Thursday, August 27, 2015

Breaking barriers

MAD highlights the influence of mid-20th century women artists

Forecast Rug,
Marianne Strengel
The two American women who have broken the gender barrier to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger Training School are simply the latest to enter male dominated territories. An exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today, recognizes women who broke similar barriers in the art world in the middle of the last century.

It was pure delight to see early works by fiber artists such as Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, and Anni Albers as they have definitely shaped and influenced my view of fiber arts. MAD connects the early days of these bold innovators with their influence on modern design. 

All but shut out of traditional media (Quick! Name three women artists!), most of these creative women made significant contributions to modernism in what is now termed alternative materials--fiber, clay and metal.

The exhibition, which is now open through Sept. 30, features beautiful and innovative textiles, ceramics and metalwork. Most of the women are American. Not surprisingly, I was most interested in the fiber. 

Handweaver's Pattern Book Installation
Polly Apfelbaum
Beginning on the upper floor with works created primarily in the 1950s and 60s, the sense of continuity flows down to the lower floor that features contemporary artists and designers. 

Walk down the steps to the lower level, as I did, to emerge from the stairwell to Polly Apfelbaum's dramatic installation that was influenced by Marguerite Davison's classic pattern book, "The Handweaver's Pattern Book." A photo cannot do it justice.

I was intrigued to find works from the postwar era that featured aluminum. When the war ended, Alcoa was left with a glut of aluminum. Seeking new markets, Alcoa hired Marianne Strengell in its campaign to find new uses for the metal. The Forecast Rug she wove is huge--and probably not one for bare feet. But it is dramatic and definitely makes a statement. (Photo, upper right)
Test panels: Ford Foundation
Installation, 2013. Sheila Hicks

Many of the textiles were clearly identifiable to the post war period mainly by the colors. But some are timeless. 

One example is an installation originally designed by Sheila Hicks circa 1967 for the Ford Foundation in New York and  recently reconstructed. Made of linen, silk and plexiglass, the design is timeless. I had to look closely to see that the twisted circles are constructed of silk threads.

Ruanas, Alice Kagawa Parrott

Among the few garments in the show, I particularly liked the ruanas designed by Alice Kagawa Parrott. Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera Company to be worn by their ushers, the simple and colorful garments seem a perfect 'uniform' for the annual Southwestern event.

I did miss seeing work by Maria Martinez particularly since there are two ceramic pots by two women in the black-on-black style associated with her name. Perhaps because she worked with her husband? Or perhaps because she recreated and refined an ancient technique but executed them in traditional Pueblo shapes?

I know. I know. Exhibitions like this can't include everything--or everybody. There are more than 100 works in the show, each very special. The show is well worth a visit. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Attention to detail

It saddens me to see poor finishes spoil otherwise excellent projects.

Girlfriend market basket, Robyn Mozeika.
Knit and crochet. Useful and stylish!
4-H fairs are special. They're family affairs that are fun yet competitive and publicly display the work of the past year. Showmanship and projects are on public display--and judged. Everyone wants a blue ribbon.

The 2015 Mercer County 4-H Fair, its 97th annual fair, was held earlier this month at the Howell Living History Farm in Lambertville where local 4-H youth groups, their leaders and their livestock spent the weekend. This fair isn't about rides and cotton candy, but about time-honored, family friendly fun, such as pie eating contests and goat milking competitions, to name just two.

Speaking of fun: I wish I had a photo of the costume competition in which kids costume themselves and their animals carry out a theme. One quick-thinking young man with a brand new rabbit put his bunny on a dustpan and added a brush. The theme? Dust bunny! The audience votes, so it should be no surprise that popular culture themes--think "Frozen" and "The Minions"--are the big vote-getters. 

Open classes

Although the focus of the fair is on 4-H youth, the judged show is open to the public. Most entrants in these classes are adults. Items are judged on merit, that is, they are judged against a standard of excellence. (In competitive judging, only one item in a class can receive a blue ribbon.) I was honored this year to judge needlework sections. There were some lovely items and I've included a few photos below. 

It was interesting to note that some of the pieces would have definitely scored higher but for the finishing techniques. They were beautifully crafted, but poorly finished.

Notes for needle artists

As I thought about entries where poor finishes lowered scores, I wished I could talk to each entrant. Except for seaming and grafting, which is its own skill and should be nearly invisible, most of the problems could have been worked out by working a swatch before starting the project. That is the time to identify whether the needle/hook size is right for the yarn and your working method; whether the bind-off is too tight; and whether the sides and edges are going to roll to distraction. 
A good finish can't salvage a poorly executed project, but a poor finish can seriously detract from what is otherwise a well done project. 

