Posts Tagged 'CA1-P3-Other'

Effie Mitrofanis – Enrich the Surface

Last weekend I went to an ATASDA class with Effie Mitrofanis, who does beautiful, rich and colourful embroidery. It was a really lovely couple of days.

It was detailed work and I am slow, so nothing came close to finished. Subtract the orange stitching near the top and the beads, and on the left is my entire production for Saturday. The stitched area is about 12 centimetres square (under 5 inches). I’m just setting expectations of what there is to see, not complaining – it was a weekend of learning, companionship, colour and fibre. Pure pleasure.

We started with a base of muslin, then put on strips of fabric – mostly dupion silk. Straight and herringbone stitch secured and decorated the edges. (Effie has some samplers showing incredible variety of texture and appearance using just straight stitch.)

Next were some tips on binding the ends of gold cord, followed by (drumroll) bullion stitch over the cord. The class was absolutely quiet as we worked on this, but I think everyone was very pleased with themselves and their results.

Dual rows of blanket stitch were worked at the top, setting ourselves up for the next day.

Some beautiful random-dyed gimp was wound over the blanket stitch base. There is also some beading over the gold cord and some bugle beads where I plan to do some seed stitch in a variety of threads.

My second sample has raised chain band up the left side. The blue thread is something anonymous that I bought from a member stash-busting stand at a recent ATASDA meeting. Very effective. On the right is wave stitch (more thread from the same stash-buster!). I’ve also added some little flower-shaped beads to highlight the line I wanted to extend from the patterned fabric. I don’t know yet what’s going to happen below.

Effie also showed us how to make a wrapped cord. My sample used six lengths of stranded cotton thread, plus beading thread and some gimp. I wanted to do at least a little of most of the techniques Effie showed, but I didn’t get as far as knotting or multiple wraps side by side. You can build up all these elements to get some really effective results.

I learnt quite a bit over the weekend, over and above the various techniques from Effie.

  • I followed past advice from Claire, choosing a colour scheme and heavily editing the  material and thread I took to class. This saved a lot of time and really helped me to focus on what we were doing.
  • Zinger threads. When finished these small works can be really rich and complex surfaces. I can get lost in the detail. The use of “zing” (like the blue in sample 2’s raised chain band) brings life and focus.
  • It’s a detail, but I like the red thread used as a base for the raised chain band. It felt a bit risky when I chose it, a bit out of the main colour theme, but the small amount visible really adds some subdued complexity. My working theory is to try to be bold in the early stages. If it doesn’t work it can be covered or adjusted somehow. Better than being bland.
  • Not everything has to be planned and have deep meaning or thought or concept. Responding to the thread and work, to what is developing under your hands, is a wonderful, centering, restorative experience. I don’t know how that fits with OCA course work, where you’re trying to fulfill requirements, show development and critical thinking, develop design skills… It’s not necessarily all mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s a matter of balance, perhaps I just need more skill / experience / development.

Resource: Mitrofanis, E. (2009) Threadwork: silks, stitches, beads & cords. (Binda: Sally Milner Publishing)

Reading – Glenn Adamson: thinking through craft

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

This book looks at craft in all sorts of ways, showing how it isn’t and can’t be art. It takes an analytical, academic, theoretical approach to “craft” the idea and contrasts it to modern avant garde art. It is, I am sure, deliberately provocative. The author has clearly done a lot of research and thinking, and he aims to get others thinking.

Adamson proceeds in a systematic way to examine five perspectives or ways of thinking about craft – Supplemental (not autonomous); Material (versus optical); Skilled (more complex, but perhaps beside the point in art); Pastoral (that is nostalgic and limiting creative freedom); Amateur.  He begins with a survey of theory, then history, then a critical analysis of specific works or texts. In one sense I enjoyed the book very much and felt I was learning a lot. Adamson covers a lot of territory, much of it new or only faintly familiar to me, and he generally explains his terms and concepts clearly and carefully. He certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I expect I’ll be re-reading the book in parts and as a whole many time in the future. I’d definitely recommend it to others.

