Rust Never Sleeps

Posted: June 6, 2014 by Mo Crow in It's Crow Time

rust-never-sleeps“Rust Never Sleeps” as Neil Young sang all those years ago. This little fish candle stick holder has been living in my garden for many years and is improving with age but I am thinking a lot about our 21st Century love of all things worn and torn, frayed & rusted. It’s about seeing the beauty in the cracks, honouring the damage in the world and ourselves, how it lets in the light. The Japanese name this concept Wabi-Sabi – “nurturing all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
… but …
there is a lot of rusting with intent happening in the art world and it’s this acceleration of the process that I am questioning. Is it honest to damage, fray, peel & rust our art? It reminds me of those  faux verdi gris “antique” finishes that were so popular in the 70’s or beating furniture with chains to age it in the 80’s or burying ceramic shards to sell as ancient relics for the tourist trade.
I love ruins and they need to be conserved but ruins earn their cracks & fissures with time, the same as we do.
Alice Fox has written a well considered reply to these concerns over at Debbie Weaver’s blog
would love to open this to a wider discussion, any takers?

PS here’s links to 3 of my works that have used rusted cloth
Hopeful Lunacy
The Memory Keeper
The Blue Moon Talinistic Dilly Bag
and the cloth for the cover of this book was dyed black then bleached
The Spirit Book

  1. deanna7trees says:

    i think it all depends on your intent. if you are looking to create something that will last for a long time, these processes should not be used but personally, i’m just looking to create something for now and if it further degrades….it might turn out to be even more interesting. if i were selling my things, i would make the buyer aware of that possibility.

  2. Jan says:

    I’ve used rust on fabric; and also bleached black fabric, both processes to make marks, with the intention of using it on my fabric artworks. I do exhibit them; and do offer them for sale. But they rarely sell so I’m not left with an ethical problem. If someone were to buy one, I’d bring their attention to it. The thing is, things do decay, wear out, fade, degrade. We can’t prevent these processes. I’m not a conservator, so I don’t worry about that. But I DO have a patchwork duvet-cover, which I made 40 years ago, that is still going strong. Some of the thinner cottons have worn, and I’ve patched over them. It isn’t in daily use, as it’s a winter ‘quilt’; but it is still used, every winter. I don’t take any special care of it; it gets washed in Ecover washing liquid, dried on the line, folded up, and put into my airing cupboard. I’m not precious about it; cats and dogs have laid on it. It’s worn well….but it has, worn. Obviously one of my fabric artworks wouldn’t be used in such a way, but I think unless we use very delicate fabrics, they will last quite a while. Don’t forget, stitching strengthens cloth. I don’t consider immortality. I try to let art go; either to people or to time.

    • Mo Crow says:

      thank you Jan for such a thoughtful response, I haven’t sold the pieces that have rusted or bleached cloth included but have given them away which is OK with what’s left of this life time and in the context of the work. Thinking back to two of my favourite old black dresses from the 40’s that I wore ’til they fell apart with age combined with the iron mordant that was used to make a lovely deep black back then. Mending all the tiny holes helped them stay in the world for an extra 10 years but they didn’t make it into the 21st C.

  3. l agree. it is all in the Intent. I would happily accept a distressed finish if it was integral to the end piece. I do dislike the mass produced tat that is passed off as decorative though. I was never a fan of kitsch. Like you I am happy with natural weathering.

  4. beth says:

    I have a whole other concern with rust. Just because it is everywhere doesn’t mean it is safe to handle. Airborne particles can get in the lungs, handling rusty objects and rinsing out rusted cloth without gloves exposes the skin. My brother has hemochromatosis (genetic, not exposure related). But it’s not a fun thing. He has to have frequent blood tests and has to have blood withdrawn when iron levels are too high. It has made me very wary of iron overload in the body.

    That being said, I’ve dabbled a little on cloth (very carefully!) I might use a food can now and again but I don’t really care for the heavy rust and the way it changes the hand of the cloth. And as far as “creating relics”… Well, buyer beware and there’s a fool born every minute, etc.

  5. saskia says:

    very interesting points made here!
    I personally have always loved old and used stuff and have avoided made-to-look-old pieces, although I have been known to succumb to the odd bit of kitsch once in a while
    as you know I experiment a lot with dyeing, including rust, and I use the fabrics holding within them the inevitable risk of decay (or should I say: wear&tear are imminent) I do sell my pieces and when questioned on how to conserve a piece, as with all delicate work, I advise to avoid direct sun light and not to worry too much…..
    part of the attraction to what is imperfect is my own coming to terms with my own imperfections, my growing older and also what I make is a mark that will last only for so long and then can wither away just like I did, just like we all do….

