Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Fiber Space: Surface Design Group, Weaving Guild, and GARFO’s Press Plush

Agustina Woodgate at GARFO’s Press Plush

If the art world were represented by The Big Book of Fairy Tales, the story of Cinderella would surely belong to those artists who use fiber as their medium. Long relegated to the “hearth” as other artists went off to the galleries, fiber artists have been gaining momentum since the 60’s as they have persistently proclaimed the right to exhibit their work alongside more conventional art forms.

Textiles have always been a venue for art exploration, but never of sufficient status to be considered art in and of themselves. Since human beings first started clothing and covering themselves, color and design have worked their way into these personal items in every region of the world. Native Americans created clothing with animal skins, natural dyes and quills; ancient Egyptians knit colorful dyed wool on sharpened sticks; nobles in the Chinese dynasties wore fantastic silk garments with lavish designs; and completely unskilled peasants created patterns in their padded blankets (quilts) even though they used cast off garments to do so.

It may be that the utilitarian nature of fiber has consigned the medium to the craft trenches and not gallery walls, or perhaps it is simply that patterns are sometimes passed down through generations. It could also be that fiber manipulation has long been the purview of (mostly) women and thus not considered “real art” by the (mostly) male powers that be. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is for certain: the times they are a changin’. And Utah’s art world, with multiple fiber-focused shows this Spring, is lending its hand.

Jann Haworth’s Donuts at GARFO’s Press Plush

The times began changing with the Pop Art movement of the mid 1950’s – 70’s, when a few intrepid artists began using textiles to create statements about the rampant consumerism of the period. Jann Haworth, an internationally recognized artist now living in Utah, was one of them. Generally considered to be the pioneer of soft sculpture, she had this to say about her chosen medium in a Summer 2004 interview with Europe’s TATE, ETC. magazine:

“The social life [at Slade School of Art in London] was comatose, the males shockingly self-absorbed, and everybody felt superior to everyone else. The assumption was that, as one tutor put it, “the girls were there to keep the boys happy”. He prefaced that by saying it wasn’t necessary for them to look at the portfolios of the female students… they just needed to look at their photos. From that point, it was head-on competition with the male students. I was annoyed enough, and American enough, to take that on. I was determined to better them, and that’s one of the reasons for the partly sarcastic choice of cloth, latex and sequins as media. It was a female language to which the male students didn’t have access.”

Haworth will be exhibiting with 11 other artists at Salt Lake’s GARFO Art Center April 9 – June 3, 2011 in an exhibit entitled Press Plush – as in, “press play, going forward; press as in tactile; and pressing all possibilities.” The exhibit features installation, soft sculpture, video, crochet, fiber, inflatable, and found object/repurposed material work and is the brainchild of art duo Kenny Riches and Cara Despain, who have wanted to feature a textile show for a couple of years. One of their primary goals as co-curators at GARFO is to bring nationally and internationally known artists to Salt Lake in order to expose the students at the Visual Arts Institute (housed in the same building) to art they wouldn’t ordinarily see. “Our students can’t drive and don’t travel that much,” Riches says, “and we want them to experience art from around the world, so we bring the art to them.”

Elaine Bradford’s Crossbreeding a Doe with Your Grandmother’s Afghan at GARFO’s Press Plush

Despain and Riches bounce off each other’s words and ideas as they talk about GARFO and its role as a small but important center of contemporary art in Salt Lake. “We’ve had this reputation in Utah of being 10 years behind everyone else,” Riches says, “but we’re getting lots of younger curators here who are more cosmopolitan and more up to speed on what’s happening outside the state.” Despain jumps in to say that when art professionals visit from out-of-state, there is an opportunity to have a dialogue with them about what kind of art could be brought to Utah. “Outsiders alone can’t identify our needs, but when we have an exchange of ideas, we get new inspiration about what we want to exhibit.”

Riches cites the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement as partial inspiration for Press Plush. Alongside the creators of zines, indie music and pirate radio stations, fiber artists are protesting mass production of goods and services for a market-driven purpose. Despain says, “Knitting and crochet are really cool right now, and people are looking at craft with new eyes. They’re wondering how craft can intersect with art.” After a short ensuing discussion about crocheted toilet paper roll covers, Despain adds, “Artists are always looking for new mediums, and maybe the challenge is to figure out how to manipulate kitsch into art.”

Agustina Woodgate at GARFO’s Press Plush (detail)

Press Plush’s Agustina Woodgate certainly turns mass-produced kitsch on its head as she eviscerates stuffed toy animals and sews their plushy polyester skins into rugs. Elaine Bradford also soars beyond the boundaries of kitschy crochet with her “Crossbreeding a Doe with Your Grandmother’s Afghan” – a wall hanging/installation that includes a bona fide doe’s head and would most likely give your grandmother the willies.


Press Plush comes on the heels of three Utah exhibits featuring local fiber artists. Identity Crisis in a Material World, which opened in March, is a somewhat tamer exhibit featuring fiber art created by the Utah Surface Design Group (USDG) at the Michael Berry Gallery through April 8th. The eponymous gallery owner says, “This has been one of the most exciting shows in a long time. It’s energetic and accessible and really pushes the boundaries for some people.” The exhibit pays tribute to the many artists who have inspired the fiber art of USDG members.

John Hess Oceananides at Michael Berry Gallery

The USDG was established in the early 1990’s when a small group of fiber enthusiasts, textile artists, and teachers came together to share their passion for surface design. By their definition, surface design “encompasses the coloring, patterning, and structuring of fiber and fabric that involves creative exploration of processes such as dyeing, painting, printing, stitching, embellishing, quilting, weaving, knitting, felting, and papermaking” — all of which are on display at the gallery. The group is now comprised of over 40 members, only one of whom is male (renowned weaver John Hess).

