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Mapping the Senses: The Tapestry of Jessie Dunahoo

In the back corner of Latitude Arts, a shared creative space deep in a Lexington, Kentucky industrial complex, Jessie Dunahoo is hard at work.

Dunahoo is eighty-four. He sports a sturdy flannel, Liberty denim overalls, and a sewing needle balanced between his lips. For the past few years, three days a week and six hours a day, Dunahoo has come to intently, methodically craft his patchwork tapestries.

Jessie Dunahoo with one of his works at Institute 193.

Jessie Dunahoo with one of his works at Institute 193.

Sometimes two-dimensional and sometimes meant to be opened and displayed as a three-dimensional structure, Dunahoo’s pieces are quilt-like—squares of material, cut and sewn together into large swaths of material. “Whatever is given to him, he will use,” says Tena, Latitude’s administrator.

Today, he’s working on a large piece composed of plastic packaging for Scott-brand toilet paper, plastic bags from the supermarket Kroger, and unused EarthAware shipping materials. Two of Dunahoo’s complete pieces are on display at Latitudes and composed of Kroger bags as well as bags from Macy’s and Wal-Mart, and diverse swatches of plaid fabric.

Dunahoo’s fabrication process is painstaking, but forgiving. Born without sense of sight or hearing, Dunahoo works through his pieces by touch. He sews each new fragment onto the tapestry with needle and thread— today, he’s using a red thread, but he’ll use whichever color is available— stretching out the new square to ensure it lines up with the whole piece.

Jessie Dunahoo

Tapestry work by Jessie Dunahoo

Once the fragments are sewn together, Dunahoo pats down the entire suture to ensure that there are no loose ends, and then finds his next piece. The next step relies on a meticulous organizational system known only to Dunahoo. The space under his work structure, about the size of a pool table, is populated by myriad plastic containers, each categorized into different types of material. Dunahoo feels his way around the table to whichever container holds the pieces he’s looking for and begins the process over again.

Though his routine at first glance appears rigid, while Dunahoo works, he sometimes produces anomalies— points where, instead of lining up perfectly, he’ll stitch together two plies at a slight angle. Extrapolated over multiple sections of a tapestry, this creates an irregular open space. At one point during the day, he comes upon one of these spaces in his current piece.

Instead of finding the source of the anomaly and undoing his work, Dunahoo goes to another bin under his table and pulls out a piece unlike the others he’s been working with today— rather than a square grocery bag, this is a sharp rectangular newspaper bag, one whose area encompasses the irregular opening in Dunahoo’s work.

Detail of Jessie Dunahoo's work.

Detail of Jessie Dunahoo’s work.

In making this choice, Dunahoo allows his pieces to act not just as a tapestry, but a record of his process, a map of his senses. After watching Dunahoo commit to one of these anomalies on the piece he’s working on, they become apparent in the other pieces on display at Latitudes— grey Wal-Mart bags askew against the ninety-degree angles of the rest of one piece; the other has a large whole that spans nearly a third of the piece, covered with an industrial white garbage bag.

Dunahoo only communicates via sign language and writing out letters in the palm of his hand. Though none of the staff are able to translate today, he’s very animated and happy to try to communicate with anyone. Tena says that in the past he’s explained the thickness (more than one layer of bags) of one of his particular piece, referring to it as a “winter shelter.”

Jessie Dunahoo at work.

Jessie Dunahoo at work.

This practicality isn’t only in name. Until Dunahoo began working at Latitudes, his constructions weren’t art at all, but rather utilitarian solutions to living without sense of sight or hearing. “The guy that started Latitudes actually found Jessie by driving by his house. He saw this maze of string in his yard. That’s how Jessie was getting around. And he went and talked to Jessie’s caretakers, and that’s how Jessie was brought into Latitudes.” Dunahoo works by himself, but is friendly with the other artists at Latitudes, who work across a variety of mediums.

Dunahoo’s work and the rest of the studio is open to the public Monday through Friday 8:30-4:30, and offers volunteer opportunities as well as classes for artists. His works can also be found at Institute 193.