Erma Martin Yost: Felted Fields

TSGNY: What fiber techniques or materials do you employ in your artwork?

Erma Martin Yost: I create handmade felt from roving and/or wool batting and use the resulting mat as my canvas. I start by making elements that interest me. Only later do I put them together and begin composing, taking my direction from ideas that evolve as I work.

“Spring Song,” 2011, 16” x 21”

TSGNY: Can you talk a bit about that process of evolution?

EMY: When felting I compose colorful shapes with the dyed batting and roving. When the felt is thoroughly dried, I pin the piece up on a board and wait for it to “speak” to me. Gradually I develop the surface, sometimes combining pieces of felt. Since this is a slow process, I usually have three or four pieces pinned up at a time and work on them simultaneously. I find that if I have a fixed idea when I start, the work ends up self-conscious.

“River Shadows,” 2012, 31” x 17”

TSGNY: You refer to felt as your “canvas” – were you originally a painter?

EMY: My graduate degree was in painting. While exploring many types of surface design and transfer processes, my work evolved into mixed media art quilt constructions. The tactile quality of the materials and surface texture has always been an important component to me. Felt making satisfies all of these interests.

"Autumn Field," 2012, 21” x 28”

TSGNY: How did felt become your canvas?

EMY: After retiring from teaching art at The Spence School, I did a lot of subbing there. One day I subbed in a class of 6th graders that was making felt scarves. I was completely seduced. I had never encountered the process before, so the students ended up teaching me. I went home and researched felt making on the Internet, ordered some supplies, and did a great deal of experimentation. The rest is history.

“Pond Shadows,” 2012, 22” x 26”

TSGNY: Does making or working with felt pose any particular challenges?

EMY: The supplies and process for felt making are deceptively simple. However, to get a durable fiber structure takes a lot of physical effort. Injuries to shoulders and wrists are common, which I found out the hard way.

"Evening Field," 2011, 24" x 24"

TSGNY: If you’re willing to risk injury, working with felt must offer you something you couldn’t find in other media.

EMY: I find it less daunting to begin composing on the colorful surface that I intuitively create in felt, than facing a blank white canvas. And while I thoroughly enjoyed all the surface design techniques and processes I explored over the years, I had begun to get concerned about some of the toxicity and fumes I was being exposed to.  With felt making I am basically exposed to wool, soap and hot water. I like the simplicity of these few requirements. When I begin to embellish the felted surface with thread, my fascination with “mark making” is more open-ended and easier to explore.

"Shadowed Field," 2012, 22” x 27”

TSGNY: “Mark making” is very much a part of the current art conversation. What form does it take for you?

EMY:  I create mark making by hand-stitching with embroidery floss to create dashes of color. I start to fill up a space and stop when there is “enough.” To create lines or outlines, I love to use hand-dyed #3 pearl cotton thread and “couch” it. The twisted thread has a bit of a life of its own and it tells me where it wants to go.

"Shadowed Field," 2012, detail

TSGNY: Has your intent changed since you discovered felt?

EMY: My work, regardless of the medium, has always had a reference to nature. Even though I’ve lived in the city for 36 years, only two pieces ever had urban themes: the events of 9/11.

"Winter Sunset," 2011, 22” x 16”

EMY: There are several folk textiles I keep visible in my studio that have informed my work. One is a hand-embroidered pillow sham from India, found at a flea market. The other is a Sujuni wall hanging from the village of Bhusara, Bihar, India, commissioned by Dorothy Caldwell at a women’s domestic textiles cooperative. The background is black handwoven cotton; a story of village life is portrayed in white thread, entirely through dashes and lines that fill one hundred percent of the surface. These Indian textiles tell local village stories, which is not my goal. But I am impressed by how the density and direction of the stitch marks create the design.

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

EMY: I admire many well-known textile artists whose work involves “mark making.”  Two resources about the textiles of India I often refer to are “The Narrative Thread,” from an exhibit at the Asia Society in 1998 and “Stitching Women’s Lives” from the Museum for Textiles exhibit in 1999.

“Shifting Shadows,” 2012, 37” x 22”

TSGNY: Thank you, Erma. You can see more of Erma’s work on her website and her solo exhibit at the Noho Gallery, Felted Fields, February 5-March 2, 2013.

Karen Henderson: Weaving the Intangible

TSGNY: What fiber techniques do you employ in your work?

Karen Henderson: I weave, dye, and stitch to create pieces for the wall that are inspired by landscape.  Often I use a linen or hemp warp, and then experiment with different materials (silks, papers, cotton) for the weft.  I enjoy playing with various textures, transparency, density. Sometimes I incorporate very simple tapestry areas as part of that exploration.  My dye techniques include direct painting, gradation dyeing, batik, shibori, and rust printing. I also work with techniques of color removal. I figure I can’t weave everything, and I really enjoy working with a variety of materials, so I also use all the same techniques on purchased fabrics such as hemp, linen, silk gauze or organza, and rayon.

TSGNY: You’ve got so many different fiber techniques at your command  – how long have you been working with fiber?

