Susan Martin Maffei: Making Her Marks

TSGNY: You are known as a tapestry weaver, with occasional crochet and other embellishments. Has tapestry always been your medium?

Susan Martin Maffei: Although I studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in NYC, textile making has always been the most natural expression for me. As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was a great textile maker. I learned many textile processes even before I learned how to read or write: crochet, knitting, sewing (I had and still have a miniature Singer machine on which I made doll clothes while my grandmother made grown people clothes) as well as lace and tatting.

Susan Martin Maffei at the loom, working on the portrait of her grandmother.

TSGNY: It almost sounds like textiles were your first language.

SMM: My search for a textile language has actually been a lifelong process. My journey began with workshops, which are the standard now for students wishing to learn about tapestry. Of those workshops, Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie had perhaps had the most longstanding influence on my work.  My partnership later in life with Archie Brennan, a well-known Scottish weaver, has allowed me to focus on work and travel and teaching related to this medium and my passion for it.

“Reconstructing Wracraw.” 2011, 13”x76”; 4-selvedge tapestry, cotton warp, wool, cotton, linen and silk weft. Wool crochet (cloud, building, people).

SMM: Along the way, I began to study the history of tapestry in ancient cultures, in particular Andean, that were built upon textiles. I never cease to be amazed by the complexity of their underlying understanding and yet the simplicity and beauty of their work, and the fact that these ideas were expressed in textile form. The pattern of the underlying structure produces a repeat in the image: repeats are the inevitable meeting of the process of the weaver and the structure of the work. One cannot happen without the other. This visual pattern releases a chemical in the brain, much as a repeat in music does, and releases a sense of pleasure or satisfaction in the viewer. So the connection is integral and is complete.

TSGNY: When you refer to the pleasure of the repeats, are you talking about the Andean textiles, or your own work?

SMM: I was referring specifically to the visual satisfaction of the repeat of Andean textiles, but I also try to capture that in my own work.

"Feather Works IX- Duck," 2010, 9 3/4” x 12 3/4”, 4-selvedge tapestry, wool warp, alpaca weft with duck feathers.

SMM: When I first began this journey, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and to have been able to apprentice at the Scheuer Tapestry Studio in NYC to have a nine-month fellowship at Les Gobelins in Paris to perfect my techniques.

“Another View- the Pompidou-Near Mme. Touitou,” 2008, 55” x 50”; cotton warp, wool, silk, linen, cotton weft, wool crochet trim.

TSGNY: The emphasis at the Gobelins is on the interpretation of paintings, but you have taken tapestry in a different direction.

SMM: For a long time tapestry was looked upon as a reproduction of painting, ignoring its particular language. In its long history tapestry moved from a strong medium working within the bounds of shapes, pattern, and color to one that had the great ability to duplicate painting in fabric, and hence a secondary reproductive medium. My efforts have been to bring it back to a position of originality in my work.  Many years ago, in my exploration of its inherent qualities, I began not to use an image in another medium that would influence the mark but instead to take an idea and simply begin to weave. I have tried very hard over the years to work within the mark-making peculiar to the medium by working directly on the loom.

“Morning Walk,” (detail), 2010, 4” x 240”; 4-selvedge tapestry, cotton warp, wool, silk, linen and cotton weft, plus wool quipu trim.

TSGNY: How is mark-making in tapestry different from other media that we might think of as freer, without the physical constraints of the loom and the grid?

SMM: Certainly the grid is the basic structural foundation that you must deal with in tapestry. Weaving tapestry is always a challenge. You are limited by the warp and weft relationship. You must also build from one side to another in a way that is dictated by how the shapes lie, so you must learn to think in a sequential manner.  You cannot build out into open space. You often are building the negative background to get the positive shape that lies on that support. That’s another way you must learn to see. You must learn to see that a line on a paper is not the same as a line in tapestry. But you can fool the eye, and by establishing a pattern and particular progression make what appears to be a beautiful smooth line. This also applies to shapes. There are other techniques particular to tapestry that were developed early on to allow subtle shading and overlays. My focus on representing an image within these limitations of structure became a form of problem solving.

“New York Times Series—Travel” (portrait of the artist's grandmother), 1999, 87”x 42”; cotton warp, wool, nylon, linen, cotton and silk weft.

TSGNY: Do you still work in other media?

SMM: I love watercolor, pen and ink and printmaking, as well as the book arts and pursue each of them as an adjunct to my work, exploring the different languages of different media. Each medium has a particular characteristic mark, usually related to how the material builds. A watercolor builds and layers with transparency, and would never look like it was done in oils. With oil, you could never get the transparency of a watercolor. Although you could do something in each medium that would simulate the other, you would more likely lean on the special aspect of each, the qualities that give each medium its own voice.

“Sport Series—Boxing,” 2009, 18” x 8”; cotton warp, silk, wool, cotton and linen weft with cotton crochet boxers.

TSGNY: How would you describe tapestry’s “voice”?

SMM: Tapestry’s special attributes are its tactile surface, depth of color, and the variety of available fibers that communicate the essence or affect the emotional response of the image. The visual strength of tapestry lies in the saturation of color, pattern and texture, and grace of progression of marks or shape building, as well as the fact that it is a cloth and hangs.  Tapestry’s presence, when successful, has a more sensuous relationship to the viewer’s response.

“Alvia Jane & Family Quipu,” 2010, 40” x 45”; cotton warp, wool weft. Quipu-respun wool. Rocks from family property with names of ancestors.

SMM: My particular journey has been very slow and has taken many years but I feel confident that I now have a basic understanding of its strengths. I say “basic” because I continue to search and study: I am sure there are other connections and more to learn from other textile societies. I am looking at all the cultures of the past and their uses of textiles, and am adding different trims and embellishments, recycling old tapestries this way, as well as weaving my work in forms of scrolls, books, bags, and wrappings. Our textile history is so rich, but few people realize that. But I continue to not choose an image to weave, but instead explore and build an idea or a narrative directly on the loom within the bounds of what I have learned so far of the language of tapestry.

“Sicilian Defense,” (scroll & bag), 2010, 12” x 65”; 4-selvedge tapestry and bag. Tapestry: cotton warp, silk, rayon weft with silk lace trim. Bag: Cotton warp, silk, cotton and linen weft.

TSGNY: Thank you, Susan. Finally, are there any artists whose work you particularly admire you think we should know about?

SMM: Historically, many artists I admire from the cultures I’ve explored are anonymous. I’ve already mentioned the team of Yael Lurie (tapestry designer and painter) and Jean Pierre Larochette (tapestry weaver and designer) who use the language of tapestry to the best advantage of anyone in the field. I enjoy the drawings and tapestry of Norwegian artist Jan Groth. He has an elegance and expressive emotion of what at first appears to be just simple line. I enjoy the work of Kiki Smith in particular for her love, observation and depiction of everyday events of nature. I enjoy David Hockney for his inventiveness in many media and love of the narrative as well as his exploration of history of art in different cultures. There are of course many others, but I think this is the top of my list.

