A few textile artists might groan politely under their breath when it's pointed out by the art world that their work falls more under the category of "crafts" than art. But there are textile artists who wouldn't dream of sitting idly by while their work is minimized. Instead they stand up and defend their art loudly, as several artists who are part of a group exhibition at the Sun Valley Arts Center are doing. Their exhibit, aptly entitled, "The Seditious Stitch," runs through April 9, and has brought much needed attention to the world of textile art.
The hierarchy of art generally defaults to the more recognized "fine art" mediums of painting and sculpture, with textile arts falling under the title of "decorative arts." However, some argue that textile art uses both painting and sculptural methods. Textiles are almost always dyed, woven or oftentimes layered to create texture and depth.
The exclusion is lessening though, and the art world is opening up for textile artists, albeit one stitch at a time, according to Kristin Poole, artistic director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
"The work that all these artists are doing, it's sort of getting at the assumptions about what fiber arts are or what they used to be, and what they aren't any longer," Poole says.
"One of the things that's happening in the 21st century in the art world is that all the old sort of hierarchies and boundaries have completely broken down. So you can't make assumptions any longer about what fiber art may look like," she says.
The four artists featured in "The Seditious Stitch" are internationally recognized artists whose works have shown at museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and regionally in Boise and Portland.
Two of the artists use recovered needle or lace as the basis for their work, piecing them together, dismantling and reconstructing to create new pieces. The results are provocative and beautiful and make a strong statement, both visually and emotionally.
Maggy Rozycki Hiltner of Montana uses hand and machine stitching with vintage embroidery pieces from the 1950s to create pieces that, Poole says, "at first glance have a nostalgic sweetness." Upon deeper examination, the pieces reveal a "more subversive perspective that connects us to uncomfortable moments and memories of childhood."
Stephen Sollins uses a range of materials, including scraps of envelopes from banks, that he works into intricate quilts with found embroidery. Sollins removes the stitching from the found embroidery and inserts new stitches to create square blocks of color in the center of the work, creating an entirely different piece, with remnants of the originals still present.
The other two artists on display use weaving and needlework as their art forms. Hildur Bjarnadottir, who has been doing needlework since she was a young girl, says that the line between art and craft is hazy, and is based on context as well as concept.
"In my art, I explore this fine line between decorative, useable crafts and conceptual art," Bjarnadottir says. "My work takes the focus from the usefulness and beauty that textiles are generally connected with and places it more on simple techniques and the inherent properties of the materials."
Sheila Hicks' woven pieces have been compared more to architecture and sculpture than to textiles. Hicks began her art studies as a painting student at Yale before she discovered her love for the loom. Hicks began showing her large-scale pieces in the 1960s, which has been widely known as opening the door for discussion about the merits and diversity of textile arts.
"When you consider works that used to be just decorative objects, now you have to look at them in the same manner in which you look at a painting or a sculpture, consider how they take up space," Poole says. The dialogue about textile arts in Idaho, he says, is "much more interesting and complex than it used to be."
In Boise, textile art has been growing as well. Maria Carmen Gambliel, director of folk and traditional arts for the Idaho Commission on the Arts, says, "I think there has been incredible growth in terms of production, and you can see that when you go to the farmers' markets. You have dyed fabrics, you have embroidered works, woven mats.
"In addition to that, we are receiving a huge number of refugee artists who weave, crochet, knit, embroider and sew their traditional attire, which is bringing the art form to a higher level. I think we are growing in quality and also in extent of practice. There is more of an awareness of textile work as an art form. The appreciation is higher, and the practice is more diverse. In Boise, there is a textile artist named Arin Arthur who has an incredible sense of design and use of color, and it's hard to say it in any other way, but just great taste. "
"My process is very different than the processes that the artists in the Sun Valley exhibit use," says Arthur. The Sun Valley show, she says, picks up on the international movement of embroidery in fine art that uses embroidery to convey meaning and intent to art. It's not simply used as a decorative art.
"I think that when you add content to textiles and use it as an art form, you can create a closer relationship with the viewer," Arthur says. "You can move past the barriers because there's something inherently familiar about it. Everyone has experience with cloth, not everyone has experience with painting. So even though my processes are very different than what's going on in Sun Valley, using fiber to create art reaches into that deep place in people that brings a different level of understanding to the work."
Traditional textile art is also an important part of American and Idaho history. There is a tradition in fiber arts that extends from quilt making and the modern, more contemporary uses of quilting in art, to basket weaving, print making and batiking with fabrics. ICA's Gambliel asserts that basket weaving can be a traditional art form with contemporary twists.
For example, a Burundi refugee woman in Boise uses recycled materials in her weaving. She uses plastic Albertsons bags and incorporates the lettering into her weaving.
"She doesn't understand the letters; they are nothing more than a repetitive pattern to her," Gamliel says. "The result is quite amazing."
Poole adds, "The way contemporary artists are working shouldn't diminish in any way that traditional, historical body of work. It enhances the work; they build on each other. Certainly people like Hildur Bjarnadottir and Stephen Sollins are working in a contemporary way, but they couldn't do what they do without that background. They're really in conversation with the past; they're referencing the past and those artists and traditions that came before them."
"The Seditious Stitch" exhibit can be seen at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts through April 9. For more information, visit SunValleyCenter.org, or call 208-726-9491.