KH:  Using textiles in my art has been a long-time love affair, which took root when I learned batik in my high-school ‘crafts’ class. I was completely addicted to batik for a few years, making clothing that I would sell at small local craft fairs. I also made wall pieces using batik on rice paper. That led me to study textiles in depth at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.  From there, it’s been a gradual evolution over the years to what I do now, but there were definitely moments or specific pieces from school or right after graduating that I can look back on and see a direct line to what I do now.

Burning Off. 2012. 4"x 4"; cotton and silk organza, dye painting and color removal, shibori, and hand-stitching.

TSGNY: How did you initially use your textile training?

KH:   After graduating, I went to work as a textile designer for the home-furnishings industry, while continuing to pursue my own studio work.  I’d wanted to be an art-to-wear clothing designer, so I explored similar techniques and themes on fabrics for clothing, but my skills as a seamstress are not always the best.  I’m a little spontaneous where one should be more technical and patient.  So it makes sense that I’ve eventually gravitated towards work that is meant for the wall. Before I had my own loom, I was working with purchased fabrics that I would dye, layer, stitch or otherwise collage together; but even back then I was beginning to refer to landscape.

Reverie. 2012. 12” x 12”; handwoven linen, cotton and silk, with cotton gauze and silk organza; dye painting, color removal, shibori, with hand-stitching.

TSGNY:  Do your technique or your choice of materials pose any particular challenges?

KH: Mainly the big challenges for me are how to create the feeling of atmosphere or light – to capture some part of nature. I’m also hoping to convey some emotional quality to the piece with materials that are physical. I’m trying to make the intangible come together in fabrics.  That’s something I’m always working on, and struggling with.  Many fabrics don’t work out the way I’d hoped and end up back in the drawer, out of sight!  Often, though, after a time, I’ll take these projects out and look at them with fresh eyes. Since my previous efforts or expectations are gone, I can rework them into something new.  Fabric can be very forgiving that way, very easy to change.

Commission in progress.

TSGNY: Aside from this great quality of being forgiving, would you say that working with fabric enables you to represent landscape in a way you might not have been able to do in another medium?

KH: Fibers are so tactile . . . the textures can be so rich.  And weaving my own fabric definitely allows me to play with my ‘canvas’ as it were. Also, being able to physically manipulate the surfaces adds more textures and depth that I’m not sure other media would allow me to do the same way.

Harbinger. 2012. 12" x 12"; handwoven linen, cotton chenille and silk, with cotton gauze and silk organza; dye painting, color removal, shibori, with hand-stitching.

TSGNY: Would you say that the evolution of your process has altered your intent?

KH: Mainly I see that my work goes back and forth on how abstract or not my approach might be . . . sometimes my landscapes are more literal, and other times it’s not so obvious.  And I think the process dictates my direction.  I don’t always plan each piece, so allowing for some exploration and response to it is important to me.

Ripple Effect. 2012. 12" x 12"; handwoven linen & silk, with raw silk and silk organza; dye painting, color removal, shibori, and hand-stitching.

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

KH: I’ve been very influenced by my former professors at MCAD: Deborah Warner, Lewis Knauss and Michael Olszewski.  I would not have grown as much an artist without their encouragement and advice over the years.  There are so many other fiber/textile artists whose work is also extremely inspiring to me, I really couldn’t list all of them. Other artistic influences are the works of Kahn, Klimt, Rothko, and Turner.

TSGNY: Thank you Karen. You can see more of Karen’s work on her website.

Larry Schulte: The Half-Seen World

TSGNY: What is your medium?

Larry Schulte: I have never worked in just one medium.  The two kinds of work that I’ve done most extensively and have exhibited the most are woven painted-paper pieces based on the Fibonacci sequence, which I have been making for nearly 40 years; and screenprints, which I have been making for about 10 years.

"Grid 8," 34" x 34," woven painted paper. Collection Museum of Nebraska Art.

LS: I also make small works that I can create at home rather than in the studio.  These include woven photographs, paper-punched photographs, and stitched prints and photographs. I like to play with a variety of media – each medium teaches me something that I can apply to the other work.

"Metallic Red, 2008, "4" x 6", paper-punched photographs.

TSGNY: How does working in a smaller format in other media inform your larger work?

LS: The small woven-photo pieces don’t take much time — I can complete one in two to three hours.  The photos are of patterns and textures that I might want to create in a larger work.  With the small woven-photo pieces, the image is already there, so I don’t have to spend additional time in image preparation. This lets me see in a single evening how a circle image will interact with a square pattern image, which I can then translate into a larger woven painted-paper piece, or a screenprint. Similarly, the paper-punch pieces let me see immediately the results of layering one pattern over another pattern.

"Bridge," 2011, 4" x 6", paper-punched photographs.

TSGNY: How did you begin the woven-paper work?

LS: I was getting my Master’s degree in watercolor and at the same time I was taking several weaving classes.  At some point, I started weaving a paper weft into the fiber warp on a loom.  Eventually I did away with the loom altogether and wove paper with paper by hand. I start with two pieces of heavy white all-cotton paper, paint each piece with acrylic paint (one for the warp, the other for the weft), cut them into strips and weave them together.

Cutting painted paper strips to weave.