A few of the projects from the show.

If you're near Lambertville, plan to visit the fair in 2016. And consider entering something in the show. It's fun!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

My new treasure

The box was big, but light--and not addressed to me. 

Mudag, Liz Balfour (Photo: Liz Balfour)
Even the postwoman remarked how light the large box was. And from the U.K.? M hadn't mentioned ordering anything, especially something from overseas. I suppose I should have been a little suspicious when M said, "You open it." But I wasn't. 

And all the better for a complete surprise! It was a mudag!

If you have been following this blog, you will have seen my photo of a mudag at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I loved the simple and practical woven willow basket made for storing wool for spinning at first sight.

I confess that I was so taken with the unusual basket that I considered trimming branches from a weeping willow tree that had been downed in July's storm. Some common sense prevailed because I didn't. That is certainly because I am not a basketmaker--and not because I wouldn't like to be. I must set some limits on my omnivorous approach to fiber arts. 

Knowing how much I had admired the basket and a little concerned that I might carry through on my 'thinking out loud' and carry my pruning shears down the road, he secretly started researching the baskets. 

For one, they're known as mudags. According to Woven Communities of Scotland, they are also known as muirlags, mulags, crealaghs or craidhleag. The one in the NMS, which was  labeled only as a wool basket, was collected on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides where it was known as a crealagh. What is known about the baskets is described in more detail here

M also found Liz Balfour, a basketmaker in East Lothian, Scotland. One of the founders of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle, she says, "The Museum basket was the one I copied originally many years ago but I have seen quite a few since then. They are rare and only a few survive in museums." 
God's Eye on each end of the
mudag (Photo: Liz Balfour)

Besides the fact that mudags were woven for utility rather than for beauty or artistic expression, there is speculation that few have survived intact because the basket was often kept near the fire to keep the wool warm and easier to work. Some surviving baskets are burnt on one side.

M commissioned Ms. Balfour to make a mudag for me as an anniversary gift. (It soon will be 48 years.) 

A handcrafted treasure

Resources indicate that most modern mudags are based on the photograph and dimensions of the mudag collected by Dr. Evelyn Baxter on the Isle of Skye and recorded by Dorothy Wright's in her book, "The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry." Mine is about the same size she records: 19.5" long, 12" diameter with an opening of 6.5" x 5.5," but differs slightly with its God's Eye on each end. There are no feet so, ostensibly, it can roll. But it doesn't. It just sits beautifully by my feet.
Spinning from my mudag

In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't try this on my own. For one, the willow used in the baskets isn't from the tree, but from a shrubbier species. One U.S. basketmaker grows 60 varieties of the genus Salix, but none look like the tree. Makes perfect sense. For another, mudags are  difficult to make even for experienced basketmakers. One unidentified basketmaker recounts her experience recreating one for the Highland Folk Museum. 

I am delighted to have such a beautifully crafted mudag--and grateful to have a husband who so thoughtfully supports--indeed, feeds!--my love of unique and beautiful handcraftsMy mudag is full of wool roving--so I depart somewhat from the traditional storage of fleece or rolags. Rewarding as carding wool and making rolags may be, it's time consuming. And since my list of 'want-to-do's' is long, I need to take some shortcuts.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Got rust?

Rust not only dyes, it can create unique patterns on fabric

Anita Luvera Mayer
Just ask Anita Luvera Mayer. In her MAFA 2015 workshop, she taught students a range of dyeing and embellishment techniques. One focused on the use of rust and black tea to dye and design fabric.

I came close to taking her workshop, which was entitled, "Don't Change the Sheets, Change the Cloth." It sounded fun. And that's exactly what one of the participants told me when I asked about her weekend experience. "It was fun!" she exclaimed.

Anita is a fiber artist, author, and mentor, but above all that, she is an inspiration to others not only for her creativity and expertise, but for her passion for life. "Live now!' she urges, explaining the essence of her approach to life like this:
"I believe that if a person has a passion for any activity, they will have a full and exciting life. Do not wait to "follow your bliss." Celebrate the moment and day and take time to do what you love. This sometimes means making hard choices and saying no, but if you are clear as to your priorities, this is essential. 
"My priorities for years have been and are: myself, my creative time, my family-- and in that order, because if I do not take care of my health and my need to create, I have little left to give to the people I love. Live now!"
She swept through MAFA 2015's weekend retreat like a queen and charmed us all. She's tall and slim with a model's posture and bearing. Almost anything looks great on her. She wowed the audience at the Fashion Show as she modeled a striking white top. A professional model couldn't have shown it off better.
Student scarves dyed w/rust and tea

Then, when visiting her workshop the next evening for  Open Studio, we found ourselves entranced with her  enthusiasm and genuine love of sharing her craft and her passion.

