by Beth Neville
Ellen Schiffman pushes the limits of Fiber Art in her “52 Box Project” solo exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum. Moving away from cotton, wool, linen, felt and synthetic fiber, she works with unorthodox materials. Reaching a “milestone” birthday (age not revealed), Schiffman made a pledge to herself that she would make a new fiber installation each week for a year, sort of a shortened version of Julie Powell’s “365 days” take on Julia Child. All of Schiffman’s 52 fiber works are encased in 9” x 9” wood boxes, displayed together as an ensemble on the wall.
The 52-box result is an almost overwhelming diversity of raw materials, styles, patterns and complexity. Schiffman’s materials include Q-tips, felting, embroidery, woven fabric, knotted and dyed fabric, beads, rocks, metal washers, wood, wire, string, photographs and more. Each box has its own motif and integrity, often strikingly different from the one adjacent to it in the row. Some contain a single object-shape, such as a circle of cotton balls, a globe of white gauze, or a “hammer” wrapped in twine. Fourteen boxes employ a grid as a motif, with wire or twine or metal washers crossing in checkerboard patterns. Several reflect the deep influence of Joseph Cornell’s boxes and contain a collection of “narrative- telling” objects; these are of interest because they arouse the viewer’s interpretation. The most aesthetically pleasing boxes use a single shape and a unified color scheme in the small space.
It is an interesting a challenge for an artist to explore the edges of his or her medium in a “series,” but the finished art project may not have a cohesive “look,” or visual unity. And that is the case with Schiffman’s 52 boxes. Displayed on a wall, closely packed together, the boxes fail to unify into a single work of art. Each box retains its own unique look and theme, but they do not add up to a unified “whole.” Frequently they visually jostle with each other in a disconcerting way. Also, the number 52 does not divide evenly, so that the fifth row has only four boxes. To have rounded up the total to 55 would have created five even rows and the outside perimeter of her display “box” would have been a rectangle, but she would have undermined her self-imposed rubric of one-box a week. Undoubtedly over the year, Schiffman expanded her repertoire of tools and techniques and is to be commended for that self-exploration.