LS: When I was weaving on a loom, I worked with all kinds of techniques: ikat, overshot patterns. The woven painted paper pieces have a more simplified structure. Originally, I used a plain weave, simply over-under.  As the works increased in size, I made a modification to a twill weave, over two under one. This modified twill was also an iteration of the Fibonacci Sequence.  The twill weave also allowed the strips of paper to be closer together in a tighter weave, which keeps the painted image more intact.

"Red Field," 2010, 54" x 54", woven painted paper.

LS: The work has never really been about the medium, though, it was about creating a visual image of mathematical structure.  It’s just that the woven painted-paper medium was one of the most satisfactory ways I found of creating a visual structure.

TSGNY: That visual structure has a strong mathematical basis. How did the Fibonacci sequence come to play such a central role in your work?

LS: I chose the Fibonacci sequence many years ago, for several reasons.  I was a mathematician before I ever started making art.  I have a degree in mathematics, and taught math for a few years.  Yet when I first started making art, I was painting landscape.  I grew up on a farm, and nature is an important part of my work.  In a way, I feel that all of my work is landscape.  The Fibonacci numbers are related to the structure of nature. They occur in everything that is a spiral:  pine cones, seashells. One of my favorite places the numbers show up is in the head of a sunflower.  There are two spirals of seeds in a sunflower head, one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise.  The numbers of seeds in the two spirals are always two consecutive Fibonacci numbers. The width of the strips I cut always varies proportionally to the numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, . . . each number always the sum of the two previous numbers).

"Squares 1," 2005, 4" x 6", woven photograph.

TSGNY: Your other main body of work is screenprinting on both paper and cloth.  When did you add that to the woven-paper work, and how does its imagery differ?

LS: I took a screenprinting class at Manhattan Graphics Center and responded immediately to the technique. I knew that I wanted to pursue it in depth.  I began creating patterns in Photoshop to use for the screens. Mathematics came into the work in the form of Moiré patterns as well as Fibonacci patterns of circles, lines, squares.

"Web Net Veil 86," 2010, 30"x 22", screenprint.

LS: My screenprinting images also include blueprints, EKG patterns, weaving patterns, topological charts.  I began layering all of these unrelated images to create new patterns. I called one grouping the “Chaos Series” because of the random way I was layering totally unrelated images.

"Science 65," 2012, 20" x 20", screenprint.

TSGNY: Does your choice of techniques enable you to do things you wouldn’t be able to do in other media?

LS: In all of my work, there is a kind of hiding, a kind of half-seeing, that requires the eye and mind to complete the image.  This is particularly true in the woven painted-paper pieces.  A circle painted on the piece of paper that become the warp strips still reads as a circle, even when half of the image is hidden under the weft strips.

"Culvert," 2010, 4" x 6", woven photographs.

LS: The same is true in the layering of ink in the screen prints.  The images I use always leave some open areas, so that the layers underneath show through. This “seeing through” would be difficult if you were strictly painting, or weaving, or drawing.

"Web Net Veil 10," 2009, 30" x 22", screenprint. Collection Dubuque Art Museum.

LS: I continue to explore this “half-seeing” in many media. When creating work to enter in the 9 x 9 x 3 exhibit, I experimented with layering felt for one piece, wrapping gridded wire with rayon in another, printing and stitching on cotton fabric for yet another.  Each of these experiments somehow involved layering, which seems to be a recurring theme in all my work.  The layering of felt started me thinking about other ways to create linear patterns.  The wrapped gridded wire started me thinking about other ways to create grids for screen printing that you could see through.  Stitching on cloth that has already been screenprinted is something I have been playing with for a couple of years, and may turn into a larger of body of work all on its own.  It’s a medium I want to investigate further.

"Untitled," 2011, 12" x 13", screen-printed stitched blacksilk.

TSGNY: Would you say your intent changes as a result of working with each new process?

LS: I am always amazed that I don’t know what my intent really is until a few years into a process.  For example, only in the past year did I begin to understand that part of what the layered screenprints are about is related to the internet, and the unlimited information that we take in each day.  The layering is a visual way of understanding and dealing with unlimited information.  Conceptually, I am dealing with the idea of creating pattern from chaos, mixing layers of unrelated images that result in a new structure. It’s as if I know intuitively what it is I am doing before I can verbalize what it is I have done.

"Untitled," 2011, 5" x 7", stitched photograph.

LS: My best work always comes when I allow the medium to work, when I don’t try to conceive too much in advance, when I simply respond to what has started.

"Science 84," 2012, 20" x 20", screenprint.

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

LS: Living artists whose work I admire would include painter Steven Alexander, fiber artist Maureen Bardusk, painter and blogger Joanne Mattera, and TSGNY’s own Nancy Koenigsberg. My other influences include Kandinsky (especially his writings, including “Point and Line to Plane” and “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”); Mondrian, Anni Albers, Lenore Tawney, John Cage, Agnes Martin, and Gertrude Goldschmidt (Gego).  I’ve also been inspired and influenced by many outside of the visual arts world, particularly poets Mark Doty and Dale Kushner, pianist Aki Takahashi, choreographer Mark Morris, fiction writer Louise Farmer Smith, composers Eric Richards and Michael Byron, percussionist Haruka Fujii, and mathematician Stephen Wolfram.