TSGNY: You can see more of Susan’s work in Crossing Lines, and at her two websites: the first includes the work of Maffei and Archie Brennan, as well as information on technical aspects of the medium, equipment, links to their students’ work; the second is specific to the artist’s book Susan is producing in a limited edition about her scroll tapestries.

“Could These Be Purple Martins?” 2007, 4-selvedge tapestry, 4” x 65”; cotton warp, silk, wool, linen and cotton weft, plus wool crochet berry trim.

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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.

 

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Michael Rohde: On and Off the Grid

Photo: Rod Carroll

TSGNY: You have a longstanding commitment to weaving as the basis of your artistic practice. When did that begin?

Michael Rohde: In the early 1970s, curiosity about how cloth was made took hold of me. I bought a small loom and started on a path that has held me steady for nearly forty years. For quite some time, I wove rugs, but as image took over from function, I’ve moved to tapestry. These days I often work at a small scale, most recently with silk yarns, as in “Aeolus,” which was shortlisted for the Kate Derum Award.

“Aeolus,” 2011, 5¼” x 5¼” (mounted size 7¾" x 7¾").Tapestry: silk, natural dyes; four-selvedge wedge weave. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

TSGNY: Did you have a background in other arts before you became a weaver?

MR: Weaving is really the only form of art that I have pursued with any rigor, but along the years, a number of events have shaped my approach to making. To fill out my lack of training in art, I enrolled in the Glassel School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where I was heavily influenced by the teaching of C. Arthur Turner, based on Bauhaus approaches, notably Joseph Albers and Johannes Itten.

TSGNY: Both Itten and Albers were color theorists, and color is central to your work. Was it their approach to color that influenced you?

MR: Certainly Albers and Itten’s color theories are strong influences, and guiding principles for me when it comes to making color choices, both what color combinations I use in the weavings, and in dyeing the yarns. Some of my early education about how colors are related came from the dye process itself. I’ve always used the red, yellow and blue primaries to mix the hues I want, be it in chemical or natural dyes (even to developing formulas to make neutral grays from the primaries).

Notebooks: samples of wool on the left and silk on the right; record keeping as a guide for the next time.

MR: My materials are often wool or silk and other non-manmade fibers; I buy yarns in white, and add my own colors when I start a new piece. One of the second or third classes I took to learn about fiber processes was a class in dyeing, when I lived in North Carolina. Slowly, I have explored ways of putting color on yarn, initially with chemical dyes, but later, as I learned which plant dyes were most lightfast, this came to be my preferred way of working. After years of working with the brights of chemical dyes (even toned-down mixtures), I’m drawn to the more subdued palette of vegetal dyes.

Lately, these have been dyes derived from plants and a bug or two.  This gives me the range of colors I want, and I’m not limited to what is available in pre-dyed yarn. Although it seems like this adds extra time to the process of making my work, I feel the end result is worth it. Years of color mixing, matching and record-keeping make the dye process easy for me, and only adds about 5-10% to the total weaving time.

Skeins from a recent round of dyeing for scaling up the silk wedge weaves.

TSGNY: Doing your own dyeing gives you both enormous freedom and control. What about your commitment to working on the loom? Would you say that constrains you in any way?

MR: Around the end of the 1970s, gallery owner Warren Hadler asked the question, “Since the loom operates on a right-angle grid, why try to force the technique to simulate curves?” That became a major direction for how I approached design.

Looking at Albers’ many color studies also had an effect on how I approach design. The simplicity of the shapes he used in those studies became a guide and a challenge to me: to make my own designs, but try to embody something of his elegant design choices. Add to this Hadler’s suggestion to stick to what the loom does easily, and many of the design decisions are pared down to a manageable range of choices.

“Danse,” 2002, 82" x 54". Rug: hand-dyed wool on linen warp. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

MR: My rugs were pattern or block based — like “Danse” — but as they became more and more image based – for example, “Winter/Lake Biwa” in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago — they were hardly ever used on the floor.

“Winter/Lake Biwa,” 2001, 59" x 48". Rug: hand-dyed wool on linen warp. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

TSGNY: So even though you still called the work a rug, it was already being viewed in an art context. Was this the first time you started thinking about tapestry?

MR: Very early in my weaving career, I’d learned some tapestry techniques, and had a passing interest in learning Navajo style weaving, but didn’t pursue it due to time limitations, opting for loom-controlled block-weave rugs. Wanting ever more harnesses to make more complex block patterns, I began combining inlay areas, maybe a forerunner of the tapestry shift. Gallery owner Gail Martin was the one who first encouraged me to explore tapestry formally. Gail’s suggestion occurred about the same time as an invitation to exhibit in the 2004 Triennial of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland. It was also around the time the idea of invading Iraq was being proposed. “From My House to Your Homeland” came out of this confluence of events, and refers to a line in a poem by June Jordan, making reference to houses disappearing in the sands of war. That piece was a milestone for me: the idea came before the design.

“From My House to Your Homeland,” 2003, 54” x 98”. Tapestry installation, hand-dyed wool and silk. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

TSGNY: Even when moving from loom-controlled work to tapestry, you’ve stayed loyal to grids and angles rather than curves. Does that grow out of your response to Hadler’s observation?

MR: Another reason Hadler’s suggestion resonated so well with me was that it was a time when I was trying to be a production weaver, while holding down a full time job. The simplicity of grids and angles is easier to weave, and parallels where I diverge from normal art-school training: the last course I took was drawing, and though I was encouraged to continue, free-form, organic shapes just don’t appeal to me as much.

When I transitioned to tapestry, I was weaving full time, and in theory would have more free time for representational work, but I’d been working in geometric shapes for so long, that I wanted to continue exploring how much could be expressed with these limits.

TSGNY: It sounds like you feel the move into tapestry has allowed your work’s content to deepen, while working within those limits.

MR: Even when I think I am only making patterns, I find ideas have crept into the work. “Transect” was designed and woven as a pattern piece, but at the time of major health care debates – where did all these Blue Crosses come from?

“Transect,” 2009, 75” x 48”. Tapestry: wool, silk; indigo, walnut dyes. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

MR: “Sustainability” (exhibited in the American Tapestry Biennial) expresses a hope for people of all skin colors to live together, but also stands as an icon for global overcrowding.

“Sustainability,” 2007, 66” x 39¼”. Tapestry: wool, silk, alpaca, mohair, llama, camel; indigo, madder, walnut, cutch, weld. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

MR: “Water” was made for the Textile Museum’s exhibition “Green: The Color and the Cause.” I began with an image from a satellite map of the land around a huge manmade lake in Brazil. It comments of the issues of water usage: man’s intervention has consequences; where agricultural areas become green, other areas die off.