On the other hand the book made me cranky. Very cranky. Two main reasons – first, I don’t like his conclusions, which wouldn’t be a problem (after all it’s interesting when people hold and discuss different views) except that second, I think he indulges in some sleights of hand and leaps of logic which make his conclusions suspect.

In most of the book Adamson is specifically referring to avant garde art. It has a theory and expressed concept behind it. It is autonomous (self-standing), generally optical, has an underlying principle of freedom, can transcend any limits, not necessarily created with great manual skill, in theory with intrinsic (not just market) value. On the other hand Adamson deliberately doesn’t define craft closely. It is a process and way of doing things, it has core principles, it limits itself.

In my mind the tricky part is that this allows Adamson to select among all that is “craft” some examples that don’t meet the particular art criteria being considered. For instance in chapter 1 “Supplemental” he writes that art, a painting, stands apart and exists in itself. He then takes the extreme example of the frame around the art as representing craft, and shows that the frame supplements the art but isn’t art in itself. Not a hard sell – I suggest only in particular cases is a frame presented or claimed as art. Adamson does go on to give some more convincing examples, but one thing he doesn’t convince me of is that avant garde art is autonomous. It requires an “accepted critical account” (page 32). Some other recent reading suggests I’m not original in pointing this out. For example, in an article on the new hang at the Art Gallery of NSW John McDonald wrote that when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference” (1). Or much earlier Tom Wolfe: “”Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting … Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” (2) So much for autonomous.

In chapter 4 “Pastoral” Adamson writes about the “sentimental escapism” of attendees at summer crafts schools. I certainly don’t accept that as an accurate description of the work we did in Liz Williamson’s class last January (post here), not that I’m claiming avant garde status but there was certainly no “air of crabby conservatism” (p. 168). This is one of many places where it’s convenient for Adamson’s position that he limited himself to avant garde art, because otherwise he would have to figure out how to accommodate in his theory all the art classes held at Sturt at the same time. The attendees there are covered in that “there is no such thing as an amateur contemporary artist, only an unsuccessful one” (p. 143). I wonder if artists who choose or need to earn at least part of their income by teaching thereby lose any status as Artists.

One final sleight of hand. Adamson suggests that in its inferiority craft performs a useful function, acting as a “horizon” to art – “a conceptual limit active throughout modern artistic practice” (p. 2). Craft seems to act as some kind of foil to art, helping to intensify its art-ness. “The limits embodied by craft are not only psychologically comforting, but also conceptually useful” (p. 5). For me though as Adamson explores this frontier he seems to accept as art some work that has pushed into territory previously seen as craft. Adamson sidesteps the difficulty that an area or process or material that was part of craft is now to be seen as art –  he has already dismissed as banal any circular argument that something is art because it says it is, but in this situation he doesn’t offer any other explanation for the discontinuity.

So why did I keep reading, when the book made me cranky and had me muttering and scribbling copious notes (possibly a concern to other bus travellers)? Simply because it did give me so much to think about, and helped me further in my understanding of what I want to do and how I want to develop. A very worthwhile read.

1. McDonald, J. In with the new accessed 6 July 2012

2. Wolfe, J The Painted Word, quoted in Ellsworth-Jones, W. Never mind the theory…–20120629-21792.html accessed 6 July 2012

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

The importance of scale

I’d been doing some research on an artist – Sheila Hicks. At the Sturt Summer school tutor Liz Williamson had a beautiful pile of inspirational books (or an inspirational pile of beautiful books) including Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor which was an exhibition of Hick’s small works and also the most beautiful book in the world.

Amazon has some links for the book – $1,200 new, maybe $400 used (I found other sites listing cheaper, but they seem to be outdated or non-functional). I couldn’t bear to buy at such a price, but I did find Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, a book published in connection with the exhibition at Addison Gallery of American Art.

