Patricia Malarcher: Listening to Materials

TSGNY: How did you first start working with textiles and textile processes?

Patricia Malarcher: I was finishing an MFA in painting in the late 1950s when I saw an exhibition of contemporary banners at the National Gallery in Washington. They were full of color and texture, hanging freely in space with irregular edges, and seemed refreshingly playful compared to the introspective Abstract Expressionism I’d been exposed to. It was love at first sight — I felt I’d found a path to explore.  Since I already knew how to sew, I felt confident that I could apply what I’d learned about color and design to fabric.

“100 Prayer Flags,” 85” x 85”, each unit 8” x 8”; mixed materials, including fabric, Mylar, paint, canvas, laminated paper, stitching.

PM: At first I continued painting while experimenting with fabric and thread but gradually, with two small children and limited space, I focused on stitching and appliqué. In the late 1960s my husband and I made Christmas cards with silver Mylar, which was just coming onto the market after being developed for NASA. When I found that Mylar could be sewn by machine, I began an ongoing body of work.

“4 Prayer Flags,” each unit 8” x 8”; mixed materials, including fabric, Mylar, paint, canvas, laminated paper, stitching.

PM: Before that, I had been making “soft sculpture” with fabric but was creating geometric forms and didn’t like the way stuffing distorted them. Mylar with vinyl backing was stiff enough to retain a 3-D form without stuffing. I constructed a lot of wall hangings from 3- and 4-sided pyramids, sometimes inverting the centers so they became concave. I also did a series of rhomboids constructed of hexagons and squares. Sometimes these had exteriors of plain linen fabric with shiny Mylar inside.

TSGNY: Was this 3-D work your first prolonged venture into using textile processes in your art practice?

PM: In the ‘70s I learned how to weave, but was never at home with a process that I couldn’t take apart in the middle. I did work with basketry though, and loved the way a form could grow in my hands. I made baskets for more than 10 years, first with yarn and waxed linen, then with natural materials, some from my yard. In the early ’80s, I started writing about fiber and other craft media, and no longer had the stretches of meditative time that basketry needed. So I refocused on the incremental process of Mylar constructions. Eventually I felt the need for color and texture in combination with the metallized Mylar, so I began to add painted canvas and collage elements.

“Cloth of Honor,” 59” x 54”; Mylar, fabric (some hand-dyed), thread, machine and hand stitching.

TSGNY:  How would you describe your current process?

PM: I use many different cloth-like materials—commercial cotton fabrics, painted canvas, Mylar, laminated plastics—anything my sewing machine can handle. Generally I produce a lot of elements that become my raw materials—e.g., canvas shapes painted with acrylics; collages, Gocco prints, fabrics that have been discharged, blueprinted, screen- or transfer printed—initially not knowing how they’ll be used. Recently I’ve been experimenting with encaustic in combination with cloth. Often a piece begins with recognition of unexpected relationships between some elements.

“Alternating Currents,” 48” x 48”; Mylar; fabric; paint; screen-, digital-, and transfer-printing; found materials, leather, hand and machine stitching, collage.

TSGNY: Can you give an example of this kind of unexpected relationship?

PM: I once decided to start a quilt with no plan except to follow a prescription I’d heard in a talk by a Russian icon painter: “Always start with the gold.” The first thing I sewed to a canvas backing was a square of fabric covered with gold leaf and an appliquéd image of an eye from an old painting. As I intuitively added more elements, I picked up some black and gold “tiger-printed” fabric, because of its color.  I realized that vertical tiger stripes resembled flames, and then saw a connection between those and the eye and the William Blake poem: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry? From then on, the piece seemed to take off on its own; the solution to every problem brought it more in line with the poem.

“Window,” 45” x 30”; Mylar, fabric, paint, thread.

TSGNY: Do you feel your choice of materials has posed any particular challenges?

PM: When I pick up a new material, I try to “listen” for what it’s capable of becoming.