“Water,” 2009, 35” x 48”. Tapestry: wool, natural dyes. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

MR: Travel can also be a source for my work: “Tibetan Prayers” (currently in Crossing Lines: the Many Faces of Fiber) came from a month-long trip to eastern Tibet, and makes reference to their small printed paper prayers. The choice of materials (Tibetan and Navajo wools) draws a connection between these people: the loss of their homeland and historical way of life to invaders.

“Tibetan Prayers,” 2006, 49½" x 38½". Tapestry: Navajo wool, Tibetan wool, madder. Photo: Andrew Neuhart.

TSGNY:  Does “Aeolus” represent a new direction for you — are you finally escaping the grid?

MR: The wedge-weave technique is one I’ve known about for some time, but never tried. Many weavers (and friends of mine) are well known for what they have done in the technique: Martha Stanley, James Bassler, Connie Lippert and Deborah Corsini to name a few. The technique is based on the principle that you begin by weaving at an angle to the warp,  building up a wedg that continues. Weaving in this direction is contrary to the normal weaving, where warp and weft are at ninety-degree angles. As a  consequence, when it’s released from the loom tension, the cloth relaxes. What had been straight edges become scalloped — heresy for someone who has spent years trying to achieve perfect, straight selvedges.

I’d always been reluctant to try something that others had done so well, and, for which they were known. I wanted to make something that would have my own stamp. So I’ve gravitated to silk, to color choices that are out of the ordinary, the small scale, and four-selvedge technique (though this is hardly unique, as Stanley and Navajo weavers have used this for their weaving). After making dozens of the small (five by five inches or less) pieces, I’m just now venturing toward larger explorations.

TSGNY: Finally, are there artists who inspire you whose work you’d like us to know about?

MR: There are weavers who work in unusual methods, or research and use techniques that are seldom embraced these days: Jim Bassler and Martha Stanley, who I’ve already mentioned, and Polly Barton. Artists who use color in ways that excite me, be it complexity of color in limited range, or unusual combinations — Rothko, for example, and a contemporary painter, now on the West Coast, Ruth Pastine. I would have to add Agnes Martin, though also for her “Writings,” a hard-to-find, but worthwhile book.These artists do wonders with limited use of line and form.

TSGNY: Thank you, Michael. You can see more of Michael’s work on his website, and in the TSGNY exhibit, Crossing Lines: The Many Faces of Fiber.

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Virginia Davis: Exploring Surface and Substance

TSGNY: How would you describe the relation of your work to fiber?

Virginia Davis: My work is in a niche between weaving and painting. The weaving technique is called ikat. I place the image on the threads before weaving the “canvas.” The technique of ikat consists of marking a group of threads, reserving areas by tying or other means, and then applying color to create a pattern on the warp — the vertical threads. The weft — the horizontal threads — can also have a pattern created in the same manner. In my work, most of the time, I execute the patterning in such a way that the color placed on the warp and weft thread combine to produce my desired image.

“Blue,” 2009, 34”x32”, ikat weaving with acrylic paint on the surface of the twill weave.

VD: After weaving I stretch the work, again commenting on a traditional presentation of painting. Now, on the woven ikat, I have the opportunity to paint, collage, embroider, etc. After weaving, the ikat image lies below the picture plane and another image can be placed on the surface. Unlike the planning that goes into the ikat, my creation of the images in this part of the work is very unconscious. In “Blue,” I used masking tape in the painting portion of the piece, and the combination of painting and weaving techniques produced the contrast in the blues.

“This is not a slide,” 1994, 35”x35”, ikat weaving, gesso, oil pigment, printed label collaged, nail polish for dot.

VD:  Through weaving, the texture of the canvas can be controlled, introducing a substance to the surface image, or the embedded image. Linen is my fiber of choice, commenting on the support stratum used by many painters since the Renaissance. “This is not a slide” is a signature work illustrating the historic use of linen as a support for painting with oils in European art. However, since the origin of ikat is likely Asian, the conjoining of the two signifies the international unity of art.

TSGNY: Were you a painter before you started working in this layered form?

VD: My previous work in art had been woodworking in New York, followed by traditional sculpture at the Sir John Cass School of Art in London and then at the Art Students League in New York. I wanted to learn additive sculpture and went to the Riverside Church School of Arts and Crafts in New York City to take a course in yarn, rope making, and dyeing. With so much yarn, I took a course in weaving with Sandra Harner at the Riverside Church School and quickly realized that, with so much to learn, this was my direction.

The “Tartan Series,” 1989, 6 modules, each 36”x36”, dye and linen.

VD: This was in the early ‘70s. Sandra would present the various types of weaves students could opt to study. I was immediately attracted to ikat, fascinated by the control of color and the design one could achieve.

“Tartan 3,” 36”x36,” The third of the 6 modules.

VD: In the “Tartan Series,” for example, the tartan image is that of the Davidson clan, and is ikat-woven in the correct distribution of lines and stripes for a tartan. The weave structure, a 2/2 twill, is conventional for tartans. The image of the tartan is placed on a plain weave background.

“Tartan Complement 3,” 36”x36”. The fourth of the 6 modules.

VD: My passion for ikat has led me to study it with practitioners in Japan, India and Mexico and to seek out examples in museums all over the world. In addition I have learned and teach other reserve techniques. This range of techniques enables me to make unique statements about image, surface and substance.

“Blue Arches 1,” 2011, 40”x36” pigment in linen, ikat weaving.

TSGNY: Thank you, Virginia. You can see more of Virginia’s work on her website:  at TSGNY’s Crossing Lines show; and at the 8th Fiber International Biennial, Snyderman-Works, March 2–April 28, 2012, Philadelphia, PA.

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Wen Redmond: Following the Vision

TSGNY: Your use of fiber is unusual. How would you describe your process?

Wen Redmond: I hope to expand the understanding and perception of fiber as a medium. I enjoy the creative processes afforded by contemporary digital technology, and my work merges digital processes, photography, collage and surface design. I have developed several signature techniques: “Holographic Images”; “Digital Fiber”; and a new “Serendipity Collage” technique.

My work continues to grow as I explore my medium: over time one develops an eye. When I finish composing an image that I like, I decide on presentation, which might be whole cloth, a photo-art quilt, divided into multiple images, or collaged into mixed-media art. I will layer and finish work using different mediums – like glass-bead medium, for example — for a variety of purposes.  In my newest work, I use Photoshop to change the actual image, layering and digitally fusing it with photographs of my painted cloth.