It may not be the most beautiful book in the world, but it is a very nice book indeed and includes lots of great photos as well as three essays. So I flipped ahead looking at the photos, started reading the essays and was thoroughly enjoying myself when I came across this post on It has photos of Hicks with some of her work at the Textile Arts Center – and it’s huge! Go back and look at the photo of the book’s cover. That work is lying on a road, with people standing around it. I guess because of seeing the other book first I totally misinterpreted what I was seeing – definitely not hold-in-your-hand scale. Perhaps not an exciting anecdote for you, but a jolt and a powerful reminder to me about the dangers of preconceptions and assumptions.

Hicks was mentioned a number of times in Auther’s String Felt Thread (blog post here). Hicks was one of those working in fibre in America in the 1960s, somewhere on that border between art and craft. In her essay “Unbiased Weaves”, Joan Simon writes that throughout her career of fifty plus years Hicks has through her work questioned categorization of art, design and craft. Hicks has produced an incredible range of work – different purposes (architectural, conceptual, ephemeral, exploratory…), different scales, materials, ways of working (studio work, collaborative, for industry…). A significant facet that interests me is Hicks’s knowledge and honouring of traditional textile making while pushing to new and innovative methods and materials.

I know I should aim to interpret what I read and use my own words, but this sentence from Simon on Hicks’s work in the 1977 Artiste/Artisane? exhibition resonates with me (it’s also on the edge of my understanding and I couldn’t possibly write it myself!): “For though these were artisanal works, her conceptual reclamation of these objects into the realm of artwork signaled that the exhibition’s fundamental question was not the neat binary choice between artist or artisan – rather, that the history of twentieth-century art had widened the territory to incorporate one kind of thing into the field of another.” (page 110).

Combined with my interest in art <–> craft is a focus on weaving in particular, and though Hicks has used many techniques in her work weave has recurred throughout her career. In her essay “Ancient Lines and Modernist Cubes” Whitney Chadwick writes of the pliability and temporality that comes from the repetition in weaving. There’s a conceptual basis to Hick’s work that I frankly don’t understand, for example “new relationships between wall and plane” (p 169), the idea of a formal vocabulary, even “form”. Whatever the conceptual basis, Hicks has taken weaving in directions I have never seen before, and it’s both beautiful and fascinating.

Getting a bit more solid, why do I like Hicks’s work and what have I learnt that could be useful for my own? (this based on Emma Drye’s advice, originally posted here and mentioned in my post here.) Using a thread (or bundle of threads) as a means of mark-making. The benefit of extended study of traditional textiles and weaving techniques – but not just the theory and drafts in a book, but looking at actual (in person or in photos), historic textiles and how they have been created. Looseness and freedom in the use of the basic grid of weaving. Bare warp and wrapped warp. Slits and volume and light. The impact and importance of scale! Practice – do the work. Try to avoid preconceptions and assumptions. Don’t define yourself or your work into a box. Be open.

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Chadwick, W. (2010) Ancient Lines and Modernist Cubes In: Simon, J and Faxon, S (2010) Sheila Hicks: 50 years, Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy in association with Yale University Press

Simon, J. (2010) Unbiased Weaves In: Simon, J and Faxon, S (2010) Sheila Hicks: 50 years, Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy in association with Yale University Press

Simon, J and Faxon, S (2010) Sheila Hicks: 50 years, Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy in association with Yale University Press

Stritzler-Levine, N. (ed) (2006) Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, Yale University Press

Reading – Elissa Auther: String Felt Thread

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Point 1: I was way out of my depth for much of this book. I have no training in art history, and it would have been helpful to know about minimilist art, process art, post-minimilism, appropriation and installation art, and probably a whole lot more.

Point 2: I enjoyed reading this book very much. I learnt lots of things about stuff I was already interested in, and I learnt about lots of new things that now interest me. While reading I had debates with the author in my head, agreeing and disagreeing on points and maybe a few pages later changing my view and/or deepening my understanding. My copy of the book is like a porcupine with all the post-it notes sticking out.

With all of that, there’s no way I’ll be able to do justice to the book in writing about it. I’ll try to give my understanding of some of the points being made, then a few of my thoughts / questions / opinions (provisional, since I’m hoping they will evolve over time).