“Window” (detail)

PM: The kind of Mylar I liked disappeared from the market, so I had to look for alternative materials. I’ve tried a lot of new things and now want to take some beyond the experimental stage. At present I’m working on a series of small squares (8” x 8”) inspired by the illuminated pages in the new Art of the Arab Lands section at the Met. I’m also exploring ways of working with encaustic and fabric. Sometimes, even if I’ve found a satisfying approach, I challenge myself to see what else is possible so as not to get too comfortable.

“Fugue” (accordion book), 7” x variable dimensions; plastic, paper, thread, laminated and sewn.

TSGNY: Can you give an example of challenging yourself once you’d become comfortable?

PM: A few years ago I purchased a desktop laminator at a yard sale. I started laminating shredded paper that was used as packing material and torn-up pages from art magazines. The stiffness of the laminated sheets suggested the possibility of 3-D constructions, so I began a series of free-standing geometric forms with an architectural feeling. I’d like to be more adventurous with these, making them larger and more complex.

“Cathedral,” 7” x 11” x 6”; plastic, paper, thread, laminated and sewn.

TSGNY: Has your experimentation with materials enabled you to do things you had not been able to do as a painter?

“Terre Verte,” 47" x 43”; fabric, paint, Mylar, transfer prints.

PM: Since I stopped making paintings, I’ve been interested in broadening the range of materials that can be incorporated into textile art. But compared with painting on stretched canvas, one big advantage of fiber is that you can create large wall pieces that can be rolled up and moved around easily.

TSGNY: Has working with these particular materials changed your artistic intent?

“Heroes” (artist book, open), 27” x 27”; fabric, Mylar, paint, leather, found materials, screenprinting, stitching.

PM: At the time I studied art, there was an emphasis on the nature of materials rather than on articulated concepts or representation of subjects. I still seem to start out with a question of what can happen with a particular approach.

“Heroes” (artist book, closed), 9” x 9” x .75”

PM: One thing that fascinates me is how artwork accrues meaning in the process of creating it. Inevitably, it reflects something of the circumstances surrounding its making.

TSGNY: Can you expand on this phenomenon in your own work?

PM: Some time ago, the Gayle Wilson Gallery in Southampton, NY, offered a challenge in collaboration with the American Silk Company. I was among 65 artists who received 2 yards of white silk to “do something with.” I had never worked with silk, but thought of making a piece inspired by silkworm cocoons. I visited a silk museum and looked at lots of photographs in books, but couldn’t find a satisfactory approach. Putting my original intention aside, I dyed small silk squares in dozens of colors, and just started playing. I arrived at a simple form with silk outside and Mylar inside, and arranged multiples of these in Plexi boxes. They looked like mounted butterflies, and then I remembered that a silkworm allowed to complete its cycle would become a moth.

More recently, I experienced a major creative block after 9/11. Everything I started with my usual materials ended in failure. Finally, during an artist residency, I decided to discharge a large batch of black fabric. As I moved the resulting black-and-white patterns around, I found a resonance with the feelings I hadn’t been able to express.

“Cité Noir,” 27” x 33” (mounted on board); fabric, Mylar, discharge, transfer prints, screenprints, appliqué.

TSGNY: Finally, are there any living artists who inspire you whose work you feel we should know about but may not have heard of?

PM: One of my favorite places to visit is the Rubin Museum—I am always inspired by the colors and complexity of Himalayan paintings and textiles. Recently I’ve gone out of my way to see exhibitions of Kiki Smith’s work—it’s completely unlike anything I would ever do, but I love the reach of her imagination. In our own field, I have a lot of admiration for artists who started their careers in weaving or other fiber disciplines and have moved into the larger art world while keeping a connection to their textile beginnings. I’m thinking of people like Anne Wilson, Warren Seelig, Tracy Krumm, Norma Minkowitz, who are doing major work that could not have been conceived without an understanding of textile construction.  I believe these artists are expanding the language of artmaking as a whole.

TSGNY: Thank you, Patricia. You can see more of Patricia’s work  in “Refuse/re-seen” at Some Things Looming (juried by Warren Seelig), Reading, Pennsylvania, April 14-June 2.   She was an exhibitor in TSGNY’s Crossing Lines and has a piece traveling with an exhibition of artists whose work is included in Masters: Art Quilts, Vol, 2 by Martha Sielman.  Her work is also included in Fiber Art Today by Carol K. Russell and appears on the website of the Surface Design Association.

