When you hear the term “fiber arts” you think sweaters, little booties and quilts – right? Yes, but how about hand-woven velvet in geometric shapes replicating Italian tile, painterly landscapes of felted wool, or quilted Par Avion stickers?
If you’ve never seen these or other fiber art wonders, you must hasten to the Kala Gallery at 1017 Marine Drive in Astoria before the current show “Contemporary Textiles” closes on Sunday, Nov. 25. There you will find the astounding work of textile artists Barbara Setsu-Pickett, Annin Barrett, Shelly Hedges, Vicky DeKrey, Cheryl Silverblatt and Leena Mela Riker. They represent the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving art form.
What is Fiber Arts anyway?
Margaret Thierry, “Contemporary Textiles” curator and Astoria Fiber Arts Academy board member, explains the modern concept of fiber or textile arts this way: “Contemporary fiber arts is a very broad category. To me, it’s anything that deals with fiber – quilting, spinning, felting, knitting, weaving. But the other thing to note is the difference between art and craft. Art is one-of-a-kind items, and crafts have to do with reproducing an item in quantity. I dye my yarn and weave scarves, and when people buy those they are buying my craft.
“So fiber arts covers anything to do protein or cellulose, any kind of fiber. But the six artists in our show have taken this tradition to new levels.”
It’s clear that fiber arts is going through a period of Renaissance. On the North Coast there are fiber arts supply stores, artists and groups closely fashioned after the Medieval guilds, on both sides of the river. This art form, which has ancient roots in all human cultures, is being modernized and transformed by a new generation of artists.
Basketry, quilting, sewing, knitting and crocheting were techniques used over the centuries by women to make durable and usable items for family life: clothing, vessels for gathering or carry, and bedding. So it is not surprising that the majority of these contemporary fiber artists are women – it has been a category of art where women have excelled.
“There are men in the field, and I would like to see more men involved,” Thierry says, “like the great male weaver Jack Lenor Larsen (a Seattleite born in 1927: see an archive of his work at www.artsmia.org/larsen/intro/index.cfm). But it is true: it’s more a feminine art form.”
The Michelangelo of Fiber
Theirry relates a story about discovering her place in the fiber art world. “Years ago I was studying at the University of Oregon getting my MFA in fine arts, and I took a lot of classes in sculpture because I was interested in working on form and figurative stuff. One of my instructors said, ‘Margaret, have you ever considered switching over to sculpture?’ and I said, ‘Could I ever be as good as Michelangelo?’ And he started laughing, but I was serious. I chose fiber arts because it’s wide open; it’s a field where you could still be the best.”
When asked who was the current “Michelangelo” of fiber arts, Thierry says, “Maybe Barbara Setsu-Pickett – that’s about it.”
Setsu-Pickett, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, speaks with the depth of someone steeped in the history of her art. She adds a clarifying touch to defining her field: “There is a re-emergence of fiber as an art form. It’s a breakaway from traditional crafts that were learned in the home but taken to a new expression level. I say there are two parts: one is the material, which is anything made of natural fiber – wool, cotton, silk. Then there are the techniques – for instance someone could take a wire and crochet. Even though it could be considered a metal, like jewelry, I would consider that fiber art because of the manipulation technique. So either the name of the material or the technique used could identify a fiber art.”
Setsu-Pickett, a Fulbright Scholar to Italy, has learned the ancient art of velvet making and, when working in Florence, sits at a Jacquard loom for six hours a day weaving 320 threads to an inch. Her daily progress is also measured in inches. She’s fascinated with paving stone, tiles patterns and fractals – designs with geometric precision. One of her KALA show velvets is called “Girandola,” which means ‘pinwheel’ in Italian, and for her it is a metaphor for the life of busy women in constant motion, spinning plates at the ends of sticks, “running from one to the other trying to keep things from crashing.” Setsu-Picketts’ signature style is this ability to conjoin concepts from different cultures.
Painting with Wool
Another featured artist is Annin Barrett who has been involved in the field for nearly 50 years. “I first learned to weave when I was 10. Now I make fiber art with colored fleece. I lay down color in layers very much like painting. Then I sprinkle on a little cold soapy water and start rolling my fleece. It’s an ancient technique that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.”
“It’s so tangible, so real and immediate. It’s very satisfying to make things from scratch. I think the revival of the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement has sparked peoples’ imagination – what’s happening is a reaction to balance out all of the computer-driven online content of our lives.”
Barrett too has a philosophical understanding of fiber art. She explains the irony is that “the weaving technique of the Jacquard loom was one of the earliest prototypes for the computer. It made complicated patterns possible, automatically. Then later, in 1801, it developed into the pre-computer technology of the punch card, based on binary systems of patterns.” Today all computers are built on a binary language of bits and bytes. What is amusing is that even now Barrett uses her computer to “tweak photos of Pacific Northwest landscapes” before she begins painting in wool. Fiber arts is coming full circle.
But the KALA show is not the only game in town. On the Washington side of the river Karen Snyder, past owner and founder of Anna Lena Fabrics in Long Beach, is nationally known for her fabric design. Snyder, a quilter with a passion for the past, couldn’t find the 1930s colors she was longing for, so she created her own portfolio. (Bavarian Rose is her most recent design.)
In Ocean Park, The Bay Avenue Gallery has a range of fiber artists. Lisa Mattfield started knitting sweaters for her 6-foot-6-inch husband years ago. “I could never find Fred reasonably-priced sweaters with long enough sleeves, so I started making him sweaters with sleeves always a little bit too long because it made him feel indulged!”
Now Mattfield amuses and challenges herself with other artful projects. “Though most of what I do is wearable or usable in some fashion, I also like to work more creatively in the sense of having no or limited functional constraints.” She uses vibrant colors and makes small knitted vegetables and fruits into brooches or ornaments. She’s also made a turquoise bead-knitted purse, “about four inches high. What I particularly like about it, aside from the color, is the way it feels. It’s heavier than it looks, and it feels like it runs through your fingers rather than just sitting in your hand.”
Whatever your taste in fiber art – functional or conceptual – our coast is rife with both artists, raw materials and places to exhibit work. Snyder offers an explanation for this abundance: “Since the U.S. Bicentennial, quilting has continued to grow in popularity. I think it’s partly because the Baby Boom generation is into nesting, and as people retire they’re looking for hobbies. There’s a focus on handmade gifts and heirlooms for the family. It looks like hand-arts are coming back.”
For Barrett, the urge to create fiber art is more primal. “Working with fiber is a lifelong journey – it’s endlessly fascinating and intersects all aspects of our lives,” she said. “We all experience it from our first moments when we’re put into a swaddling cloth as babies to our last gasp wrapped in a shroud. It’s really basic to our existence.”