I’ve collaborated with performing artists in the past, creating stage sets and woven costumes for a ballet company and very large-scale woven paper stage sets for the Japanese saxophonist Ryo Noda, when he performed at the Asia Society.

Woven painted-paper stage design, 1988, 6 panels, each 8' x 4', Asia Society.

TSGNY: You can see more of Larry’s work on his website.

Gulia Huber: States of Human Presence

TSGNY: Your work is not clothing in the traditional sense, but it clearly refers to clothing. How did you embark on this body of work?

Gulia Huber: During my graduate studies in art school at Penn State, the professor asked me to draw on skills that came from my personal life experience. I had worked as a costume designer in theater and film and as a clothing designer, so working with fabric, designing, drawing, making patterns, sewing and embroidering were familiar skills for me. I started by creating “Harness” out of rawhide, using materials and techniques that are usually applied to the craft of saddle-making. I cut a single piece of rawhide into many leather bands and connected them with grommets and buckles to make two human harnesses for a male and a female body.

"Harness" (2005); leather, metal accessories.

GH: In “Harness,” soft leather presents an idea about a human body and skin.  I used leather not only because of its look and texture but also because of its smell and capacity to change over time, to engage the viewer’s senses on multiple levels beyond the visual. “Harness” was a starting point for me; I wanted to explore these ideas, as well as to work with other soft materials. After working with leather I turned to flat sheets of rubber.

"Rubber Jackets" (2005), rubber, metal, polyester filler.

GH: Everyone relates to clothing on different levels, through touch, look, smell, and sound. “Rubber Jackets” is similar to “Harness” because it also affects the viewer’s perception through more than his/her visual sense.

TSGNY: What kind of artwork were you doing before “Harness” started you on this path?

GH: Before I started to explore the subject of human body and its boundaries through textiles, I was working with sculptural materials like plaster, wood, stone, and found objects.  I used carving, shaping, and molding to create  abstract representations of the human body. For my performances I used found objects like caution tape, iron bells, trunks and branches of old trees that had been cut down, and used them in the context of my subjective views about how we deal with obstacles and how our actions are driven by cultural influences.

TSGNY: Did switching from these materials to textiles change your intent?

GH: By purposely choosing a limited number of materials and processes for my works  that have long been classified as women’s crafts, I can express my feelings about accepted restrictive norms on women’s rights and freedoms. My work addresses issues of the gendered territories that are characteristic of every cultural system. Having been brought up on the intersection between Western and Eastern cultures, I experienced a variety of cultural norms that place women in the position of an object.

"Parachute" (2007); polyester fabric, accessories.

GH: I ask viewers to probe the questions: How far do we extend our personal boundaries? When does the destructive violation of the personal boundaries begin? What should one give up to retain personal freedom?

“Veil,” (2007); polyester fabrics, wire.

GH: In “Veil” I embroidered fabric with wire and then gently pressed this “ wired” textured fabric against my face, revealing a relief of my face as a part of this veil, commenting on women’s rights and cultural boundaries. As I began to explore these restrictive forces, and the changeable nature of boundaries posed by society, by culture and the inner self, I found that clothing can be a powerful metaphor for a human being, capable of standing in for a real person.  I began using sewing, knitting, and embroidery to create sculptural clothing or pieces of clothing that could embody emotional states of human presence.

“Red. Grace.” (2008) Performance, cotton, sand, foam board.

GH: I bring together different media such as video, performance, photography, and sound, but I continue to work with textiles and use the form of clothing because clothing defines our sexuality, reflects the world through which we define ourselves, contains an imprint of the private space that we create around ourselves, and also exposes a public space that we are immersed in.

“Yurt” (2008); cotton fabric, embroidery thread, rope, video projection.

TSGNY: Can you talk a little bit about the relation of clothing to public space and architecture in your work?

GH: My works refer to the body as an energy entity that is enclosed in layers of skin, clothing, building, air, and nature. I like to utilize light, height and the spaciousness of the room. And, like in any installation, the viewer is invited to be the part of the artwork. In “Yurt,” I created a structure similar to a nomadic yurt.  Inside the yurt, a shirt hangs on a hanger on the wall.  The white shirt is cut open in the middle, in the shape of a square from which a band embroidered with unreadable words falls on the floor, covering a video projection of a pit. Different cultural artifacts are thrown down the pit one by one.

TSGNY: The scale of your work is often very ambitious. Does your self-imposed limitation of techniques pose any particular challenges?

GH: In some way every work is a challenge for me. The works made out of leather and rubber led me to take the next challenging step: finding a visual solution to representing movement in space using simple fabrics bought in WalMart. When I start working on a project I have to think about how to transform a very simple piece of cotton or polyester fabric in a minimalist way to represent the idea I have in mind without violating the fabric’s own natural appeal.  I also pose a challenge to myself to use only two techniques — sewing and embroidery. For “Boots” I used only cotton quilted lining fabric.

"Boots" (2006): quilted cotton lining fabric.

