Transitioning from one distinct medium to another is often a challenge—one that many artists attempt. However, not all accomplish it with the seeming ease of Rachel Brumer. Working in varying combinations of textile, installation, sculpture, photography, and collage, Brumer diligently investigates a number of subjects. Foremost in her work is an almost pathological focus on remembering and honoring people, places, and moments through what she calls “kinesthetic nonverbal communication.” The use of fabric and textiles—conventional and unconventional—runs through most of her work. Brumer describes her material interest: “My tributes are not grandiose—not made of bronze or marble. I like using simple materials; and through time and energy and care, I try to make something beautiful that pays tribute to everyday people.”
Large Regional Still Life I (2011), fittingly noted as a “tribute” by Brumer, evokes all the tropes of the traditional still life, visual and symbolic. (But in this case, the image is printed onto fabric using an antiquated process called Van Dyke printing, originally developed in 1842.) The works in this series focus on concretizing the remembered—or misremembered—lives and personalities of individuals. Titling these portraits “still life” complicates the series meaningfully and in terms of art history, as they become part of a traditional narrative arc that is more concerned with the codification of objects than private lives.
Another work in the series, Memory’s Main Gate XI (2008), ascribes personal—yet collectively relatable—meanings to imagery the artist found during, and in response to, a 2008 family trip to Poland and Ukraine to visit the site of her family’s origin. The work is two image panels, again printed using the Van Dyke process, bound like a book, with a metal spine that holds the two parts together. Memory’s Main Gate XI strikes a heavy nostalgic tone like the Regional Still Life series and pays homage to the knowingly irretrievable memory of Brumer’s ancestors.
The artist has worked with quilts since the 1990s to remember friends lost to the AIDS epidemic and to cherish the memory of family members and friends who passed. Her installation Slumber, the Nights (2007) incorporates similar sentiments, but taking up a much different subject. The installation was set up in reference to a Kazakhstan orphanage that a friend visited to adopt two children. Brumer was interested in creating a room, with child-sized beds and quilts, that visually captured and communicated the optimistic—yet potentially tragic if unfulfilled—spirit of the children awaiting adoption. The work also marks a shift in which the quilt, originally a utilitarian object, returns to the horizontal plane from its place on the wall as a purely visual object.
A few questions resonate with Brumer, throughout her career and life, seemingly never to be answered: How does one describe a family, a genocide, a loss or a life? What does it mean to leave the past behind yet always attempt to describe it? While these are universal questions, Brumer addresses them by making objects: quilts, installations, photographs, and sculptures. Delicate and intricate, personal and collective—Brumer’s work captures some fundamental aspects of what it is to be human.
Rachel Brumer is a visual artist living and working in Seattle, WA. She received her BFA from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, including in Seattle, WA; Cincinnati, OH; Portland, OR; Houston, TX; Chicago, IL; Washington, D.C.; and San Diego, CA. Brumer’s work is in a number of permanent collections, including the University of Washington; Seattle Art Museum; American Craft Museum, New York; Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington; and the Brakensiek Collection of Contemporary Quilts, Los Angeles, CA.