Skin Rugs by Agustina Woodgate, Artist

Agustina Woodgate is one of those artists whose work is defined by its very resistance to definition: Wooden doormats, inspirational poems secretly sewn to thrift store tags, fairy tale–themed performance pieces — it can be hard to see the thread. That is, until you notice her obsession with bizarre materials. Woodgate once made a chandelier out of 36 yards of defective fishing line, while her Tower series comprises 4.5-foot turrets whose miniature bricks — nearly 3,000 of them — were woven from human hair she collected while offering random pedestrians free haircuts on the streets of Miami. And then there are her Skin Rugs, which she patches together from the hides of used stuffed animals, a kind of distant cousin to the Campana brothers’ Banquete chair. It’s hardly a surprise when Woodgate says she finds inspiration in everything: “I’m just a very curious person,” she says.

Since 2004, Woodgate has been based in Miami, a place she initially believed to be the antithesis to the old-world charm of Buenos Aires, where she grew up. “I had this impression that Miami was this fake plastic city, and I was really hesitant to make that big move,” she says. But not long after settling in, she discovered Miami’s prismatic culture not only reminded her of home, but was also conducive to her experimental approach. “A lot of my work is site-specific and explores spatial relation. Miami is sort of like a playground of space,” she says. She’s since risen through the ranks of the local art scene, gaining commissions from the City of Miami Beach and exhibiting at a handful of local galleries and fairs, including the Wynwood Art Festival and Art Basel. She’s now represented by the city’s influential Spinello Projects.

That’s where Woodgate launched her Skin Rugs series in 2010, a two-year-long, labor-intensive endeavor that involved dissembling stuffed animals and repurposing their man-made fur into kaleidoscopically colorful rugs. “[They] not only reference the personal histories of the toy’s owners, but investigate the rug as an object organizing and displaying memories and lineages,” wrote the gallery at the time. Although Woodgate admits the series was one of the more arduous undertakings of her career — from sourcing the stuffed animals to the grueling toil of stitching synthetic and stubborn fur — she also says it’s a personal favorite, and one she’ll continue to explore. Sight Unseen recently spoke with Woodgate about the process and the ideas behind the rugs. 
Woodgate’s “No Rain, No Rainbow” rug

What inspired your Skin Rugs series? 
The idea started with my relationship to my own teddy bear, Pepe, which I brought with me when I moved to Miami. One day I was sitting with my teddy bear — as a 30-year-old grown woman — observing this thing, which was so worn that it didn’t have eyes, and I recognized that the teddy bear wasn’t real. It was simply an object. But I also didn’t want to throw it away. That’s when I decided wanted to do something with the bear. In the beginning of the process, I had no idea what was going to happen. I went to a thrift store, got another bear, and started playing around. I looked at all the components that make up a stuffed animal: the stuffing, the fabric, the stitching. I wanted to approach an everyday object in the hopes of making something new.

I’ve also always enjoyed the symmetry of oriental rugs, and I had just discovered that they tell stories about people lives. In that matter, they’re like a book. You read them. This notion inspired me to take on the design in a more personal way. Every child in the world has a special relationship with a stuffed animal or a toy, and this relationship grows throughout time. We ascribe meaning to these objects, make them come alive, and they all have stories. Sometimes, when people see the rugs they’ll say, “Oh, this is so sad,” because they have this certain object attachment, and my reaction is “What? This isn’t sad at all.”

Where did you source the stuffed animals? What types did you use?
Most of the stuffed animals were donations. I asked a few friends, and through word of mouth, after people heard about the project, I started acquiring more and more until bags of stuffed animals started showing up on the doorstep of my studio. I received a lot of stuffed animal dogs and cats. Cats have great shapes to work with because of their long backs. There was also a fair mount of turtles, dolphins… animals you would find in Miami. But the bulk of the donations were teddy bears. The ones I didn’t use were the tiny ones, like Beanie Babies, because they didn’t have enough usable fabric. Also, the smaller the stuffed animal, the harder it is to unstitch them. For the smaller rugs, I used about 50 to 70 animals for each. I used every single animal that was donated to me. But if I were looking for a particular color of fur, I would go to a thrift store. I was very stubborn about recycling, and never bought anything new. To buy a new thing would be going against my artistic principals, like I was cheating on myself. Besides, buying a new stuffed animal is expensive and will cost you 20 dollars, while a Goodwill stuffed animal costs 50 cents.

You rugs each have a distinct color palette: “Royal” (above, top) explores warmer hues, while “Peacock” (above, bottom) is primarily blues and greens. Were there particular colors you gravitated toward, or avoided?
There weren’t colors I avoided, but I did realize there were colors that were harder to get, and that ultimately drove the direction of the design. For example, the “Galaxy,” which is 7 feet by 9 feet and the smallest rug I made, was also the most labor intensive and took me the longest to construct, not because all of the fur bits were super small and hard to sew, but because it was hard to find black stuffed animals. Black was one of those colors I would search for in thrift stores. White, on the other hand, was no problem to find. Turns out, doing an entire rug in one color would take me years and years because it’s that hard to find that many single-shade stuffed animals.