Many of the works in this exhibit examine the tensions experienced by women artists. Dana Perez, Exhibits Chair of the USDG, notes that it is difficult for women to reconcile their roles as wives, mothers, and workers with their artistic passion. She says, “Art always gets stuffed somewhere else while we fulfill all our other roles. We’re always trying to mix it up to make it all work and figure out how we fit everything in.”

Strange Bride by Polly Masaryk at Michael Berry Gallery

“Strange Bride” by Polly Masaryk is a perfect reflection of these tensions. The installation features a mannequin in a traditional white bridal gown (gleaned from a going-out-of-business-sale in Ohio Amish country), but she/he also sports a shirt, tie, and suspenders with drooping, askew trousers. The androgynous form is surrounded by balls and balls of tightly wound strips of fabric, which Masaryk says comprise her whole fabric stash collected since 1980. “The yardage is sewn end to end and spun by hand. That fabric is HEAVY. I’ve been lugging it around through four moves across country. Spinning the yardage into the piled forms is physically taxing on my wrists and shoulders. This work is about the body on so many levels.”

Masaryk emphasizes that the metaphor in the textile-making processes is important. “We quilt personal identities from fragments as we cut and piece fabric. We mend tears, wounds and divisions that can weaken a balanced ‘whole cloth’ existence. We weave a creative, open, diverse, community and celebrate connections by stitching together multi-colored scraps and patterns.”

Christine Bramhall Gee’s Bend at Michael Berry Gallery photo by Alena Ivakhnenko

Masaryk notes that textile construction is intertwined with myth and metaphor. “Early Greek myths,” she says, “are full of female deities spinning and cutting threads and creating and destroying the universe. I see my place as an artist and feel connection to the ancient feminine history of textile production. I’ve fashioned an identity out of that sense of being rooted in a community of makers who use their hands. And maybe most important: building with fiber feels elemental and deeply human. Using my hands, touching and feeling, art making, is a way to know the world.”


Also in the exhibit, artist Christine Bramhall examines the legacy of the desperately poor Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters who casually crafted stunning works of modern art from clothing factory remnants. Bramhall’s own interpretations of the quilts appear in standard black art frames – an interesting dichotomy. Kim Brown’s “Passageway” distills women’s polarized role as “life-giver/mother” into a skeletal pelvis sculpted from soft felted wool. There is also a nostalgic installation of vintage handmade underclothing and nightgowns that instantly makes the viewer realize how banal and impersonal these items have become today. It is also a particularly incisive commentary on today’s culture that these traditionally private items are hung in the large storefront window.

Also up this month, The Mary Meigs Atwater Weaver’s Guild is sponsoring their exhibit of fiber art at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center through April 26th. Beautiful Threads features over 40 artists, at least half of whom have created non-woven work using beading, bobbin lace, embroidery, quilting, knitting, and needlepoint. This exhibit is far more traditional than the other two, with few artists moving beyond the conventional boundaries of their chosen medium, even though their work is of high quality.

A major exception to this lovely but predictable fiber arts presentation is the work of John Hess, who is easily one of the most innovative weavers in Utah and also has pieces in the USDG exhibit. Hess manipulates intricately designed flat weavings into 3-D forms that sometimes incorporate painted screens or other materials. His colors are sophisticated and his designs meld seamlessly with his inventive forms – the result of complex mathematical calculations on his loom (see the video interview on this page).

Beautiful Threads Utah Cultural Celebration Center, photo by Alena Ivakhnenko


John Hess Signet 2010, Diminished Hexagon, Nova Waves, photo by Alena Ivakhnenko


Weaver Sandra Sandburg also steps outside the box with her wall hanging “Red Bud & the Desert in Winter” as she incorporates willow branches into her work.|15| The weaving adopts the shapes of the curved branches and thus bends and ripples in a naturally pleasing fashion.

Another USDG artist who pushes the boundaries is Kathleen Deneris.|16| Her “Driving Home from Durango” wall hanging is an amalgam of felted wool with torn and sewn pieces of fabric and highlights of embroidery. The colors are shaded, rich and evocative.

Patti Pitts explores the limits of manipulating a large piece of silk fabric with her use of dye, paint, and hand screening and stitching in “Spider Woman’s Web.”|17|

Bhakti Banning also deserves accolades for her needle felted “Uncle Henry” |18| and her “Garden of Color” weaving,which is infused with beautiful and subtly changing colors.|19| Banning is also the driving force behind Recession Rags: A Magic Carpet Ride at the Pioneer Craft House, through April 15 (Saturdays only, 10AM – 5PM). When Banning found already-dressed floor looms at the Craft House a few years ago, she enlisted a group of fiber enthusiasts to “weave them off” into multiple rugs. The result is a colorful exhibit of rugs and other items woven with wool, sock “loopers”, plastics bags, vintage cotton strips, and denim.

Bhakti Banning Garden of Color, photo by Alena Ivakhnenko

So, Cinderella is off to the ball at last, albeit without the magical ministrations of a fairy godmother. As with most “real life” tales, hard work, perseverance, and a soaring imagination are ultimately responsible for the rise of textiles in the art world. And with any luck, the artists will not be sent home in a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.

The Utah Surface Design Group’s Identity Crisis in a Material World is at Michael Berry Gallery (163 E. 300 S.) through April 8.

The Mary Meigs Atwater Weaver’s Guild’s Beautiful Threads is at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center through April 26th.

Recession Rags: A Magic Carpet Ride is at the Pioneer Craft House, through April 15. See our article on the Pioneer Craft House in our March edition.

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