  6. Robyn says:

    I do love the look of rusty metal combined with wood! The one thing I’ve noticed when working with rust solution (from metal soaked in vinegar) is that it makes my finger nails brittle. I’m not sure that rusty metal has any effect on wood though apparently the wood can effect the metal depending on the moisture content. Interesting post, Mo.

    • Mo Crow says:

      your integration of carved wood with found objects is very special Robyn, revealing your sensitive soul with the wild spirits of place, you are such an inspiration!
      here’s a favourite quote that your work coming from living on the edge in Africa brings to mind-

      “That is how to burn most brightly. That is how to catch like wildfire.

      Walk. The drum begins. Follow it. Follow the drums of thunder. Follow the sun. Follow the stars at night as they lean their long slant down the far side of the sky. Follow the lightning and the open road. Follow your compulsion. Follow your calling. Follow anything except orders and habit. Follow the fire-fare-forwards of life itself. Go where you will, burn your bridges if you must, leave the paving stones smouldering and singe the gate as you leave, leave an incendiary device by The Wall and scorch your way across the land. I dare you.

      Being on the road has an inherent quality of song. It feels so natural to sing as you walk, in wanderlust, lustful, full-throated, belting out melodies at the hills. Sing up the sun. In your walking you sing your path. Nomadism’s rhythm is the sun. Nomadism’s melody is the songline. On the leaning way, the slanting way, the canting way, music echoes the lilt of the land. The singer is chanting, canting the descant part, till the way is steeped in song, en-chanted, sung, the singer chants the way and walks the song, and the way and the song and the singer are one. On!

      p 312- 314 “WILD An Elemental Journey” by Jay Griffiths

  7. Carol says:

    Hmmm… Lots to think about here, Mo. As you know I do love rusty things and I enjoy seeing metal rusting outdoors. I often wonder about doing something to stop the rust before the material succumbs to time completely but so far haven’t done anything to stop nature. I’m not sure about using rusty paper but I think I have that paper conservation thought in the back of my mind and can’t bring myself to go against my training. I haven’t given any thought to the inherent dangers of rust so I’ll be reading up on that. And while I’m doing that my garden pieces will be slowly melting back into the ground…

    • Mo Crow says:

      Hi Carol, thanks for entering the conversation with your background of working in book conservation at the State Library. Rust looks so much like foxing and I think of all the inherent dangers for print and book conservation that goes with that. Am feeling that a lot of good science is getting thrown to the wind for what is quite possibly a very short term effect… but on the other hand we are leaving so much debris behind with the waste plastic that fills our oceans and land fills that perhaps making work for the short term that dissolves gently back into the earth once it’s usefulness has passed is more beneficial to our planet… still considering all this… the Australian artist Shona Wilson explored this idea through her “Plastiscenic Era: Future Remains” exhibition in 2012, a frighteningly well researched and beautifully made body of work here

  8. Dana says:

    I think the similarity of cloth to skin is what gives it its powerful ability to hold and communicate meaning. Cloth, like us. is prey to the weathering of the world and the corroding effects of time. Since mortality is the undercurrent of human existence its no wonder that weaving and unweaving, holes and mending, rust and stains, work so poignantly in fabric to remind us of the fleeting nature of our lives…..the tides of becoming and passing away that the wabi-sabi aesthetic celebrates. In contrast, I think Western emphasis on the new has mostly celebrated aspiration and progress, the hope of perfectibility. We too know our time is limited, so we feel the urgency of getting the most out of it. We are searchers in every way and have found much that is good and much that is evil. I am hoping that all humans are in the process of integrating both of these worldviews into a new, more complete sense of who we are in the universe. I am hoping that the appreciation of rust and the acceptance of decay is a sign of that.

    • Mo Crow says:

      On my goodness, Dana, well said!

    • Mo Crow says:

      thinking more about your reply here Dana, you helped me understand this modern aesthetic of making work that doesn’t have to last… 25 years ago I did a visual arts degree in glass and jewellery, making work that can be passed down through generations has been an important part of my practice ’til recently.
      Your words have opened my eyes that at this stage of the game for humanity we have to look seriously at how much stuff needs to stay on the planet.
      As makers we have the need to bring the stuff of dreams into reality & it’s important to make them well but how long they last is another thing… plastic has the potential to never break down completely and is now a part of our planet’s ecosystem… using natural materials & allowing the work to turn back into compost and nourish the earth is so important and what I really like is how this line of thought is tying my gardening and environmental activist work into my art practice, there is much to explore!