The book starts with an exhibition in New York in 1969 – Wall Hangings, organised by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen. It was ground-breaking, challenging the perception of weaving and the use of fibre as necessarily “craft” and impossible in “fine art”. It received one review in the national art press – negative. The work was decorative, engaging, not demanding. It was not art. It was less than art.

The book examines the distinction between art and craft, the history, the link to “women’s work”, the implications and changes in perception. It also examines the power and privilege involved in defining and policing “art”, and points out that art requires a not-art from which to distinguish itself.  The hierarchy of art above craft seems to begin in Western Art in the Renaissance, with fine arts (painting, music, poetry) valued more highly than mechanical arts (useful crafts like bricklaying and weaving). The materials used seem to be important, plus the utility or purpose, and perhaps whether it is agreeable or labour to produce it. At some point “decoration” became a negative and concept, inspiration and idea became all important.

On page xviii of the introduction there is a quote from art historian Terry Smith and the critical factors are:
Material – for art a vehicle, for craft “sacred”, a given.
Composition – for art an imposed purposeful arrangement of imagery, for craft surface effect.
Purpose – communicating something of significance versus production of a useful object.
For the recipient – cognitive and related to sight (optic), compared to the significance of touch (haptic) in a craft work.

String Felt Thread examines and questions all of this, focusing on the changing status of fibres and textiles in art in the 1960s, 70s and beyond, and looking at the experiences of artists (artisans?) using fibre in fibre art, process or postminimalist art, and feminist art. It also touches briefly on other movements or spheres in fibre art such as weavers and designers with connections to the textile industry and the designer-craftman model of the Bauhaus; a popular revival of craft in the US in the 1960s (think macramé); the rise of the counterculture…

Sheila Hicks, Barbara Shawcroft, Lenore Tawney and Claire Zeisler are among those used to illustrate “fibre artists”. They used fibre as a material, often in large scale off-loom works, and disregarding connotations such as utility and domesticity. Their work at times existed in a a kind of limbo between art and craft – aspiring to one, perceived as the other. I’m missing out a lot of information and nuances, but I think Auther posits that in challenging the definitions of Art to include constructs using fibre, the fibre art movement actually accepted the validity of the Art hierarchy – they wanted to be included in it, but were met with frequent rejection by curators and critics and seen as acting in the realm of textiles and craft, not sculpture, painting and Art.

In contrast, there were established artists who began to use fibre in their work in the postminimilism movement. Robert Morris did extensive sculptural work made of industrial felt. His existing reputation as an artist and his published articles and essays concerning his work allowed the acceptance of that work as Art. The intellectual content shielded any negative connotations from textiles and fibre. A critical difference seems to be that Morris in his work might choose to address issues of femininity, whereas for many fibre artists their femininity was intrinsic. Eva Hesse was another artist who had sufficient credibility and connections to avoid the suggestion of craft in her work.

Artists in the feminist movement challenged the negative associations of craft. They recognised the connection of the art – craft hierarchy to the social hierarchies of gender and race. They identified with the history of fibre art, and the anonymous or amateur women who produced it. However there could be a divide between regard for the possibly idealised past and the attitude towards current non-artist female textile crafters, who didn’t necessarily appreciate the need to be rescued from any low status. Auther personalises and focuses her review by examining the works of individual feminist artists – Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Harmony Hammond and Judy Chicago. Regarding the latter’s work The Dinner Party Auther writes “… the work stands as an emblem of the feminist embrace of craft as the antithesis of elitist art and the problems associated with feminists’ appropriating the language and materials of women’s craft while insisting on their own status as noncraftspeople”. The distinction of art and craft was not the particular materials or techniques used, but whether they were used to express meaning, or the process was an end in itself.

In her conclusion Auther brings the book to present day practices and concerns. Fibre is now accepted as as material used in Art. The social and cultural meaning of textiles can also be included in artistic examination, although possibly in an ironic approach (in contrast to the Martha Stewart style use of craft).

Finally, I recommend you click here, to go to a post on the University of Minnesota Press blog which includes a short video of Auther talking about her work.

A fairly random selection of my thoughts:

I don’t agree that an object which is useful cannot be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities.

