|Rania Hassan, Pensive I, II, III, 2009, oil, fiber, canvas, metal wood, Each piece
is 31″h x 12″w x 2-1/2″ It’s currently on view at Greater Reston Arts Center.
There’s a revival of status and attention given to traditional, highly-skilled arts and crafts made of yarn, thread and materials. “Stitch,” a new show at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), proves that traditional sewing arts are at the forefront of contemporary art, and that fiber is a forceful vehicle for expression. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Women in the Arts puts the historical spin on traditional women’s art in “Workt by Hand,” a collection of stunning quilts from the Brooklyn Museum which were shown in exhibition at their home museum last year.
|Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82″;
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3;
Photography by Gavin Ashworth,
2012 / Brooklyn Museum
Quilts are normally very large and utilitarian in nature. To some historians, American quilts are appreciated as material culture with possible stories of the people who made them, but they also have some vivid abstract patterns and strong color harmonies. Their bold geometric shapes vary and change with different color combinations. Quilting is a folk art since it is a passed down tradition, and the patterns may seem stylized and highly decorative. Yet there is room for tremendous variation, creativity and individual style.
Within the United States there are important regional folk groups whose quilts have a distinctive style, like the Amish quilt, above. Amish designs can have a sophisticated abstraction deeply appreciated during the period of Minimal Art of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition outlines distinctions and also shows styles popular at certain times, including Mariners’ Knot quilts around 1840-1860, the Crazy Quilts of the Victorian period and the Double Wedding Ring pattern popular in the Midwest after World War I.
|Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks quilt–detail, 1865-70 Gift of Mrs Richard Draper, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum. This silk/velvet creation won first place in contests at state fairs in St. Louis and Kansas City.
One beautifully patterned quilt is from Sweden, but the rest of them are made in the USA. The patterns change like an optical illusions when we move near to far, or when we view in real life or in reproduction. There’s the Maltese Cross pattern, Star of Bethlehem pattern, Log Cabin pattern, Basket pattern and Flying Geese pattern, to name a few. The same patterns can come out looking very differently, depending on the maker. An Album Quilt has the signatures of different people who worked on different squares. We know the names of a handful of the quilting artists.
|Orly Cogan, Sexy Beast, Hand stitched embroidery
and paint on vintage table cloth, 34″ x 34″
While most of the quilts featured in the exhibition were made by anonymous artists, the Reston exhibition includes well-known national figures in fiber art, such as Orly Cogan and Nathan Vincent. Cogan uses traditional techniques on vintage fabrics to explore contemporary femininity and relationships. Her works appear to be large-scale drawings in thread. She adds paint and sews into old tablecloths. I loved the beautiful Butterfly Song Diptich and Sexy Beast, a human-beast combination with multiple arms, like the god Shiva. Vincent, the only man in the show, works against the traditional gender role, crocheting objects of typically masculine themes, such as a slingshot.
|Pam Rogers, Herbarium Study, 2013, Sewn leaves, handmade
soil and mineral pigments, graphite,
on cotton paper, 22″ x 13-1/2″
Most “Stitch” artists are local. Pam Rogers stitches the themes of people, place, nature and myth found in her other works. Kate Kretz, another local luminary of fiber art, embroiders in intricate detail, expressing feelings about motherhood, aging and even the art world.
Kretz’s own blog illuminates her work, including many of the pieces in “Stitch. The pictures there and the detailed photos on an embroidery blog display in sharper detail and explain some of her working methods.
Often she embroiders human hair into the designs and materials, connecting tangible bits of a self with an audience. Kretz explains, “One of the functions of art is to strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being across continents and centuries.”
Kretz adds, “The objects that I make are an attempt to articulate this feeling of vulnerability.” Yet some of the works also make us laugh and chuckle, like Hag, a circle of gray hair, Unruly, and Une Femme d’Un Certain Age. Watch out for a dagger embroidered from those gray hairs!
|Kate Kretz, Beauty of Your Breathing, 2013, Mothers hair from gestation
period embroidered on child’s garment, velvet, 20″ x 25″ x 1″
|Suzi Fox, Organ II, 2014, Recycled
motor wire, canvas, embroidery hoop
12-1/2″ x 8″ x 1-1/2″
Kretz is certainly not the only artist who punches us with wit and irony, and/or human hair, into the seemingly delicate stitches. Stephanie Booth combines real hair fibers with photography, and her works relate well to the family history aspect alluded to in NMWA’s quilting exhibition. Rania Hassan is also a multimedia artist who brings together canvas paintings with knitted works. In Dream Catcher and the Pensive series of three, shown at top of this page, she alludes to the fact that knitting is a pensive, meditative act. She painted her own hands on canvases of Pensive I, II, III and Ktog, using the knitted parts to pull together the various parts of three-dimensional, sculptural constructions. She adds wire to the threads for stiffness, although the wires are indiscernible. Suzi Fox uses wire, also, but for delicate, three-dimensional embroideries of hearts, lungs and ribcages (right).