Anita is a teacher in her heart and in her bones. She is also extremely organized. For example, her students leave with a  reference notebook of instructions and samples. 'How many times do you leave a workshop and can't remember exactly what you did or how you did it?' she asked rhetorically. The notebook solves that problem.

There is much to admire about Anita, but I am most impressed with her proud and unapologetic acceptance of who she is--a mature woman who knows and accepts herself. Not content to sit on the sidelines, she accepts her age, but is not defined by it. She celebrates her age as she celebrates life. 
"I celebrate my age of 82," she says. "Age is only numbers and I have places to go and garments to make so I have no intention to retire." Anita Luvera Mayer

Looms in the living room

Rust-dyed jacket, Anita Luvera Mayer
Anita credits her start in weaving to a wedding gift from her mother-in-law. A  well-respected Seattle weaver, Marcelle Mayer gave each of her three daughter-in-laws a 36 inch floor loom and weaving lessons. Although most daughter-in-laws would likely find this a rather presumptuous gift, Anita subsequently dedicated her first book, "Clothing from the Hands That Weave," to Marcelle Mayer for raising a son who thought looms in the living room were perfectly normal. (Isn't it?) 

As Anita says, "My moment of truth regarding my passion for clothing was the result of a two hour seminar at the first Convergence in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan. Ros Berlin, presented a program on clothing and I knew immediately where I was going with my weaving and wrote in my journal that night, June 1972, "from this day forward any major piece of clothing I wear I will make.""

And she proceeded to do just that. Known for her clothing that requires little to no shaping in construction, she explains, "I "discovered" modular clothing--or actually clothing from simple rectangles and squares--because I did not know how to tailor handwoven fabric." That simple. And yet, not simple at all. 

Inspiration, creativity and life experiences

it is easy to see the connection between Anita's work and the designs of ethnic cultures. She is inspired by their clothing and the creativity of women who work to adorn their bodies and clothe their families. She says, "My work always speaks, in some way, to these cultures either in the color, embellishment,  or shape." 

Her sources of inspiration have remained much the same over the years, but her work has matured, much as her interests have evolved and she has matured as an artist. "I have created clothing that speaks to my love for the sunsets and sunrises. Then, as I got older, all my work was about honoring women with each garment speaking to age, wisdom, loss and love--all that I experienced living my life," she says.

Her current body of work continues to be inspired by clothing and textiles of other cultures, but she has been working more with interesting techniques in creating the cloth. This interest was readily apparent in her workshop at MAFA 2015.

She has met her 1972 goal--and then some. In addition to creating interesting pieces to her personal wardrobe, she has inspired many, many others to not only have fun in the process of creativity, but to celebrate themselves as individuals. 
"My goal from 1972 to 2015 has been to "wear on the outside who I am on the inside and do honor to my individuality by what I make and weave." Anita Luvera Mayer

Teaching to the tribe

Purple jacket. Anita Luvera Mayer
Teaching is exhilarating but it is not for the faint-hearted. Mastery of a particular skill and the desire to share knowledge are not enough. Anita is one of the select and gifted few who are natural teachers, so I asked her to share her  words of wisdom for fiber artists who teach--or would like to teach. Here's what she says:
"My goal in teaching is to help women find their own self-esteem and to honor who they are by the the clothes they wear.  
"Every time I teach, I come home with new ideas and questions but mostly my passion for teaching is that I so respect and enjoy the women who are involved in fiber. They are "my tribe" and I want to be with them.
"If you love what you do and want to share that love, put together a workshop and submit it to conferences and guilds. I wrote articles, did "free" lectures, kept applying to conferences even though I was turned down many times."
Anita Luvera Mayer wants to make it clear: She has absolutely no intentions to retire. She remains eager to do lectures and workshops for guilds. Invite me and pay me, she told us, and I'll be there. 

Conferences are on another scale, however, and Anita foresees a fitting end to her leadership role in conference workshops. The plan is to end where she began--with the Association of Northwest Weavers at their 2017 Conference, Treadle Lightly, in Victoria, B.C. It was the first conference she attended wearing her distinctive handwoven clothing. 

I, for one, can't wait to see what she'll be wearing to that event!