Portraits of Women Vol. 12: Rachel Rutt

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Model, artist, weaver, songstress, Rachel Rutt is the definitive hyphenate. The Hong Kong-born, Japanese bred, Australian phénomène has an unassuming ethereal way about her. She is at once completely down to Earth yet enigmatic, baby-faced with a wisdom well beyond her years. Speaking with Rachel, it’s easy to lose oneself down a meandering and ceaselessly engaging labyrinth of conversation. So, I bring to you the highlights of our delightful chat.
Spoiler: the best stuff is at the end.

Interview by: Julia Reiss

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So Rachel, let’s start from the very beginning. I read you were born in Hong Kong, but you grew up in Japan...
 
That’s right, I’ve been [in Australia] for 13 years and have naturalized.

Of the many hats you wear and have worn, the first one was that of a model. How did you start your modeling career?
 
I guess it’s like most girls, sort of. In my case, people were telling my mum that I should do it. I remember when I was in high school, I wanted to see the world and thought, “How else am I going to do it?” I [couldn’t] afford to otherwise, and this was a job that if it actually works, you can [travel]. That was my main pursuit in doing it. I didn’t really know anything about fashion—not more than the general person. It didn’t come from a level of creativity, although that was introduced later on, it happened naturally.
 
Is there a moment that you became a “fashion person,” so to speak, or did you always feel like an outsider?
 
This is a question I thought about a bit recently in realizing a lot of my friends are in the fashion world or the creative world, and I wondered, “How did that happen?” I know it’s because I got introduced to them through modeling. There may not have been an exact moment when I realized I loved it—I actually think I hated it for a really long time. As a model, you’re objectified so much. You’re portraying the end product of what has been a really long creative process. It took me a long time to understand the inner workings of what was happening and take it out of myself. When you start, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, you’re thinking about yourself and what you’re projecting. You think that if you don’t get a job, it’s because of you, and it’s actually not because of you at all. It’s because someone else is more suitable for it. I think there was a moment in time where that started taking over, and you start taking yourself out of it. The first time I went overseas to shows, which would have been 2009, I made a promise to myself not to take castings so seriously, and not think about them once I’d finished them in order to save myself the paranoia. I think making that pact with myself was really empowering in the long run. As I become an adult, I think I’ve realized the power of that moment.
 
 
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For sure. I think that’s probably great advice for us non-models as well in life and in work. So skipping forward a few years, did you go from modeling to weaving, then to music?  (P.S. Rachel is one half of the band Heart People).

So, first it went from modeling to knitting. Basically, I started doing it as a backstage hobby, because there’s so much waiting time for models. I was so bored, so I started doing that. A few years earlier, my mum’s friend had taught me how to do it. Where my teacher was from in Hong Kong, when you outgrew a sweater, your mum would just unravel it and knit you a bigger one from the same yarn. I just really liked this idea. Obviously, it’s a really sustainable idea, but I didn’t know I was interested in [sustainability] yet. It was just really fascinating to me that you could recreate, and that if you made a mistake you could just go back. It became this really nice meditative process that I would employ daily, which eventually led to a lot of creative projects. Maybe it’s around that time that I started making clothes myself that I started realizing that I liked them. And then I ended up in weaving and studied it, and learned about it from a more structured approach. To weave properly and to learn the techniques, you really have to study them, because they’re quite mathematical.
 
(Rachel and I proceed to discuss the finer points of knitting versus weaving, before I ask my next question.) Is it true that you’re also teaching people how to mend clothes as well?
 
Yes, this is a new project that we got on the road this time last year, so it’s been a full year of working on it. It’s really amazing—through this kind of fiber work, so to speak, in my own life, I realized it was really important to me, from what I’d seen in the fashion industry and the painstakingly slow process of making [clothes] by hand. I realized a lot of people didn’t know how to fix things and just throw them away. There’s no education for that, especially in households, whereas I had been provided that in my youth from my mother and people who had taught me very practical skills that I had taken for granted for a long time. I realized they are really easy, but they’re not really accessible. It takes a lot to go ahead and take a sewing course, but what I’m realizing is a lot of people will show up for an evening of learning the basics.

