Fiber Artistry Essay

Fiber Arts is an area, perhaps more so than any other realm of art, where blurred lines between aesthetics and functionality frequently prompt debate about “What is art?”. Generally speaking, to qualify as fine art, fiber arts should put more emphasis on aesthetic over functionality. This idea intrigues and inspires me, but also frustrates me. Art is about evoking emotion, and providing commentary without actually speaking. Doing so, while also making a functional piece that can be used for other purposes are not mutually exclusive in my eyes. This is the lens that I’ve viewed my experiences and education through, which has shaped me over the years as I’ve learned and explored the various techniques and theories that the fiber arts provide.

I’ve been doing work in this area in some form ever since I first learned to sew in the early 90s. Creating and altering outfits and accessories quickly went from fun interest to ingrained passion, which in turn evolved to influence all areas of my artistic interests and expressions. Over the years I learned from, and was inspired by a great many books and artists:

Books:

  • Universal Stitches for Weaving, Embroidery, and Other Fiber Arts by Nancy Hoskins
  • Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
  • Stitched Textiles: Nature by Stephanie Redfern
  • The Complete Book of Silk Screen Printing Production by J. I. Biegeleisen
  • Screenprinting: The Ultimate Studio Guide from Sketchbook to Squeegee by Printclub London
  • Felting – The Complete Guide by Jane Davis
  • Creating Felt Artwork: Felting & Stitching by Rosie Pink
  • 20th Century Pattern Design: Textile and Wallpaper Pioneers by Lesley Jackson
  • Advanced Textiles for Health and Wellbeing by Marie O’Mahoney
  • Classic and Modern Fabrics by Janet Wilson
  • Printed Textile Design by Amanda Briggs-Goode
  • Textiles, the Whole Story: Uses, Meanings, Significances by Beverley Gordon
  • Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color by Johannes Itten
  • Color: A Workshop for Artists and Designers by David Hornung

Artists

  • Olek
  • Meredith Woolnough
  • Sarah Walton
  • Kirsty Whitlock
  • Lauren DiCioccio
  • Kazuhito Takadoi
  • Joana Vasconcelos
  • Izziana Suhaimi
  • Kiki Smith
  • Inge Jacobsen
  • Erin M. Riley

I’ve also spent time in a great many museums over the years. Each exhibit is an endless source of learning and inspiration, that I try to bring back and use in my own work. The Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia, the Texas Quilt Museum, TextielLab in Tilburg, Netherlands, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and The George Washington University Textile Museum are all places I’ve spent time in (among others), and ones I will return to repeatedly in the future. In addition, I have attended workshops that these, and other places like the North House Folk School, Hudson River Valley Art Workshops, the Southwest School of Art, and the Red Stone Glen Fiber Arts Center offered. Workshops in multimedia fiber, improvisational quilting, machine quilting masterclass, nature in plastics, bead embroidery, needle felting, and weaving, among others.

As a result of these resources, and 20+ years of trial and error, I have developed skills in:

  • Screen printing
  • Sewing techniques
  • Loom weaving
  • Resist-dying
  • Tapestry
  • Silk painting
  • Felting
  • Netting
  • Knotting
  • Plaiting
  • Knitting
  • Pattern design
  • Costuming
  • Leatherwork
  • Gouache rendering
  • Lacquer stencils
  • Fabric creation
  • Accessory design & production

A primary tenet of my own artistic vision is recycling materials, either in the sense of using found material in my artwork, or more literally taking something I’ve made, and recycling it into something else. This goes back to the idea of aesthetic vs. function. For example, I created a quilted wall hanging; purely decorative as an exploration of color and pattern. Later, when I decided to make a functional quilt for my bedroom, I used that wall hanging and expanded around it, keeping the design intact but using it in a more practical way. One of my current enterprises is bag design and production. This is something that a good many people would argue would be a “craft” versus “art”. Based on my feelings and approach to the whole process, I disagree wholeheartedly. It starts with my design process in which functionality takes a backseat to emotion. It’s about what I want to say with that particular piece first, what I want people to feel both when they see the bag and when they use it. This is where things that I’ve learned like Color Theory, and textile history come into play. Also, artistic composition, playing with textures, picturing how certain choices will react in certain lighting. These are all artistic decisions to be made before marrying them with functionality.

This is also the approach I take to costume design. I’ve volunteered my time and skills to the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop, creating costume and set designs for a variety of plays and showcases. Each time is a new challenge because not only do you have to stay true to the character and story that’s been written, but you must consider the technical aspects of stage production as well. It’s interesting, as an artist, to design around something that is well known, such as the Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland, where the general public is already going to have their preconceived notions of design, versus as a story that is brand new or lesser known. Both situations offered unique challenges and allowed me to grow as a designer and artist.

Another example of how craft can be art, and then go back again, would be a piece I collaborated with for the Little World’s Fair in Grahamsville, NY. In a judged contest, the goal was to create a scene which served as a commentary on the impact of pollution on nature and to do so using only Amigurumi figures. Amigurumi is a crochet (or knitting) technique where you create some kind of 3D figure. Each member of the group was to create a small part of the scene, which would then be united in a larger artistic display. My group received the 2nd place ribbon in the contest for a polluted beach scene, with my contribution being a small lizard figure. By itself, the lizard wouldn’t necessarily be considered art, but within the larger context of the piece it certainly was. Since the contest, it lives by itself in a simple glass terrarium displayed on a shelf. It serves as a reminder to me that a great deal of art can be very contextual in nature.

I think the average person would be amazed at how much fiber art borrows from fine art, and how knowing and understanding the techniques of fine art (color, perspective, composition, etc), will enhance their work in other mediums, and vice versa. This duality is what has kept me pursuing the fiber arts for the past two decades. There is always something new to learn, or a different way of doing something that elicits new reactions in your audience and customers. Fabrics and textiles and colors will vary from culture to culture and all of them provide a rich history that today’s artist can honor and enhance through their work. The techniques and knowledge learned can date back centuries, yet remain relevant in a contemporary setting. Over the years I have learned how to marry those techniques with my own vision and create work that speaks to me on multiple levels while carrying that voice to others.