Monday, August 11, 2014

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

By Tom Wachunas

    “He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers.”   (Exodus 35:35)

    EXHIBIT: Attack of the Fiber Artists, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH AUGUST 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / viewing hours Wed.-Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.

    First, here’s an excerpt from the brief history of the Textile Art Alliance, as found on the group’s website at

     The Textile Art Alliance (TAA), an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is an active organization of artists, designers, craftspeople, educators, and collectors with a common interest in the textile and fiber arts. Formed in 1934, TAA’s purpose is to promote the fiber arts through exhibitions, educational programs and purchases to enlarge the textile collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art…”

    Second, there’s the title of this exhibit: “Attack of the Fiber Artists.” Attack? Sounds a bit radical, as if the show were an assault on our aesthetic sensibilities. So while I’m certain the title is meant in good fun, I can assure you there’s nothing malicious, subversive or even mildly revolutionary about the 46 works on view. That said, it is a thoroughly electrifying and eclectic presentation of contemporary works in fiber.
    When I looked at Elizabeth Mather’s Portrait of Mollie – a quietly stunning, tightly textured representation of a woman’s face in shadow - I was intrigued by the description of the medium: “Handwoven Twill, Double-weave Pick-Up with Layer Blending (Cotton and Wool).” Now, “oil on board” or “acrylic on canvas” I can fully appreciate. But “double-weave pick-up” and “layer-blending?” I was all agoogle. I felt prompted to better grasp what I always sensed, even if unfairly, to be the more cloistered aspects of fiber arts methodologies. And after an admittedly perfunctory web search, I still can’t tell you all that much about warp and weft, shaft and shed, basting and bearding.
     Suffice to say that the world of fiber art and artists is just that – a world - replete with its own demanding techniques, tools, and disciplines to be seriously embraced, not to mention daunting vocabulary. I imagined cryptic conversations between fiber artists looking at each others’ works with comments like, “I love how that selvage works on the trapunto,” or, “Your tatting and broderie perse work really well together.”  Yikes.
    In any case, beyond the clear, consistent mastery of pure craft that is in abundance here, there is an equal attention to compelling visual design and engaging ideological content. Many of the works exhibit a spirit of exuberant spectacle and elaborate ornamentation, such as the large (42”x78”) abstract Stormy Night at Blue Lake by Helen Murrell, alive with staccato rhythms of alternating cool and hot colored rectangles, all embedded with myriad patterns of swirling thread; the wildly celebratory and playful Petroglyphs I have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; and Primordial Slime, by Mary Ann Weber, with its layers of textures in relief (beads, feathers and sea shells). The unfettered joy implied by the vibrant rainbow motif in Diane K. Bird’s I’m Losing My Memory, I’m Losing Me actually becomes a tragic irony when you read the incorporated text penciled across the raised bands of color.
    In other works, the tactile physicality and dimensionality of mixed textures is downplayed, evoking more contemplative, even primal moods. The three intimately scaled (each 18”x6”) Snake Pictograms by Jennifer Whitten, featuring intricately varied thread patterns and earthen colors, are somewhat reminiscent of Native American ritual sand paintings. And there’s a distinctly painterly feel to Peggy Cox’s small (18”x12”) abstract Icelandic Journals -  flat overlapping swatches of fabric in muted tones with ghostly snippets of faded writing, suggest perhaps ancient parchments.
    One other thing that my aforementioned web search yielded was a glossary of humorous acronyms reportedly common among quilters and other textile artists. A few examples: FART – Fabric Acquisition Road Trip; PhD – Projects half Done; UFO – Unfinished Object; WHIMM – Works Hidden In My Mind. And my favorite, WOMBAT – Waste Of Money, Batting And Time.
    Relax and enjoy. You won’t find any WOMBATs here.

    PHOTOS (from top): Portrait of Mollie by Elizabeth Mather; Stormy Night on Blue Lake by Helen Murrell; Petroglyphs I Have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; I’m Losing My Mind, I’m Losing Me by Diane K. Bird; Primordial Slime by Mary Ann Weber     

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