Article 25

A Sensuous Genre by Kathy Isabel Stockman

In Uncategorized on 07/21/2011 at 8:20 pm

A Sensuous Genre

Fiber art surprises with the familiar

By Kathy Isabel Stockman

No matter how many fiber arts shows I attend, I am always surprised. I know enough not to expect only quilts and crocheted scarves, but the wide range of artworks seems to continue to grow.

The fibers arts are a much larger genre, including what seems to be an endless array of materials, and the creative manipulation of these materials are limited only by the artist. This last fact is probably what helps the fiber arts stand out most. While painting introduces the viewer to a new way of seeing, and sculpture wonderfully implicates and defines our sense of space, any surprise presented by these more traditional genres is generally limited by media. Once painters and sculptors begin to deviate from their traditional materials, they move away from their respective categories. Even sculpture, with its long list of media, flirts with “mixed media” if more than one material is used to execute the piece or in any way results in more than one surface texture.

The fiber arts, on the other hand, are defined by these various elements that surprise visually but mostly in a tactile way. Fibers: A Celebration of Cincinnati’s Fiber Artists at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center is a presentation of such visual and tactile surprises.

Curated by fiber artists Lyn Conoway and Carole Gary Staples, the exhibition brings together members of the Contemporary Quilt and Fiber Artists, RiverCity Figurative Artists’ Guild, Studio Art Quilt Associates and the Weavers Guild of Greater Cincinnati, as well as members of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center Guild and individual artists. And the selection of works include examples of quilting, weaving, surface design, assemblage pieces, sculpture, dolls, basketry, wreaths, papermaking, dying and mixed media using yarn, fabric, paper and other fibers.

“People relate to fiber art because they are intimately familiar with it in their everyday lives,” Conaway says.

She might be right, but I’m not sure this is the real attraction to the fiber arts. I believe it is the element of surprise of the manipulation of these “familiar” materials. The creativity of the fiber artists exposes the tactile beauty of fibers with which we might not be familiar. This element of surprise, or perhaps more appropriate awe, forces a strong engagement with the art.

The work of Carole Gary Staples exhibits the versatility of fibers seen throughout the exhibition. Staples was born in Pittsburgh, Penn., where she began her artistic career at the prominent Tam O’Shantner Art School at Carnegie Mellon University. She continued to develop artistically as she relocated to Maryland, N.Y. She now resides in West Chester, Ohio. After graduating from Seton Hall University with a bachelor of arts degree in costume design and textile arts, she owned and operated a custom clothing-design business.

Her Mask of Bone incorporates various fabric cuttings and other materials in a small quilt. The piece depicts a single figure with outstretched arms in pattern-rich garments wearing a mask. While the colorful patterns and mask seem to recall an African design aesthetic, the collage application of the various fabrics seems to link her work more closely to the paintings of Romare Bearden. Both artists share similar subjects and stylistic elements; but as a fiber artist, Staples’s work elevates the role of the texture as an aesthetic. In this way, the fiber artist employs the tactile familiarity of the materials to draw the viewer close to an image at which a typical viewer of the arts would simply gaze and admire from a distance.

Fibers fills the Kennedy Heights Arts Center galleries with works forcing this kind of engagement. Appealing to our tactile senses, the fiber arts draw the viewer into works also depicting subjects that might seem more familiar or from everyday life. Robin Hartman’sLife is Like Box of Sushi adopts not only a play on a well-known phrase, but a relatively common scene from everyday life. The prevalence of food in our culture can in no way be understated, and Hartman’s update of the adage from “chocolates” to “sushi” perhaps finds humor in our growing sophistication of our (food) palette.

Hartman has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute in New York City, where she worked during the early years of her career. Her previous jobs included being a puppet and costume designer for Jim Henson’s Muppets, a wardrobe assistant for Saturday Night Liveand a toy designer for Kenner Toys. She has been teaching in The New School Montessori’s art program since 1996. Hartman’s whimsical creation shares with Pop Art a mirror of contemporary society. Just as Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Cake, made of materials like foam and canvas, Hartman’s sushi retexturalizes sushi in fibers.

Yes, the fiber arts appeal to a comforting sense of familiarity. Even to those of us who do not quilt, knit, crochet or felt, we are soothed by the materials that make up the fiber arts. However, it is the surprise in the array of textures presented in Fibers that make the fiber arts so engaging. By reintroducing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the fiber arts taps into a tactile aesthetic that is much more sensuous than any nude painting or sculpture can capture. As such, perhaps more than any other artist, the fiber artists help us to see our world in ways we normally don’t.

Fibers: A Celebration of Cincinnati’s Fiber Artists is on view now at Kennedy Heights Arts Center through April 23. Artists include Michelle L. Ellis Bell, Anne Berlier, Sandra Palmer Ciolino, Lynn Conaway, Harold Dreibelbis, Jane Gaspar, Cody Goodin, Robin Hartman, Nita Keeler, Carol Lang, Cynthia Lockhart, Liz Martin, Robbie Porter, Carole Staples, Katie Storer, Deb Ward, Judy Witt and Heather Zimmerman.

Photo Courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

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