GH: For “Table for Two” I challenged myself to create a glowing sensation of a table dinner setting using only vinyl. The sewn vinyl table cloth and a dinner setting for two are attached in one solid piece, glowing with light, signifying absence and presence at the same time.

"Table for Two" (2007); vinyl, light box, wooden table and chairs.

GH: Other challenges I’ve purposely posed for myself include sewing with wire in “Veil” and embroidering with human hair in “I Love, I Hate, I Need, I Protest.”

“I Love, I Hate, I Need, I Protest” (2005); cotton fabric, human hair, hangers.

GH: In “I Love, I Hate, I Need, I Protest,” I embroidered the words using human hair in order to emphasize the innately human nature of these statements. These are inborn desires, just as natural as our skin or hair.  I’ve also challenged myself to embroider while being completely covered by a black bag in “Trespassing”; and even to sew and burn a dress while performing.   In “Fire Dance” I danced with my very long, very wide dress on fire, while the photographer took over 300 photographs. It was a well planned performance, so nobody was hurt. As you can see, to me there are no limits in using textiles.

TSGNY: If you feel that the expressive capacity of textiles is unlimited, do you also feel that working with textiles enables you to do things you had not been able to do in any other medium?

GH:  Working with textiles made me realized how far I could push boundaries. I’ve used my own body as part of the process of art making. I’ve asked myself the question: “How would I feel if sewing is the only action I can take speaking about my body?” In “Trespassing,” I created a series of pieces that explored the process of constructing an identity within cultural norms, restrictions, and gendered territories.

“Trespassing” (2008); performance, polyester fabric, embroidery thread.

GH:  I created this performance in the context of women’s rights. Viewers witnessed my gradual “appearance” through the means of embroidery. I would come out hidden under a huge bag that I had sewed out of silky fabric in dark night-sky blue. At the beginning of this performance the viewers couldn’t know who was under this formless bag. Then I began embroidering the outline of my body with the gold thread. Within 20 minutes they could see that I was expressing myself even though I was under the bag. I used video as a tool to document my performance, altering the viewing time: in real time it took 20 minutes to complete this performance, but the video is five minutes long.

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

GH: I’m fascinated by the variety of artists who aspire to bring textiles to the front of fine art and to make it stand on its own alongside other less perishable media. Many artists, like Yinka Shonibare, explore their ideas through clothing. The ideas relating to the phenomenology of the body, particularly physicality of the feminine body,  in the works of Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum and Jana Sterbak, influenced me to incorporate sensory experiences in my sculptural works. The artworks of Beverly Semmes and Lucy Orta focus on portraying a social dimension of the space that body occupies. The artworks of Do Ho Suh and Nick Cave explore cultural dimensions in relation to the body.

TSGNY: Thank you, Gulia. You can see more of Gulia’s work on her website; and you can learn more about her company, PELAGOZ, which designs ergonomic clothing to help children with educational needs here.

Ann Roth: Planned and Unplanned

TSGNY: What is your fiber technique?

Ann Roth:  I work with the simplest of all weaving patterns — plain weave — but I use fabric strips for both warp and weft. The warp starts as whole cloth (100% cotton; bleached, de-sized and mercerized), which I dye using shibori techniques I’ve adapted.

Shibori warp in process.

AR: Before I do any dyeing, I map out areas that will eventually be bound or blocked off and go over the lines using a long basting stitch. This keeps the lines ‘readable’ after going through the dye, and helps me gather the fabric evenly. I do this for straight lines and to outline circles. In some cases, I cut two identical pattern forms from corrugated plastic board and clamp them together with fabric in between. Because of the width of my fabric strips, I have to widen circles into ovals to allow for the condensing that occurs when the warp is threaded on the loom. After all the warp fabric is dyed, I rip it into strips, maintaining the pattern order. I use ikat techniques to dye the weft strips.

Warp going on loom.

AR: As much as I dislike using a computer to make art, I have found it to be a valuable tool for the design process. Using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, I can make quick schematics of composition ideas. This greatly speeds up my ability to change and relocate colors and patterns. I can even approximate the effect of the optical mixing that occurs when weft overlaps warp by creating a weft color composition, reducing the opacity, and layering it over the warp composition.

Warp and Weft Schematic

AR: Sometimes precisely calculated, sometimes left to chance, the colors meet and/or overlap as the weaving progresses. These variations can create both subtle and dramatic forms and color contrasts. All of this play with color and pattern creates the illusion of layered, deep and contemplative spaces.

Weaving in process.

TSGNY: Ikat and related techniques exist in many cultures. Are there particular cultures whose textile traditions have a particularly strong influence on you?

AR: In 2010, I traveled to Uzbekistan to see Central Asian textiles and came home laden with lengths of ikat cloth, ranging from very simple patterns in cotton to meters of silk with complex patterns entirely dyed with natural dyes.

Ikats by Fazli tdin Dadajonov, Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

AR: The exuberance of the colors I found not just in fabrics, but also in their food markets and bazaars dared me to open up to strong color and pattern in my work. The love and commitment of the artisans to their craft boosted my confidence to follow my own artistic instincts. My recent work is all inspired by that trip.

