Going F2F with Fiber Art

From text messages and iPads to web browsing and skype, information technology now provides a vast network of ways to connect with other people – whether they’re down the hall or “down under” thousands of miles away. Never before have we had so much constant contact and 24/7 access to news and entertainment.

So why do I feel so alone?

The truth is no matter how plugged in I get, nothing beats good old-fashioned face-to-face (F2F) to really engage in a conversation and experience a work of art. With this craving for human interaction and creative inspiration, I eagerly attended Confluence, the biennial 2011 Surface Design Association International Conference last June in Minneapolis.

In my former role as editor of FiberArts magazine (which ended its 35-year publication run with the Summer 2011 issue), I had the privilege of working with scores of talented artists, authors, curators, educators, and students from all over the world. While this international sphere of influence provided an awesome view of the field, I actually spent most of my time working in solitude from a small home office in Portland, Oregon. Confluence afforded me the rare opportunity to attend thought-provoking lectures and panel discussions, rub elbows with respected colleagues and see a fantastic variety of recent contemporary textile art—in person.

With nearly 40 shows to choose from in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, I was thrilled when the conference began with gallery tours to all of the major exhibitions. My first “aha” moments of the 4-day weekend came at Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the Regis Center for Art, U of Minnesota, where the 4-part presentation included Tim Harding: Apparitions; Reflections on Water: Barbara Lee Smith, Mary Edna Fraser and Linda Gass; Merge and Flow: the SDA Members Show, and India Flint: the WindFallMaps. At this one location, visitors could see the work of over 200 artists!

Tim Harding

As a longtime fan of Tim Harding‘s vibrantly textural Water series, I was both surprised and captivated by the innovative self-portraiture pieces in Apparitions. Inspired by death shrouds, the mortal coil, and advances in medical technology, a palpable—and visceral—energy flows from each slashed, puckered, stapled, and stitched surface.

My favorites, Scan #2 and Visage #2, explore the often touchy subject of self from the inside out through an intriguing triple-threat of polyester spandex fabric, dye sublimation digital printing, and raw-edged appliqué. It was heartening to see an established artist (who could easily rest on his laurels) fearlessly challenge himself with new techniques, materials, and conceptual agendas.

Mary Edna Fraser , Linda Gass & Barbara Lee Smith

In contrast to Harding’s solitary figures, Reflections on Water featured the dramatic waterways and graphic landscapes of Mary Edna Fraser (batik), Linda Gass (dyed art quilt), and Barbara Lee Smith (stitched collage). Each mesmerizing surface boldly explores an expansive sense of the natural world, from bucolic to endangered. On the final day of the conference, Smith’s closing talk extolled the virtues of getting lost, of disconnecting from the demanding distractions of everyday life to focus on the now and regain perspective. In a long weekend filled with visual overload, she bravely chose not to populate her prose with any images. Instead, she guided audience members through points of self-reflection with only the sound of her voice.

SDA Members’ Show

Nearby was Merge and Flow, a wildly diverse salon-style selection of small-scale works by nearly 200 SDA members. The incredible range of techniques and materials on display encouraged me to loosen up and make more time to have fun in the studio—no matter how small a project might be. It was a treat to see work by so many artists I’ve admired fr0m afar but never seen up close such as Erin Endicott, who won the Joy Stocksdale Best in Show (first place) award for her wound-like hand embroidered vintage textile piece Healing Sutra #17. (View all Confluence exhibition award winners on SDA website Awards Gallery.)

India Flint

Hiking across the gallery, I found the earthy wall works and wearable art of Australian artist India Flint. In the Winter 2010-11 issue of Fiberarts, I had the pleasure of including an excerpt fr0m Flint’s book Eco-Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles (Interweave, 2010) and an article about her sustainable dye creations by author Sherida Warner. After pouring over digital and print images of the artist’s work and creative processes, it was easy to think I understood the beauty and importance of what she does. But Flint’s show made clear just how important it is to enhance scholarly research by experiencing the work in person. Standing in the presence of each handmade object enabled a deeper appreciation of the art (and its making) in ways that periodicals and virtual reality simply can’t.

