This month, a consortium of 16 local galleries and arts institutions will present its sixth installment of “Innovations in Textiles,” a biennial event centered on contemporary fiber art. This year’s program boasts the largest number of participants in its 10-year history. Exhibiting the work of 125 artists from across the United States and Canada (though more than half are locally based), the presenting venues – from the Saint Louis Art Museum to Three Sinks Gallery – are as diverse as the works to be mounted within.
I was pretty foggy on what exactly constitutes textile and fiber art. After a few cursory searches on Google, it’s clear that defining what it is and what it is not is an ongoing debate amongst those who create, present and collect in this genre. The hard-and-fast definitions of many artistic disciplines have become increasingly more blurry (hence the popularity of the catch-all “multimedia” designation), so the best loose definition is the one most often favored: Textile is fabric, fiber is what’s used in creating the fabric and the art is in either the creation of something using the fabric, or the technique traditionally used in the fabrication.
“I was asked recently, ‘Why should we care about what textile art is?’” said Luanne Rimel, acting president and director of programs at Craft Alliance. “As individuals, we live in textiles and are around them all the time: our clothes, the fabric in our homes, what we use to decorate. We move what’s been [traditionally] on the couch, on the floor and on the bed to show that this material can be used as artistic expression. As a fiber artist myself, I love seeing the work respond to its environment, how [a work] can move when we walk by.”
Rimel and Craft Alliance will present “Realities & Illusions” as part of “Innovations in Textiles 6.” Curated by regional fiber artist Barbara Simon, the exhibition will feature works by traditional fiber artists alongside the work of textile artists who push the envelope: Pauline Verbeek-Cowart uses a high-tech, computerized loom to create a woven image of a photograph; Laura Strand weaves photographic images of maps; Jason Pollen works with rubber.
“Rubber hangs like fiber, but it’s a new material,” said Rimel. “Is it still fiber art anymore? There are baskets that fall under the fiber arts category that are made out of metal. Is this still fiber art?” Rimel’s rhetorical questions echo the sentiment that definitions of textile and fiber art are organic and constantly being stretched and twisted.
Fiber and textile art, like most contemporary craft, takes its cue from objects created for everyday use, most often in and around the home – baskets, bowls, rugs, bed coverings, vases, clothing – but doesn’t necessarily need to retain any utilitarian function. “Coat for Icarus,” a work by Jon Eric Riis, is in the shape of a coat but is unwearable. “You can respond to it because you know what it is,” said Rimel. “The work references a garment, but it is not a garment.” She explained that Riis has always been fascinated by ancient textiles, including ancient Peruvian garments, historical and handcrafted objects from around the world, and that he’s also interested in questions of personal identity. As Rimel elaborated, the coat responds to that. “It has an outer layer and a hidden inner layer, this work of tapestry weave,” she said. “Riis meticulously weaves silk and metallic threads to create images, and then he adds embroidery. That this contemporary artist chooses to engage in this ancient, time-consuming traditional art form – one thread at a time – invites the viewer to think about [the coat] as a concept. And that’s what takes it from a wearable piece to the wall, to be contemplated, reminded of history.”
Remembering that the definitions are loose, stretched and twisted, artwork in this genre can certainly be worn, sat on, slept on, eaten from, stepped on. Rimel began at an early age to experiment with wearable clothing as art. “I made Barbie doll clothes,” laughed Rimel. “I had a little bitty Singer that I absolutely begged for. I also made my own clothes all through junior high and high school.” Eventually, she combined her professional training in 2-D (painting and drawing) with her love of clothes-making and began to create art on fabric, including an entire line of hand-painted silk clothing – artwork, yes, but also meant to be worn. “Fabric – and clothing – has long been about more than its utilitarian value,” she said. “There’s always been a crossover. There were unwrapping ceremonies of shrouds in Africa, and these garments were considered magical, believed to have kept evil spirits away. For the contemporary fiber artist who makes [wearable art], I think a lot of them want to see their work moving through a crowd of people.”
Originally conceived by Craft Alliance, “Innovations in Textiles” began as a symposium centered on fiber and textile art, providing an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this evolving form. (The discussion promises to continue this year; Jeri Au, a local artist who is known for working in clay, will be presenting work using plant fiber at the Three Sinks Gallery.) In 1995, “Innovations in Textiles” was a weekend of coinciding openings; 10 years later, the symposium has grown into a two-month collaborative effort and joint programming, including exhibitions, lectures, workshops, demonstrations and tours. “I don’t know of a community [that] engages as many galleries as we do,” said Rimel. “The fact that we have a mix of traditional weavers or fiber artists with people who are embracing new technology coexisting in this region-wide event is amazing.”
The depth and breadth of what will be exhibited runs the gamut, according to Rimel. She mentioned quilts, probably what people familiar with fiber and textiles are used to seeing. Quilts will be part of several exhibitions, including the Quilt National at the Foundry Art Centre, the Gallery at the University City Library, Chesterfield Arts, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Gallery at the Regional Arts Commission. “There are a lot of traditional quilt artists in Missouri, in the Midwest,” she said. “You get to see what they’re doing in a new way. Wall quilts are not your bed quilts.”
“Innovations in Textiles 6” provides a rare opportunity here to explore textile art and how 16 different institutions chose to exhibit and tell us about it. While most of us at one time or another have wished we could be in more than one place at one time, that notion will be exacerbated on Sept. 16, when all 16 galleries will hold coordinated openings to officially kickoff the two-month event (for more information, click on the “Innovations in Textiles 6” link at www.craftalliance.org).