Craft or art? Who cares? HEATWAVE fiber art is amazing

The show at Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center demonstrates that fabric art is so much more than "just quilts"

I have an embarrassing confession, but that’s actually a good thing, because it goes straight to the heart of an important artistic question that is raised — or perhaps I should say, is powerfully answered — by an exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg.

It’s an occasion for a teachable moment.

“Hot Flash!” A collaboration by Sherri Culver and Mary McLaughlin. Commercial cotton and silk fabrics, threads. Raw edge, fused, machine appliqué; machine quilting; hand embroidery; fabric paint and inks (for eyes). 37 x 35.5 inches. Photo by: Hoddick Photography

HEATWAVE is a themed exhibit produced by High Fiber Diet of the Columbia FiberArts Guild, which has been around for nearly half a century in the Portland area. What I must confess is that when I clicked my way to the page for this exhibition on the center’s website and saw that it’s a show of “art quilts,” I felt … well, a little underwhelmed.

“Oh,” I thought. “Quilts.” A bias that I wasn’t really conscious of was triggered, one perhaps based on distant, faded memories of being bored as a child while my mom took forever in a fabric store. I was mildly disappointed that this exhibition in the Parrish Gallery was just quilts — not painting, or sculpture. Not, well, art.

Sheryl LeBlanc’s “Fire in the Log Yard.” Disperse dyed polyesters, silk chiffon, trupunto. 29.5 x 32.5 inches. “Like a storage of ordinance, I have often wondered what a fire in a full log yard would look like on an extremely hot and dry day … perhaps during a severe drought, when the logs have not been recently sprayed with water.” Photo by: David Bates

Then I went and saw it.

I’ve seen it three or four times now, marching in on each occasion to look specifically at that exhibition, to spend a few more minutes with this piece or that. I am repeatedly drawn to the intense crimson, yellow, and green in Diane English’s Remembrance, which uses the imagery of blooming poppies as a “symbol of remembering those who have passed in the heat of wars.” Sheryl LeBlanc’s Fire in the Log Yard is, quite simply, one of the most extraordinary images I’ve seen in any medium recently.

Detail from “Fire in the Log Yard.” Photo by: Jon Christopher Meyers

The work is astonishing and beautiful and, occasionally, mysterious. One afternoon mid-November I had my 9-year-old son with me. Anything but bored, he ran around the Parrish Gallery, exclaiming, “Look at this one, Daddy!” Then, darting around a corner, “Look at this one!”

Back at home, I dived into a study of the Arts and Crafts movement and, specifically, an inquiry into what I quickly came to regard as an artificial and mostly semantic divide between art and craft, this idea that the two are somehow separate, that “craft” does not rise to the level of “art”. When I suggested to an ArtsWatch editor that he dispatch someone with a deeper background in visual arts to cover the show, which runs through Jan. 5, he kindly advised, basically, I do my job.

“I think there’s some explaining to be done about how people approach it, how it fits into the world of ‘fine’ art, which so often treats it like a stepchild,” he said. He pointed to the historically sexist and even classist attitude about this — one that I, perhaps, had at some level internalized, one that was surely at the root of my “Oh … quilts?” moment. Fabric and other non-painting and sculptural forms are too often seen, somewhat dismissively, he added, as “women’s art” or “folk art.” Or a “craft.”

This artificial divide, a product of historical, social, and even philosophical processes too complex to get into here, widened over the 20th century, particularly in academia. When The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in North Carolina published a massive history of studio craft eight years ago, authors Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf explained how this divide between art and craft created the need for such a book in the first place:

“Because craft was not included in art history curricula, there was not a tenured scholar of the field to write a history,” they note in Makers: A History of American Studio Craft. “Yet because there was no comprehensive textbook, it was dauntingly difficult to set up courses, even at schools that offered extensive studio coursework in craft.”

This Friday, there will be an artists’ reception from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Chehalem center for the High Fiber Diet artists who created these remarkable pieces. I contacted Paula Benjaminson, president of the guild. I asked about the “stepchild” perception of crafts, one that she’s familiar with, and she explained her belief that fiber arts absolutely belong in the realm occupied by the “fine” arts.

“It may be difficult to convince some ‘authorities’ on art that what we make can be regarded as art, rather than craft, but I don’t think we should bother wasting time over this issue,” she said. “‘Craft’ objects deserve as much respect as art objects, depending on the caliber of the work. Instead of focusing on artificial divisions in the world of making, our guild celebrates what we make with our own hands and imaginations. We see great value in the experience of creating a physical and perhaps beautiful object with our hands. To many of us, the process of making a piece is as meaningful as the finished product. The experience of making is important in and of itself.”

“Remembrance,” by Diane English. Machine pieced, hand and machine quilted using cotton and silk fabrics, commercially and hand-dyed. 28 x 30 inches. Photo by: Jon Christopher Meyers

Benjaminson (who does not have any pieces in this show) was pleased to hear about my son’s reaction to the quilts and hangings.

“I’m so glad he was intrigued by what we’re doing with textiles,” she said. “Most people still haven’t seen fiber art and don’t have any points of reference other than quilts. As artists, we are using fiber the same way that painters use paint to convey ideas or to bring forth an emotional reaction from the viewer.”

Benjaminson started quilting in 1996 and has been involved with the guild for about five years. She became president this fall. I asked her to tell me more about the group and how she got involved. Below is the text of an email interview that was carried on over the course of a week, edited for length and clarity:

Tell us a little about how Columbia FiberArts started.

Paula Benjaminson: The Columbia FiberArts Guild (CFG) first met in 1969, when 39 artists from Oregon and Southwest Washington got together and decided to pool their energy and talents to mount exhibitions of their work, bring in expert speakers and workshop leaders, and meet regularly to support each other in their work. We have gone by several names in the past (including the Columbia Stitchery Guild) but we settled on our current name to emphasize the breadth of variety in fiber arts that our members pursue. In our group we have felters, wearable-art makers, art quilters, basket makers, dyers, and embroiderers, among other specialties represented.

