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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a home for making art at Duke.

Julia Gartrell’s Radical Repair Workshop

Published By Katy Clune
Published on: February 22, 2021

Meet Julia Gartrell, the sculptor whose latest project is based in a rebuilt 1966 camper trailer. We revisit an interview conducted pre-pandemic and learn how the Radical Repair Workshop has evolved over the last year before her In Conversation artist talk this Fri, Feb 26. "I’m interested in the labor behind making things," shares Gartrell. 


The RRW in downtown Durham. Photos courtesy Julia Gartrell.

Juila Gartrell is a Durham-based sculptor who has launched a new kind of public art project. The Radical Repair Workshop (RRW) is a “is a pop-up art experience that encourages you to reconsider your relationship to mending, sentimental objects, single-use items, and radical (potentially non-functional) modes of repair.”

In late 2019, Gartrell transformed a 1966 camper trailer, “Sonny,” into a gallery-studio-workshop, supported in part by a residency at the Rubenstein Arts Center. In early 2020, the RRW opened its doors to visitors at four different Durham locations—and then the pandemic hit.

Follow the RRW on Instagram at @radical_repair_workshoop.

While her original vision is on pause, Gartrell has created new uses for the RRW platform during COVID-19. She began #mendingmondays, a weekly noontime @radical_repair_workshop Instagram livestream during which you can watch her experiment with repairing lampshades, crumbling book covers, and more. Gartrell received funding from the Center for Craft’s Craft Future Fund to have conversations with seniors isolated by COVID-19 and collaborate on a long-distance repair project. Gartrell and I also began a repair fieldwork project amidst the pandemic. (When we applied for the Library of Congress Archie Green Fellowship, we had no clue we’d be doing the oral history interviews outdoors, bringing our own camp chairs, a 6-foot-long HMDI cord, and mic sanitizing spray.)

Join us at noon this Friday, February 26, for In Conversation to learn more about the Radical Repair Workshop and how Gartrell’s work has evolved since its founding.

In honor of the occasion, we share an interview I recorded with Gartrell back in early January 2020.

Interview with Julia Gartrell

Tell me a little about your childhood and pathway to becoming an artist.

I grew up in Durham and I was always surrounded by really talented young artists. I had a really good art education all the way up through high school. At George Watts Elementary School I had a really quirky, passionate art teacher, Ms. Purple. By my senior year at Durham School of the Arts, I was taking three art electives. I thought I wanted to go to college for science, and minor in art, but there were some twists of fate with pre-requisites, and I loved the sculpture faculty at Kalamazoo College. Within the first month of school I called my mom and told her I was going to be an art major.

When I moved back to Durham after graduating, I worked at The Scrap Exchange, which further informed my understanding of materials and process. After five years I began a sculpture MFA program at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. Then I went immediately to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN, where I could distill the chaos of grad school and start a new body of work under less pressure.

Gartrell brought the Radical Repair Workshop to the Ruby in early 2020 for a DukeCreate Workshop. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

How has Durham changed?

It is so different. When I was growing up, downtown was not a place you would go because there was nothing happening. Main Street was mostly abandoned. It was so cheap to have an art space downtown back then. A group of artist friends and I rented a studio together. We were a little wild—there was a sense of anarchy downtown.

How would you describe your work?

I am a sculptor interested in traditional Appalachian craft methods, learned through family lore and history. I also look at how, as a culture, we approach, care for, and repair material objects—and how that has changed over the past century. I’m interested in the labor behind making things.

“I’m interested in the labor behind making things.”

My grandpa was born in north Georgia in a cabin that did not have running water, but it had a diverted stream that was channeled near the house through a hollowed-out log. When you lived in the middle of nowhere like that, you learn all these hand skills out of necessity. My great uncle Clarence, a WWII veteran, began making baskets in his seventies       once he retired from mining coal. He would find scraps of wood and harvest kudzu vines and make these gorgeous baskets.

RRW at the American Tobacco Campus in January 2020.

Tell me how the idea for the Radical Repair Workshop evolved.

For a long time my work has looked at creative reuse, materiality, discarding functional fixedness, southern identity, and craft culture.

I proposed the original idea for the Radical Repair Workshop a long time ago, back in grad school. I was really interested in travelling to do interviews with people who work in the professional repair field. It was right around when Cuba was opening up, and I was interested in learning from people there.

The RRW grew out of the skills I’ve developed and my desire and joy of being an educator. As a studio artist, you don’t necessarily get a lot of chances to show people what you’re working on or to give them a twenty-minute lesson. The RRW is a travelling studio, workshop space, and gallery housed in a vintage camper. My goal is to create an archive of sentimentally—or radically—repaired objects that have been “donated” together with their stories.

The workbench inside the RRW.

What do you want people to think about after they encounter the Radical Repair Workshop?

I want people to walk away thinking about what is in the back of their cabinets, what they have held onto for a long time. I want people to think about what they’ve repaired and why, and if it was successful.

What has been the hardest part of this project?

This is the most public-facing work I’ve made in a long time. I bought the camper a little naively, and ended up having to rebuild the entire structure. I have used every skill I have, and then some: carpenter, sculptor, marketer, graphic designer, web designer. Putting all my eggs in this basket, and knowing it is all about the public interaction, that adds vulnerability and openness to the process.

Horace McKee is a china repair specialist at Replacements, Ltd, and participated in the oral history project Gartrell and Clune are currently completing. Photo by Katy Clune.

How has the project and/or your thinking about the project changed since the pandemic started?

Gartrell answered this question over email to help update us on the current state of the RRW:

Wow, this project has really evolved since the beginning of the pandemic! I was imagining by this time I would have recently wrapped up an east coast journey with Sonny, visiting schools and museums with whom I have relationships. The pandemic has slowed me down, forced me to reflect and pivot. In some ways that has been very productive. I’ve worked hard on my repair skills. I’ve learned a lot through #mendingmondays, both hand skills and the tools that it takes to teach online. I’ve gotten the chance to have wonderful, thoughtful, and vulnerable conversations with people through the oral history interviews. I can’t wait to see what the transcripts from those conversations become.

Tune into events & opportunities!

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