Local fiber artists take the familiar into uncharted territories
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Knitting, crochet, weaving, basket making, spinning, sewing, quilting — the world of fiber and textile art is both vast and diverse. “I find it to be this incredible, expansive field that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around,” says Kevin Wallace, director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts. “I’m trying to bring back the importance of these art forms.” To that end, he’s written several books — on wood art, baskets and ceramics — hosted a variety of workshops at the center and most recently put together the “California Fibers” exhibit at the center’s Logan Gallery. There you’ll find an eclectic mix of modern weavings, conceptual fiber sculptures and quilts displaying evocative themes. “These aren’t your grandmother’s quilts,” says Wallace.
As an interest in traditional craft making has grown in the 21st century (especially among young people), so has a more artistic approach. Gerri Johnson-McMillin’s iconic Fishbone Vessels, woven from fish skeletons and monofilament, are ethereal masterpieces of form and line that are both bizarre and instantly familiar, evoking the watery realm that inspired them. Tapestry weaver Michael Rohde gained international recognition for From My House to Your Homeland, which explored the impact of war on Iraqi citizens. Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo aims to speak to the spiritual aspirations of people across cultures and religion with her silk applique thangkas. Wallace, a longtime fiber art collector and curator, finds this exploratory strand running through the work of modern-day fiber artists exciting. “These crafts traditionally were not used for self-expression,” he explains. “The idea of an art quilt or an art basket is very new.”
Fiber art is usually lumped into the category of “decorative arts,” a term which can be a source of contention — separate from (and not necessarily equal to) the “fine arts.” Johnson-McMillin, a founding member of both Studio Channel Islands Art Center and its Fiber Arts Center, encountered this tension when her groundbreaking work was first being exhibited. “It was really hard,” she remembers. “I had to prove myself, prove that I was an artist. It was very difficult, and I think it still is at times.” Nevertheless, most fiber artists are untroubled by the label, and are pleased to see a growing appreciation for traditional techniques, as well as the modern tweaks and more conceptual pieces coming to the fore. “People are creating their own designs and learning how to do more with fiber,” says award-winning rug artist Regina Vorgang.
What is it about the medium that these artists find so seductive? The tactile nature of the materials, the way the piece takes shape in the hands, the three-dimensional aspect? “After 10-15 years as a graphic designer in the computer world, I wanted to do something with my hands,” recalls Vorgang. Rohde agrees, adding, “People are tired of virtual experiences. They want something tactile.” From Wallace’s perspective, working with fiber and textiles (as well as clay and wood) satisfies a deep-seated human need. “We have a basic human desire to connect with natural materials, which are a connection to the earth,” he explains.
Several textile artists in Ventura County have found success and recognition professionally, but the region’s fiber arts community has a very talented nonprofessional side as well. Organizations like the Camarillo Quilters Guild, Moorpark’s Spinning Jennys, and Extreme Quilters are filled with enthusiastic hobbyists who do beautiful work. The Ventura County Handweavers & Spinners Guild, founded in 1970, is one of the oldest guilds in the country. Spinning in particular — by hand with a spindle or with a spinning wheel — is enjoying a local renaissance. “It’s about sustainability,” says longtime VCHSG member Susie Meach, who organizes the Sheep to Shawl event at the Ventura County Fair every year. “Often we buy directly from the shepherd. There’s a lot of interest in rare breeds [of sheep]. Many of us weavers and spinners are keeping those shepherds in business.” Spinners can also develop custom blends that are completely original and often superior to anything purchased. “People are dyeing their own wool, too, and creating their own patterns. It’s incredibly innovative,” Meach adds.
Supporting these artisans are shops like The Quilters Studio and Anacapa Fine Yarns, which do brisk business in fiber supplies and classes. The area also boasts several alpaca farms that sell prepared wool and sometimes yarn spun from their animals. All aspects of fiber appear to be thriving in these parts.
In a modern world that seems to spin ever faster, there’s something very comforting about the needle, thread and loom, which beckon us to reconnect with age-old traditions. As Wallace eloquently states, “Textiles are by nature nourishing and comforting. Fiber art calls us back home.”
“California Fibers” at the Logan Gallery in the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts through March 30. For more information, visit www.beatricewood.com.