A ‘great dig’ on the Island

Conceptual artist and professor Carissa Carman encourages us to question our perceptions.


For Carissa Carman, professor of fibers at Indiana University, curiosity, endless learning, and shifting perspectives have always been a driving force in her life and career. Over the years, she has sought to gain new skills, such as becoming a taxi driver, postmaster, baker, and gardener, that she could then “merge into a creative endeavor.” It was her desire to refuel and inspire her studio practice in new and dynamic ways that prompted her to apply for the Eastman Residency here on Martha’s Vineyard. The residency takes place at the Max Forrester Eastman home, which was gifted to IU by his second wife upon her death in 2014 for the sole purpose of allowing IU artists and humanists to carry on Eastman’s rich work of critically engaged thought and expression.

Carman grew up 10 minutes from the Pacific Ocean in California, and has always dreamed of working in seaside villages with netmakers and sailmakers. The Eastman Residency offered her a remote, low-contact destination where she could further research, develop, and carry out the temporary installation of “The Great Dig,” an 18- by 18-foot, eight-pointed, multicolored Lone Star, which was first known as a Mathematical Star and used in seafaring in England and along the Eastern U.S. Seaboard. Carman constructed the star as a dimensional quilt which was sewn together on a portable sewing machine that she packed in her suitcase, and was made of waterproof nylon, in historical colors often used in wayfaring, and hazard and boating signs. She hopes that “by fusing quilt and nautical colors, to be building a new hybrid language.” She likes to blur the lines of a craft, stating that “a sailmaker may not be a quilter, but they are both seamstresses.”

The installation of the dimensional quilt was temporary, being removed almost as quickly as it was installed, but Carman wanted her object to be able to exist even if she wasn’t there. “It has a communication, its message, and it’s doing what it needs to do. Even if it’s temporary, it speaks.” She says that how an object comes to life is so important. When planning a dig, Carman thinks about the ecology of the space, whether it is precarious or stable, she thinks about the weather, the winds, the tides, and time of day. She focuses on using materials familiar to an area, such as ripstop sailing cloth and sand, and then shifting how they are being used, thus inspiring curiosity and speculation: “Why is this here, and what is it doing?”

With everything she needed for “The Great Dig” packed into a single bag, including her shovel, yardstick, tent stakes, rope, and the nylon cloth that she grommeted ahead of time, Carman, her assistant, and a drone photographer stepped onto an undisclosed beach up-Island on Saturday, June 4, and began to dig the 5-foot by 21-inch hole in the sand for the installation of the eight-pointed Lone Star. It was important to Carman that the dimensions of the quilt not be too large, so as “not to disrupt any land mass too much,” being mindful of nontoxic and ethical art practices such as leaving no trace behind, and leaving a space better than when you first arrived. Also important to Carman was a location that had an element of being recognized as the Vineyard, and that was slightly sloped so that a boat from afar could see it, “as a communication symbol.” She chose an area where the sand was compact, using it as the armature that would hold the dimensions of the quilt she had designed.

Now that her Eastman residency and “The Great Dig” are complete, Carman will return to Indiana University and her two children, ages 4½ and 9, who she hopes will be her future diggers. She doesn’t really know what she will do next, but whatever it is, she hopes that she will always be able to merge her art and her life. She will reflect on her experience here on the Vineyard, its successes, what worked, what didn’t. She says she will assess “what scale has the most potential, what colors were most interesting, and design it better.”

Carman is grateful for her two weeks here at the Eastman home, and says, “Thank you to the Island for offering a beautiful location.” She will use her experience to renew and re-establish her studio practice, and will continue to produce objects that prompt social interaction in a different way, and trigger viewers to have a sense of curiosity, discovery, and shifting perspectives. She is a believer in big ideas and finding a way to make them happen, which often involves collaboration and “fusing together colleagues who are not yet connected, but should be.” She says of collaboration that it is an opportunity for “perspective shifting, and builds connectedness.” These are ideals that are so important, especially in a post-pandemic world.



  1. Thank You Louise for getting to know and sharing this project. I hope to be able to share tributes, memorials and other sea faring spectatorship to others on unusual shore lines. Invitations and collaborations welcome from airline pilots, communities, museums or boating fleets. The sky is the limit!

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