Sunday, March 25, 2012

FiberPhiladelphia 2012

My husband and I recently spent a long weekend in Philadelphia, timed to coincide with the opening of the FiberPhiladelphia 2012 Outside/Inside the Box show, where I had a piece selected for display. We arrived in the city mid afternoon on the Friday and, after checking in to our hotel, walked across Rittenhouse Square to the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which provides a lovely venue for exhibiting contemporary crafts and design. It is housed in the historic Wetherill Mansion, a stunning building that dates from 1906 and has retained many of its original architectural features. It’s atmosphere is reminiscent of the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto.

The main exhibition, “A sense of Place”, presents 8 female artists who explore the theme of location using materials ranging from cloth made of tree bark to expired credit cards. Each work is connected in a physical or metaphorical way to a specific locale. Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt works in traditional Hawaiian kapi cloth made from tree bark. At the other end of the scale Amy Orr uses post consumer waste to create 3 dimensional works.

Wendeanne Ke'aka Stitt

I was particularly impressed with Barbara Lee Smith’s work. She uses stitch as a drawing tool, fusing layer upon layer of synthetic fabric with machine embroidery, creating lush rich landscapes. 

Barbara Lee Smith

Downstairs, although not a formal part of the FiberPhiladelphia show, Sandra Sherman’s “Found Subjects” was very appealing. As a book artist, I appreciated the way she works with the concept of the book as a place of concealment.

Sandra Sherman

 The final textile show at this space was the psychologist Andrea Donelly’s weavings. “Binary” consisted of beautiful semi-transparent hangings of woven materials that incorporated inkblots – all the images are left open to the viewer to interpret.

Next stop : the Galleries at the Moore School of Art and Design, where several FiberPhiladelphia shows were opening. We missed the opening ceremonies and lecture but arrived in time to enjoy some refreshments and tour the shows . Two of the shows were standouts for me: Doing Time/ Depth of Surface is an incredibly moving mixed media work based on two artists’ residency at the derelict Holmesburg Prison.

Patricia Gomez/Maria Jesus Gonzalez

 The other show at the Moore that blew me away was Shizuko Kimura’s show in the Graham Gallery. She stitches intricate, delicate drawn figures in thread on gauze.Her work is like an intimate glimpse into a personal sketchbook: astonishing, inspiring, amazing and in itself was worth the trip to Philadelphia to see.

Shizuko Kimura

 That was a lot to pack into a late afternoon/evening. We repaired to Cichetteria19, off Rittenhouse Square for a wonderful organic, locally sourced meal in the Venetian style. If I’m ever in Philadelphia again I’ll definitely return to this restaurant.

 We spent much of Saturday being tourists – we saw the Liberty Bell , Independence Hall, then visited the Edgar Allen Poe Historic site ( my husband is a big Poe afficianado) where I photographed some of the old plaster walls that struck me with their beautiful textures and took me back to the images evoked by the “Doing Time” exhibition.

 A work out at the hotel gym and a nap followed, then we set off for the Crane Arts Building for the Outside/Inside show. This building is an remarkable resource for the art community, containing not only the large Icebox gallery but also smaller display spaces, studios and office spaces.

My work at the Icebox

The show at the Icebox was almost everything I had hoped it would be; not just because I had a piece chosen for display, but because it’s a fabulous space. The diversity of peices selected in this juried show must have presented a huge challenge to the jurors and curator, but the show was well designed and displayed. It was uncrowded,so every peice had room to” breathe” and shine. I love spacious, uncluttered shows like this and congratulate Bruce Hoffman and his team for filling the Icebox so magnificently. My one disappointment was that there were no formalities or introductions made at this opening – at least while I was there. So I missed the opportunity to identify and connect with other artists, which is a pity.

Icebox Gallery

 I mentioned the diversity of offerings at this show. It’s totally a matter of personal preference, but I was pleased to see that an empasis on line and the exploration of figurative, representational work is maintaining a foothold amongst the more abstract or conceptual work. However, no matter the approach taken by the artists, I was consistently impressed by the high level of technical expertise shown, whether in exquisite stitching , weaving, dying and painting or dazzling digital applications. And the use of found and recycled materials and encaustic was a good reminder of how we can combine new approaches with time honoured techniques.

Award winner Ann Wessman's Words Unspoken Series

 Not only was Philadelphia hosting more fascinating textile related shows than we could possibly see in a short weekend, but also the Philadelphia Museum of Art was exhibiting a Van Gogh blockbuster. We were fortunate to acquire tickets for a private viewing bright and early Sunday morning. What an opportunity to get up close to these fabulous, priceless paintings without having to fight crowds. We had an excellent guide who provided helpful information and insights into each group of paintings. She pointed out many examples of the artist’s technical mastery as well as showing how his work reflected events in his life and his multiple medical problems .

The tour provided a powerful reminder of the key to Van Gogh’s greatness : his understanding of colour theory, always balancing complementary colours in a limited yet vibrant palette. This reminder brought my thoughts back to the question that always troubles fibre and textile artists. Is what I do art or craft? After this weekend, my conviction remains that it’s always art if its done with a high level of skill and if it observes the fundamentals of composition , form and colour. Or if the rules are broken it’s done knowingly and knowledgeably.

 But it’s an endless debate.... After wandering the Philadelphia Art Museum’s American contemporary and European collections we headed over to the Perlman Institute for “Secret Garden”. This provided a nice restrospective of pre-digital fabric printing and dying by some giants in the field like Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks. Although I didn’t get to see each and every one of the Fibre Philadelphia shows I believe we saw a good representative sample. Some of the exhibits can be found online at There’s so much great work being done, and so much inspiration and encouragement to keep exploring the limits of any media.