When did you get involved?

I joined the guild in 2013, and I’ve been impressed with the caliber of the speakers and workshops CFG has organized for its members. The best part of the guild for me is that I have met so many astonishingly talented artists who have welcomed me into the group and offered advice, help with projects, and warm friendships along the way. Being part of this group of creative and productive makers has been very instrumental in my own development as an artist and as a caring human being.

In terms of the content of HEATWAVE, one thing that struck me was the sheer variety in the pieces. Yes, there’s a lot of orange, the “heat” color, but in terms of what is depicted, even if abstracted, it’s all over the map: There are scenes inspired by nature, cityscapes, people, etc.

That’s typical of our guild and most other groups of artists. By definition, artists are creative, and their imaginations are pretty hard to restrain. Once we get to thinking about a theme or topic, we tend to extrapolate and end up hop-skip-and-jumping our way to an unexpected expression of our take on the original idea, or a profoundly personal experience of the theme, if it affects us deeply. We put intangible ideas and emotions into a tangible form that can reach out to the viewers and help them to examine things they may have felt themselves, but could not articulate, or to help people enter into an experience they have never imagined. We specialize in nonverbal communication, which can take as many forms as there are artists involved. And I think that’s a good thing!

“Baksimba,” by Jo Noble and Pat Fifer. African kintende and damask fabric, commercial fabric, yarn and embroidery thread, couching, curved piercing. 38 x 63 inches. The piece is named after an African dance, and the textiles represent the costumes worn by the women who dance. Photo by: Jo Noble

When you first started working with fiber, were you conscious of being part of an artistic tradition that was changing with the times?

When I first started working with textiles, I made traditional quilts. I was very aware of being part of a long line of women who expressed their creativity and love of color, symmetry, and line, among other art principles, through the medium of quilting. I am still wowed by great traditional quilts, even while I now make mostly art quilts. It’s difficult to divide what we make into those neat groupings, though!

The Guild has a 50th anniversary coming up in 2019. Any special shows or events planned?

We are planning multiple exhibits to commemorate our artistic journey. These are still in the planning stages, but already I’m pretty jazzed up about what we might do! We held a very successful exhibit last year which included three-dimensional work as well as wearable art, and we are hard at work cooking up opportunities for another chance to share our work.

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ANY SHORT LIST OF THE BEST PLAYS I’VE SEEN at Oregon Shakespeare Festival since my wife and I started our annual pilgrimages there in 2002 would include at or very near the top the 2009 production of Bill Cain’s Equivocation. Featuring what those in the theater world call a “dream cast,” the play revolves around William Shakespeare (played then by Anthony Heald and called “Shagspeare” in the play), who is commissioned by the British Crown to write a play about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and finds himself in an ethical vise as the government tries to smother his instinct to tell a truthful story. Well, it turns out that longtime Pentacle Theater actor/director Ed Schoaps has assembled a dream cast of his own to mount a one-night-only reading of this remarkable play at Eola Hills Wine Cellars in Rickreall at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16. It features actors who have appeared at Pentacle, but this is actually a new group called Struts & Frets Theatre Company. Tickets are reportedly going fast.

THE OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL IS DARK UNTIL 2019, so we’ll have to wait until March to see Mother Road by the prolific Southern Oregon playwright Octavio Solis. But you can catch him reading from his new memoir, Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Gallery Theater in McMinnville. Sponsored by the McMinnville Public Library, this is a hot ticket, but it’s a free one.

AS WE CRUISE INTO THE HOLIDAYS, the Willamette Valley still has enticing live theater options. The Verona Studio in Salem last week opened Miss Julie, and in McMinnville, Gallery Theater has a couple more weekends left of It’s a Wonderful Life. Both shows run through Dec. 15, so get your tickets soon.

THE LARGEST PRODUCTION OF THE YEAR BY THE GEORGE FOX UNIVERSITY
music department is Peace on Earth, a Christmas Concert set for Dec. 7-8 on the Newberg campus in Bauman Auditorium. Danielle Warner, assistant professor of music, directs the choral portion of the concert, while Dwayne Corbin, conductor of the Symphonic Band and Symphony Orchestra, directs the instrumental portion. George Fox is a private Christian college, so scripture will be part of the production, and the audience will have opportunities to sing along with some of the pieces. The cost is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and George Fox alumni, and $6 for students and children. Tickets are available for purchase online.

STILL A COUPLE WEEKS OFF AND RIGHT UP AGAINST CHRISTMAS,
the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg will stage its ninth and final concert of 2018 with Eclectic Christmas, at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 and 22. It’s an evening of Christmas tunes in a variety of musical styles from jazz and folk to pop and bluegrass, with Nathanael Ankeny, Nate Macy, Aaron Pruitt, Nolan Staples, Melissa Thomas, and Frank Verhoorn on stage. Tickets are $10 for adults, youth under 18 are free.

“Black Hammer”

ARTS JOURNAL: I usually like my comic book superheros on the big (or small) screen rather than in actual comic books, but I stumbled upon a new title recently that I’m enjoying on the page: Black Hammer, created by Jeff Lemire and artist Dean Ormston and published by Oregon’s own Dark Horse Comics. A bunch of superheros (most vaguely resembling Marvel and DC Comics characters) save the world from a monster, only to be thrown onto an idyllic farm near a small town from which they cannot escape. The visual style wavers between stuff that might have been drawn in the 1970s and the “better” artwork you see today. It’s interesting and even occasionally touching. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. The first two volumes collecting the series, which began in 2016, are available in bookstores and libraries.

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