Is Fiber Art An Engine For Women Reshaping Contemporary Art?
There are many people who have no idea what textile art is. Many of them are not interested in art at all, some are art enthusiasts, and some art professionals.
“I’ve been in contemporary art for 20 years and I didn’t know anything about fiber art”, said an art professional to me.
That didn’t surprise me because of the many times I’ve had to explain myself to folks about what exactly I do. Fiber art which has long been associated with feminine work has struggled to be accepted as art rather than craft. Given this backdrop, does fiber art have the chance of ever becoming a recognized art form in contemporary art circles? I believe so.
Last week, the New York Times published a prominent article/obituary about the passing of textile artist Katherine Westphal (if you’re on my mailing list you got a heads up on that article). Fiber artists were pleased to see the recognition this art form was receiving. And those in contemporary art who had never heard or had paid little attention to fiber art recognized it was time to tune in to this medium.
And there is a lot happening in this field of art for sure. You’d never know if you didn’t pay attention. In another article, the New York Times states “fiber art looks fresh again“. For me, my way of paying attention and getting informed about what’s going on is by exhibiting my own work, curating textile art shows and attending fiber art exhibitions.
An exhibition in Westport, CT caught my attention so I mentioned it in my weekly newsletter last week. And this week, I decided to go see the exhibit for myself.
The exhibition, curated by Elizabeth Gorayeb, former SVP in the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby’s, is titled “Handmade: – Women Reshaping Contemporary Art”.
The Venue for Women Reshaping Contemporary Art
The venue for this exhibit is Westport Arts Center. It is easy to drive by it without noticing because of how it’s nestled among other businesses on a busy street. Yet, it is located at a beautiful location right on the Saugatuck River. After I had parked my car, I had to ask for help in navigating my way to the front entrance. However, immediately, I entered, I was greeted by the friendliest art gallery or museum staff I’d ever met. I stayed for well over two hours and they were friendly throughout the entire period.
The Westport Art Center is a well-lit medium-sized gallery and the installation of the exhibit was obviously done with attention to detail. Enough room was left between pieces so that you can enjoy each piece by itself. In total, 17 artists participated in this exhibit. The works on view include weavings, knitting, hand embroidery, quilts, sewing and mixed media. The presentations were as varied as you can have them. Some works were on pedestals, others attached to wooden frames, there was one framed in a huge Plexiglas box and there was video also.
I made two observations from this exhibit and the one I attended in New Jersey, “Intimate Lines: Drawn with Thread”. The first Is, the exhibit includes a lot of artists I had previously not heard about as well as some popular ones. Faith Ringgold’s piece: “Wedding on the Seine”, was on view here. And Orly Cogan had one of her newest pieces of work, “The Feast”, on display too. Another observation I made is most of the pieces in both exhibits were more about storytelling – people and places- than abstract works.
Having said that, “Women Reshaping Contemporary Art” is an excellent exhibit of the varied artworks being created by women (the artists in this exhibit are all women) in the fiber art industry. I was so enthralled by the creativity on display, I spent hours carefully admiring each piece. They each need to be explored in depth and I’m going to do that in a separate article.
Amanda Innes, Executive Director of the Westport Arts Center, stated,
“There is an unexpected timeliness to this exhibition that resonates within the community at large. These established artists, working in non-traditional media, are clearly making an impact within the conversation of Contemporary Art. Their work unapologetically embraces the sensory aspects of fiber, and defies any attempt to diminish the work as craft.”
So, the question is how can society stop diminishing fiber art as craft? In other words, how can women reshape contemporary art? I’ve got four ideas on how that can be done. Let’s take a look at each one of them.
How Women Can Truly Reshape Contemporary Art
- Create More Fiber Art
I charge fiber artists to continue to create more work. The more artwork we create, the more excellent we become at what we do. And the harder it becomes for the art world not to stop and take notice.
- Educate the Public
Frankly, many people have no idea what fiber art is. We have a responsibility to educate the people around us about what fiber work is all about. Just talking about what we do and explaining how we conceive ideas and transform them into creations will help people learn about this medium. The onus lies on all of us who know what it is to educate more people about it. Creating publications (books, magazines), online presence, professional organizations and TV programs will go a long way to achieving this purpose.
- Ascribe Value to Fiber Artwork
This is a tough one. In my interview with Joe Cunningham, he talks about the possibility that more men would enter into fiber arts if the economics worked. We have to find a way of making textile art valuable and worthy of being paid for. One of the reasons it’s been hard to accomplish this is because of the art versus craft debate. As a result of this, gallerists and other art professionals have been hindered from seeing value in fiber art.
I believe the second reason is that the creators of fiber art (fiber artists) do not ascribe a high enough value to their creations. The way we perceive our work is how others will too. If you spend 1,000 hours creating a piece of work and you value it at $400, then $400 is what it’ll be worth in the eyes of those who view it.
- Art Venues & Professionals Need to Embrace and Promote Fiber Art
Finally, more art venues and art professionals who curate shows need to support the fiber arts. They need to give fiber artists opportunities to showcase their talents and skills in some of the major art exhibitions around the world. The more talk, support, and action from art galleries, museums, and also from art professionals, the more chances for fiber art to become mainstream art and reshape contemporary art.
All four of these things need to happen for women to be successful in reshaping contemporary art.
I applaud Westport Arts Center and the curator Elizabeth Gorayeb for their initiative in putting together an extraordinary display of the skills of women artists, pooling from the artists themselves, galleries and private collections. They’ve also planned fiber-related programs for the duration of the exhibit. For example, on April 21, 2018, there’ll be a Curator’s Talk & Panel discussion related to the show. The exhibit, Hand Made: Women Reshaping Contemporary Art is a testament to the possibility of women truly reshaping contemporary art. We’re not there yet. But we’re making great strides towards it.
PS: Here’s my review of the individual artworks included in “Women Reshaping Contemporary Art”.
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Also published on Medium.