"Shadow of the Silk Road" (2011) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed, ikat weft; handwoven; 3 panels, each 65.5” x 27”; overall 65.5” x 85”

TSGNY: What kind of artwork were you doing before you started working with this combination of ikat, shibori and plain weave?

AR: While I was in graduate school at the University of Kansas, I was inspired by landscape — in particular, the moods and appearances of the ocean off Deer Isle, Maine —  I worked at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts during the summers. The structure of Japanese armor, which I “read” as systems of marks, led me to make rows of diagonal and vertical marks on layers of semi-transparent parachute nylon I found at the state salvage store. I dyed and printed on the fabric and also glued on fabric strips. The pieces were large (around 6’ x 8’) fields of 2-4 layers of fabric sewn together in rows and gently gathered.  There was visual and physical depth, and they created the feeling of being in a physical environment.

Ocean Visages, MFA Thesis Exhibition, University of Kansas (installation view) Nylon: dyed, printed, collaged, hand sewn; sizes vary, approximately 72” x 84”

AR: When I finished my MFA I no longer had access to a large wall space, so I turned to the loom to explore my interest in Japanese ikat and shibori techniques. The idea of working with fabric strips for warp as well as weft just surfaced. Maybe it came from a residual memory of making cloth loop potholders when I was young? Initially I intended to make rugs, tapping my interest in Japanese and Scandinavian traditions of making the functional beautiful. I grew up sewing, loving fabrics and the beauty of quilts and rag rugs. I quickly abandoned that concept once I realized how much time I was already putting into the dyeing and weaving process.

"Leap Year" (2012) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed ikat weft; handwoven; 3 panels, each 64” x 38”, overall 64” x 126”

TSGNY: Does your technique pose any particular challenges? If so, how have you overcome them?

AR: There’s a lot of math involved in figuring how much fabric is needed for each piece, but that seems to fit with my personality. I’ve worked out shrinkage and uptake percentages and made an Excel template that performs the calculations. Rolling on the warp is an exercise in patience because ½” strips of fabric at 6 e.p.i. stick together.

TSGNY: Would you say this technique enables you to do things you have not been able to do in any other medium?

AR: I ask myself sometimes why I don’t paint, and the answer is: I like to have direct contact with materials, to hold them in my hands. There is a lot of repetition in measuring, binding and then unbinding for shibori and ikat, stripping the fabric, threading the read and headless, treadling and passing the shuttle that is calming and reassuring.

"Margilon 1 and 2" (2011) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed ikat weft; handwoven, 2 panels, each 32” x 28”, 32” x 59 overall

AR: The processes I use to create my weavings connect with the part of me that likes to plan and calculate, but they also thwart those inclinations in very healthy ways. I can calculate distances and patterns all I want, but I am prone to math errors, and there is always the serendipity of dye leakage. As hard as I try to maintain an even tension as I roll on the warp, there is always some displacement of pattern elements. The challenge of opening up to the reality versus the plan has been freeing emotionally and extremely exciting.

"Here" (2011) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed ikat weft; handwoven; 32” x 28”

AR: I also make paper weavings to try out ideas. Because the ikat and shibori weavings are so labor intensive, I have learned to be more playful through making these small paper weavings. It’s an easy, quick and fun way to experiment with color and pattern. I rarely make a weaving that is strictly an enlarged study, but use the paper experiments to ignite and process ideas.

Paper weaving

AR: It’s been both liberating and fulfilling to relax my need to have the “correct” answer instead being willing to embrace the unknown as a revealing, rewarding adventure.

“Passages 4: Release” (2012) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed weft, handwoven; 48” x 35

TSGNY: Has your artistic intent changed as a result of working  in this ikat/shibori process?

AR: My MFA thesis committee suggested that I explore making the marks that I was applying to the surface of the fabric become part of the physical structure of the finished piece. I am still interested pursuing marks as structure to create large fields, but I don’t have a large enough space to do that. In my weavings, I continue to explore the illusion of layers and depth I was exploring in my MFA thesis. By making multi-panel pieces, I can also work on a large scale as with Leap Year and Shadow of the Silk Road. I find myself moving away from the color field concept for the present. I still think about “building” marks, though.

"Shadow of the Silk Road" (detail)

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

AR: Artists who have influenced my work include El Anatsui, Cynthia Schira, Reiko Sudo and Nuno Textiles, and Ana Lisa Hedstrom. TSGNY member Valerie Foley’s Daily Japanese Textile blog has been an important inspiration for my interest in pattern and color.

"Passages 2" (2010) Cotton: hand-dyed shibori warp, hand-dyed ikat weft; handwoven, 56” x 42"

TSGNY: Thank you, Ann. You can see more of Ann’s work on her website, and in the show In Response: Weavings by Ann Roth and Vita Plume; May 31-September 6, 2012, Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Raleigh, North Carolina.

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.

Saberah Malik: Rhythms of Filtered Light

“Betrothed, Better Halved, Buried," 2011, 9" x 9" x 3" each; gold leaf, painted wood boxes, styrene mask; ori-nui, tsukidashi kanoko shibori on silk dupioni; polyester fabrics; enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: What is your principal fiber process?

