“Fabrication of Imagination,” on view at Arts League of Lowell through mid-September, works on several levels in presenting recent developments in the fiber and paper arts genre and shows how artists are attempting to balance the current political and social climate with their art.
The show was juried by Karen Hampton, an assistant professor in 3D fine art at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. A conceptual artist whose works address issues of colorism and kinship within the African-American community, her art practice is the synthesis of memory, history, time and cloth. “The work was submitted and I viewed it without knowing who the artists were,” Hampton said; the show’s prospectus called for 3D fiber-based work, or work referencing fiber, either wall-hung (relief) or self-standing. “I was looking for quality of work and thoughtfulness.” Louise Abbott’s handwoven tapestry necklace, “Conundrum,” was Hampton’s favorite work in the exhibition and awarded first prize. “It is beautiful and beautifully crafted,” she said.
Hampton’s own contribution, “Kind of Blue,” is a fringed bolero made of China silk that she tore up and handwove and shaped on a loom. It’s a fitting symbol of the warmth the show sends out.
Fiber arts work on a variety of levels — some are meant to be worn, others hung on walls or displayed on shelves or pedestals. The origin of the materials used can be as significant or interesting to viewers or potential buyers as the visual product itself.
“The materials are so integral to the final work, and they contribute meaning much as form and color do,” said Sarah Kuhn, who has two works in the show. “The materials in ‘The Thinker’ are Malabrigo Rasta yarn. Malabrigo is one of two yarn companies in Uruguay that are fair trade, or at least offered on fair trade principles. It’s fantastic yarn — and very expensive — but to me its story is important as well.”
“In ‘Mutualism,’ there are three kinds of yarn. Some Malabrigo Rasta, some Navajo churro — an heirloom breed brought by the Spanish but adopted and cherished by the Navajo — and the basis for their famed blankets, and some hand spun fleece that I bought in Maine at a fiber festival,” Kuhn said.
A lifetime knitter, Rochelle Zohn’s five-piece, hand-sewn “Family Gathering” was made from Indonesian cotton batik. “I buy mostly commercial fabrics knowing that I will spend time creatively playing with them; hence, the birth of these five, loving and warm curmudgeon-like people, held together with needle and thread and stuffed with lentils,” said Zohn, who has created “many original garments” before beginning to experiment with the use and potential of yarn in new and less-traditional ways.
“Tale of Tails,” the show’s largest work that hangs from the back wall, consists approximately 400 individually knitted tentacles made out of yarn. “I used the yarn to attract attention to the material by creating multiple, organic forms into a sculptural piece. I like to say it took me 75 years of living and experiences to bring me to that place of creation.”
One of the reasons “the field of fiber art is exploding,” Zohn noted, is that, “In this fast-paced world, people enjoy working more slowly and mindfully as the desire to repurpose and reuse materials for art has gained popularity.”
Nancy Lessard Downing’s “Colorful Steps,” made of rope, yarn and weaving, ignites memories of the circular rugs that might have been in your family home, first apartment or college dorm; it featured a color combination that has a hypnotic effect with a carnival feel; she estimates it took her 15 to 20 hours to complete the piece.
“One of my intentions in creating the piece was to do honor to the boxes of yarn an elderly person had donated to our family before she passed,” Downing said. “She had been an avid knitter and had boxes, I mean boxes of yarn! I do knit myself but tend to love doing these types of pieces more. My own intention was to create a piece that when I saw it each day, it would start my day with the bright colors you see in the morning when the sun rises. It would liven up my or someone’s day and bring the colors of the outdoors into the house. There is so much negativity in the world and perhaps having this as a rug or as a wall hanging would change the day and add some happiness.”
She didn’t have a design in advance. “I simply wanted something that I could use as a rug and wanted to combine the brightest colors, the funky yarns — that I have no idea how to even use in knitting — mixed with everyday colors. I tend to try and see my everyday experiences with a positive eye. No matter how negative it is, I always try to see some positive in it.”
The first work seen entering the gallery, and the one that held up through return exploration, is Jan Johnson’s “My things in a place I do not know,” an inked and printed collagraph print made from different materials, including folded paper. “The title comes from the materials I used to create the piece,” she explained. “These materials are familiar and I’m manipulating them in a way that’s familiar but the ideas in the piece that I hope to convey are like an unfamiliar place.”
Johnson made the print as “evidence and response” to the work of Syria-born artist Mohamad Hafez, whose work she was introduced to as a fellow of the Higgins School of Humanities at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she has since been a part-time professor of practice in printmaking. Wanting to understand how he made his work firsthand, she began drawing, “seeking a deeper kind of knowledge than can be understood through simple looking.”
Perhaps the most striking work in the show is Eleni Zohdi’s “Greed,” featuring white linen cotton gloves over dollars, quarters and currency from India, Greece and other foreign countries, made of plaster, fabric, money and wood, and coated in latex paint. “My idea of money metaphors was in my mind for a long time,” Zohdi wrote, while en route to Greece, explaining how she seeks to comment on subjects like “money laundering, cash flow, stretching the dollar” through her art. “Greed is universal — so I used other money.”
Steve Syverson’s “Neuron Net,” composed with copper and lead, initially looks like an unmalleable structure but closer inspection draws you into his hive of copper wire hidden behind grating. “With the theme of the show being 3D fiber or ‘referencing fiber,’ I cut strips of copper — that I treated with fire — to weave into the background,” he explained. “Then I cut strips of lead to weave into the ‘net’ to capture the copper wire ‘neurons’.”
Dian Hosmer’s “Half-light” assemblage box made of tree branches that have been wrapped around carefully with pages from a book and segments of words (including “taking up most of the sky”; “I’ve seen it with my eyes” and “the edge of the meadow”) placed over the fabric backdrop holds a transcendental feel. It was the exhibition’s second place prize winner.
One of my favorite pieces was Mary Hart’s “Vessel” bowl constructed of fabric and mixed media, that was awarded third place in the show. “It’s an overdyed fabric stiffened with polymer, using a product that Golden makes. Then, I painted a with opalescent glaze over a paper lining,” she explained.
Just around the corner from ALL, the Whistler House Museum of Art is hosting “Fiber Fusions,” a juried quilted exhibition that runs through October 26 (which opened too late for reviewing for this issue). It’s another example of why fans and makers of fiber and quilt arts continue to return and make the pilgrimage to Lowell, “America’s Original Mill City.”