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At the ICA’s ‘Mending Project,’ a therapeutic connection forms among volunteers, visitors

The museum’s interactive installation creates intimacy, understanding among strangers who bond over the mending of garments.

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Janet Scagnelli, left, mends garments while engaging a stranger in conversation at an installation of Lee Mingwei's "The Mending Project" at the ICA at VCU. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

By Leila Ugincius

Broken bones, severed relationships, torn fabric: All things that can be mended.

But mending means so much more than merely repairing, as volunteers and visitors to the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University are experiencing through one of the works in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, on view through Sept. 9.

In the interactive installation “The Mending Project,” by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei, participants converse one-on-one with a volunteer, while the latter mends garments brought in by the visitor. The resulting conversations instill trust, intimacy and self-awareness between the strangers. 

Janet Scagnelli lost her husband a year ago and had given away most of his clothes. But she still had a sweater that she decided to bring in for her mender training, in which she was the “mendee.”

“This lovely young woman was sitting there,” Scagnelli said. “She's just finishing her master’s at VCU Ceramics I think it was. So I sat down, put the sweater down and we talked for over an hour. I mean I was like teary-eyed. It was so powerful. We talked about life and death and Puerto Rico, I remember that. And like wondering if art was enough to change the world.”

Some people equate the experience to therapy, she said, pointing out that it works both ways. “I really, every time, I come away feeling exhausted and exhilarated,” Scagnelli said.

Some people equate the experience to therapy, Scagnelli said. She said it works both ways. “I really, every time, I come away feeling exhausted and exhilarated,” she said. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Some people equate the experience to therapy, Scagnelli said. She said it works both ways. “I really, every time, I come away feeling exhausted and exhilarated,” she said. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Gallery visitors are eager to talk, said volunteer Maggi Tinsley.

“I think the perception is that one should be quiet and reverential in a museum space and that is not what's happening in the gallery where ‘The Mending Project’ is,” she said. “I have found it really easy to engage with every visitor and that is what Lee Mingwei was going for. The conversations do happen easily.”

Tinsley has connected with a 25-year-old African-American man in shorts and a T-shirt who immediately wanted to talk about how his grandmother taught him to sew. Other visitors had come from New York “in their straw hats and their very fine clothing” because they had read about the ICA and were interested. Conversations typically last from five to 10 minutes, although some have lasted more than an hour.

Her first mendee had stopped in Richmond on his way from Alabama to New York.

“And he just said, ‘I don't have anything, you know, can I just sit and talk?’” she said. “Exactly, yes please.”

Another young man had recently graduated from the VCU School of Business and actually needed a couple pairs of pants mended. He was preparing to go abroad for a special summer program and needed his go-to pants repaired.

Having mended numerous items, including shoes, volunteer mender Randee Humphrey has found each of her shifts to be life-affirming and affecting.

Scagnelli, a volunteer "mendor" of "The Mending Project," created patches to sew onto garments that don't need much mending. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Scagnelli, a volunteer "mendor" of "The Mending Project," created patches to sew onto garments that don't need much mending. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

“The stories shared and the repairs made have extended beyond the mere practical, physical mend of some random article of clothing,” she said. “My opening query, ‘Do you have anything that needs mending?’ has led to a dozen or so honest and trusting dialogues between two strangers, far more insightful and open than what we might have said to each other had we simply met while in line at the coffee shop.” 

Ellen Argenzio, a mender who hopes to also experience the project as a mendee, called it extraordinary.

“As a longtime RVA resident, VCU graduate, parent of two VCU students, artist, writer, general ‘MacGyver’ fixer and Renaissance person, it's truly a pleasurable and valuable endeavor,” she said. “I explain the project and mention other exhibits, and museum guests have said repeatedly they truly enjoy being directly addressed and engaged. They enjoy some explanation or context of the exhibits and feel that helps them be more receptive to the intent of the artist’s vision.”

That vision was to create an act of sharing between strangers, Mingwei has said.

“The artist created it in order to stimulate face-to-face conversations among people because in our world today there's less and less of that,” Tinsley said.

Garments that volunteers have mended at "The Mending Project" are attached to the wall with colorful spools of thread. The installation runs through Sept. 9. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Garments that volunteers have mended at "The Mending Project" are attached to the wall with colorful spools of thread. The installation runs through Sept. 9. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Mingwei's intention for the participatory nature of “The Mending Project” is alive and well in Richmond, Humphrey said.

“It's been one of the more powerful experiences of my summer,” she said, “at a time in our culture and political history when I've felt a significant need to be engaged and connect with others in a hopeful, helpful and positive way.”