Saberah Malik: I work in shiborizome (絞り染め), the Japanese art of resist dyeing, often shortened to shibori. The first character is a Chinese logogram that means ‘to strangle, constrict or wring,’ but it also has connotations of shiborikome, ‘refine or narrow down.’ The third character is also Chinese and means ‘to dye, color, paint, strain or print.’

"Coral," 2005, 44”x 27”; tsukidashi kanoko shibori (spaced dots) on silk dupioni.

SM: When working with silk, I usually incorporate dyeing, painting, and splattering. I am also increasingly giving surface pattern to three-dimensional forms in polyester, as in the current work with stones.

"Broken Boundary," 2012, 6" x 36" x 18"; ink, polyester fabrics; marbling, enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: Although shibori is often textured, it is primarily associated with two-dimensional work. Yet you also call your three-dimensional work shibori.

SM: Yes. Focusing on ‘strangle, constrict, wring, and refine’ and the manipulation of fabric as the key concepts, I consider my three-dimensional work shibori even though it may not always be dyed.

"Un-glassed II," 2010, 16" x 48" x 24"; silk organza, polyester fabrics, plexiglas; enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: Do you think you will eventually consider this new body of work an entirely new technique?

SM: It’s too early for me to comfortably claim it as a self-developed technique.  I’m still experimenting and innovating the most efficient ways of molding fabric to form, and rely heavily on the principles of shibori. Specifically, my process of crafting fabric sculpture has been an expansion and enhancement of the shibori technique of oboshi, that is, capping large motifs. In this work, the ‘motifs’ are actual objects that are stitched into the capping process on an individual basis, releasing a freestanding fabric object.

"Apothecary," 2009, 12" x 12" x 8"; silk organza, metallic polyester textile scraps, metal washers (bases); enhanced oboshi.

SM: When I first started practicing shibori, it was more traditional immersion-dyed work, mostly on silk. In transitioning to working in the round, I initially used silk organza remnants and re-purposed silk garments. Although it lacks the tactile sensuousness and level of visual warmth of silk, I am increasingly using polyester for cost effectiveness, and hopefully, structural integrity and longevity.

My process starts with basting, then machine stitching fabric over my chosen form (thus far, bottles and stones). I close the entry opening tightly with hand stitching, and in the case of bottles, bind the neck. Then I boil these fabric-covered objects, and after cooling, undo the entry seam to pull out the ‘mold.’ If I decide to add surface patterns, which range from immersion dyeing to marbling, splattering or gilding, I do so before extracting the ‘mold.’ I re-stitch the entry seam by hand to finish the piece. Sometimes I build on the shape by adding forms that ‘grow’ on the object. I have recently added a final finishing step, that is, to spray fixative on the completed shapes.

"What Will I Be," 2012, 14" x 40" x 18"; toy calves, plexiglas, polyester fabrics; enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: Was there an “Aha!” moment when you knew this expansion into three dimensions was something you wanted to explore, or was it a gradual evolution?

SM: My early shibori pieces were two-dimensional and dealt with landscape elements, particularly rocks, rich in texture and three-dimensional surface detail. From there it was a natural progression to arrive at my current work.

"Red Crevasse," 2008, 66" x 26"; maki-age, arashi shibori, discharge, on silk dupioni.

SM: Landmark inventions and new pathways in art or science are often defined by happenstance, the coming together of hitherto unrelated or diverse phenomena, described by the Japanese term datsuzoka, that is, fresh creativity, surprise.

In an effort to depict the imagery of foaming water, I covered fairly large wooden spheres in silk organza to form bubbles. The success of that experiment prompted me to try forming other shapes. Successfully molding fabric over a small jam jar was indeed my Aha! moment. I continued to experiment with an ever greater assortment of shapes and sizes and with varying weights and textures of silk and polyester fabric. The propensity of fibers, both natural and synthetic, to retain the memory of constriction and expansion through physical and thermal manipulation, provided the requisite qualities for transforming flat fabric into sculptural forms.

"Lapis," 2010, installation (dimensions variable); polyester fabrics, plexiglas bases; enhanced oboshi.

SM: Developing craft is usually a gradual evolution. My earlier work utilized double fabric layers in the belief that it would better lend itself to structural stability. A vision of duplicating the perceived effects of light filtering through glass led to a bolder use of single layers and even more transparent fabrics.

The last two and a half years have been a magical journey of exploration, first with bottles collected from friends’ recycling bins, and more recently, with stones gathered from my own back yard and the Rhode Island shoreline.

"China Trade Surplus: Twelve Days to Christmas," 2011, 72" x 72" x 24"; aluminum, pre-embroidered silk dupioni, china silk lining; enhanced oboshi.

SM: The illusion of volume in this body of work has more to do with the surprise and dichotomy of an artifact like dense, heavy, hard stone or glass transcribed in light, transparent, soft fabric. As the Korean artist Myung Keun Koh has written, “Transparency embodies not only temporal transience, but also spatial emptiness; it enables us to see through the inside and feel the inner space overlapping with the outer space, providing a different sense of space.” I believe it offers an equally renewed perception of the original forms used in my current work.