I think there’s an awful lot of painting between the Renaissance and the twentieth century that would generally be regarded as Art but was basically decorative, not about concepts. Also those working in fibres and textiles can explore a wide variety of materials (eg today I spent with heat gun, soldering iron and plastics (I think? tyvek and lutrador)). I don’t accept fibre work is more personally limiting in material terms than say those who prefer to stick with canvas and oil paint.

I value the technique and skill of traditional craftwork and feel strongly about the preservation of craft (see blog post here).

Considering the thought, decision-making and calculations involved in producing high quality woven work I don’t see it as non-intellectual or rote work.

The whole feminist slant on art <–> craft is tricky and only works with a narrow view on fibre crafts where women dominate in participant numbers. What about ceramics, or blacksmithing or … (the list goes on).

Drawing a line on a continuum can be bad / random / subjective enough, but art <–> craft is not a nice neat two dimensional line, but a complex, multi-dimensional space.

Boundaries are about exclusion and inclusion, about access and resources and acknowledgement and value and saleability. My preference is not to move them (the boundaries) but to … I don’t know, not rise above them but make them irrelevant. The same with hierarchies although I guess in honesty I do see a hierarchy because I prefer conscious, thinking, serious (in the sense of being serious about it, not that it can’t be funny or lighthearted), honest work.

I’d like to make conscious, thinking, serious, personal, honest work. I’d like it to communicate, be meaningful, be beautiful  – though not necessarily all those things all the time. I couldn’t honestly say if Art or Craft would be more important.

(Not an OCA) Textile Study Visit

OCA frequently runs study visits for students in various disciplines. Last month Lizzy wrote an exciting post here, about a Textiles Study visit to Whitworth Gallery in Manchester led by tutors Liz Smith and Pat Hodson. It sounded wonderful, with preparation and tasks and group discussion. I was very jealous. It’s 30 years since I was last in the UK and I can’t see a trip happening any time soon, so no study visits for me (cue mournful music).

Trying to content myself by living vicariously I read the various forum posts of students on the visit. I also contacted Lizzy and OCA, and Liz Smith was happy to send me her briefing notes, visit plan and a sheet on a Critical Approach to viewing works of art.

Then Claire and I came up with a Plan – we would have our own Textile Study Visit.

Today we met up in the city, and caught a ferry over to Manly on the north shore (note yellow and green ferry plus fortuitous rainbow). Our destination was the Manly Art Gallery and Museum which currently has three textile-related exhibitions showing. Contemporary Quilt Textiles is a biennial juried exhibition, a collaboration between the Gallery and the Quilters’ Guild of NSW. The Gallery is running a number of events in conjunction with the exhibition, so Claire and I timed our Visit to include a discussion on narrative threads in contemporary textile art by Australian textile artists Liz Williamson, Cecillia Heffer and Paula do Prado.

The exhibition theme is Regeneration, and Manly Art Gallery has provided a downloadable pdf of the catalogue on their website (here, if the link still works). This was particularly handy because it meant Claire and I could Prepare, and I even wrote up some briefing notes and Tasks with timings and options, drawing heavily on Liz  Smith’s notes (Claire was kind enough not to laugh at the instruction “Get together with the rest of the group members”). With information from the catalogue I was even able to give a choice of themes, and since I thought that was pretty good for an outing for two, I’ll share:

Theme 1: The stories behind the works. From the catalogue: “We know there is heightened public interest in the stories behind the material object – who made it, how, why and with what intent – for whom?” The exhibition has “creative process displays [which] complement and enrich the primary display of the finished art quilts”.

How is this done? Is it successful? Should artworks speak for themselves, giving space for the viewer to participate in giving meaning to the work?

Theme 2: regeneration.  A variety of general approaches/responses to the exhibition theme were identified based on information in the catalogue – the human condition; the natural world (fiery regeneration and Other); process/technique. Select one of these for further investigation.

Do the works identified actually fit the sub-theme? What are the differences in approach within a theme? Does one of the works particularly appeal to you or appear more successful? Why? Use the Critical Approach list to examine that work.

