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Art & Museums

Artists find a common thread through string in Society for Contemporary Craft exhibit

| Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, 6:28 p.m.
Martha Stanley's off-loom hand-woven yarns are part of Society for Contemporary Craft’s “A Very Long Engagement' exhibit.
Society for Contemporary Craft
Martha Stanley's off-loom hand-woven yarns are part of Society for Contemporary Craft’s “A Very Long Engagement' exhibit.
Doug Guildford's 'Rope'
Society for Contemporary Craft
Doug Guildford's 'Rope'
Pat Hickman's 'To the Sea,' 2015, Nascent river teeth, animal membrane, pins
James Lee Soffer
Pat Hickman's 'To the Sea,' 2015, Nascent river teeth, animal membrane, pins
Dorie Millerson's 'Bridge'
Society for Contemporary Craft
Dorie Millerson's 'Bridge'
Jozef Bajus, 'Black Cheerios,' 2005, digital images on paper
James Lee Soffer
Jozef Bajus, 'Black Cheerios,' 2005, digital images on paper

The oldest known string was made around 15,000 BCE. It was found fossilized in a clod of clay near the magnificent wall paintings in the caves of Lascaux, France.

We've used string for just about everything, from flossing teeth to keeping shoes on our feet. Even artworks have been made from it, as evidenced by the exhibit “A Very Long Engagement,” at Society for Contemporary Craft's satellite gallery in the lobby of the Steel Plaza T-Station at One Mellon Center, Downtown.

Organized by Frances Dorsey, a professor of textiles at Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, and circulated by the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, the exhibit features the work of six artists working in thread, string or other fiber or fiber-related processes.

For example, in a nod to the past, Martha Stanley, a Watsonville, Calif., rug weaver, re-created a millennium-old Anasazi sandal as a way of understanding how, and with what meaning, the sandals were made.

The shoes, made by natives of the American Southwest, were constructed of up to nine kinds of twining, wrapping and knotting, which resulted in particular kinds of patterns, in relief, on the soles. Because of this, the marks of an individual passing by might be recorded on the ground where they walked — legible to those who could “read” them.

This same sense of record is evidenced in her rugmaking practice. By incorporating the same wrapping/knotting technique, Stanley created rug structures in relief from all sides, working outward from any point.

“The direction and tension of knots determine the texture or raised pattern of the rug surface,” she says. “This raised texture imprints on the soles of those who walk over the rug — in a funny way, the rug walks on the pedestrian.”

For the past decade, Toronto-based artist Dorie Millerson has been working with needle lace and thread, in a technique that draws from a venerable lace tradition and personal invention.

Her “Bridge” will likely catch the attention of most locals for its obvious ties to our city's bridges, but also because this three-dimensional, tiny rendition, is entirely made of laced thread.

Jozef Bajus, who teaches in the Fiber/Design Program at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, was trained in traditional textile practices in his native Slovakia and has developed an assemblage process that leans heavily on textile structures and is characterized as an accumulation of small units, a hallmark of most textile processes.

Much of Bajus' inspiration as an artist is driven by environmental issues. “Landfills are an example of how our human society creates a vicious cycle of producing and consuming everyday materials without care for the environmental consequences,” Bajus says. In “Black Cheerios,” he expresses his concerns with this lifestyle and the long-term effects it will have on our planet via images of a tire dump photographed by James Lee Soffer, which Bajus has cut up and laced into cocoon-like shapes.

Doug Guildford, a Canadian visual artist who splits his time between two studios, one in downtown Toronto and one on a stretch of shore in rural Nova Scotia, began to crochet in an era when his feminist friends were learning to repair car engines, as a way of understanding structure, and as a means to connect with material in an immediate and tactile way.

His “Rope” is reminiscent of marine life. Tidal flotsam — the junk washed up from a flailing fishing industry of his native Nova Scotia — is the literal and figurative source for his nets and sculptural forms. The crocheted construction of these organic objects (which will never be finished) has become an obsessive part of Guildford's ongoing work; the making itself seems as, or more, important than whatever emerges from the end of the (crochet) hook.

“My practice is rooted in drawing, and allows for ongoing obsessive crochet projects that spill out of my time spent on my native (Atlantic) coast of Nova Scotia (Canada), where I hang out between the tides collecting and digesting salvaged artifacts from the expiring off-shore fisheries,” he says.

Then, there's the work of Pat Hickman of Haverstraw, N.Y., in the Lower Hudson Valley. The daughter of a butcher, Hickman has been working with hog casings for decades, after having studied music, English and textiles.

Her “To the Sea” is made of animal gut and teeth.

The visceral yet robust quality of the gut is always palpable, yet oddly narrative: gut as empty container, as well as signifier, evokes memory, loss and emptiness.

Hickman says place and the materials of a place inform her work. “I grew up in a small Colorado town where my dad cut meat in a grocery store, and people in my family still hunt and fish for food. When I first saw a gut parka from Alaska, I was deeply moved by the idea that an inner animal membrane could be an outer protective garment.”

It was then she began working with sausage casings, hog intestines, which have become her signature material.

Living on the Hudson, an estuary moving in and out and never still, Hickman says, “Coming to Pittsburgh, I recognized immediately that I wanted to respond to the convergence of the rivers, feeling their power, knowing the path of their journey.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. Reach him at

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