High Fiber Diet

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.”

Continues…