There’s an inside to all of us and an outside. Erin Edicott Sheldon reminds us that stitches are sutures, and she calls her works sutras. Stitches heal our wounds. “I use contemporary embroidery on antique fabric as a canvas to explore the common threads that bind countless generations of women.” Her “Healing Sutras” have a meditative quality, recalling the ancient Indian sutras, the threads that hold all things together.
|Erin Endicott Sheldon, Healing Sutra#26, 2012, hand
embroidery on antique fabric stained with walnut ink
In this way she relates who work to the many unknown artists who participated in a traditional arts of quilting. Like the Star of Bethlehem quilt now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the traditional “Stitch” arts remind us to follow our stars while staying grounded in our traditions.
|Star of Bethlehem Quilt, 1830, Brooklyn Museum of Art Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg. Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Photo courtesy of Rachael Matthews from the UK Crafts Council
“High fiber” usually refers to a type of diet, but High Fiber at the National Museum for Women in the Arts demonstrates how “high art” integrates with the everyday world of a Folk Art. In the multi-media world of contemporary art, Fiber Art has gained recognition as a serious art form over the last fifty years. Like the art of glass making, fiber art was invented milleniums ago for utilitarian purposes. Knitting, sewing and weaving developed to meet basic needs of warmth and clothing, but as soon as pattern and design were involved, the process of making art began.
|Knitted objects are often in Matthews’ work
When the ancient artists/crafters knitted, knotted, wove or stitched to follow patterns or innate designs in their heads, they tied together movements between the left and right hands, bridging the creative left side of the brain with the analytical right side of the brain.
Contemporary fiber art may or may not have definite recognizable patterns and designs, but fiber art by definition is very tactile and textural. It may also be sculptural.
The National Museum for Women in the Arts’ exhibition of contemporary fiber artists, on view until January 6, 2013, features seven contemporary fiber artists, each working in styles completely different from the next one. High Fiber is the third installment of NMWA biennial Women to Watch exhibition series, in which regional outreach committees of the museum meet with local curators to find artists. The NMWA made a final selection of the seven artists representing different states and countries.
Rachael Matthews was a leader in a revival of knitting movement in the UK about 10 years ago. She is co-owner of a knit shop in London, Prick Your Finger, where one is more likely to see objects crafted of yarn, rather than a sweater. In Knitted Seascape, 2004, Matthews used illusionism much the way painters do; her hanging curtains, lace-like and pleated, open onto the seascape seen through a false window. She created depth similar to that in Raphael’s visionary painting. The vigorous texture into those waves, making their foam as real as in a Winslow Homer seascape, is not painted but knitted. Matthews also did a floor sculpture to which an hourglass and skull and crossbones attach. We are reminded of death in A Meeting Place for a Sacrifice to the Ultimate Plan, 2010. Another piece she supplied in the exhibition is a wedding dress, made as a collaborative effort where the individual pieces knit by different women form the whole. Collaboration and connection is certainly a part of emerging trend in Fiber Art.
Louise Halsey, from the Arkansas council, is a weaver, who has spent years studying the ancient art of weaving, while teaching and doing workshops. Her work demonstrates vivid color and technical perfection, but also shares the artist’s own narrative ideas. The four works in this show are images of homes. On her website, she explains, “Recently I have been weaving tapestries using the house as a symbol for what I cherish. These images of houses include placing the house amidst what I see as threats that are present in the environment.” Dream Facade, at right, may warn of being too strongly possessed and owned by vanity, while Supersize My House, 2011, questions the dream of bigger and bigger homes.
