Fiber-art flower project in bloom in Pittsburgh

| Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, 8:57 p.m.

There's been a major international arts exhibition happening triennially in Pittsburgh for decades, but until recently, it was better known among artists than by the public at large.

Then, someone had the bright idea to “Knit the Bridge” in 2013, covering the Andy Warhol Bridge from Downtown to the North Shore in bright fibers of many colors, shapes and textures to call attention to the Fiberart International exhibit. It was hard not to notice.

“Up until the last one, our outreach component was rather small,” says Susan Swarthout, president of the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, which hosts the triennial Fiberart International. “We might go into a classroom and do some talks. In 2013, one of our creative members got the idea to cover a bridge. That was a huge outreach component, a big change for us, with a social service component — everything from the bridge was reused for homeless shelters and people in need. They were made into blankets and scarves and given away.

“That took 18 months, and 1,800 people worked on it in one way or another, making panels, sewing them together, installing. After that was over, we were like, ‘What's our next trick?' ”

The Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh is hoping to ignite interest in the next Fiberart International, coming May 6, with pop-up flower gardens made from fibers and other materials on display all over the city at Carnegie Library branches and elsewhere.

“Pop des Fleurs” opens with a ribbon-cutting celebration at 11 a.m. Feb. 6 at the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

The “Pop des Fleurs” indoor/outdoor flowers will be made out of mostly repurposed materials — everything from plastic newspaper bags to tablecloths, CDs and pipe cleaners. Each installation is totally different.

The project was tested outside last year in Lawrenceville's Arsenal Park.

“That was a hard winter, last winter,” Swarthout says. “We found that most things weathered it just fine, and we did some tweaks. At the end of that installation ... (we asked) how do we expand that to the whole city?”

The public has been helping to make the flowers for some time at Carnegie Library branches. Participation in the project has been strong.

“The reception by the community has been so inspiring,” says Susan Banks, deputy director of the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. “First of all, everybody showed up. All ages — little kids, teens, older folks getting together, knitting clubs — worked on it. It's such an accessible activity. Then, to actually work with some of the textile artists from the Fiberarts Guild is such an amazing thing.”

The installations will stay in place until April 1, or longer if a particular branch wants to keep them.

The Fiberart International 2016 (fiberartinternational.org) is the 22nd event, held every three years in Pittsburgh. The exhibit runs from May 6 to Aug. 21 at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside and Society for Contemporary Crafts in the Strip District.

As fiber arts go, it's among the most prestigious exhibitions in the world.

“This year, the accepted artists represent 14 countries, including Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Hungary, Chile, Finland,” says Laren Sims, director of Fiberart International 2016.

“They have to take 1,200 (artists) and pare it down to 79; seven are from Pittsburgh. We are a real center of fiber arts. We have some of the best artists in the world in the city.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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