“Whispers of the Positive,” 2010, 120” x 25”; Hand-pulled print, collaged, and sewn watercolor paper, cloth, painted with acrylics, layered with digital images, monoprinting. Inkjet prints, cyanotype, silk organza, cheesecloth, watercolor paper, ink drawings and mediums.

WR: Most of my attraction to the artistic process is being in that zone I call ‘flow.’ When I work, I encourage a collaborative process with spirit or my higher self, that mind-boggling principle of the universe. When you are in this state of mind, you tap the intuitive and the work can become more than the sum of its parts. Allowing time for inspirations to percolate up from my unconscious is a vital part of the process.

“Before I Knew You,” 2009, 28” x 22”; Holographic and Digital Fiber techniques. Silk organza; photograph, silkscreened and hand-painted silk and cotton.

TSGNY: Can you talk a bit about the specific techniques you’ve developed?

WR: My “Holographic Images” technique is a multi-layered design process of printing photographs on silk organza. I mount the work in such a way that a 3-D effect is created, resembling the movement of a holograph.  (This process was published in Quilting Arts Magazine, April/ May 2007. They also offer a DVD.) My silk organza collages add the dimension of light. Light flows through the picture and creates different patterns, depending on the angle of view. These are free-flowing and loose, with a kinetic quality.

“Ripples,” 2009, set of 3, 24” x 24” ea.; Holographic and Digital Fiber techniques. Manipulated digital image of water: original image printed on archival digital canvas, bordered in hand-painted and surface-designed fabrics. One section of the image printed on transparent silk organza, providing holographic effect. Additional stitching details. (Installation at the new Dana Farber Cancer Building, South Weymouth, MA.)

WR: “Mixed Media Serendipity Collage” is an assemblage of digital prints collaged with surface-designed textiles and paper. The use of transparent organza or papers allows me to layer physical elements, creating depth and design. This is a very ‘green’ method of working. Because all of my work travels parallel roads, I often have lots of leftover scraps, which are excellent for collage. Everything becomes suspect. I save teabag wrappers, candy wrappers, found metal, and the odd items that fall into my path.

“Brainwave,” 2007, 28” x 20”; transparent multi-layered silk collage. Dyed, painted, monoprint. Silk organza, burlap.

WR: “Brainwave” is a slightly more radical piece. All of the layers hang freely, unbound in any way. (The layers have a quote by Bob Dylan: “Who is not busy being born is busy dying.”)  It’s an interactive piece: one can lift the layers in exploration. I wanted to see how movement within the piece could create more patterns. Since it’s an almost completely transparent piece, the wall on which is hangs influences the final color.

TSGNY: How did you arrive at this fantastic range of processes?

WR:  I am a process person. I’m passionate about coming up with ideas and working out the kinks. This leads to more discoveries, an evolution. This work always keeps me thinking- what if?

Part of that evolution is photography, which became readily available with digital technology. My process is also fed by my love of being outdoors. Now I can see the most exquisite scenes or combinations of patterns and share that beauty. These moments become my source, my well. I bring them back to share, to remind, to remember. I hope to bring that energy into my art-making, to communicate the positive, the source, the inspiration, and my mad desire to capture thoughts, dreams and the beauty of nature.

“Perception of Trees,” 2009, 35” x 36”; three digital interpretations of a manipulated photograph, printed on ink jet prepared cotton duck, stitched.

TSGNY: Does your process pose any particular challenges? How have you overcome them?

WR: Digital printing is not for the faint of heart. Creating substrates and feeding fabric into printers gives one much patience. I always say a little printer prayer during the printing phrase of my artwork.

TSGNY: Does your process enable you to do things you have not been able to do in any other medium?

WR: Printing directly onto various substrates to create stitched textural constructions is a unique way of presenting photographs. I love the textural quality and mark-making stitching lends to a finished work.

“Trees Seen, Forest Remembered,” 2008, 24” x 33”; Digital Fiber Collage. Images printed with archival inks on various substrates, mounted onto canvas and collage-fused with painted, silk-screened cotton and stabilizer; stitched.

WR: I love what I do! I love the processes, the places I go when I see color or get inspirations, and the connections with artists. Artists tend to be a little left of center. They see more, feel deeply; they are kindred spirits on so many levels. As Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

TSGNY: Speaking of kindred spirits, are there any artists who inspire you who you feel we should know about but may not have heard of?

WR: There are a great many artists whose work I love. I love the abstract expressionists, Jane Frank, Paul Klee, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jules Olitski — the classics. Georgia O’Keefe- I have always admired strong independent women. I like the serenity of Andrew Wyeth’s work. The trees of Wolf Kahn. The photography of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and the innovative work of Mike and Doug Starn. The fiber revolutionary work of Fran Skiles, Joan Schultz, Nancy Crow, and Jane Dunnawold. The digital gurus Karine Schminke, Dorothy Simpson KrauseBonny Pierce Lhotka, Mary Taylor, and Gloria Hansen.

TSGNY: Thank you, Wen. You can see more of Wen Redmond’s work on her website, her blog, her YouTube channel and in the TSGNY exhibit Crossing Lines: The Many Faces of Fiber.

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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.

 

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Kathy Weaver: Navigating the Uncanny Valley

TSGNY: Would you describe your work as fiber art?

Kathy Weaver:  I use both traditional fiber techniques and ones not normally associated with fabric. I delight in the quilt and appliqué techniques used by my grandmother and mother.  But essentially, technique is a means to convey ideas and I want the viewer to look beyond the technique to the content.

"Robo Sapien Agent 5,"2006, 44” x 44”, Airbrushed, machine quilted, embellished.

KW: Since my subject matter is often robots and ideas generated from the field of artificial intelligence, I deliberately chose airbrushing in order to render in a mechanistic way, without evidence of the artist’s hand.

Preparations for airbrushing.

TGSNY:  What kind of work did you do before you started airbrushing?

KW:  I was a painter, and still am. I use gouache and egg tempera. I sometimes paint vignettes on canvas and attach them to my textile work. Sometimes I draw and paint directly onto the fiber. Airbrushing seemed like a natural evolution. As an art teacher in the public schools I loved exploring materials and trying new media with my students, so taking up another instrument, the airbrush, as a means to paint, was not intimidating to me. It seemed perfect for the robots’ “skin.”  So I enrolled in an airbrush class at a local college where I learned how to airbrush on motorcycle helmets, gas tanks, fish and bird decoys, and taxidermy forms.

Airbrushing

KW: I’ve always loved the advertising designs and coloring of the era I grew up in.  Many of these ads were airbrushed rather than photographed. I also like the look of medical illustrations as well as cutaways and schemas for products and product parts. When I was young we had the run of an electronics factory with which my dad was associated and I loved seeing the engineer’s drawings and how-tos, as well as the renderings of the final products, usually transformers or TV components.

