hint in the title.

LaChaun Moore: And we’ll definitely have to make sure we have images of this piece that you were just talking about, so people can kind of put a face to the conversation. It sounds like such a really beautiful but also really deep piece that probably will elicit a lot of contemplation amongst people who view it.

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah. I mean… I also got asked the question once of like since all of your work is pretty heavy in subject matter, how are you able to do it? And it’s… I mean, unfortunately, there are certain aspects of anyone’s life who stays with them for the rest of their lives, but it’s a matter of how you get past it and how you heal from it. And what you do to mask that pain, right? So, that’s kind of how I look at it.

LaChaun Moore: And something that I would imagine is also related to these pieces are that you are doing domestic violence weaving workshops, and I believe you said it’s in collaboration with the We Were Never Alone Project?

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah, so that’s a project that I started last year. It was something that I thought about for a really, really, really long time. But, I mean I’m not an art therapist, so there’s… I was very hesitant about doing it, because I know people want actual trained therapists, and I’m not that by any means. So, I started the project back in September of last year and we held it at this artist-run space in Oak Park, Illinois, called Compound Yellow. And it was myself, and five other amazing people that I’m forever grateful for, and we sat down, and we introduced ourselves, and I taught them how to weave on these cardboard looms, and we did basic weaving. We did plain weave, and then later on in the four-hour workshop we did a little bit of rya, and after I taught them those techniques, I kind of opened up the floor and said, “Obviously, I can tell my story, because this is my project, so I could tell it first, or whoever is ready to tell their story first, please feel free.”

So, we all told our stories, and they weren’t easy stories to hear, but we all… Oddly enough, we all kind of pinged off of each other and said like, “Oh yeah, that happened to me too.” Or like, “Oh yeah, I went through something similar.” But after it happened, there was such this great sense of community, and we all talked to one another, and talked about getting dinner at some point when COVID is done and over with, and everybody was so grateful for that workshop. And I honestly, I wasn’t sure how successful it would be, because like I said, I’m not a therapist.

So, I didn’t know what they thought they were coming into. But I tried my best to make it clear that I’m a survivor myself, and I really want this environment to be a safe, judgmental-free space, where we can just talk about what we’ve gone through. And we did, and I think it turned out great, but right now I have a workshop in a new space, Oliva Gallery in Chicago, and Kimberly over there so kindly enough to also believe in the project, so I have a workshop coming up March 21st, and then I have two more planned in the spring, later in the spring and in the summer at Compound Yellow, as well.

So, I’m really hoping that that project can travel, because I think it’s a project that’s unfortunately needed. You know, so many people are afraid to tell their stories because of backlash and just the incredible amount of stigma that comes along with being a survivor, so I really want this project to allow other victims and survivors to feel comfortable in a space.

LaChaun Moore: Yeah, and thank you for one, for starting such an amazing initiative, but also just creating space within the world of weaving, because I say this often on the podcast, but I really do think that there’s something really spiritual about the practice of weaving. You know, the word weaving is used so often to represent community, and coming together, and so many aspects of our society, and so I think that when weavers can use their practice to further the notion of creating community, but also creating healing I think is so important and so beautiful, so thank you so much for creating that initiative. And I’m excited to see how you grow and where this continues, how this continues to flourish.

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah. I’m excited. I mean, I’m excited too. There’s a website for it and on there, because you know, I want to keep everything private for people. I don’t… I told the first group, “All of your stories are safe with me. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not my stories to tell.” But I do want to give them some kind of voice, so when the participants finish up their weavings, I always ask permission to post them on the website, so I’m hoping to add some more with these upcoming workshops, just so people can see kind of the strength and healing in those weavings by themselves, because they’re all gorgeous. There’s three up there right now and they’re really, really great.

LaChaun Moore: And where can people go on social media and the internet to follow your work and also to potentially attend one of your workshops?

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah, so you can go to TheWeWereNeverAloneProject.org and that is where I will post a lot of, again, the images of the weavings from participants. There’s also a share your story anonymously page, because I think it’s important for people to share their stories, so people who are out there wondering, like myself, I was always wondering like, “Are other people going through this too?” People can share their stories on that page for that purpose, and then there’s also an Instagram page, as well. Also probably like the longest Instagram username, but it’s @TheWeWereNeverAloneProject. So, people can follow that to keep up with workshops and other things that are going on.

LaChaun Moore: And I do have a question before we… Kind of switching gears, because I’m just curious. Do you have a preferred weaving style or tool?

Bryana Bibbs: I have my 55-inch Gilmore loom in my studio that I love. It’s eight harnesses and it’s fantastic, although… It was a gift from my parents, and I appreciate them so much for that.

LaChaun Moore: Oh, that’s so sweet.

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah. They got it for me after graduation, but like I never use anything more than four harnesses, so maybe eventually I’ll use all eight, but right now I just use the four harnesses. And then it’s my Schacht Lilli Loom, my frame loom. I love it. I think it’s so great. It’s what I do all of my Journal Series weavings on and yeah, it’s fantastic. I love that. That little loom.

LaChaun Moore: Yeah. Awesome. So, before you go, we have one question that we ask everyone that joins the podcast, and that is do you have any advice or words of wisdom to share with weavers and textile enthusiasts?

Bryana Bibbs: Yeah. I would say just do it. There were a lot of things that I feel like with weaving, everybody wants things to be perfect, and precise, and neat, and your selvedges have gotta look great, but like what happens when you don’t do that? I try to in my weaving workshops that I teach online and in person too, I always try to encourage people to allow their mistakes to happen. That’s something that I do in my own work, like my Journal Series probably has so many mistakes on it, although it’s just… All of my weavings are always woven in plain weave. I don’t weave anything other than plain weave.

But I think there’s beauty in those mistakes, like I’ll make a mistake sometimes when I’m like watching TV, and then I’ll look down and I’ll be like, “Oh, I skipped three or four warp threads.” But to me, that shows that I was doing something else other than what I was supposed to be doing, so I say just allow mistakes to happen, because I think sometimes you might find beauty in it and you might want to stick with it.

LaChaun Moore: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Bryana Bibbs: Thank you.

LaChaun Moore: That’s a wrap. If you’re interested in supporting some of the projects mentioned in our conversation or to see a full transcript of this week’s episode, you can find links in the show notes at www.gistyarn.com/episode-135. Thank you for tuning into this week’s episode. Until next time, happy weaving!

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