Gammy Miller: The Littoral View

TSGNY: Creatures of the sea, both physical and imagined, inhabit your fiber and non-fiber work. How far back do you trace the origins of that connection?

Gammy Miller: My preoccupations as a child were reading, shell collecting, drawing and stitching.  My intent was to be an “artist” or a “marine biologist,” neither of which I had a clear idea about, nor did I receive any encouragement in either direction.  After earning a degree in fine arts and language — and some dithering about — I became a teacher in the New York City school system. In 1973, fate barged in when the Board of Education set me free to live for long periods of time in Skunk Hollow, New York, an almost uninhabited part of the Fire Island National Seashore. So there I was with the chance to begin anew near a shore lined with shell shards, sea birds and bits of fishing line.

Moon snail (Euspira eros) fragment with waxed linen.

GM: That’s how my life as fiber artist began: with simple half-hitch knots in endless repetition, drawing lines around time- and surf-worn shell shards with waxed linen, a fine marine twine fragrant with beeswax. It was littoral art.  I called the first works “neckhangings” because, although wearable, I wanted them to be considered as a form of art.  I researched and identified all the inclusions, due to my abiding interest in the natural sciences. The Operculum collar includes a patella longicosta, a kind of limpet shell; opercula, the calcareous lids or closures of the Euspira heros or Northern Moon Snail, collected over a period of two years from the drift line on Fire Island; beads and cinnamon sticks. I knotted the collar in number three waxed-linen cord, which I used to buy by the pound from Seaboard Twine, a marine supply house on Murray Street.  My final order with them was for 20 pounds, of which only two remain.

Operculum collar: half-hitch knotted in Irish waxed linen.

TSGNY: How did the “neckhangings” evolve into non-wearable work?

GM: In 1979 I decided to work with basket forms, still using the half-hitch knot.  Although this technique provided a pleasing surface, it became problematic.  In order to have a clean edge, I needed to weave the myriad ends back into the basket.  Very time consuming — even for me who enjoys a certain amount of tedium — so it was logical to move to coiling with needle and waxed linen, using what is known as the “lazy squaw” stitch. (Within the Navaho community, the “lazy squaw” refers to the wrapping of the weft several times around the core before stitching to the previous coil. According to tradition, the squaw who used this method was looked down upon by her peers.) For me, it was difficult not to be a “lazy squaw” because I had to use an awl for each stitch. That solved the “ends” problem but led to sore fingertips. I sometimes covered these baskets in ash or earth, then baked them at low heat so they have some resemblance to clay as well as fiber. I continued to use marine detritus; bones, twigs, shell shards as elements in the composition.

Arizona Basket coiled in waxed linen, baked in earth, with sandpaper and antique glass beads.

TSGNY: That repetitive work with the awl must have been tough on your hands.

GM:  It was! After 18 years (and a severe bout with carpal tunnel syndrome), I turned to the freedom of drawing with pen and ink on cold press Arches watercolor paper, collage and small constructions.

Ornithology: collage with bird’s feet, birch twigs, thread, wire and silhouettes.

TSGNY: Did you miss the feel of fiber, or was it liberating?

GM: Separation from the pleasures of using fiber was a hardship, so I began to stitch on the paper with deconstructed fabric or silk threads for accent and color as elements in the composition.  I use repetitive marks, which for me are akin to the act of knotting, coiling and stitching in that each action becomes part of and essential to the whole.

"Offshore": pen, ink, pulled threads, false eyelashes, stitching.

GM: Drawing freed me to explore again the natural sciences, ornithology among them, and the use of language.  For me, part of a finished work includes an apt title.  I have begun to use faux-Latin nomenclature for part of a current series on maladaptations in the evolutionary process.

Ischnochiton galfonsii, ventral view: pen, ink, false eyelashes, stitching, pulled threads, collage.

TSGNY: When you say “maladaptations,” are you commenting on our human impact on their evolution?