      • Dana says:

        This conversation has energized so many threads of thought I’m having trouble gathering them into something understandable… Making things that last is one way that we endure beyond the span of our own physical existence and owning things that have lasted transmits the experiences of previous generations into our time. Objects have power and as you said, making things well is important and valuable. However, thinking too much about legacies infuses self-consciousness into what we make and blunts the impulse that brings it into being. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I think we are beginning to realize that the spark of creativity within us is all we can really control and manifest…what happens as our idea assumes form and takes on its own life, then passes into the hands of others is its story as much as ours. Sometimes the beauty of a rust stain prompts us to make something that compounds and celebrates that beauty even if the rust itself will spell the eventual end of our creation. What I think is changing is our ability to appreciate the dance of transformation, which perhaps is a metaphor for our ability to accept our own death as a part of something beautiful. As the Japanese have told us, the melancholy awareness of the passage of time is a most exquisite experience. Finally accepting this beauty may begin to mend the split between heaven and earth. You are so right about gardens and environmentalism and art all being part of our re-weaving.

        • Mo Crow says:

          a question my mentor in glass engraving Anne Dybka often asked was in a thousand years what will resonate more and tell the story of our times… this hand made pot with the mark of the human hand or a CD that no one knows how to play any more?
          thinking more about this now in the light of our 21stC need for everyone to a make a much lighter footprint in our time here on the planet…

  9. Hi Mo,
    I have only just been able to access my accounts after having them blocked so have only just read this post. An interesting post and some very interesting comments, I love what Dana has written. Thanks for mentioning my site, I have been thinking a lot about what you have said about wanting work to last. I decided maybe I was being a ego centric wanting my work to last for generations, maybe I would like to pass some onto my children but who knows they could end up in the local charity shop after I am gone, so I decided I would like my work to last for my lifetime and then when I turn into compost maybe it can as well. (though it is a good feeling knowing others appreciate you work enough to want to purchase it and have it in their home).
    Kimberley Baxter Packwood has a fascinating blog and has done extensive work with rust she has an interesting entry way back in 2008, I wish I knew how to link stuff but I don’t, but its worth checking out for all those who want to work with rust and that includes me sometimes.
    With regard to rust dust etc I would have thought a little contact with rust is ok for those who are not overly sensitive to stuff. I sometimes worry about the amount of dust and fibre I breathe in from working with yarns and fabrics. This is getting a bit random so I am stopping.

    • Mo Crow says:

      Thanks for your good words Debbie, it was your post about working with Alice Fox, an artist I deeply admire for her integrity that caught my attention & got me thinking hard. I have another post coming soon about this leaning towards using string, thread & cloth in my work again after abandoning it back in 1982 in favour of glass. Your mention of dust is very relevant as glass dust is the main reason why I don’t work with glass much anymore, I have no lymph nodes left in my neck so I can’t tolerate any dusts at all!
      Have a look at Debbie’s beautiful weaving with driftwood here on her website

  10. You do bring up interesting questions, Mo. I used to work only in ‘normal media’ like printmaking, drawing, and painting, but now that I use everything but the kitchen sink, the question, “But is it archival?” has come up. I can’t really speak to rusted cloth, but I do use rusty metal bits in my work at times, and I do sell it. I generally try to coat everything, including rust, organic matter, etc, with lots of gel medium to seal it as well as possible. i do the same with any papers that are not acid-free. If the dying technique of a piece of cloth is ‘experimental’ and the fastness is not known, perhaps that should be understood by the client before buying. Also, there may be something (analogous to my gobs of gel medium) that would preserve and stabilize the cloth? There are many variables to consider, such as whether the cloth is under glass, framed, or worn as clothing of some kind.

    • Mo Crow says:

      Hi Sharmon, thanks for your good words re sealing the work, the Gel Medium would work well for preservation but I am still a little unsure of the longevity of these gel mediums as they are experimental in nature as are a lot of the acrylic mediums that we we thought were so safe 20 years ago but are proving to be quite toxic with side effects after all! I experimented with Dorland’s Wax Medium last year with the windows open and a fan on as the fumes are pretty wild for a good 36 hours!

  11. Sweetpea says:

    Thank you for inviting me over to comment, Mo, although I’m not sure how much I can add.

    You asked in this post, “Is it honest to damage, fray, peel & rust our art?” I think in art, anything goes. That is the most honest approach surely, if that is how one needs/desires to express something.

