Festival will get to the very fiber of art

FiberPhiladelphia director Amy Orr with "Words Unspoken," created by Anna Wessmann from her grandmother's diary.
FiberPhiladelphia director Amy Orr with "Words Unspoken," created by Anna Wessmann from her grandmother's diary. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 02, 2012

Amy Orr, beaming a kilowatt smile, almost jumps from her chair when she talks about FiberPhiladelphia 2012, the citywide celebration of textile and fiber art she has spent the last two years organizing with Bruce D. Hoffman.

Orr is a fiber artist, Moore College faculty member, and the biennial event's director; Hoffman, an independent curator, was part of the Snyderman-Works Gallery's groundbreaking 1998 fiber exhibition, which sparked what has become an event of international scope, stretching from Friday's opening till the end of April.

For this sixth iteration, Orr says, "we decided not to engage in the ongoing debate about what constitutes fiber art. . . . People don't want to define themselves as fiber artists, just artists. A call was placed for excellent artwork that made reference to textiles and fiber art - and the results were outstanding."

FiberPhiladelphia 2012 features several major juried shows. More than 500 artists applied, from all over the world, and 67 were chosen to exhibit at the Icebox Project Space in the Crane Building and at subsequent juried shows at the Wayne Art Center and the Gallery at City Hall.

Partnering with the nonprofit membership organization InLiquid, participating venues - among them the Art Alliance, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Arthur Ross Gallery, and the Wexler Gallery - were cultivated early on. Orr emphasizes that subsequent participation was highly democratic, requiring only a $100 registration fee. After that, each of the scores of venues could do its own thing with the fiber theme.

With the funds collected on an interactive website, a gallery guide and free lectures were organized. Volunteers essentially run the festival, which speaks to the ability of the organizers to mobilize their constituents.

And to attract related events: A joint conference of Studio Art Quilt Associates and the Surface Design Association will be held March 30 to April 1 in Conshohocken, and will feature tours of the festival's highlights.

Why is all this happening in Philadelphia? Orr is ready with the answer, noting that it is a "city with Amish quilts and immigrants with rich traditions in the fiber arts."

"Also of record was the manufacturing of lace and hosiery. There are dye factories from the 1800s that are still operative. . . . With a huge presence of textiles throughout the arts community in Philadelphia, there is a growing interest in bringing textile industries back to the city."

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Philadelphia was unmatched in the number of manufacturers of textile products - such as knits, draperies, trimmings, and tapestries - headquartered here. Its reputation was that of a city of workshops and midsize enterprises known for transforming raw materials into merchandise in a diversity of industrial categories.

Also contributing to that rich history is an academic one. The Philadelphia College of Textiles and Design (now Philadelphia University) was established in 1884. The University of the Arts has a 125-year-old connection to crafts dating back to one of its precursors, the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, and offers a degree in crafts that includes fiber arts. The Moore College of Art & Design - the nation's first women's art school, begun in the Society Hill home of Sarah Peters in 1848 - fostered the study of textile design. All that substantiates Orr's claim that fiber arts and textile design have always been important in Philadelphia.

Nationally and internationally, the fiber-arts movement finally seems to have taken a respected place in the art world. According to Orr, who notes that women dominate as presenters and exhibiting artists in FiberPhiladelphia 2012, "this phenomenon is punctuated by women artists in general being recognized by the art mainstream, their expanded presence in curatorial positions, and female educators who now head fiber art departments on a college level."

Also significant, perhaps, is the number of male artists in the mainstream who now are using materials once associated with "women's work" - crochet in the case of Mike Kelly, felt by Robert Morris, the early mixed-media works of Lucas Samaras, and the draped paintings on canvas of Sam Gilliam, which he now makes with acrylic paint on nylon.

One could debate whether these artists are in fact creating works derived from fiber design traditions, but there's no denying that the expanded approach to materials by these renowned artists has helped propel the acceptance of fabric, textiles, and fiber as fine art.

Patricia Malarcher, retired editor of the international journal Surface Design, says, "The craft vs. fine-art debate keeps shifting. . . . The feminist artists of the '60s and '70s used materials in adversarial ways as a statement in opposition to the primacy of painting. A short list of these artists includes Eva Hesse, Harmony Hammond, Faith Ringgold, Sheila Hicks, and Miriam Shapiro. Crafts, pattern painting, and mixed media became fodder for new expressions in art during this period. It can be safely stated that the influx of these artists and subsequent generations of women artists in some ways helped to change the landscape of visual traditions and attitudes toward materials. . . .

"At present, people are not afraid to use fiber arts, because as a material it doesn't carry the same negativity as it used to. . . . As a rule, people trained in fiber arts begin with an exploration of materials, while fine artists find materials to execute an idea."

She attributes the emergence of fiber arts as mainstream to the mere fact that many visual artists now use fiber materials. "For example, conceptual artist Ann Wilson has kept her fiber identity, while on the other hand Ann Hamilton disavows her fiber-art background; yet both use fiber and textile design principles in their work."

The panoply of FiberPhiladelphia 2012 events, lectures and shows - from the sculptural/installation work of Mi-Kyoung Lee at the Arthur Ross Gallery, to Erin Endicott's embroidery in "Mending = Art" at the Gershman Y, to explorations of African American quilts and mixed-media works curated by Toni Kersey and Richard Watson at the Art Sanctuary - promises two months of opportunities to look, think, discuss, and look again.

 FiberPhiladelphia 2012 opening event,

2:30 p.m. Friday at Moore College of Art & Design: Fiber Art Proclamation by Mayor Nutter and keynote lecture by art historian Elissa Auther on fiber in the 21st-century art world.

Full schedule and details at http://www.fiberphiladelphia.org/

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