GM: I’m definitely using the term “maladaptations” as a snide comment about how we, the most powerful species on Earth at this particular time, are affecting evolution both purposefully and inadvertently.  Some of the drawings, however, are merely playful, as if one could stir a bunch of genetic traits in a soup pot to see what would emerge. I have titled these pseudo-scientific drawings of organisms using binomial nomenclature. They have a genus, sometimes actual; species, always made up; sometimes followed by the name of the author of the scientific name, which in this case is me.   Thus Chiton ciliata falsus, var. gam (chiton with false eyelashes) and  Ischnochiton galfonsii, ventral view — Galfonsii being the latinized name of a fictional scientist who discovered these species of chiton, probably here on the east coast. The drawing of the dorsal view has been lost.

Chiton ciliata falsus, var. gam (detail). Pen and ink, edged with silk and stitched with false eyelashes.

TSGNY: Now that you no longer have the physical stress caused by the demands of repeated knotting, would you say your current technical choices present any particular challenges?

GM: The greatest challenge is to keep the compositions “eloquent without unnecessary chitchat” (to paraphrase Miro), to resist going too far by adding one more mark, one more stitch. Repetition can be a drug. One has to know when to stop.

TSGNY: Which seems like the perfect place to stop. Before we go, are there any artists who inspire you whose work you think we should know about?

GM:  There are many artists who inspire me, and I guess most are fairly known.  Morris Graves, Anne Ryan, El-Anatsui, Hiroyuki Doi (an obsessive circle maker) and Chun Kwang-Young.

TSGNY: Thank you, Gammy. You can see more of Gammy Miller’s work here and in her solo show, “Unnatural Selections” at the Hudson Opera House from March 31 – June 3.


Jackie Abrams: Simplifying the Form

TSGNY: How has your work as a basketmaker evolved over time?

Jackie Abrams: In 1975 I apprenticed to an 81-year-old traditional white-ash basket maker. For 13 years I made traditional and functional baskets, primarily of natural materials. Since 1990, I have been working with painted cotton paper as a weaving material, using both traditional and sculptural basket techniques.

I’m currently working on two different series. One is called “Women Forms,” which I started around 2004. These pieces are woven using painted archival cotton paper and wire. (I paint the paper, but don’t make it.) I was exploring the technique of using paper and wire together, to see what was possible. As the semi-completed pieces sat together on my worktable, they seemed to represent a group of women, gathering strength from each other.

"Sisters of Color," 5", 6", and 7" high; woven with cotton paper and wire, covered with sand from Eastern Long Island.

JA: I weave these forms to be sculptural, rather than symmetrical, shaped by our life experiences. The forms are covered with encaustic wax, textured acrylic mediums and paints, or sands and earth. The visible woven inside is always a contrast to the outside surfaces. The series continues to interest me, both emotionally and technically. The inside and outside surfaces present interesting challenges and possibilities.

"Talking Sisters," 14" and 15" high; woven with cotton paper and wire, covered with layers of encaustic wax.

JA: A more recent series, started in 2006, are my “Spirit Women.” They are coiled and stitched, using fabrics, often recycled, or plastic bags. It is an adapted and simplified ancient technique that is found almost universally. My core materials are visible, an important part of the piece.

"Wisdom," 9" high, 7" wide, 7" deep; stitched and coiled using recycled dry-cleaner bags and VCR tapes, silver ribbon, thread.

TSGNY: What prompted this venture into coiling and recycled materials?

JA: Since 2005, I have been working in Africa, primarily in Ghana. To date, there have been eight journeys. I have helped to develop sustainable micro-craft industries using recycled materials. I’ve also been hired as a basket consultant and have worked with basket makers in both Ghana and Uganda. I observed that the technique of coiling was used over and over again, by many women, in many African countries.

My most recent project was in Pokuase, Ghana. I taught the women to crochet with discarded plastic bags that litter the environment. In the evenings, during my ‘down’ time, I picked up the bags and started to coil. I wanted to capture the spirit and energy of the women with whom I worked. My first pieces were made in Pokuase, using the materials on hand – much the way the African women make do with what they have.

"Small Spirit Women," 4" to 6" high; stitched and coiled using fabrics, plastic bags, threads, sand.