“Cyborg Female 5: Stripped of Instinct,” 2004, 90” x 54”, Satins, silks, velvets, airbrushed, hand embroidered, hand quilted.

TSGNY: When you’re in your airbrushing gear, you certainly look as much scientist as artist. Can you walk us through the steps of your process?

KW:  I compose the work in one of two ways.  I may create a small color drawing which I enlarge by means of a projector onto a large piece of paper. Or I work intuitively directly on the bridal satin, the substrate for the textile paints. I use white bridal satin for my work…and sometimes black. In the first method, I use the full-scale drawing as a cartoon, tracing each section or division of color onto freezer paper. Then I tape all these pieces together like a giant puzzle and iron it onto the fabric.  I methodically remove the hundreds of taped pieces and proceed to airbrush each section one at a time, lifting off to airbrush and re-ironing, lifting off, re-ironing, until the piece is finished. With this method the work is always covered by paper so that I must imagine the colors as I airbrush. After the last tiny piece is airbrushed, I peel the paper away to reveal the finished work.

Airbrushing with stencils

KW: With the second method I use masks and stencils and can see the work as it progresses; the image develops as I paint.  Although airbrushing looks very spontaneous, it is a laborious process requiring great patience. There is little leeway for mistakes; the process is akin to the layering, additive process of watercolor painting.

“Mimetic Concerns,” 2010, 44” x 57”, satin, airbrushed, hand quilted.

TSGNY: Are there other challenges to the airbrushing process?

KW: Yes, mainly involving proper ventilation. When I built my studio I installed a ventilating system and I stand under the hood of the vent to paint. My environment is this: I wear a respirator, protective clothing, gloves, and shoe coverings, while standing under a noisy ventilating hood. The airbrush’s hose is plugged into a compressor, which, although called “Silent-aire,” hardly is. With all my gear on, I look pretty robotic myself.  All this tends to separate me from my surroundings, which in turn places me in a different mental space. In order to communicate with anyone I must remove all my gear and step away from the area. In this bubble I feel very free to create. It’s just me, my decisions, and my “canvas”; time passes in a different way.

“Strategic Alliance,” 2008, 48” x 55.5”, Satin, airbrushed, hand quilted.

TSGNY: How does the range of materials you incorporate enhance the body of your work?

KW:  I love working with a variety of materials. Some of my favorite Chicago Imagist artists, H. C. Westermann and Karl Wirsum, showed their stuff and told their stories using a wide variety of materials. What my fabric pieces, drawings, paintings and sculptures have in common is the theme of robotics, nano robots or artificial intelligence.

“Habeas Corpus: The Great Writ,” 2008, 35” x 68”, Cottons, nylon line, airbrushed, hand-stitched.

KW: The various materials overlap and enhance one another. For example, the charcoal drawings I am doing at the Rehabilitation Institute are translatable to thread line via embroidery, yet the finished drawings stand alone and have been exhibited in that form. The toys that I deconstruct and transform into robots are kinetic sculptures, yet use fabric and texture to express themselves. The larger papier-mâché sculptures have sensory devices, recordings, embroidery, and airbrushing.

“LMR VII (Mother),” 2009, 59” h x 24” w x 16”d, Fiber, papier mâché, found objects, horsehair, metal, sound and light, airbrushed, embroidered.

KW: The sculpture LMR VII (Mother) is airbrushed on fabric, with embroidery. The appendages and head are papier-mâchéd and airbrushed. The head has sensors so that when a viewer approaches a recording is activated. Also, a door in the back of the head opens and a light is activated, revealing a scene in the inside of the head.

“LMR XII (Captain Le Rocher),” 2011, 12” h x 12” w x 3”d, Bronze, airbrushed, embroidered, painted.

KW: Recently I have been making some bronze sculptures in a stage-like setting. In the sculpture LMR XII (Captain Le Rocher) I cast the bronze figure using the lost-wax process. The background of the box is airbrushed satin, which is also embroidered and quilted. The outside of the box is airbrushed and also painted with egg tempera.  The sculptures reiterate the 2D robot quilts but have the added feature of the solidity of the bronze contrasted with the fragility of embroidery, the machine-made futuristic look of my bronze robots contrasting with the labor-intensive stitchery that reminds us of another era.

TSGNY: Would you say there’s an ongoing tension between the presence of the “hand” in the textile processes you employ and the deliberate absence of the hand you’re going for with the airbrush?

KW: In all the work there is an incongruity in the use of soft material for hard objects and sharp thoughts. The embroideries show a duality between the softness and familiarity of satins and threads and the complexity of forms from organic chemistry, cellular biology and engineered robots. The labor-intensive hand embroidery has a feeling of slow Penelopian rhythms, reminding us of a distant pre-technoid era.

“Fire Slinger,” 2010, 48” x 46”, Satin, airbrushed, hand embroidered, hand stitched.

KW: There is also an eerie incongruency in the fact that humans often relate very personally to technological devices, particularly those in which they have a relationship born out of necessity. I am currently drawing patients and devices at The Robotic Lab at The Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago, a hospital and research facility for traumatic injury victims.

Much of my work has been about the military-industrial complex and the amount of money, not to mention human waste, that goes into the management of war. I was appalled at the number and kinds of injuries being sustained by civilians and vets during the Iraqi and Afghan wars, so I decided to do some research, which led me to The Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago. This research facility and hospital is doing amazing work in advanced prosthetic devices. The majority of their patients are not war victims, as those patients would most likely be treated at VA hospitals. The people I am observing and drawing at this facility are victims of traumatic injury. (If they are victims of war I don’t have access to this information.) I am currently drawing in the hand lab, which is receiving funding for research from the government for the advanced development of prosthetics.

TSGNY: How do you view this particular form of human-robot interaction, compared to your earlier depiction of robotics?

KW:  I have the utmost respect for the roboticists and bio-engineers and doctors there who are working so hard trying to make life a bit more palatable for traumatic-injury victims. Mostly, in my drawing sessions of patients who are testing devices, I am humbled by the incredible energy and mindset it takes for them to adapt to their disabilities. The patients are awesome in their perserverance to get some mobility back.  As for the traumatic brain injuries, I do not have access to these patients. It would be too disorienting and interruptive of their concentration for me to be in the room drawing while they are working on devices. Words cannot express how sad it is to see young adults being totally cared for by their parents.

“Biomechatronics Development Lab 2,” 2010, 27.5” x 33.5”, charcoal pencil on paper.

KW: As for how I view this form of human-robot interaction — I would have to say with mixed feelings. I am inspired by the technological advances and the people making that happen, and appalled that we need this effort. Both come out in my work, by trying to do beautiful drawings (which will become embroideries/mixed media on fiber) of the patients and devices I am observing, and, concurrently, by doing a series of airbrushed quilts of “disaster” robots about the ravages of war on people and the environment inspired by Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

It’s the juxtaposition, the contrast of where we’ve been and where we are going, that I highlight by using both a needle and thread and the airbrush. As in science, in my art and in life, things are never what they first appear to be. Upon closer inspection, more is always revealed.

