Art Term Tuesday: Fiber Art

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Both an emerging, new art form and an old, medieval practice, the fiber arts are a fine art form whose materials are natural or synthetic fibers with other components, like fabric or yarn, woven together through various processes. Separate from the textile arts, which use plant, animal, or synthetic fibers to construct practical, functional objects (like quilts or bowls) that are also decorative, fiber artworks serve no practical function. The focus of fiber art lies in the materials and manual labor of the artist to construct the work, prioritizing the work of creating and its finished aesthetic value over the actual utility of the object. Heightened because of fiber arts historical association with domestic (women’s) handicraft like the sewing of clothes and other domestic chores, fiber artists have consistently endeavored to get their art established and recognized by the fickle fine art world.  

Though the practice is traced to medieval weaving of wall tapestries in Europe that depicted religious themes, the purely aesthetic version is found in Islamic rugs and carpets, whose symbols and complex patterns replaced narrative scenes. The fiber arts regained momentum following World War II and the rise of the artist-craftsmen. In the 1950s, weavers bound fibers into nonfunctional forms to create works of art. The 1960s and 70s moved to techniques beyond weaving into knotting, twining, plaiting, pleating, lashing, coiling, and interlacing, exploring the various qualities and textures to make works that could be hung or free-standing, tall or miniature, figurative, representational, or fantastic. The Post-Modernism of the 1980s opened artists up to more conceptual creations that confronted political and social issues.

Many prominent fiber artists are women, and the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s and its resurgence following the election of current United States President Donald Trump contributed to the revitalization in fiber art creation. The suffrage movement had women creating embroidered banners for protests, and in the 1970s needlework was reclaimed by feminist artists like Lenore Tawney and Judy Chicago, both credited with launching fiber art in the United States. The latest women’s march saw the fighting of the patriarchy through crocheted “pussyhats” and “craftivism”. These movements each helped to further introduce textile and fiber art into high art, as the medium was subverted from its historical association with “women’s work” and transformed, predominantly by women, into celebrated needlework and fabric creations like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Through this “language of thread”, fiber art has redefined ideas of craft versus art and artisans versus artists, as tapestries once hung on castle walls to keep out the chill are now hung on gallery walls as historical masterpieces and materials once used to create potholders are now transformed into political and social messages by artists like Bisa Butler, Claire Zeisler, Faith Ringgold, and Kiki Smith.

A tall cascading network of knotted, natural hemp fibers. The many, long fibers are suspended from an metal armature and fall into mounding heaps on the floor.  At the very top is a short cap of red wool fibers. The sculpture stands in the center of a pedestal with no support.
Claire Zeisler, American, 1903-1991. Stela I. Hemp and red wool, 1977-1978. Gift of the Lincoln Financial Foundation, 2010.04. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Fiber artist Anni Albers quoted Paul Klee when he said drawing involved “taking a line for a walk” in saying that her creation of fiber art meant “taking a thread everywhere I can”.  Fiber, taken from plants or animals in its various forms of cotton, linen, wool, and silk, or man-made synthetics, is malleable: one can weave, knit, plait, or braid it. The most common form, weaving, involves yarn wrapped on a frame (loom) and pulled taut vertically (warp). Then, another strand of yarn is worked back and forth, wrapped under and over the warp (weft), interchanged in color, thickness, or material to create the desired vision. There are techniques for dying the fibers and each fiber possess distinct properties that lend themselves to one function or another. This means that, often, the message is eclipsed by the study of the materials and the process of creation. In addition, fiber artworks are difficult to conserve and often meant to be ephemeral or temporary, likened to performance pieces. This may explain why they hold a low ranking on the hierarchy of artistic materials despite their inherent portability: roll it up, fold it up, and walk out with it. There is also the differentiation between woven, knotted, and crocheted thread or rope with sewn, quilted, or embroidered pieces that lifts the latter above the former as more technically difficult and so “better”, creating a hierarchy within a hierarchy. Despite the myriad technical processes’ fiber art encompasses, it is these distinctions and its historical connection to women’s work and domesticity that preclude it from gaining a higher status in the art world.

Fiber arts ephemerality also means that many “Old Master” weavings are no longer in their complete form or were completely destroyed, unable to be studied and scrutinized and formed into canon. Though we do have examples, it is important to distinguish between these and the fiber artists of today: Old Masters had workshops complete a weaving based on their design, fiber artists do their own weaving. Last year, contemporary artist Chuck Sperry showed three tapestries as part of his exhibition at FWMoA, which he designed but had a weaving workshop in Mexico create. Though other artists whose primary medium is painting or drawing, for example, may dabble in the fiber arts, their vision is often accomplished by a master weaver, not unlike master printmakers aiding painters in creating prints of their visual style, to ensure correct process and technique.

A portrait of Demeter, she stands with her head resting in her hand, a garland of flowers on top of her head of long, flowy red hair. She wears a shoulder-less green dress. The background is a mix of green, blues, and purple flowers and leaves. Her bright green eyes are open and stare out at the viewer.
Chuck Sperry, American, b. 1962. Demeter. Handwoven wool tapestry, 2018. Museum Purchase, 2018.360. Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos: Master Dyer, Rafael Morquecho; Weavers, Abraham Flores, Antonio Flores, Pedro Ibarra Hernandez, and Pedro Ibarra Cazares. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

It is this focus on material and the “how did the artist do that” that often leaves the message overlooked and the work itself undervalued by critics and art historians alike. For fiber artists, however, the process is the point of the work, with the act of creation the message in itself. Currently on display at FWMoA is fiber artist Claire Zeisler’s Stela I. Think back on our discussion and use it to examine her piece. Ask yourself first, is this fiber art? What is the material? How did the artist create it? Is there a message? Can I see the history of weaving in the piece? Finally, does it belong in an art museum?

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