Artist Chris Walla’s ongoing Hanky Project, featured in Handmade Meaning, is a series of colorful cotton bandannas embroidered with silhouettes of male figures borrowed from pin-up images. The bandannas reference the “hanky code” used by many gay men in the 1970s and 80s as a non-verbal means to communicate sexual preferences. The use of embroidery, a craft historically associated with women, is central to the work. As Walla puts it, “I wanted the ‘making’ of these pieces to refer to the hand-made needlepoint and embroidery practiced by women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for their hope chests.”

Chris Walla, Hanky Project (detail), 2006.

Artist Statement
Our desire to communicate with others, the yearning to be understood, and the ambiguity of what lies between is the current focus of my work.  How we speak, hear, and assimilate both visual information and language is often the genesis of many of my pieces.

I am dyslexic. At times written language has been nothing but abstract.  This experience had a profound impact on me, and it is why I chose to be an artist.  Forms and objects have always served as ways for me to communicate without written and verbal language. What is of primary interest to me as an artist now is the disjuncture between the material and the abstract.  How do we perceive language when it becomes form? How do space and the rendering of that form impact our understanding of the meaning of that language?

Discourse and debate are fundamental to the progression of our ideas as a society. If we do not engage in a dialogue we are left only with unrealized potential.  The unspoken is an impotent promise that provokes no intellectual or emotional evolution. This is why I often choose representations of text or singular words rather than actual language; these representations tend to be neutral or empty. My approach to making objects is wide and varied.  I have employed embroidery to wood fabrication to metalwork in my pieces.  What is most important to me is that the material choices serve the concept.

My goal for my work is for it to exist in an ambiguous space between social critique and formal aesthetics allowing for open interpretation, and, because it occupies the terrain of the familiar, a more subversive reading.

–Chris Walla

Chris Walla, Hanky Project, 2006.

Walla received his MFA in Sculpture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Minnesota. See more of his work at