"Teetotaller's Recollections," 2011, 14" x 48" x 16"; plexiglas bases, polyester fabrics; enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: What kind of artwork were you doing before you started working with shibori?

SM: My early work was infused with a profusion of arabesque patterns on surfaces grand and humble, on objects ceremonial and profane; my coming of age happened in a culture where decoration was a dirty word. I postponed a career in art and design in order to be a full-time parent. During this hiatus, I exercised my creativity by working in watercolors, the least toxic and space requiring medium. Towards the end of those critical parenting years, I chanced upon a course in Decorative Finishes on Wood, and started using those techniques to paint on cut-out wood forms, often over gilded surfaces.

I painted a body of calligraphic images that I refer to as ‘Written Painting.’ I also painted a series of rocks inspired by the multitude of stones that are such an integral part of the New England topography.

In 2002, I chanced upon a community college course on surface design that introduced me to shibori and the limitless possibilities of manipulating fabric. I acquired a fresh set of skills that launched my current work. Working with fabric was in so many ways a distillation of my South Asian heritage (with its respect for and indulgence of textiles as symbols of status or utility), and my education in graphic and industrial design.

"Black Rock," (diptych), 2005, 39" x 24" each; mokume, arashi shibori, discharge, on silk dupioni.

SM: Now I have the challenge of fusing two diverse vernaculars into a modern idiom. Part of the fun has been to utilize what was lying around, or to look at fabric bolts and let the colors and patterns suggest an appropriate usage.

TSGNY: Does this three-dimensional process pose any particular challenges? How have you overcome them?

SM: I tend to work on a large scale. There is a definite limitation in how large a freestanding fabric form can exist before the integrity of its shape or the equilibrium of its structure is compromised. I overcome this limitation by working with smaller forms that I assemble into larger compositions.

"White Bend," 2010, 13" x 96" x 24"; pre-embroidered polyester fabric, plexiglas bases; enhanced oboshi.

SM: There is also a logistical limit to how large a jar or stone I can use because of the weight and size that my hands or the boiling utensil or stovetop at home can handle.

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

SM: In another life, I would have liked to be a glass artist. Working with sheer fabrics in the round is the closest I can come in creating sensory rhythms of light filtering through colored surfaces embellished with pattern. Light filtering through colored or patterned fabrics, whose randomly intersecting fibers create moiré patterns, is perhaps even more magical than light filtering through glass.

"Net Worth," 2010, dimensions variable; casting net, polyester fabrics; enhanced oboshi.

SM: Working with a transparent medium — be it glass or fabric — the flow of space between the inside and outside is blurred as the negative volume of inner space interacts with the positive volume defined by outer space. Transparency makes us question not only the spatial relationship of objects, but challenges the inherent qualities of sculpture itself as solid mass defining a particular form.

Working with stones I am aware of our instinctive and learned perception that equates stones with dense, heavy, static mass. That perception is contradicted by seeing stones described in an airy, light, and fluid material, redefining the property of volume.

"Gardener's Bane," 2011, 8" x 20" x 20"; immersion dyes, markers, polyester fabrics; handpainting, splattering, resists with rubber bands, cellophane; enhanced oboshi.

TSGNY: Has your intent changed as a result of working in this process?

SM: In embarking on textiles as an art medium, my instinctive intent was to create the most beautiful, unusual and otherworldly surface patterns on silk. As I discovered the ability to turn flat textiles into defining volumes, I now conceive, visualize and execute my work as three-dimensional installations. The focus is no longer exclusively on surface.

My work now deals with the concept of imperfection on two levels. First is the Islamic belief that perfection lies only within nature and hence, when mere mortals represent nature it is only an imitation and therefore less than perfect. Second is wabi sabi, the Japanese concept of appreciation for the imperfect, the impermanent.

"Stone Zone," 2011, 4" x 16" x 16"; polyester fabrics; enhanced oboshi.

SM: Even as I hand pick stones for their natural beauty, the results in duplicating are far from perfect. Yet this work can be appreciated precisely for those imperfections (visible seams within the forms) as inherent attributes of the material I use. It also addresses the impermanent; impermanent as the artwork may be, stones change form through evolutionary passage of time. Glass bottles break.

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

SM: I became acquainted with Afruz Amighi’s work when she won the Jameel Prize in Islamic Art at the V & A. Her work weaving metal into delicate, decorative filigree, as well as her paper cut-out series ‘1001 Pages,’ is inspirational for me. Raised in a culture of arabesque designs that profusely cover surfaces both lofty and mundane, I am inspired and guided by other artists’ use of a decorative idiom translated into a contemporary aesthetic. The other would be Maureen Kelman, who has been my mentor since I did an independent study with her. Fortunately, I had not seen her work till my own work had been channeled into its present form. I share with Maureen a three-dimensional approach to textiles as an art medium, and labor-intensive means of reaching our goals. But Maureen works in non-representational motifs in abstract, yet expressive images, and that aspect of her work continues to inspire me.

TSGNY: Thank you, Saberah. You can see more of Saberah Malik’s work on her website.

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.

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.


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.