Speaking of Fibers – MoFA Exhibit 2015 written by Sandy Webster
It is difficult to jury a fiber exhibit. There are so many variables of the word “Fiber”. And so many ways they are put together.
One of the things that are most difficult in jurying a fiber exhibition is “mixed media”. It has become almost the norm in art materials and where is the line drawn in mixed media or mixed fibers?
Does the glue show? Wait, maybe the glue is supposed to show. Maybe that is part of the statement and intention of the artist. No, not always…..the piece the juror is looking at might just not be a commentary on the haphazardness of attachments, the visible form of connections, holding relationships together…..maybe it is simply sloppy workmanship.
I remember writing a letter to Handwoven magazine in the early nineties saying I did not want to be labeled a weaver, but a fiber artist. One of the responses was written by a purist that said there was nothing wrong with being called a weaver and likely I just wanted to dabble in doing poor work with even poorer materials. He might have been right. Maybe I was just tired of having my weavings judged by the standards of quality craftsmanship. When told I made a pretty sorry looking basket, I said maybe it wasn’t about function but about “containment of space.” And maybe she was right. I just made bad baskets. When Lillian Elliot did not accept one of my baskets into an exhibit on the basis that “it simply did not fit the show”, I was actually grateful she made that choice when I saw what she did accept.
Then again if we limit ourselves with the traditional craft of fibers, we might as well be just looking at a textbook of techniques and materials for functional cloth and containers. This is not necessarily what brings the general public into an exhibit. The expectation when we see the words, “Exhibition” and “Gallery” is that here is going to be something new, something innovative, something not seen before.
And most importantly make the viewer look at textiles in a whole new way. Not only that, but a good exhibit of any kind, should drive all of us makers back into our own studios with new vigor. We will look at the work displayed and say things like, “I didn’t think of using those colors to talk about grief”, “It did not occur to me that something so small could say so much and so clearly”, “I had no idea that a simple woven dish towel could be so lovely”.
And of course the problem we all can suffer from in the world of making things is, when is too much too much. When do we stop looking at everyone’s work, take every offered workshop, view every “you-tube” tutorial and tell ourselves, “I can do that.” And then proceed to do just that. Put everything we know into everything we do. In the process we can easily lose our own voice, lose track of our intention.
Surely our intention is not to show how much we know but to share an idea fixed in a visual form. That to me is what art is, an idea fixed in a visual form. The intention of an artist is to do exactly that. The intention of a craftsman is show a quality made piece of workmanship that takes knowledge of materials and technique to execute. One is not superior to the other. They are simply different and therefore pull the viewer in different directions of appreciation.
The problem in jurying a fibers exhibition is just that – fiber! It is cloth, paper, thread, felt, basket materials either harvested or purchased in coils and bundles. It is easily layered, woven, stitched and bound.
It is enormous like the installation works of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, or the small and intricate embroideries of Rene Adams or Ray Materson.
Fiber is the perfect medium for statements on the human condition because it can be cloth, clothing, filled with the meaning of those who wore it. I am thinking of the paper made by John Risseuew from the collected clothing of ravaged women in Bosnia and once formed into sheets used to make a statement on war and consequences.
Or it is the bedspread of your youth that you turn into a covered box in which to present your much despised and freshly shorn dreadlocks to your mother. A young student I had at Arrowmont did this.
And now there are books – the artist book. It attracts fibers like a magnet. Here is a perfect venue for the page, the illustration, the text and form to house it all in. And the viewer is hopelessly caught within the pages…..they have to touch it to see it in its entirety. And there is something very unique in that experience. Those critiquing my graduate work about the men in my community had to touch their clothes, their handkerchiefs, their rags, their very essence used in fragments across the pages of who we were to each other and how they mattered to me. Cloth is powerful stuff!
There are just so many ways to use fiber. Aside from fixing ideas in form, there is the very function of what it can do – linens, baskets, journals waiting for entries; not to mention the pieces made with the intention of just being beautiful and decorative, such as art to wear clothing, jewelry, rugs, and wall hangings.
It is simply too much at times. I can’t think of another medium that spreads itself so far across function, decoration and art.
And then we have to jury an exhibition…a fiber exhibition. We have to look at what is there to jury. Then we have to see how well it is done. Does it follow the maker’s intention? Does it say too much? Is the maker appearing to be enamored with the material more than what they want it to say to the viewer? And on and on and on.
And unfortunately it is all subjectively up to the juror. One person’s viewpoint. One person who may or may not have totally missed the point.
My suggestion would be to limit fiber exhibitions to themes, size, materials, etc…..anything to make the final show more comprehensive to the viewer, less about what fibers are capable of and more about what fibers can be specific to. And then of course have more exhibits based on those chosen themes.
Below is the Best of Show titled, 1951 by Janet Wade.