Can you take me through the step-by-step process behind the rugs? How did you remove the stuffing? Disassemble the skins?
First, I would cut off the heads. I always killed them by the necks (laughs). I saved the tags because, I thought, why not, right? I saved the eyes too, and I have a jars and jars of little stuffed animal eyes. Maybe I’ll use them in a future project. Lots of stuffed animals come with these little fabric hearts, and I couldn’t throw them away either. After I cut off the head, I pulled out the stuffing, which is like looking into the soul of the animal. Then, I threw the stuffing away. I decided not to keep the stuffing because I have no idea what I’d do with it. Plus, it took up so much space. I took the skin off with a stich-picker because it’s precise and delicately de-threads the stitching. I tried not to cut the fabric. The idea was to keep the fur as a whole as possible. I organized the pieces by shape and color, and stored everything in large bins. But once I was in the middle of working on a specific rug, organization fell apart.  I needed to see each fur shape, so I laid them out on the ground. Because I had no formal background in sewing, I had to teach myself. Learning how to sew was challenging, but modern machines are incredible and after sewing up to 10 hours a day over the past 2 years, I like to think of myself as a professional! I worked on various rugs at one time. I would be in the process of sewing two, and I’d pause and start to design another. When I felt they were near completion, I washed them with laundry detergent, let them dry, then went back and re-sewed any loose threads.

Did you sketch each rug’s composition first, or design as you went along?
I didn’t sketch the design at the beginning of the process, that’s a more experimental time. But sometimes, at the end of the construction, I would sketch just to make sure everything was coming together symmetrically. It was important for me to respect symmetry, and that was easy to do, because luckily stuffed animal limbs come in twos and fours. I preferred placing tape on my floor to sketching because it served as an outline, and I was able to maintain accurate measurements. It also really helped when laying out the center of the rug or diagonal shapes. It was sort of like putting together a puzzle: I didn’t know where these shapes would fit.  For example, I wanted to make a rectangular pattern and present the rug vertically, but as I kept going, the form was looking more and more deformed. I learned that I had to follow the organic forms of these fur shapes. Therefore, there was only so much I could do pattern-wise. I was limited, and that limitation was frustrating. Sometimes I was like, “This is going nowhere.” That’s part of the challenge. But once I completed one half of the rug, I just mirrored that side and the process became easier.

How did you know when you were finished?
That depended. Sometimes I felt like I could keep stitching forever, but 7 by 9 is a standard rug size, and it was important to me that I stick to that principal. “No Rain, No Rainbow” is more of a tapestry than a rug, because it’s really, really big and you need the distance to appreciate it. When constructing, I used the ladder to climb and attach pieces; when you go to a rug store, they display them that way, to appreciate the design.

What was the most challenging part of the process?
De-stiching the stuffed animals was messy and frustrating. I complained at the beginning, but then I calmed down. Sewing was frustrating, too, but it was also the exciting stage, because that’s when things start to come together, when the design became visible and things tightened up. During the sewing stage, I could listen to music, talk on the phone — I’d come back to life. Mentally, working on a rug is something I can do for about 15 days, and then I tire. If I sew a rug once a week, it’ll take me a year. I have to be in the right mood.  I’m really excited to revisit it, however. I think this is a lifelong project.

Have you always been interested in art and design?
Growing up, I went to after-school art programs. When I was 9 my mom signed my brother and I up for a workshop at a culture center. The program was so carefree; I was able to do whatever I wanted. There was a wood station, ceramics station, and painting — so many options. As a kid I remember it was an absolute paradise. Woodwork was my favorite activity, and I tried to make a bookshelf for my bedroom. I think I liked woodworking the most because it allowed me to work with the dangerous tools. At university, I studied graphic design for one year and then I switched to visual arts. I mainly focused on printmaking and letterpress, and also explored some sculpture. So, I’ve studied all sorts of mediums. I’m sure I derive inspiration from my studies.

Can you describe your studio? Is it spacious?
I  have a very big space — that was absolutely necessary to make these large rugs. The biggest one, “No Rain, No Rainbow,” is 16 x 9.5 feet, and it was basically taking up my entire studio. The entire floor was a mess and covered in stuffed animal fur bits. I also worked on the smaller ones simultaneously, two at a time, and those also took up a lot of space. But there are also days that I just want to work and be outside. I like to explore various places and what those places used to be. I’ll do some research, repurpose materials, and derive inspiration from what I’ve seen. I feel like I use my studio as a place to store all the things I collect.

Woodgate’s “Galaxy” rug

Are there any other mediums you want to explore in the future?
There are so many. I like to recycle everyday objects, and so often, I just stumble upon a medium. I work with what I encounter in my day-to-day life. Not the context. Sometimes I don’t have a choice what medium I use. For me, it’s more important the message I’m conveying. When I came to America, I found these new opportunities; I found that I had new statements to make. The whole idea behind the rugs, for example, was to explore an archetype. It’s not that I use a material because it’s easy or that I particularly like it; it’s about what the material itself represents.

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