Out of the Closet: Fiber and Textile Art Takes Center Stage

By Claire Larrabee

When we think about “fiber” what usually comes to mind is the essential ingredient of those useful items tucked away in our closets and drawers – shirts and pants, sheets and towels. But in the fiber art world, there’s a different attitude towards the utilitarian materials we wear on our backs or use on our beds. Fiber artists magically transform bits of fabric, skeins of wool, sewing thread, and silk embroidery floss into imaginative works of art that command our attention.

Fiber art has been around for a long time. In Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, woven pieces – tapestries – took the place of paintings on walls. However, the use of fiber as an artistic medium fell on hard times. While clothing makers continued to explore creative ways to use textiles in dress for men and women, the art world focused on paint and sculpture. It wasn’t until after World War II that fiber began to reassert itself as an art medium, with the experimental atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s inspiring artists to explore the qualities of fiber in their work.

Delving into the world of modern fiber art is an eye-opening experience! Here’s a look at a few of the decorative and functional fiber artists who are pushing the boundaries to challenge our perceptions of what is so often considered a utilitarian material.

Plowing an Artistic Field

Massachusetts artist Ann Brauer is a fiber artist whose stunning quilts transform a simple bed covering into a work of art. Since she was a little girl when she taught herself the art of quilt-making, she has loved working with fabric and color.

Growing up on a farm in Illinois, Ann found a connection between the colors and textures of farming and the traditions of quilting. She sees the process of stitching together a quilt akin to the work of her farmer father. Just like plowing a field, creating a quilt is a slow, sometimes seemingly endless process. Piece by little piece, she stitches together thin strips of cotton fabric on her trusty old Singer sewing machine to build up an abstract image alive with color, depth, and a sense of place. “Up one side and down the next, yet gradually there is progress – and this is, after all, part of the process,” she says.

Ann Brauer’s abstract quilts evoke her experiences growing up on a farm in the Midwest.
(Left: Prairie Quilt; Right: Red Sun)

Art? Clothing? How About Both!

Marlene Housner is a fiber artist whose work cleverly bridges the decorative art/functional divide – what she calls “art wearables.” Marlene takes a painter’s approach to clothing construction, mixing luxurious velvets, luminous silks, intricate jacquards, and other rich fabrics into collages that can be worn or displayed. Strongly influenced by ancient Japanese clothing styles, each jacket, vest, and purse she makes is one-of-a-kind piece. What a cool idea to wear one of her stunning pieces to your next party, then hang it on your living room wall to revel in its beauty each day!

Marlene Housner’s “wearable art” merges antique and traditional styles with modern clothing sensibilities to create pieces that are both functional and decorative.

Simply Floored

A successful career as an illustrator and painter led artist Ellie Wyeth to wonder about applying her artistic skills to more functional objects. Over the years, she adapted her painterly style and vivid colors to the floor and the table, creating distinctive custom-made floor cloths and placemats out of canvas.

Ellie uses her art to create a storybook world where sheep and wolves merrily dance together, and multi-colored fish happily swim in the sea. Playful images of garden produce, flowers, fish, animals, plates, insects, and chickens inhabit her artistic world. “I began to notice that the more personal I made my work, the more I followed my whimsical, humorous side, the more the audience liked them,” she says. The floor cloths and placemats are painted in saturated colors — deep crimson, vibrant yellows, royal and sky blues — adding to the joyful nature of each piece.

Ellie Wyeth’s floor cloths interpret the world as a warm, friendly place.
(Top: Wolf and Sheep. Bottom: Three Trout on Red)

Besides letting her imagination guide her painting, Ellie keeps a collection of fabric remnants to offer further inspiration for her textile designs. Each floor cloth is hand-painted with latex paint on durable canvas, covered with several coats of acrylic polyurethane, and backed with a rubber non-skid pad.

Get Your Fabric Fix at Paradise City!

Textile magicians Ann Brauer, Marlene Housner, and Ellie Wyeth will all be showing at the final Paradise City Arts Festival of 2018 which takes place November 16-18 at the Royal Plaza Trade Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Many other talented fiber artists will also be on hand at this outstanding show. Come see artists and makers working in every media, from traditional oil and water color painting to photography, metal and stone sculpture, glass, wood, leather, and jewelry. Click here for more information on attending the November festival, including hours, location, admission, exhibitors and discount admission coupons.