TSGNY: Finally, are there artists who inspire you whose work you’d like us to know about?

KW: Most of my inspirations come from the ideas of other artists rather than their medium or techniques. I love the work of William Kentridge and Sue Coe. After seeing a recent show of Lia Cook’s work at Duane Reed  in St. Louis and talking with her about the differentiation between her dolls and humans, I felt an affinity or parallel to the border crossings between my robots and the human condition I am expressing. This is the “uncanny valley” that I am continuously exploring — so oftentimes, what scientists write interests me much as what I see.

TSGNY: Thank you, Kathy. You can find more of Kathy’s work at her gallery and on her website, where you will also find her extensive current exhibition schedule.

“Simian Interface,”2003, 42” x 59”, Satins, cottons, egg tempera.

 

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Leisa Rich: Please Touch

TSGNY: How do you describe your artistic process?

Leisa Rich:  My main artistic method is free-motion embroidery, which is done by dropping the feed dogs on a sewing machine (the teeth underneath the sewing foot that pull the fabric along while you sew) and using a special foot adapted for this purpose, effectively “drawing” with thread. I use various types of stitching methods: embroidery floss in the bobbin, heavy threads, tension play and more.  I’m able to push the stitch in unique ways.

"Happy Toadstool," 2011, 36” X 48” X 32”; repositionable fabric, felt, dyes, vinyl, thread, acrylic paint; free-motion stitching, hand-dyed and painted.

LR: My materials include dissolvable paper, sheets of glue, acrylic paint and vinyl. Many of these materials have just come on the market in the last few years, so possibilities are constantly opening up. In the future, I’m hoping to collaborate directly with the manufacturers.  The variety of manipulative methods and the wealth of new materials make free-motion embroidery endlessly exciting.

TSGNY: Did discovering these new materials alter your intent?

LR: No, I chose these materials because they were perfect for the concept I have been working with recently: human interaction. Viewers can play and reconfigure my components to form their own compositions and stories.

"Architects in Flux," 2010, 88" X 108"; repositionable fabric, vinyl, thread; free-motion stitching.

LR: The interactive pieces are clear vinyl stitched to white vinyl; sometimes I include acrylic paint and other colored vinyl or fabrics in the design. These pieces can be pulled off and repositioned by the viewer on special fabric backgrounds. The works are 2D as well as sculptural. Installation — creating my own interactive world — is my favorite way of presenting my work.

"Architects in Flux," 2010, 88" X 108" (interactive view).

TSGNY:  Was there an “aha!” moment when you knew this kind of interaction was something you wanted to explore, or was it a gradual evolution?

LR: I would say I have been intentionally moving toward more human interaction in my art for several years now. Fiber art is so tactile that it is a shame humans — who innately love using their very sensitive fingertips to touch and explore — are not allowed to experience art physically.

"No Sense Crying Over Spilled Milk: Altering the Course," 2010, 87" X 52"; vinyl, thread; free-motion stitching.

LR: When I was a small child I was deaf and spent considerable time in the hospital. My mother brought me beautiful Barbie clothes she made from her work suits. I loved the feeling of the satins, laces and nubby silks as I dressed my dolls. Living in that silence for so long made me crave human interaction; those early experiences, combined with the thrill of finger-painting in the hospital art room, led to a lifelong passion for all things textural and a need to touch.

"No Sense Crying over Spilled Milk: Altering the Course," 2010 (interactive view).

LR: In 2009 I had a solo installation exhibition, “Beauty From the Beast,” which featured a 25 foot by 20 foot “garden” made of the detritus of mankind, fabrics, free-motion stitching that also included lots of other mixed media and incorporated an assortment of fiber techniques such as quilting.

"Beauty From the Beast," 2009, 25' x 20' (dimensions variable). Mixed media: obtainium, fabrics, plastic drinking straws, vinyl; free-motion stitching, hand-dyed and painted, rolled, constructed, quilted, applique.

LR: There were pathways people could walk on in the garden; they could touch the bubble-wrap flowers and rearrange the “grass” rocks. However, that level of interaction was still not enough for me; once they were done, everything went back the way it was, so it was still “my” piece as opposed to “our” piece. The new work is much more interactive and the viewer has more of a stake in it.

"Beauty From the Beast," 2009, bubble-wrap flower bouquet.

TSGNY: Given your love of the textural and tactile, what other fiber processes have you explored?

LR: I have been an absolutely obsessed fiber artist since 1975. It’s hard to think of a fiber technique I haven’t explored since. I was a serious weaver for a number of years, which included dyeing with plants, spinning, basketry and more. I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1982 with a degree in Fibers.  I went on to become a designer of knitwear on both loom and knitting machine and a hat/ jewelry and wearable artist with a successful company designing for tv shows and stores, until I moved to the island of Kauai in 1998. I had incorporated free-motion stitching in many of these works but it was really then, due to the confines of living in a tiny island house with room only for a sewing machine, that I returned to stitching and started expanding my free-motion repertoire. At that time much of my work utilized mixed media and themes of women and children’s issues. When I went back for my Master of Fine Arts in Fibers at the University of North Texas in 2007, the questions I had to ask myself as an artist led to my present way of interacting with my viewer.

“(in)CONSEQUENTIAL,” 2007, dimensions of installation variable; plastic drinking straws rolled in dyed wool and sliced, stuffed, stitched, dyed wool amoeba forms; free-motion stitching, constructed, stuffed, rolled and sliced.

TSGNY:  Does your process pose any particular challenges?

LR: Well, the “do not touch” rule is still a pretty hard one to overcome. Most galleries and exhibitions are not comfortable with allowing viewers to “play” with a work. This limits the exposure of the audience; they are relegated to a passive role, which is not satisfying to me. I just completed a permanent installation piece for the Dallas Museum of Art’s new education center that will be completely interactive. Everyone will be allowed to enjoy it all of the time! I’m striving to get more of these kinds of commissions. I really love to take people to a happy place, in light of the often depressing and difficult world we live in.

TSGNY:  Are there any living artists who inspire you who you feel we should know about?

LR: Andy Goldsworthy’s installations are fleeting and lovely. I enjoy the way that he can interact with nature and then allow it to reclaim the works after he is done. His art makes it possible for humans to think of doing it themselves, creating their own sculptures as a method of self-expression without being intimidated by fancy materials or intimidating art classes.

TSGNY: Thank you, Leisa.

You can see more of Leisa’s work on her website, her blog, her teaching blog, and on Facebook.

"Beauty From the Beast," (2009); recycled plastic tablecloths, felt, vinyl; free-motion stitching, constructed mixed media.