    Speaking from a completely subjective point of view, there are two primary reasons I am not too terribly keen on rust [altho I love the dark marks left from iron]. First, the health reasons. There is a risk dealing [handling, breathing] with rusty metal on a frequent basis. It’s been well documented and I do believe, as mentioned above, that Kimberly Baxter has had serious health issues as a result of her earlier experiments – she would be a good one to talk to about this. And second, also mentioned above, I personally am not fond of the crunchy *feel* it gives to cloth … hand sewing or beading on it is not something I look forward to ;>]] Sometimes I’ll achieve rusty marks on cloth while I’m on the way towards achieving something else … and when that happens, if the marks are pleasing and are going to stay with the cloth, I’ll dunk them in a bath of baking soda to deactivate the decay [so to speak]. I don’t tend to “rust on purpose.”

    All that being said, I still think rust is quite beautiful and have stopped to photograph it in situ many a time. Although I can appreciate & admire the natural process, I have no desire to hasten the event for use in my own handwork. But that’s just me. Others have obtained great beauty doing so.

  12. mutabilia says:

    while i am a great admirer of Richard Serra’s beautiful work i try to avoid rusting on cloth and paper. it compromises the substrate [ie makes paper and cloth brittle] and i find it frankly hilarious that a number of self-styled masters suggest that rust is a viable long-term colourant.

    but do we really know what we are talking about when we use the word “rust”? if we are agreed that rust describes Ferric oxide then we’re on common ground. ferric oxide [the red/orange substance produced as iron breaks down in the presence of oxygen] weakens metal, let alone paper, cloth and humans. it should be handled with care. the black “rust” on the other hand, that is produced in an acidic environment when the surface of iron implements becomes coated with ferrous oxide [example being coins in a linen pocket exhumed from the bottom of a lake] is another matter and has been known to contribute to the longevity of cloth, which is why i happily employ it as a darkening agent in my dyebaths.


    • Mo Crow says:

      ah this is what I needed to read India but am still wondering why the iron mordants used to make black dyes in the early 20thC have caused some vintage fabrics to deteriorate prematurely, to quote from the V&A-
      “Metal salts were used as a fixative (also called a mordant) and to chemically modify the colour of a natural dye. One such mordant was based on iron, which gave a rich dense black. Over time, the iron salts attack the fibres themselves, weakening them to such an extent that they eventually turn to dust…iron mordants are chemically bound to the textile fibres and cannot be removed. –
      See more about this here

      • India says:

        20th century iron mordant = usually ferrous sulphate,
        a corrosive metallic salt which may not (so far as I understand it) be legally disposed of in the common drain in any state of Australia

  13. mutabilia says:

    and as a post script, a bit more about rust [in very simple terms] can be found here

  14. Mo Crow says:

    What a good conversation, have learned a lot, had my head spun ’round a few times and see a lot of new directions in the not too far away.
    Elizabeth Bunsen of Be Dream Play has a very busy week happening but wrote an e-mail –
    “when I eco-dye on watercolor paper I don’t use a mordant – the iron will instead be a result of using metal clips to hold the boards tight or (depending on the material of the pot) if iron is somehow present (rusty washers to make moons, etc.)… also rolling long sheets of paper around tin cans/copper pipe is effective… so I don’t ever use a mordant per se – altho the iron does sometimes give a pleasant effect – I think that once the paper is dry the rust is arrested for all practical purposes but I cannot speak to the long term effect… I think the process as a whole is perhaps out of the archival arena… years ago I had a framing business and archival materials were important to some… now I am of a wabi sabi turn of mind…”

  15. deemallon says:

    What an interesting thread! I, too, love what Dana said.

    Even sunlight will damage cloth over time, and when people buy a quilt meant to be hung on a wall, I tell them that. But I don’t recommend they frame behind glass. Part of the glory of cloth is its touch-ability and quilted cloth offers shadow and variations in light-catching that will go away if behind glass. I add this here, even though it is not about the ARTIST distressing her cloth and there is no moral dilemma relevant to non-disclosure, it seems relevant.

    This thread has made me think about visual trends, too — even though not quite the focus here. I feel so, so drawn to eco-dyed fabrics and clearly, so do many, many others. A real trend, then. If I had to name a reason for why this might be so, I would venture to say that this time on the globe feels fragile — Eco-dyeing captures both the desire to re-connect to nature and use her offerings well, but also to recognize processes of decay and distress.

    • Mo Crow says:

      I fully agree about the tactile nature of cloth, it is indeed our second skin!
      & re trends… hmmm… once there is a recognizable trend in anything the rebel in me has to dig around, look hard & quite often reject it as part of my working practice. I dallied with earthy tea and coffee stained colours last year and am playing with indigo this year (variations of blue have been an ongoing theme in my work for the past 30 years) but for the next little while it’s back to the drawing board, working in Black & White to finish the crow drawings (in the middle of song no 34 out of 38!) will be back soon to discuss the importance and nuances of Line as a concept, as a way of working and as something to hold onto in an uncertain world.

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