“Just as a farmer can plant one seed and harvest a bushel, we can sow foolishness and down the line harvest way more than we bargained for.” In this sentence, found on her website, Rosanna Lynne Welter comments specifically on her skillfully ambivalent textile relief, “Sow the Wind.” Yet in at least one important way, the duality of that visually punning work also fits many of the works on view now through the winter solstice in Sew Tactile (Please Touch My Art), in the Front Gallery at Bountiful Davis Art Center.
On the occasion of the 2022 Juried Annual at BDAC, I wrote in 15 Bytes that “Sow the Wind”
. . . represent(s) the nostalgic theme of a homestead in a meadow. But the appliqué that initially resembles a floral path can also be read as the flames of a swift wildfire, while the trapunto background beneath suggests the elements in action: the swirling wind and incendiary grass.
Such deliberate ambiguity may have been part of the appeal of textiles for Welter, who had set out to make quilts: a medium that began as a thrifty way of not wasting scraps of cloth, but in time spawned a cottage industry, with large sums spent on tools and supplies specifically made and marketed for the purpose. Yet both are quilts. Further, even as they feature abstract geometry or images pieced together, quilts also involve an independent, contrasting or reinforcing design in the quilting stitches. Such instances of compound expression distinguish these often-dismissed “folk arts” as aesthetically sophisticated.
So around the time she came to make “Sow the Wind,” Welter began to say that she had “transitioned to fiber art.” Just what she meant by that name change can be seen now through a close look at Sew Tactile (Please Touch My Art). That no mere gaze can suffice, be close enough, is hinted at repeatedly in the exhibition. First, there’s the homonym: “so” tactile. Then there’s that rarest of gallery requests: for a change, Please Touch. In case that’s not a sufficient hint, there’s finally a dispenser of (compostable) sanitizing wipes at the door, with a sign requesting visitors to cleanse their hands, then follow the title’s suggestion. Recalling that quilts were typically meant for use as blankets, and sometimes even as garments, that may sound more like permission to do in a gallery what one wouldn’t hesitate to do in a domestic setting. But while a sufficient cause, it needn’t exhaust the artist’s reasons for asking.
Sight and touch are analogous senses, the first operating at a distance, the second through contact. Hints about Welter’s wider purpose for asking viewers to feel her projects might be found next to them, in the title cards. For example, the card for “African Violets” reads, in part: “Shibori Discharged Cotton, Raw Edges, Inset Seams, and Opalescent Thread.” The card for “Blue Light Special,” on the other hand, reads: “Raw Edge Vat Dyed Indigo Fabrics with Disperse Dye Phototransfers on Satin.” The average viewer may well ignore such information when it applies to other arts, but then the average viewer enters other exhibitions in possession of a sophisticated acquaintance with brushstrokes and other artistic techniques, even if they don’t consciously realize it. If viewers want to gather as much from the intentions of fabric artists, some similar knowledge of textile techniques and attention to how they influence the eye may well prove essential.
For instance, “discharge” actually refers to the process of extracting color from dyed fabric, such as Welter does to create white patterns on dark backgrounds. “Shibori” is a Japanese technique comparable to the more familiar American process of tie-die, but which is twisted and sewn, rather than bound or wrapped. Combine the two as Welter does and the results are the feathery, moiré-like ornaments seen throughout the works.
At the risk of sounding somewhat mechanical, one of the ways artists show they have moved on from the craft origins of their work is by not complying with its standards. In “African Violets,” key blocks disrupt the bound edge, while the borders overlap and interrupt them. This creates a kind of contest or struggle where basic order is the convention. Unbound edges abound in Sew Tactile. Another technique is to not “polish,” or even finish the details. Again in “African Violets,” knots of loose threads dangle in contrast with the almost unbelievable, finely controlled texture characteristic of the inner blocks. While these may show in photographs, they really need to be seen in person, which is another distinguishing quality in art.
At least two panels here revisit earlier subjects. “String Theory III” still strongly suggests looking through a window, the effect achieved partly by the white strings that extend over the entire piece and appear to come forward, and also by the black rectangle in which the painted, white stripes seem to float. “Landing,” a sentimental favorite, surrounds the subject bird with swirls of stitching that make turbulent airflow visible, and so reveals the complex actions and calculations birds must always be making. “Birdbrains,” indeed.
In fact, empathy and awareness of the lives of animals is the point of the largest work here, “A Rose for Pain,” in which the central image of a cracked and weathered landscape is framed by a poem: “In the driest, whitest / stretch of pain’s infinite desert / I lost my sanity / and found this rose.” Further surrounding blocks use naturalistic images of animals cut through by black-and-white segments depicting X-rays of their skeletons. At an historical moment when human perspectives of other life forms is undergoing a tectonic shift, we’ve come to a newfound awareness that animals aren’t just conscious, which was often denied in the past, but sentient and possessed by senses beyond our own. An awareness of their suffering surely ought to be part of our image of them.
By this point it’s clear why Welter distinguishes these works by calling them “fiber art.” Many quilts, especially those likely to be seen in the gallery today, may be no less art, but are more public in their intentions and expression. Rosanna Lynne Welter’s textiles distinguish themselves by sharing more personal, private, even intimate thoughts and feelings. What they don’t do is look like what’s expected, and in that many be found the most important clue of all.
Sew Tactile (Please Touch My Art): Rosanna Lynne Welter, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Dec. 23.
All images are courtesy of the author.