 

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Mary Zicafoose: Weaving in Code

Mary Zicafoose with a fraction of the wrapped ikat sections required for a single tapestry.

TSGNY: Which textile techniques do you incorporate in your work?

Mary Zicafoose: I am a rug-weaver-turned-tapestry-weaver who developed a fascination with ikat about 25 years ago. What began pretty innocently with a few scraps of a Hefty garbage bag knotted around a hank of yarn has evolved into complex tapestry imagery created by very intricate and layered ikat wrapping and tying techniques.  The process now demands months of wrapping, tying small pieces of japanese ikat tape — a brittle cellophane tape — around individual strands of mountains of silk and wool.

Wrapping ikat before dyeing. The weft section shown here will become approximately 3 inches of the finished piece.

MZ: For the last 10 years I have produced ikat tapestries almost exclusively.  I’m currently working on a commission for a home that will require about 80,000 ikat ties.  When done tying I will dye the yarn and then untie all 80,000 design sections.  The weaving is almost a secondary process: literally just what holds all the ikat-dyed yarn together.  That said, the weaving is a monumental and time-consuming activity unto itself, since the pieces are large in scale. This particular tapestry will be a panel about 10’ x 10’, woven in silk, dyed the colors of the prairie sky before a thunderstorm.

At the Loom: "Blueprint" in Process. All three sections of the triptych are woven simultaneously, row by row.

TSGNY: Was that first experiment with a shredded Hefty bag the result of an aha moment when you knew ikat was something you just had to explore?

MZ: Yes, of course.  I was working on a pretty involved classical tapestry piece, struggling to make it appear painterly and more spontaneous.  Just for the record, the words “spontaneous” and “weaving” are rarely used in the same sentence — they occupy two different universes, coming from completely different hemispheres of process.

I was very frustrated, feeling gridlocked and constrained by technique and the limitations of my equipment.  Then I flashed on a scrap of ikat cloth my aunt had given me as a child –a memento from some exotic junket she had been on — that I had held onto as precious.  I thought that’s where this needs to go: I need to embrace a textile process that allows some element of surprise or chance to occur.   This was in the 80s when there wasn’t much ikat going on anywhere. And so began the study.  I went to the Fairfield, Iowa, public library to get a book on ikat applications for tapestries and rugs, only to discover that no books on ikat process existed.  To date, almost 30 years later, there might possibly have been three books written on the subject.  I think I may have drawn the card to write the fourth.

"Ancient Text - Chain of Command" (diptych), 76" x 45", Weft-faced ikat tapestry.

TSGNY: What are the particular challenges of the ikat process?  How do you overcome them?

The Ikat cartoon: the design "exploded" in preparation for dyeing.

MZ: Ikat is a synonym for challenge.   A bolt of hand-dyed silk ikat fabric,  whether a beautiful 18th-century adras ikat robe or one of my ikat tapestries, is the composite visual solution to thousands of tiny complex problems. Ikat is based on math, geometry, dye chemistry, and the ability to think and design abstractly — expanding shapes and images at the ikat board to then severely compress them at the loom.  It also requires an abnormal otherworldly amount of patience with process–an actual fascination or addiction to process, I would say.

Unwrapping Ikat

MZ: I used to teach a lot of ikat until my process became so complex and layered that I could no longer explain it within a workshop context.  Also, very few weavers were interested enough in the visual product to invest and go where this takes you.   Weavers already have a time-consuming and totally demanding and economically unforgiving process–why take it to the 10th power?

Silk Ikat sorted and collated. Each ball of yarn is numbered with its place in the weaving sequence.

MZ: My undergraduate degree was in photography and my graduate work was in clay.  The sculptor in me is waiting for the day I’ve tied that last ikat wrap.

TSGNY: Clearly ikat has its rewards, because you haven’t tied your last tie yet. What does ikat enable you to do that you had not been able to do in other techniques?

MZ: I always describe ikat yarns as being “coded.” Understanding the mechanics of this code has enabled me to create work that was never within my grasp, pieces that I would not have dared dream of creating. Recently I’ve been working almost exclusively in black and white, offset by sections of saturated color.

"Ancient Text - Indigo and Ochre" (diptych), 2007, 58" x 62", Weft-face Ikat Tapestry.

MZ: What is the visual difference?  Well, for one, complex ikat carries an energy, a frequency that makes it resonate differently than other textiles.  Perhaps it is the layers of overdyeing that produce more complicated and compelling saturations of color, perhaps the massive amount of human handling and touch that imbues it with so many layers of the “handmade,” but the element of magic is the serendipitous alchemy that happens when miles of wrapped ikat are submerged into vats of dye.  What sections resist the dye and where dye wicks up under the tape is random and uncharted and defies all plans and promises to clients.  The dye ebbs and flows and seeps and creates new and unexpected colors. The moment that the wrapped yarn slips into the colored waters of the dyepot is the precise moment the muse is invited to enter into the process. It’s as though another hand, another breath, has entered.

"Blueprint #7" (triptych), 2009, 84" x 88", Weft-face ikat, hand-dyed silk/bamboo on linen warp.

MZ: I am endlessly intrigued by this process and its applications.  I have had the great pleasure and opportunity to crisscross the globe traveling to ikat-producing countries and cultures.  I have wrapped ikat on remote islands, in Andean mountain villages, in factories, mud huts, and on horseback.

Matching colors. Zicafoose dyes all the yarns, referring to her library of more than 1,000 dye recipes.

TSGNY: Are there artists – in this medium or in others – you’ve come across in your travels who inspire you and who you’d like us to know about?

MZ: Besides my ethnic contemporaries a few artists in the UK are doing contemporary ikat.   I purposefully don’t follow their work.  Is that foolish?  It’s too easy to be influenced by your peers within your medium and field, actually to be deeply influenced by what they are doing. For me visual influences are as powerful as auditory–like when you hear a song you can’t get it out of your head.  It’s best if I just do my work and tell my story and not read too many other stories while I’m at it.  Yes, that may be foolish.  Ptolemy Mann is a UK ikat weaver of talent and note. American ikat weavers include Virginia Davis  and Polly Barton.

Early on in my rug-weaving days Mark Rothko was my big inspiration.  We all are familiar with how he treated large fields of color–how the edges collided and bled into each other–so very ikat.   When my husband Kirby and I traveled extensively in Peru and worked in Bolivia I fell under the spell of all things ethnic and ancient.  It took years behind the loom to weave South America out of my system.  When I finally emerged from that I fortunately had a strong sense of who I was as an artist and as a weaver and was very freed to be inspired by and to build my work on non-textile influences such as the visually powerful works and writings of Meinrad Craighead, the visionary Catholic nun;  Mary Oliver, the beloved Northeastern poet: the sculptor Martin Puryear, and the architect Phillip Johnson.  Sources of inspiration are an endless craving.