Louise Halsey, Dream Facade, 2005
wool weft on linen warf – tapestry technique
The house becomes sculpture in large, colorful constructions by Laure Tixier, from France and representing Les amis du NMWA, are based on architecture from around the world. Like children’s forts out of blankets, architecture meets the basic need for shelter with imagination in design. She stitches the forms out of felt and very large Plaid House reflects the classical architecture of Amsterdam. Smaller houses are also on display and they reveal her domestic interpretations of diverse types of architecture, including that of the future. Tixier clearly has an interest in the symbolism and meaning of architecture in history.
Laure Tixier’s Plaid House , 2008, wool felt and thread, 90-1/2″ x 33-1/2″
Collection of Mudam Luxembourg
Debra Folz of Boston combines sophisticated cross-stitch patterns on furniture and mirrors with a sleek modern look. Her works are a contrast to the homespun beauty of some of the works described above, but she was trained in Interior Design. The threads are small and look mechanical but can have depth, control, color harmony and pattern. Mixing thread with a industrial materials may sound discordant, but this harmony of opposites is beauty!
Debra Folz, XStitch Stool, 2009. Steel base,
perforated steel and nylon thread, 20 x 14 x 12 in
Steel is the canvas for embroidery.
|Beili Liu, Toil, 2008, Silk organza,72 x 36 x 8 in
Homes and their contents give security and comfort, but not all works of art in the exhibition have a domestic meaning. There are sculptural wall hangings and installations in the NMWA’s show. Beili Liu, recommended by the Texas State committee, spun strips of silk, a material traditionally associated with China, her country of origin. For Toil, she burned the edges of silk fabric with incense before winding the strips into the funnel-shaped projections that point off the wall. These forms twist and turn in various directions — like miniature tornadoes — creating paths and shadows on the wall. A variety of beige and brown tones add to the richness of this view. Liu’s larger Lure Series (not on view) installations use thread to recall Chinese folklore, she has that is said her work highlights the tensions between her Eastern origins and Western influences. She bridges these gaps well. In fact, fiber art is all about connecting.
Fiber Art seems to be on the verge of asserting new importance into the world of art. Jennifer Lindsay, one of my former students from the Smithsonian Associates and Corcoran College of Art and Design’s Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts, coordinated the public outreach, the design and collaborative installation of the Smithsonian Community Reef. The replica of a coral reef in crochet made expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s 2010-2011
expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s 2010-2011 Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, is now on view in the Putman Museum of History and Natural Science in Davenport, Iowa, until 2016.
|Jennifer Lindsay, Cowgirl Jacket is a memento mori to Frida Kahlo, photo by Judy Licht
Jennifer also dyes her own wool yarns and uses them to make intricate knitted and crocheted clothing, examples of which are shown here. She calls her cowgirl jacket a memento mori for Frida Kahlo. It uses nearly every knitting stitch available. Note the skeletons which link this design to El Dia de los Muertos. Memento mori is a reminder of death.
|Lindsay’s Russian Star, photo by Judy Licht
Getting back to the women’s museum, in the permanent collection, there are other works of fiber or those that remind us of fiber. On the 3rd floor of the NMWA, Remedios Varo’s Weaving of Space and Time is on loan along with two other works by Varo. The oil on masonite painting uses a symbolic circle to magically pull together the opposites of male and female figures, representing time and space. Within the circle are threads, not real threads but painted threads in light glazes that weave together ideas. Nearby is also a Judy Chicago painting whose circular painted form in acrylic and airbrush resembles the type of patterning with which traditional fiber artist created.
NMWA also has a piece by Magdalena Abakanowicz, one of the best known fiber artists of today. Four Seated Figures are of her recognizable life-size figural types made of fabric. The same, yet different, these abakans are representative the anonymity and uniformity of communist society in Poland, what she has known during the bulk of her life. Born in 1929, to Abakanowicz is accustomed to living in conditions which repressed individual creativity and intellect in favor of the collective interest.
|Magdalena Abakanowicz, Four Seated Figures, 1974-2002, burlap, resin, metal pedestal
figure: 115 cm, 55 cm, 63 cm pedestal: 76 cm, 47 cm, 23 cm
coll. The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Finally, we can be reminded of the diverse women came together for their quilt-making art who in a film of 1995 called How to Make An American Quilt, including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Alfre Woodard and Winona Ryder. Quilting is one the most lasting forms of Fiber Art, embedded into so many folk art traditions. In the end, the making of a quilt is compared to life: “As Anna says about making a quilt, you have to choose your combination carefully. The right choices will enhance your quilt. The wrong choices will dull the colors, hide their original beauty. There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by your instinct. And you have to be brave.”