Made fr0m repurposed fabrics hand-dyed and stained with a simple eco-print bundling technique, Flint’s seemingly random remnants come together in refreshing arrangements of organic color and pattern. Each carefully yet casually constructed piece conveys a joy of discovery, experimentation and wanderlust.

Attending Flint’s lecture Ecologically Sustainable Color: Bio-regional Dyes for Cloth a few days later, I was delighted to learn that her creative practice (which now takes her all over the globe) began by dyeing Easter eggs for her children with eucalyptus leaves gathered on her farm in Australia.

Throughout the talk, audience members eyed a mysterious bundle of fabric that sat beside her at the podium. This unassuming wad of cloth, Flint explained, was filled with flower petals and other plants she gathered the night before on a walk around the neighborhood and steeped on a hot plate in her hotel room. Like a magic trick, she finished by unfurling the still-damp bundle to reveal a gorgeous new eco-print accented with peonies.

Jane Kenyon

Traces of eucalyptus popped up again at the Textile Center where Jane Kenyon‘s Transformation exhibition in the Joan Mondale Gallery was among several exhibitions on view. Her selection of stunning pieces made entirely of layered thread included Integumentum (2010), a psychedelic color study of peeling eucalyptus bark.  I became a fan of Kenyon’s lush lichen- and graffiti-inspired series a few years ago when we worked together on an article for the September/ October 2008 issue of Fiberarts (my very first as editor). Digitally printing her designs on Solvy, Kenyon’s complex and colorful machine-embroideries encourage viewers to look more closely at the natural and man-made formations they encounter.

Teresa Paschke

A new body of work by Teresa Paschke also combined digital printing and embroidery in New Tools and Ancient Techniques at Gage Family Art Gallery, Augsburg College. In 2008 Paschke traveled to the Czech Republic as a visiting faculty member at North Carolina State University’s Prague Institute. Research into the textile history of the region led her to a treasure chest of Czech embroidery patterns while a study of local architecture introduced her to a unique sampling of graffiti scrawled on building throughout the city. Using state-of-the-art digital printers, Paschke later transferred images of tagged and decaying walls onto cotton canvas, then embellished the scenes with hand-stitched figures and animals based on traditional embroidery patterns. The resulting pieces, such as Cherry Blossom (2010), combine these 2 seemingly disparate sources to form an intriguing conversation between folkloric and modern-day symbolism.

These exceptional exhibitions provided just a few of the many rejuvenating experiences that made attending Confluence well worth the trip. Other high points included the inspiring keynote address by Pat Hickman, a view into the DIY movement by Faythe Levine, a documentary film screening of  Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles fr0m Ancient Oaxacan Traditions by Carolyn Kallenborn, and the fabulous SDA fashion show Bodies of Water.

I can’t wait to get F2F with the exhibitions that San Antonio, Texas, has to offer for the next SDA conference in 2013!

Marci Rae McDade is the former editor of FiberArts magazine, the world’s leading textile-arts publication in print fr0m 1975-2011. She received an MFA in fiber and material studies fr0m the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007) and a BA in film and video production fr0m Columbia College Chicago. As a practicing fiber artist and independent curator, McDade has exhibited her own work nationally in solo and group exhibitions and curated numerous contemporary art exhibitions over the past decade. You can find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @marciraemcdade.


  • India Flint says

    October 25, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    thanks for the kind words, Marci

  • arlette schulman says

    December 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for sharing with someone like me (who has never attended any SDA conference) all the excitement of being there. It really was great to read all of it. I hope I will be reading more about what you will be doing next. I have a huge collection of Fiberarts, and was sorry when it ended so abruptly.

  • Kim Thittichai says

    December 19, 2011 at 3:01 am

    What a wonderful article - I am so pleased I found your association. x

  • Marci Rae McDade says

    December 20, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Thank you for the positive feedback, Kim! We're thrilled to have you as a reader and SDA member.

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