TSGNY: What first took you to Ghana?

JA: I have always had an interest in Africa. In elementary school I remember creating an African village. When I started making baskets in 1975, African baskets were the ones I loved and slowly collected. I always knew that was where I wanted to go.

TSGNY: Did you decide ahead of time to work with women, or did that happen once you got there?

JA: I have found that working with women, rather than men, has more of a direct influence on a community. On my first few trips, I started working with children and a few men artists. Although it was rewarding in many ways, I knew that if any changes were to be made, there were most likely to be made through the women. Most of them were not going to spend their income at the local bar. The women cared more about their children – using the money to pay their school fees, or buy them food. I knew that any changes I helped to make would be small, baby steps, and I also knew that working with women would have the most impact.

"Grounded," 12" high, 10" wide, 10" deep; coiled and stitched using fabrics, waxed linen thread.

TSGNY: What do you think you’ve learned from the basketmakers in Ghana and Uganda?

JA: Working with these women has changed my life forever. One very obvious thing is how much ‘stuff’ I have. It’s good stuff: art, books, crafts, textiles. There’s just too much of it. Since I returned from my first trip in 2005, I get rid of at least one thing a day. (I take Sundays off.)

The other things I have learned are not quite so obvious. I’ve learned that a simple life is just as rewarding as a more complicated life. I’ve learned that joy, good spirit, and appreciation can be found anywhere, even in a one-room home. I’ve learned that I am comfortable hanging out with these women, being dusty, letting them laugh at my social gaffes. When it is not totally frustrating, it is very, very good.

"A Woman of Consequence," 16" high, 11" wide, 11" deep; woven of cotton paper and wire, covered with acrylic paint and medium.

TSGNY: Has your intent changed as a result of working with the recycled materials and the coiling process?

JA: I have deliberately simplified my techniques. I want to work directly and intuitively with the materials and techniques in different ways, and let the piece talk about its own spirit and energy.

My process is simple. My materials are simple. I am trying to focus on the energy, and the interactions between the materials and stitches, how one supports the other. It does not need to be complex; it just needs to “be.”

TSGNY: In spite of their simplicity, do your process or your materials pose any particular challenges?

JA: I love technical challenges. When I get a little bored, I just try something new. Sometimes it is really ugly, and never gets repeated. Even these failures are worthwhile, an important part of the learning process.

This year (2011) I did seven collaborative pieces with a glassblower, Josh Bernbaum, for a museum show called “Dialogue.” Josh initiated the project. He owns one of my baskets, and was interested in creating it in blown glass. The museum curator was interested, and our collaboration was born. We had seven pieces/groupings, each one a challenge in a different way. Some were unexpected. I loved trying to solve the problems, adapting techniques and materials as we went along.

"Captured Reflections," 8" high, 8" wide, 9" deep; copper wire and blown glass.

JA: For “Captured Reflections,” I wove (twined) the basket using heavy copper wire; Josh blew into the vessel. For “Material Conversation,” Josh blew an asymmetrical glass form. I recreated it using recycled plastic bags, primarily newspaper bags, and waxed linen thread.

"Material Conversation," both vessels 10" high; blown glass and coiling.

JA: This piece was my greatest technical challenge.  I wanted to work with plastic bags because I like the idea of working with recycled materials, and felt that plastic might capture the same reflective qualities as glass. I have never seen the type of work that I visualized, and so had no clues about where to start. At first I thought I would coil each section individually and attach them but that created more problems than it solved.  I spent two days trying new ideas, and then discarding them. I was determined. Each failure took me one step closer to what I was trying to achieve. Finally, at the end of the second day, I found a process that allowed me to create what I wanted to create.

TSGNY: So in the end, working in this technique doesn’t impose limitations?

JA: I’m happy to say feel pretty unlimited in what I’m able to do.

TSGNY: Finally, are there any living artists who inspire you who you feel we should know about?

JA: Lissa Hunter is my idol — both her words and her works are heartwarming.

TSGNY: Thank you, Jackie. You can see more of Jackie’s work on her website. She recently won Best of Show at the 2011 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.