A self-described “nerdy Appalachian queer guy” visual artist Aaron McIntosh comes from a long line of quilters. Aaron is justifiably proud of this family legacy, which he has appropriated and used in a decidedly contemporary way.
“My family didn’t really go to art museums or anything like that so in a lot of ways this was the creative outlet I saw most as a child.” In his work Aaron explores the intersections of material culture, family tradition, identity-shaping, sexuality and desire in a range of works including quilts, collage, drawing, domestic textiles, furniture and sculpture.
Growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, Aaron picked up quilting, “almost like osmosis.” “Quilting resonates with me because of my family connection,” he says. “I think of my practice as being always grounded in quilt making, so whether it’s unit based piecework, or accumulation of materials, or even some of the things that surround quilting, like hoarding materials—I grew up around all of that. It’s important to me to both pay homage to the people who came before and didn’t have the luxury or privilege to study art, and also bring their traditions into the 21stcentury.”
Aaron is interested in how desire gets mediated through things and what it is to learn about one’s desire, sexuality and romantic inclinations through the printed word and visuals. He takes these and translates them into his quilt and drawing studies. “Sometimes it’s very present, something lifted directly from those sources and then turned into a quilt or the figure is maybe removed and so you’re left with a background, or a silhouette, or a negative space that indicates the figure. I’m interested in that movement from physical, corporeal desire and also material desire. There’s always a reverence for the materiality of the thing and patterns.”
Reinterpreted in brightly hued calico, the overtness of the figures’ eroticism isn’t all that evident, but it hovers over the work. Aaron likens these quilts to “strange baby blankets”. For him they play the role of transitional object as described by psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott who posited that young children use objects (teddy bears, blankies) to separate the “me” from the “not-me”. “I’m interested in making transitional objects that aren’t rooted in childhood, but rooted in adult sexuality and eroticism,” he says. “In my own life, this means transitioning out of certain ways of being romantically, sexually, into new ways of being. I’m taking what those transitional objects represent together with some hybrid of the child’s blankie into this new space of sexual exploration.”
There’s an aspect of comfort that’s intrinsic to transitional objects. In pairing this traditional, familial technique with gay erotica, Aaron has found a way of uniting these two essential sides of his character; establishing a strong bond between them is the very definition of comfort.
Aaron hangs the quilts draped on a hook on the wall like rags, as opposed to stretched out. “You’re going to be denied the image,” he says. But the viewer will be invited to take them off the wall and hold them, to have a physical experience with them and be able to spread them out so they can see them.
In addition to fabric, Aaron works with printed materials and erotica, piecing them together and doing drawings over them. He’s done large room sized installations referencing the newspaper-covered walls of his grandmother’s house as well as small-scale drawings. Pieced together and featuring drawn stitches his drawings are symbolic quilts. “They provide a new way of thinking about transitional objects that is very personal to me.”
Aaron holds a BFA from the Appalachian Center for Craft and a MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been Assistant Professor in the Fiber Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He has joined the faculty at VCU Arts and will begin teaching there in the fall.
Aaron’s residency was funded by the MICA Fellowship supported by the LEAW Family Foundation.