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Nadia Mohamed, “Pond and Sunflowers” tapestry from “Children of the Oasis,” now on display at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

The Arts

Stretching the limits of fiber art

New BMAC exhibit features contemporary takes on ancient techniques

The new exhibits will remain on view at through May 3, with the exception of Children of the Oasis and Donald Saaf: Contemporary Folk Tales , which stay up through June 21. Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is open every day except Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Regular admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $4 for students. Members and children 18 and under are admitted free of charge. Located in historic Union Station in downtown Brattleboro, at the intersection of Main Street and Routes 119 and 142, the museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 802-257-0124 or visit www.brattleboromuseum.org.

BRATTLEBORO—Gathering Threads: Contemporary Fiber Art, one of of five new exhibits that have recently opened at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), celebrates hand-woven creations that stretch the limits of fiber art.

In the museum’s Wolf Kahn & Emily Mason Gallery, 13 artists display work that is pushing the boundaries of traditional textile techniques into innovative, hybridized forms. Gathering Threads reveals the many ways fiber can be exploited for its vast emotional and symbolic potential.

BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams envisions the show as a survey of contemporary fiber art.

Gathering Threads is an exploration of fabric-based art,” she says. “I want to give people a full range of what is being done today in this form, from embroidery, quilting, and fine art weaving, using centuries-old traditions and moving forward.”

All the work in the show is recent. The 13 artists display the remarkable variety of fiber art being created in today:

Mike Asente embroiders onto swaddling cloth Hummel-like figures of children saying their nightly prayers or repeating parental admonishments.

Melissa Zexter and Diane Meyer embellish and distort original and vintage photographs with elaborate embroidery patterns, Zexter using both created and found images, and Meyer raiding the family photo album.

Orly Cogan stitches vintage magazine ads with images of well-known characters from children’s literature.

Matthew Cox adorns x-ray film with detailed headgear from different historical periods, such as military helmets in his Warriors Series.

Daria Dorosh recycles clothing into wall hangings.

Master weaver Bhakti Ziek created a series of seven monumental wall hangings from one of the world’s most sumptuous textiles, Jacquard, a loomed textile with a raised, figured pattern woven directly into the cloth.

Joan Morris presents abstract pieces which celebrate the intricacy of textile techniques, including dyeing, weaving, and stitching.

Michele Ratt creates work that is sculptural in nature, with fabric forms set on three-dimensional armatures.

Working collaboratively, Morris and Ratt hold a patent on the process of applying 23-karat gold to fabric which they use in their Animation Series, with images drawn from the sea that float in gold leaf atop handwoven, hand-dyed silk banners.

Sam Talbot-Kelly has dressed an animatronic in billowing red fabrics ornamented with schematic representations of the heart and strewn with queen-of-hearts playing cards and tea cups.

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel has created her fiber art by splicing and knotting pedestrian materials such as pipe cleaners, commercial webbing, and rope.

Collaborators Nora Ligorano and Marshal Reese, in perhaps the most unusual piece in the exhibit, weave fiber optic filament into “I AM I,” a portrait made from data that is constantly updating, collected and generated by the activity-tracking program FitBit. Displaying an abstract representation of the sitter’s activities and feelings, based on responses to a self-reporting emotional survey, the portrait exists in near-real time, even sleeping from 1 to 6 a.m. Color, brightness, and tempo alter, sometimes dramatically, as the sitter’s emotions and actions feed into the program.

Williams believes that, of all the artistic media, people are most familiar with fabric.

As she writes in an essay accompanying the show, “Our bodies touch fabric almost every hour of every day. Moments after birth we are washed by, and swaddled in, cloth. We sleep on it, dress in it, and decorate with it. It is so familiar that our eyes tell us what its texture will be before we touch it. We use the language of textiles, velvety, silky, cottony, wooly, as descriptors. Weaving, the most basic textile structure, is employed as a metaphor for how we live together. We speak of the ‘fabric’ of our community or of our family.”

Williams elaborated further for The Commons: “We have a kinesthetic response to fiber. We know its textures; in most fabrics we know what it feels like without even touching. So many of our metaphors use fabrics because they are so vivid and universal.

“One of problems with a show like this is that people are compelled to touch, because that is what we always are doing with fabric. You are welcome to ’feel’ through your eyes. But, tempting as it may be, please don’t touch with your hands.”

Williams says there has been a long prejudice against seeing fiber as a fine art media, but that is now changing.

“The old debate about the difference between fine art and craft is breaking down,” she says. “Traditionally, the appropriate media for fine art had to be paint, marble and bronze. But textiles were considered art in very ancient times, and many pieces are prized in museums, because they are beautiful and not just old. The art of the embellished and decoration is deeply engraved on the human culture. But too often textiles have been considered merely functional.”

In curating this show, Williams considers fabric, or anything for that matter, a work of fine art when it moves beyond functional wear.

“I ask to what extent can an object keep changing and tell me new things every time I see it. I have many beautiful functional objects in my house which I love, but they are not invariably a rich viewing experience. But others remain fresh. As I see them time and again, they reveal new things to me. That I consider fine art.”

Nonetheless, Williams concedes in the art marketplace textiles have been less desirable than, say, paint or marble.

“To some degree this is a gender issue, since traditionally fabric art has been produced primarily, but not always, by women,” Williams explains.

Yet, she believes that the times are changing.

“I just come back from a week in the New York galleries, and textiles and ceramics were everywhere,” Williams says. “There is more fabric art than I have ever seen on display, even in the biggest name galleries. So much good work being done now in fabric art, I could have filled this gallery six times over.”

On a personal note, Williams believes that she may be especially drawn to textiles as a medium because, in her early career, she worked for 10 years in theater costume and set design. She even had the opportunity to apprentice in the costume division of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“That was a remarkable experience,” says Williams. “One special moment as an apprentice was when I actually had the chance to touch the gown of Queen Elizabeth I.”

Williams is not talking about the current queen, but the Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s and Spanish Armada times.

“Since the fabric was so old and delicate, our guide said we had to only use the back of our pinky,” she says. “It felt fabulous to get so in touch with history, literally.

As part of the BMAC’s mission to promote local artists who do museum-quality work, Gathering Threads has included a remarkable eight artists who live and work in Vermont.

“Fabric art has a strong tradition in our area,” says Williams, “so I was glad to be able to tap into the great work being done right in our own community.”

Two other exhibits opening alongside Gathering Threads extend the museum’s exploration into fiber art:

• Dialogue: Lindenfeld + Lindenfeld represents an artistic conversation between Vermont ceramicist Naomi Lindenfeld and her late mother, Bauhaus textile artist Lore Kadden Lindenfeld.

• Children of the Oasis consists of 10 tapestries created by current and former students of Egypt’s Ramses Wissa Wassef Centre, a unique experiment in creativity and experiential education.

Two additional exhibits also showcase the work of southern Vermont artists:

• Love, Labor, Worship: The People of Basin Farm is a series of photographs by Dummerston’s Michael Poster of residents of a Messianic community called the Twelve Tribes on Basin Farm in in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

• Donald Saaf: Contemporary Folk Tales features recent paintings by the Saxtons River-based artist and musician which weave aspects of daily life in New England into 21st century tales of an “every-person” as he or she navigates the world.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #297 (Wednesday, March 18, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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