Fiber artists blend modern aesthetics, traditional techniques
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013, 7:41 p.m.
Every three years, Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, now in its 50th year of operation, is able to attract hundreds of artists from this country and many others, who convene for “Fiberart International,” a juried exhibit of contemporary works of fiber art that is widely considered a benchmark for documenting trends and innovations in the field.
Since 1997, the exhibit has been held simultaneously at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Society for Contemporary Craft, and this year is no different.
Having opened just last month, this triennial exhibit features 79 exceptional works by 63 talented artists from countries as varied as Argentina, Canada, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Guernsey in Britain's Channel Islands, as well as many cities in the U.S.
As visitors to both halves of the exhibit will see, the artists have employed a dazzling variety of techniques, often in a single work. Many of the artists have combined traditional techniques such as embroidery, quilting or weaving with more contemporary processes such as laminating, plant dyeing, digital printing and burning.
This year's jurors included textile and lighting designer Paulina Ortiz, fiber artist Kai Chan and multimedia artist Joyce Scott, all esteemed experts in their related fields.
They awarded Best in Show to Japanese artist Naoe Okamoto for her piece “A Laughing House,” which is made of knitted and felted wool, hemp and silk.
Okamoto, who flew in to Pittsburgh from Kanagawa, Japan, for the opening, says the house she made isn't Japanese, as many had thought, but rather based on stone houses she saw on a trip to the English countryside. “The houses of stone looked like (they were) rising up from the ground,” Okamoto says. “I felt a strong ‘kizuna' (bond) between things, people and surroundings. It was a beautiful, happy landscape.”
An automobile designer for more than 17 years, Okamoto is like a lot of the artists in this exhibit, who come from varied backgrounds. And like Okamoto, they all have one thing in common: “I like making things,” Okamoto says with a smile.
Joy O. Ude of Lewisville, Texas, also submitted a piece that relates to her personal experience. “Oh, You Know … The Colored Girl,” a series of small, round boxes, is based on an elderly customer she dealt with on a weekly basis while working at a retail store. Ude, an African-American, says, “In her mind, the only logical way to differentiate me from my (all female) co-workers was to refer to me as ‘the colored girl.' ”
Though use of the term is not currently acceptable, Ude wondered if and when in America's history the word “colored” was an acceptable label for black Americans. “I was also curious about additional racial labels from previous decades or generations that had fallen out of favor,” she says.
Ude researched previous and current labels, their duration of usage and the events that fostered changes in the way that black Americans refer to themselves as a collective group.
Based on her research, she attached etched brass plates to each of the boxes with the history of each label, then printed each of the labels, such as “african american” or “colored,” in a continuous pattern on the exterior. Ude says the form and exterior materials (fiber and metal) are a reflection of the customer.
“They imply wealth in fabric quality and appearance,” she says. The interior fabric is traditional Nigerian wax cloth, which generally contains very bright colors and whimsical patterns. “The wax cloth reflects my family's culture,” Ude says. “Though born in America, I am a child of Nigerian immigrants.
“In combination with the historical information etched onto the exterior brass plates, I wanted to create a dialogue between the different materials — between that which is visible and that which is usually hidden.”
Elin Noble of New Bedford, Mass., displays a whole-cloth cotton quilt from her “Fugitive Pieces” series, which was inspired by the Canadian poet Anne Michaels' novel of the same name.
Noble says to create the piece, which is a real standout for its vibrant color and intricate surface design, the cloth was irregularly fan-folded in one direction, and then irregularly fan-folded in another direction, making a repeat pattern within the bundle of cloth.
“This bundle is held between wooden boards with clamps during the dyeing process,” Noble says. “The irregular folding and the dyeing create a deep space and subtle luminous forms.”
The dyeing involves layering pattern by adding and subtracting color repeatedly; leaving hints and marks of what was there before. The stitching brings an important dimension to the work.
“For me, this process parallels the fractured narrative of Anne Michaels' book, and the resulting imagery suggest themes of trauma, grief, loss, memory and discovery,” she says.
Then, there is the work of Julie Abijanac, an associate professor at Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio. Titled “Disease Mapping,” it is the first of many pieces Abijanac made from recycled copy paper that are a response to studying design elements and shape structures found in Field stains of cancer. “This particular piece is a design element I found in my own cancer specimen,” Abijanac says.
Abijanac says the piece, which is composed of six modules, changes its shape structure every time it is installed. “Whether that is important to the viewer or not, it is very important to me because it speaks to how internally disconnected we are from our bodies.”
Abijanac says that, most importantly, “It is my goal to find beauty within each cancer-cell structure and to be able to visually communicate that to the viewer.”
Finally, Washington, D.C., artist Kate Kretz chose to create “The Final Word” on black cotton velvet for “its muffling, silent quality.” A framed piece, there is a cut in the fabric in the top half of the work that has been crudely mended, and, at the bottom is an image of a sacrificial lamb, created with thousands of tiny French knots.
“The face alone took me an entire week to get right,” Kretz says. “Although I am no longer practicing, I was raised Catholic, and the sacrificial lamb is a strong symbol in that religion, but I use it here in a broader sense.”
For Kretz, whose work has been focused for many years on “the disempowered individuals in our society,” she says she feels as though the price many people pay for being artists is that, “we have extra-sensitive antennae that cause us to absorb a lot of pain from the world surrounding us.”
“Through the making of our work, we then exorcise some of that pain from our own bodies, and transfer it into the object we make,” Kretz says. “The intensive labor involved in creating the work is cathartic: each stitch is a deliberate, meditative process ... a prayer, a sutra, an incantation.
“In my process of making, I never stop until there is not one more thing I could do to make the work stronger. The time invested is part of the gift that is given to the viewer, and it is a deliberate act of defiance in the age that we live in.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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