A Multitude of Possibilities
Art has been an integral part of multidisciplinary artist Toby MacNutt’s life since childhood. MacNutt, who uses they/them pronouns, has been dancing since they were enrolled in their first class at five years old. Their grandmother taught them to knit and sew in elementary school, an age when they also began writing poetry and stories.
MacNutt’s creative practices have continually evolved since childhood, challenging systems and structures in order to create space for their work to exist. Their art is deeply informed by their lived experience as a queer, nonbinary-trans, disabled person.
“I return to themes of embodiment and relationship repeatedly as a throughline of my work,” they write on their website. “It is queerly disabled from the inside out.”
MacNutt, who has served as an NEA dance panelist, is both a dancer and choreographer, working in contemporary, improvisational, and adaptive styles. They write poetry and experiment with a variety of textile arts, including quilting, knitting, and weaving, among others. Now that they have access to a yard at their home in rural Vermont, they have also taken up gardening.
Given the multitude forms of expression MacNutt engages with, we sat down with them to hear more about their perspective on living an artful life. MacNutt reflects on making art for joy rather than profit, what it means to shake off “structural baggage,” and how their art intersects with their identity.
FOR THE LOVE OF CRAFT
I am a multidisciplinary artist. I work in dance as a choreographer and a performer as well as textile arts. I also write fiction and poetry, mostly speculative or genre work, sci-fi fantasy or slipstream. Those three [artistic practices] have been with me for a really long time.
The different genres and media ebb and flow over time and sometimes have taken fairly long hiatuses. Occasionally, I sprinkle other things in and out there. I always love to try any new way of making a thing, anything you do with your hands. I love tools and any sort of creative stuff.
I’m always looking for new processes or media to try, and textile arts are just a rabbit hole of that. You start with knitting and then you think, “It would be useful to be able to crochet better for this edging.” So, you start learning crochet and then maybe you dye your own yarn. Yarn is very interesting, so you learn how to spin and then you hear there’s a loom that’s available somewhere and one thing leads to another.
There’s a sort of interesting tension as a multidisciplinary artist, where it’s really interesting and unique and generative to let your art forms fuse into one another. I’m having more fun being more intentional with that in recent years. But in the vein of thinking about ways we can find better ways of being, when you become an artist professionally, there’s a new pile of structural baggage, of expectations about your work. How fast can you make it? How much can you do? What does it cost? Who is it for? How is it marketed? It’s really easy for your whole creative being to be commercialized and commoditized.
People love to say, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The rejoinder to that is, “Do what you love and you will literally never stop working ever, the end,” which I’ve found to be very true. It’s really important for creative folks, whether they’ve called themselves an artist or not, to have some component that’s not capitalism, that’s not money.
Make a quilt because you want to make it, not because the pattern will sell or because you want to sell the object, but just for the love of doing it or love of its intended recipient. It’s so easy to have everything get sucked into the grind, but in taking care of ourselves and in trying to have a better world to live in, we need to hold on to some things that can still just be for us or just for giving or sharing in a non-money-based way.
ART AND INTERSECTIONALITY
On a broad, meta level, there’s connections between the ways queer people and trans people continually reinvent ourselves and the creativity involved in existing in an ableist world. Creativity is part of that lived experience, and it’s important to me in performing and in writing to represent that as authentically as I can.
The definition [for dance] I tend to use is making an intentional choice about movement or stillness—about movement of your body and how it is seen, which we don’t have to be on a stage to do. As a disabled person, that feels really important as someone whose ability to move my body and ability to engage with dance as an art form fluctuates a lot—there’s a pandemic and I live in a fairly geographically remote area. How I connect to things, when I can do them, how I can do them can all look really different, but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible or not valid.
My disability is technically not progressive, but functionally, it gets worse over time. In my teens through puberty and adolescence, things began to get worse and we didn’t know why. We didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t have a diagnosis or anything, and a variety of people who didn’t know any better told me that dance wasn’t good for me anymore and was probably hurting my body and that I would have to stop. I spent a decade or so away from dance and heartbroken.
"I'm really interested in the way alternative perspectives of the body and the world and relationships can create new ideas and aesthetics in any medium."
Then after that decade-ish, I got a diagnosis and started to understand myself as disabled. I started to meet other disabled people, started to meet disabled dancers, had this inkling of “Hang on, maybe I’ve been misled.” My girlfriend at the time, who was a disabled woman who also used canes, said, “I’m going dancing and you’re coming with me.” Out we went and it all snowballed from there. It got me back, thank goodness.
I think a lot of my creative work is occurring in seasons, which aren’t necessarily literal calendar seasons, but there will be a time when my motivation and energy and opportunities to do work are going to align more toward spending a lot more time writing or more time in the studio.
Sometimes I just come off a performance and I need to let that sit for a while, and I’ll dive into a new textile technique. If I’m in a moment of writing being at the forefront, for example, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped being interested in textiles or stopped being interested in dance. It’s just in a rotation. Everything is sort of moving on micro and macro levels at once. The body is still moving, the mind is still moving, the whole creative process is still turning on a cyclical level.
I’m really interested in the way alternate perspectives of the body and the world and relationships can create new ideas and aesthetics in any medium. Particularly in dance, there’s such a wide possibility of aesthetic and being that’s possible that a lot of times goes underexplored because a lot of mainstream “dance,” air quotes on that one, is very similar bodies doing very similar sorts of performance. But there are so many ways to have a body and be in the world, and they’re interesting to do and to watch and to experience.
I write what I wish I could read a lot of the time and in dance, it’s fairly similar. I make the kind of work that I wish I could see and the kind of work that I wish could be in my body.