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I can’t think of a more practical skill for sustainability. It’s funny how those skills got swept under the rug. With the feminist movement, I feel like a lot of those skills were lost, or frowned upon.
 
So, interestingly enough, my father enlightened me that I am related to a very famous knitter. He’s my grandfather’s cousin. He’s long dead now, but he was a bishop, and he was known as the "Bishop of Knitting." He wrote basically the only anthology of knitting, and it was never updated because there really isn’t any need to [update it]. He’s the author of A History of Handknitting. In the introduction of his book, he says that knitting is now considered this domestic woman’s chore, but it’s actually very manly. Back in the day, fishermen had to know how to do it in order to have a trade, you know because of their nets. It’s really only a modern conception (that it’s women’s work). Even with weaving in Mexico and different South American countries, it’s women do the spinning and men do the weaving. It’s actually a shared work.
 
(For further reading about Richard Rutt, the famed knitter, you need look no further than his Wikipedia page.) But you do more than make clothes, you weave art pieces as well. Is there a core theme to your work?
 
I think that it would be exploring the idea of fragility and strength. From a technical point of view, fiber is just that. It comes from something that is really fragile until it gets processed. You think about a silk blouse at the end of its process. Silk comes from a little worm, and it has such a delicate connotation, but silk is actually one of the strongest fibers to work with.
 
Are there any artists that inspire you right now?
 
Louise Bourgeois. It’s interesting on social media now too. Like on Instagram, there’s this guy Bruno Roels, he’s a photographer. He does these sepia-toned images of plants.
 
Tell me about Heart People.

 
So Heart People is a two-piece, it’s me and my now partner. My partner, Ryan, so he’s a musician in life, whereas I was not. (I’ve only worked on this project.) I ended up meeting him… I don’t know, I’ve talked about this in interviews and it’s hard to find the words for it. So, I never really listened to music. I grew up in a commune—I was born into this religious group.
 
Oh, whoa. We should have gotten to this part earlier.
 
Yeah, I left when I came to Australia. But basically, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of music, even things you would take for granted that you’ve heard on the radio your entire life.
 
That must have been hugely impactful on everything you do and your creative approach.
 
It had a lot of influence on this practical level, a lot of people teaching me. That was my education: a lot of hands on teaching. It definitely impacted me from that level as well—being taught that making [things] is normal, it doesn’t make you particularly creative. Everyone just does that.

 
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Okay, back to music…
 
Yeah, so I hadn’t really been exposed to music I really loved, so I never really understood that kind of grab - like going to concerts. I didn’t understand what that was. I went out one night, and it wasn’t actually the night I met Ryan, but he was playing. It was really fun. I had such an amazing night, I ended up telling my whole family about it. You know, you don’t really tell your family about nightlife experiences. I just remember being really inspired by it. And about a month later I got a call from Ryan. We had a mutual friend, who he got my number off of that night. And he goes, “Hey you were there that night. I’m working on this project, and we often use vocalists who aren’t really vocalists to come do spoken word over our tracks. And I wondered if you would be interested because I really liked your energy.” And I said to him, “Normally I’d be really weirded out by this because I don’t know you, but that night made such an important impression on me that I’m definitely going to meet you. This is amazing.” So then that became what is now Heart People, and then we got together in life as well.
 
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Aww! I love that. I needed that story in my life. One last question, what did all your years in fashion teach you about yourself?
 
There’s no right way to do anything and don’t let anyone tell you that there is. You don’t have to include this, but Ryan Lobo was one of the first people to champion me here in Australia as a mixed race model. Back 10 years ago when I started, there was no market for someone who wasn’t caucasian. My agency told me that. It’s amazing now how much it’s changed. It still really needs to update itself, but it’s come a long way. And Ryan Lobo is one of the reasons I even had a career in the first place. When he lived here in Sydney, he was doing styling before he was a designer. Once we met, we ended up working together so much. People like him... It goes to show that you can affect change just by backing your own opinions. He’s a good example of that. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned and not to take it too seriously.