Woven Sutra


It would be hard to say too much about the poetry Sheila Hicks creates with yarn and thread.

In her hands, fibers speak with essential messages about longing, transformation, wit, fascination. At times they seem to burst open and pour out praise for the beauty in the world.
Looking into one of her hand woven, notebook-sized miniatures, each created on a portable loom made of a wooden canvas-stretcher and some headless nails, is both a philosophical journey, as well as an exploration of the various voyages and traditions which have inspired Hicks. Her fascination with international folk sources dates back to the late 1950s, with graduate study at Yale University and her time as a Fulbright scholar in Latin America. That fascination still resonates today as she continues to weave almost daily – with material choices at dawn turning into structures and metaphors as the day matures. She took time from her work this autumn to answer a few question from HAND/EYE.
H/E: You began your training as an artist at Yale, studying with some legendary Bauhaus-era figures such as painter Josef Albers, and, for a time Anni Albers. Did the Bauhaus perspective shape you?
SH: I began my art training with my grandfather’s sister (an art teacher) in Hastings, Nebraska at 7 years old. Throughout grade school, camp, high school, summer school, and Syracuse and Yale Universities, I studied art and was exposed to many ideas and notions about art. Bauhaus perspective was undoubtedly one of them but many more have come into play.
Both of the Albers were quite interested in pre-Columbian art and architecture — particularly Incan sites and artifacts. How did Modernism of the early 20th-century see and appreciate the aesthetics of another history, another time?
I believe that most artists are interested in all historical material culture. It helps to find your way through the multitudes of options as means of expression.
George Kubler, professor of art history at Yale, introduced me to ancient Andean textiles, ceramics, metalwork, and archeological sites in his lectures. Junius Bird, archaeologist and Andean textile scholar at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and Alan Sawyer, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, allowed me to investigate, photograph and study their holdings of Pre-Incaic weaving in their storage units. This enabled me to appreciate amazing handwork at close range and become sensitive to its powerful presence and brilliant technical wizardry.
In photographs of one of your student exhibits at Yale we see paintings and textile work hanging side by side. What reactions did working simultaneously in these two media provoke?
My painting professors and other faculty and students at Yale perceived my work as merely curious and found it somewhat puzzling. However, I received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Chile that enabled me to travel through the Andes and en route there I saw spinners, weavers, knitters, felt-makers, dyers, and inspiring archeological sites.
You chose to work in fiber rather than paint. Why?
It was never a conscious decision. I draw, photograph, paint, and work with fiber. It all goes together, but slowly the enjoyment of working with natural yarns, spun flax or linen, woven cloth, colored strands of cotton, textured wool, and silk overtook my imagination. Floodgates opened. Scale and volume increased. Concepts and ideas took shape in two and three dimensions.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you never apprenticed with a “Western” fiber artist, but were trained and formed by working “in the field,” in Mexico, South America, India, Morocco, Japan, and Europe. Was this strategy or happenstance? How did it tune your voice to its unique pitch?
These past 50 years when opportunities arose to work in different areas of the world I seized upon them. I may have yearned to go somewhere in particular but usually I just accepted invitations to work wherever the challenge seemed interesting and I thought I could be useful.
Observers of textile-based arts place you squarely at the forefront of the Western textile continuum, yet many of the technical and visual influences you bring into this continuum are non-Western, such as references to the wrapped-warp elements of Incan work, or the artful wabi sabi mending of Japanese sashiko. Are we seeing the formation of one global continuum?
As a child my mother parked me in public libraries and museums while she did her errands. The discovery of other voices, distant lands, varied costumes, mental pictures, and artifacts of infinite variety and beauty must have eased me into global awareness.
Today we are globally and cosmically interwoven.
What invigorates you as an artist?
My work is based on emotional responses to visual impressions or to the need to express an idea – to give it form. Color, texture, concept, scale, and structure are inextricably linked. When artists achieve this in their work I think they develop personal and original voices – sometimes with perfect pitch. Oddities (sometimes perceived as mistakes) fascinate me. Deviations from the norm, and reparations, inevitably catch my attention and provoke admiration for the ingenuity of the artist-artisan. I worship intelligent hands.
Poetry keeps me calmly sane.
What should textile lovers be looking at right now? Are there any traditions you see evolving in an interesting direction? Or individual textile artists whose work is challenging?
Fabricators of subtle humor and respectful recorders of joy and calamity, or a combination of both, are an essential component of our culture. Traditions and time have a way of squelching vulgarity and excess. They fade away. As textile culture evolves, so do we. One stitch a day, one buttonhole, one perfect knot….
What’s next on your agenda?
To stay tuned in. To finish my book. To make a meaningful exhibition.
For more information about Sheila Hicks, see www.sheilahicks.com. Also, run to your nearest library and absorb Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor (ISBN 9780300116854), which was published in 2006 to accompany her exhibit the Bard Center for Graduate Studies in Decorative Arts. Currently out of print, copies are sometimes available from booksellers on amazon.com.