Tuft Stuff

Meet Alise Anderson, a rug-making, video and performance artist who deftly, honestly and humorously blends them into a riot of color and confusion we can’t get enough of.



Walking into Alise Anderson’s Oakland studio is a bit like entering a colorful tufted wonderland. Cones of yarn in cheerful hues of lavender, chartreuse and bubblegum pink adorn the floor, and graphic tapestries, rugs and quilts cascade from the ceiling. Apart from her prolific textile work, Anderson is also an avid filmmaker and performance artist—yes, she is a bonafide creative triple threat. We caught up with the artist to get a peek into her process and maybe catch a bit of her technicolor worldview. 

You work in a wide variety of media – film, performance, textiles – do you see these as distinct forms of creative expression or simply different means to explore the same ideas?
They definitely feel different. I feel like the filmmaking and performing come from a much deeper personal space, and definitely satisfy a whole different part of the creative process for me. The textile stuff feels more like something I have to do every day to be happy. It doesn’t have the same kind of emotional connection that filmmaking does for me, but exploring color and shapes and the handmade process is essential to living for me.


Can you describe the creative process for your textile work?
I feel like I’m very driven by color and that’s usually where an idea starts. I also never really plan. I might just create a pile of yarn in colors that I want and then sometimes I do a loose drawing on the back of the work, but I never know where things are going until I actually get started. Any time I do plan it changes and then I get frustrated. The non-planning is more of a fun process for me. With the tufting guns there’s the ability to make really short or really long pile heights, and the ability to do a cut yarn or a looping yarn and I’ve learned a lot about what yarn looks best where. They’re largely used for industrial carpets and it’s pretty fast. That’s the other thing I really love about this: I’m not a very patient person, and I don’t sit and do things well like weaving or knitting, but this is like a power tool—you’re sweating and it’s physically hard and you’re creating this beautiful thing.

Where’d you learn how to do it?
I’d been working in textiles for a while, but began tufting six months ago. I saw a video on the internet that a company made about people in India making tufted rugs. I lost my mind, and I started dreaming about it. Everything in my dream world was becoming tufted and I started doing an insane amount of research, saved some money, and slowly started buying things. And it’s been a lot of trial and error – the gun breaks a lot so I’ve had to learn how to take it apart and put it back together. 


We love your “That’s What He Said” tapestry series. What is it about fiber that you feel allows you to fully explore themes such as language, emotion and culture at large?
I think that for this project in particular, I was interested in the idea of embroidery. I learned embroidery from my grandma and my mom, both of whom embroider what you’d expect women their ages to– home sweet home pillows, etc. It’s thinking about the way my grandma would cross-stitch, and what you’d expect of cross-stitch and embroidery. I really like the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned or “crafty” nature of embroidery with the painful things boys have said to me, which is very modern.

You did a residency at Have Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Do you want to talk a little about the project you undertook there?
That was a really wonderful experience. I worked on a project that somehow combined all my interests. I spent the two weeks there building this “Tiny Room, Tiny Pocket” invention, which involved a lot of sewing. I’m not much of a pre-planner, and I feel like the making and building process helps inform what’s going to happen in the film. I had a week and a half to film this “Tiny Room, Tiny Pocket” product, where I get on camera as a character that’s trying to sell you the invention. I built a website for it that looks like Amazon and you can actually buy the product, which is really like a safe space. The residency in general was pretty magical. I’ve never had two solid weeks of zero interruption to work on something and there was no work bothering me or social engagements; plus, it was the dead of winter so I was locked inside the whole time.


While your work explores formalist ideas such as color and form, it also demonstrates a preoccupation with more conceptual notions such as themes of anxiety and isolation. How do you reconcile the two? Are they separate or complementary to one another?
They feel so separate to me, yet they feel equally important – they feed off each other. When I’m sitting and working on tufting or quilting I can totally check out mentally and I think that that informs the ideas, characters and process of my film work. The need to make something daily is so important to me, and it is essential that I satisfy that. It allows me to tap into ideas for other projects.

What’s on the horizon? Commissions, shows, exploring, figuring things out?
All the above! I’m doing West Coast Craft, which is something I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ll be showing my quilt project, which involves both quilts, as well as a film. The film features a similar character that appeared in “Tiny Room, Tiny Pocket.” She’s sexually repressed and awkward and has this brilliant idea that people need these blankets to carefully and selectively explore their partners’ bodies. I also have this project where I’m making a bunch of three-dimensional household objects blown up in size that are tufted – an iron, a vacuum, a giant fork, a fern. There will also be a narrative film component, that explores the idea of objectifying objects that you assume are akin to the repressed housewife. Not objectifying the woman, but objectifying the object.