TSGNY: Thank you, Mary.

You can see more of Mary Zicafoose’s work here.

"Blueprint - Wine & Willow," (diptych), 2008, 48" x 76", Weft-face ikat.

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Katherine Knauer: Tampering with Tradition

TSGNY: How do you describe your art process?

Katherine Knauer: I’ve been a craftsperson my entire life and a quiltmaker since 1976.  In 1984 I discovered that I could print my own fabric designs with stencils and achieve a much more specific, personal result than with commercial fabrics.  I could design and print a group of fabrics depicting various aspects of one theme and piece those together for a quilt with a specific viewpoint.  I’ve been handprinting fabric since then. In 2009 I taught myself to use Photoshop in order to use an online fabric printing service called Spoonflower. Each quilt I make reflects a specific topic, usually taken from news headlines.  I’m currently working on a series of pieces about environmental concerns.

"Second Wind," from the Elements/Environment Series, 2010, 88” x 88”

KK: In “Second Wind,” all the surface fabrics that I digitally designed were printed using Spoonflower.  The theme of wind energy is illustrated in each print by images of wind turbines or dandelion seeds blowing in the wind or electrical devices such as lightbulbs, electric fans or power cords.  Wind is further represented by the color blue, and electricity by the color yellow.   And then extensive surface embroidery enlivens the rather flat surface.

Before the Elements/Environment series, I made quite a few quilts on the subject of war. I believe the unexpected juxtaposition of a traditional craft associated with comfort and warmth and disquieting imagery brings an extra layer of energy to my work.

"Conventional Forces," 1986, 84” x 84”

KK: In Conventional Forces, a “conventional”  (traditional) quilt pattern – a Log Cabin variation – has been adapted to accommodate textiles I designed and printed with images of “conventional” (non-nuclear) war.  I handprinted all the fabrics with stencils. I selected the piecing pattern to accommodate relatively large sections of printed fabrics.

"Conventional Forces" (detail), 1986, 84" x 84"

KK: The centerpiece of this quilt is a large image of a tank type used in Vietnam.  Other printed images used as repeat-pattern textile design include paratroopers, a concentration camp, soldiers in formation, falling bombs, rows of M-16 guns arranged in a herringbone pattern, jungle fighters, hand grenades, tanks, aircraft and wounded soldiers.  In two of the patterns, commercially printed fabrics are overprinted – a pattern of barbed wire over camouflage fabric, and burning buildings on another print.  The reverse side of this quilt is a stenciled hand-grenade design that took three days to print.

"Conventional Forces" (detail of reverse), 1986, 84” x 84”

TSGNY: With Photoshop in your design toolkit, and subjects like war and the environment, do traditional quilt patterns still have a role to play in your work?

KK: I love textiles and find traditional geometric quilt patterns irresistible.  The history of the patterns is fascinating – the titles reflect not only their appearance but what was on the maker’s mind or events of that era:  Whig’s Defeat, Drunkard’s Path,  LeMoyne Star,  Jacob’s Ladder, New York Beauty, etc.   When I use a traditional pattern in my work I am referring both to the historic pattern title and the possible meanings behind it. For example, “Streak O’ Lightning,” a zig-zag pattern, to me means something that happens in an instant and changes your life forever.  I’ve used it to represent sudden death, the destruction of war, and recently to represent electricity in a quilt about wind energy for the environmental series.

TSGNY: In spite of your serious subject matter, your patterns and images could be characterized as cartoony.  Is that intentional?

KK: It’s the way my style emerged from the get-go. I may have been influenced by the coloring books of my childhood.  I like areas of color to have distinct, crisp edges; I like heavy outlines.  I also love the look of woodblock prints and the silkscreened travel and propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s.  And stencil printing is particularly good for limited detail and large areas of a single color.

Stencil Printing

TSGNY: Do you get a different result from the hand-stencil process and from Spoonflower?

KK: Yes.  With hand stenciling I’m able to overprint commercial fabric and print over seams.  The color is deeper and more permanent.  I can have the resulting fabric the same day. And by using an airbrush or spray gun I can get an ombre effect or translucent effect and cover large areas. (My first air compressor sounded like a jet plane taking off and was very distracting.  I sold it and bought a “Super Silent” compressor when I was awarded a cash grant from the Empire State Crafts Alliance in 1988.)  In “Trouble in the Tropics,” for example, I achieved the translucent paint effects by lightly overspraying stencil prints in sections of a quilt that was made following our vacation to South America.  Each “postcard” monoprint depicts an unfortunate event that might befall a vacationer in the tropics.

"Trouble in the Tropics" (detail), 1990

KK: The benefits of using Spoonflower are unlimited yardage and the ease with which I can change size, proportion, color and other design elements.  I can preview my fabric in various repeat formats.  It’s easy to correct mistakes and to reorder.  I can have lots of little details and an unlimited color palette.  It’s also just fun to play around on the computer using Photoshop.

TSGNY: If you’ve tried other media, and are clearly not averse to modern technology, why do you stick with quilts?

KK: Quiltmaking allows me to create large, colorful pieces while working in a limited space. (I have a great studio now, but for years, the exigencies of family life in an apartment squeezed my quiltmaking into whatever compact space was available.)  I love being part of a craft tradition, and feel a great kinship with the lacemakers, seamstresses, weavers, knitters and quiltmakers of previous generations.  I also have a terrific support group among my quilting pals.

TSGNY: After the design excitement of the processes that go into the surface layer, how do you think about the part of the work that ties you most closely to that craft tradition: the quilting itself, the stitching that joins the three layers of the quilt together?

KK: Semper Tedium!  (An invented pseudo-Latin phrase meaning:  Long live the labor-intensive artistic process!)  The quilting is the payoff after making the top of the quilt.  The process is hypnotic, meditative and trance-inducing, especially when combined with a good audiobook.

TSGNY: A motto to live by! Finally, are there artists who influence you whose work you’d like us to know about?

KK: I love Mark Bradford‘s huge exuberant collages with permanent wave endpapers and paint. Philip Taaffe’s multi-layered, over-printed paintings are mysterious, hallucinatory and beautiful.  Nick Cave’s “soundsuits” are simultaneously playful and imbued with deep personal meaning.  Ditto for the stitched constructions of Charles LeDray, whose ethic of “work, work, work, work, work” strikes a chord with me. I visit museums several times a week and find living in NYC an endless banquet of visual inspiration.

TSGNY: Thank you, Katherine.

You can see more of Katherine’s work here; at the TSGNY exhibit “Crossing Lines”; and in  “Material Witnesses,” at The Art Quilt Gallery, 133 West 25th Street, NYC, November 15, 2011 – January 7, 2012.

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