Woven fiber encompasses both the mundane and the most sacred, technique intermingled with ritual. It is one of the most ancient and most common art forms in cultures the world over, yet, perhaps because of its subtlety, is rarely examined in the setting of a contemporary art gallery. Dixie University’s Textures of Life exhibit at the Robert and Peggy Sears Fine Art Gallery explores the breadth of this extraordinary, ubiquitous, and versatile medium June 17th through August 24th.
Curated by Sears Gallery director Kathy Cieslewicz and Southern Utah-based weaver Sandra Sandberg, the exhibit has several interesting aspects. Not surprisingly, given both the institutional setting and Sandburg’s long history as an educator in the art of weaving, there is a strong educational component in Textures of Life, including explanations and handouts on various methods of dying and weaving fiber. There are also looms, a drop spindle, and a spinning wheel, evoking the rich mythology surrounding weavers themselves, from Ancient Greece’s Arachne to the Navajo Spider Woman.
Also prevalent in the exhibit are the unique connections fiber art often has with its specific geography; many of the displayed pieces are created using dyes and techniques distinct to the weaver’s immediate cultural and physical environment. A charming practice somewhat unique to fiber art—especially in our post-industrial times—is to use naturally-occurring pigment that locally surrounds the artist, exemplified, among other pieces, in a beautiful Zapotec rug from Oaxaca, Mexico, part of Sandberg’s personal collection.
Taking the idea of connecting art to local ecology one step further is Doris Florig’s mimetic installation A Fiber Forest including “Tāniko Trees,” referring to New Zealand’s traditional tāniko weaving technique, and “Aspen Trees.” The large, twisting trees are woven with fibers dyed by the fauna they model. Subtle variations in the color of the aspen leaves stem from not only variables in the different trees, but leaves collected in different seasons, suggesting an art in harmony with and celebratory of the diversity of the natural world.
In sharp contrast to Florig’s organic, colorful work is a precisely woven gray tapestry displaying geometric cattle brands titled “Cowboy Resume” by Karl Tippets, one of the few male weavers featured in the exhibit. According to Sandberg, Tippets’ tapestry was created using a very careful stick weaving technique, and dizzying arithmetic, resulting in a fitting homage to the hard work and persistence Tippets describes as “the contribution of the cowboy to our way of life.” Its simplicity calls to mind the more utilitarian articles of handmade weaving—blankets, shawls, bags, as in Jo Stolhand’s delicate “Evening Bag”—that are somehow sanctified by human time and touch as opposed to their mechanically-created counterparts.
One of the most intriguing sections of Textures of Life is a narrow wall hung with just three pieces that together read as a sort of three-paneled vanitas. Dominating the wall is Susan Gilgan’s apocalyptic “X-Ray du Soliel,” a quilt depicting the explosive activity on the surface of the sun. It is flanked by a delicate white christening blanket woven by Sandburg on the left, and an equally delicate white Tencel blanket by Janet Smith titled “Life’s Fibers Together – Always 1.” Sandberg and Smith’s white, lace-like cloth is strongly evocative of the many ways white cloth emerges in rituals of Western culture, including christening babies, marriage, even burial clothing and shrouds, again consecrated by the attentiveness of handmade cloth. The myriad ways that meaning is ascribed to woven fiber extends far beyond aesthetic appreciation.
Which is, quite possibly, the point one is most meant to ponder in viewing Textures of Life.
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“Textures of Life,” Sears Art Museum Gallery, Dixie State University, St. George, through Aug. 24, http://dixieculturalarts.com/sears-museum-2/