It’s with fibers that women can connect and that the women of history are tied to the women of today.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, is hosting a ground-breaking exhibition, From Royalists to Romantics: Woman artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections. The exhibition celebrates the 25th anniversary of NMWA and will continue to be on view until July 29, 2012. It features 35 woman artists who worked between 1750 and 1850.
The women who worked as artists in France at this time went through difficult times of the Revolution and its aftermath, the governments of Napoleon and Napoleon III and uncertainties in
between. They reveal themselves as extraordinary talents, able to overcome so many odds. Many of those who painted and were the subject of portraits reveal themselves as the Renaissance woman of their days. The cover of the catalogue has an alluring portrait of Madame Juliette Récamier, by Eulalie Morin.
Madame Récamier, by Eulalie Morin, late 18th century, is on the cover of the NMWA ground-breaking exhibition. Morin’s Mme Récamier wears a grecian dress and standing in front of an olive tree. Morin used an encaustic technique
Madame Récamier was an extraordinary woman known for holding salons in Paris, hosting notable literary and political figures. She was brilliant, beautiful, charming, witty and politically involved. In time, she was critical of Napoleon, and Madame Récamier went in exile to Italy, but returned to France later. Morin’s portrait dates to the last quarter of the 18th century, before the more famous portraits of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David and Francois Gérard. Morin captured the personality of this charming and clever figure and set her in front of a distant landscape. Her skin is soft and smooth, and the flesh tones contrast nicely with the bright white headband and grecian dress. She stands in front of an olive tree, another tribute to Greece and her interest in the ideals of the classical world. The composition is unified with curves of the face, arm, tree and headband to pull it together and focus on the face. Morin’s Madame Récamier is intimate and alluring. Perhaps as a result of the NMWA exhibition, Morin’s painting will become the iconic image of Madame Recamier, and Eulalie Morin will become better known. (A specific type of couch, a récamier, takes its name from David’s portrait of her.) It’s interesting that Morin primarily painted miniatures, the tiny portraits which went out of vogue with the advent of photography.
Neoclassical style and the simplicity of white, grecian dress represented sympathy for Republican ideas. A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux in NMWA’s exhibition shows her bending over a painting, demonstrating her art. However, she shined not only as a painter, but as a musician and composer. Her style compares well next to the work of Jacques-Louis David, most revered painter of the age, especially when we see the texture and shine of an exquisite dresses she painted.
A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, left, from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen, demonstrates her painting profession.
The current exhibition only features paintings from French museums, but there is a also a full-length self-portrait by Ducreux in the Metropolitan Museum, where she plays the harp. Ducruex was also a musician and composer; this painting, below, was accepted in the Salon of 1791.
Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun was a prodigy who opened her own painting studio at age 15, supporting her mother and brother. She soon became a favorite of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Marriage and motherhood did not interfere with her career, and she is known for having painted several portraits of herself in affectionate, loving poses with Julie, her daughter.
Vigée-LeBrun did not support the Revolution and left France, only to gain an international reputation as a portrait painter, particularly amongst the nobility of Austria, Russia and Poland. (A recent blog on her is found here.)
Anne Vallayer-Coster was a marvelous still life painter who was voted into Royal Academy in 1770. A favorite of Marie-Antoinette, she seems to have fallen out of favor after the Revolution. Vallayer-Coster, Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, were elected into the exclusive French Academy and achieved fame in their day, but there were many other artists of extraordinary talent whom we now can see and recognize in a new light. Many are portrait painters and some are history painters, the latter considered the highest type of art in its time. A few of them painted genre scenes, still lives or landscapes.
The exhibition’s 77 paintings, prints and sculpture mainly come before the invention of photography and do not show its influence. By 1850 the style of Realism had entered the art scene, but the exhibition does not cover this style in which new, younger artists such as Rosa Bonheur were painting. A Legion d’Honneur recipient, Bonheur completed in 1855 her famous The Horse Fair, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Before the French Revolution, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun painted this lively portrait of Joseph Vernet in 1778, primarily using a rich variety of grayish tones. Joseph Vernet was a well-known marine painter who frequently portrayed shipwrecks and other disasters.
These works are on loan from France until July 29, 2012, after which they will travel to Sweden.
Constance Mayer, The Dream of Happiness, from the Louvre, has a Romantic mood, popular in the early 19th century. The exact date is unknown
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016