Theme 3: technique. The catalogue highlights the use of computer technology and in particular photography and image manipulation. There is also a wide range traditional textile techniques, some of which may have been applied in new ways or to new materials. Select one or two works which demonstrate these trends and contrast their approaches.

Theme 4: narrative threads in textile art.  Based on material in the catalogue or your own scanning of the exhibition, select one or more works which illustrate the use of narrative threads in textile arts. Use the Critical Approach list to examine the work in more detail. Consider the nature of the narrative and how well you feel it has been communicated in the work.

The gallery staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. In general photography is not permitted in the exhibition, but they allowed us to take general photos of the rooms as long as we didn’t focus on particular works. Later when we wanted to spend some time focusing on our Selected works, they fetched chairs for us, and even offered a cup of tea at one point.
We started by going around the two rooms of the exhibition, getting a general impression and choosing one work in each room for detailed study.

The tables you see in this photo contain the “creative process displays” which are intended to “complement and enrich” viewing of the finished art works (quotes are from the catalogue). I had mixed feelings about these. I found it hard not to look at the process displays before spending time with the actual works. There was a lot of variation in the contents – I think the artists had mixed opinions too.
The first piece I focused on was Black Water #32: into the light… by Judy Hooworth. It’s the diptych right of centre, a light colour piece over a brownish one. (Check the catalogue pdf – link above – for a better photo). I sat with it a long time, considering content, form, process and mood as suggested by the Critical Approach notes. The amount of information available in the catalogue and process display was almost too much. For example while I was attracted to the scribbly swirls of the work I didn’t see them as abstract – they were clearly representational of the ripples of water in the rain. I might have wondered about ecological concerns being expressed, not knowing of the artist’s personal journey of grief and loss expressed through depiction of a favourite location. In the talks later both Cecillia Heffer and Paula do Prado spoke about works that were private. They still made the work, but chose not to include imagery, instead allowing their audience to find their own story and meaning in the work. Cecillia described it as gaps, silences and unanswered questions in another’s story.

Originally I had thought my timetable for the day allowed ridiculous amounts of time, but after intense focus on just one piece I was ready for lunch. Claire and I walked back to Manly Wharf for some very nice thai food, and a great chat about our assignment work and what everyone’s doing (all the student blogs really help in feeling part of the student community).

I’ve added some photos of the plantlife around, just for some local colour.

After lunch we returned to focus on a work in the second room. However we didn’t have much time before people started arriving for the scheduled talks. An advantage was that I could take a photo of an individual artwork. This is Toni Valentine with her work Regenerating Colour.

The speakers were all interesting. Cecillia Heffer illustrated her talk with a series of slides of her works, but rather than commenting on them directly she read from letters she wrote and received while developing them. Lace is her major focus, organising spaces as well as the solid motif, and she talked about the gaps and spaces of our homeland, of absences and immigration. Paula do Prado has just completed her Masters at COFA. An immigrant to Australia she talked about inclusion and exclusion, about cloth as an archive and capturing the family history and knowledge she fears losing.

Liz Williamson started by saying that every textile has a story attached, even the (very ordinary) tablecloth on the speakers’ table. She talked about textiles reflecting a peoples’ attitude to the world, for example in an area of India where weaving is predominantly men’s work, and embroidery women’s. A later slide showed Xanana Gusmão around the time East Timor gained its independence, wearing a scarf woven on a backstrap loom – a particular cloth, woven in a particular way, using particular motifs. The meaning, the sense of place and time that a textile can give!

Overall I feel our first Study Visit was fun, worthwhile and exhausting. It’s a strange approach to scan the works as a whole and then focus deeply on just a few. I think that Claire and I to some extent both felt we were somehow not showing full respect to those artists whose work we didn’t concentrate on. However I wouldn’t have the time or stamina to give that level of attention to all. By making selections I was able to clarify some of my own interests and objectives, as well as gain a deeper appreciation of those works. I definitely want to use the Critical Approach again, but probably with some rebalancing of time so I have a bit more of a general understanding and appreciation of the exhibition as a whole.


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