23 March 2019

John Singer Sargent paints textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Edward Darley Boit, 1887.

The polka-dot-clad lady above is Mary Louisa Cushing Boit, Boston matron and mother of the four girls in the well-known Sargent painting, the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Mary Louisa's portrait is part of Exhibition Lab: Sargent and Fashion, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, on view from November 10, 2018 until June 23, 2019.  As explained in a video dialog between curators Pamela Parmal and Erica Hirshler, this exhibit is really a preview of what will be a larger show, to open in 2022, of Sargent works, with a focus on his representation of apparel.  Patron feedback is solicited via iPad as well as paper and pencil in this gallery. So, visit and weigh in!

It can be dangerous to consider painters as textile historians. In the portrait of Mrs. Boit, first image above, Mrs. Boit is dressed in an assortment of fabrics, including tulle, velvet and satin. Most eye-catching, however, is the black polka-dot fabric with the pink ground. According to the wall text, while polka-dots were fashionable at the time, the pattern was found more commonly in juvenile apparel, and it does seem at odds with the sober black of her overall costume.  Was this outfit part of her usual wardrobe or something assembled at the behest of Sargent, responding to what author Henry James called the "eternally juvenile" facet of her personality?

Gallery overview.

Hung on the wall nearby were actual samples of taffeta, satin and velvet fabrics, all black, welcoming patrons to touch and examine. The fabric "petting zoo" is a great idea but the dark color made it a bit more difficult to see the weave structure.

Two portraits, two dresses.

The image above reveals additional examples of Sargent's approach to textiles in his society portraits. On the wall to the left is a reproduction of Portrait of Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., nee Jane Norton Grew (1868-1925).  The gown she wore for the portrait, designed by French couturier Jean-Phillipe Worth and owned by the MFA, is displayed in the foreground. Although it's difficult to tell in my image, Sargent only hints at the woven pattern of the dress He also seems to reduce the reflective nature of the fabric; in the portrait the surface is depicted as almost matte, with few highlights to distract from her face, bosom and arm.  This is a distinct departure from earlier attitudes towards shiny fabrics, which gave painters a chance to show off their skill in depicting reflectivity.  Almost more important than the dress is the feathery (furry?) white stole, which practically buries her right hand, barely modelled, and holding a fan.  Jane Morgan almost looks enveloped in a protective cloud.

To the right above is  Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy), painted in 1887.  The lush red silk velvet dress on display, copied from a Worth gown by the Boston company of Auringer and Lewis, may be the same dress. I gather the documentation is uncertain.  Whether or not the dress retains it original neckline, in the painting Sargent lowered the neckline as much as he dared in this portrait of a wealthy physician's wife, who was pregnant at the time with her third child. The right strap (from the viewing perspective) of the dress has been minimized, exposing more skin and emphasizing the bow, and the left bow seems to have disappeared altogether, emphasizing the elegant curve of the arm.

Sargent clearly "tailors" his sitter's apparel to suit his technique and goals. I look forward to learning more in the finished exhibit in 2022.

An aside: a brief Google search for "Auringer and Lewis" yielded nothing; perhaps an enterprising fashionista will write a history of couture in Boston.

26 February 2019

One beautiful work of art - shibori by Amelia Poole

Earlier this winter we viewed an exhibit of new acquisition at the Fuller Craft Museum, in Brockton, Massachusetts.  The recent purchases included the textile below, entitled Expand, and created by Amelia Poole.  The work is 36" square.
Expand, Amelia Poole, 2016-2017.
According to the wall text:
Expand is a beautifully rendered example of Amelia Poole's indigo shibori textile work, a labor-intensive technique that can take well over 100 hours for the completion of each piece.  Shibori is a collective Japanese term for methods of shaping cloth and dyeing it in the creation of textiles.  The shibori process creates resist patterns where the dye does not penetrate all parts of the material.  Rather than treating cloth as a two-dimensional surface, with shibori it is given a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, binding, and/or twisting....Amelia Poole works from her shop and open studio, Ecouture Textiles in Brooksville, Maine.
This particular pattern is called karamatsu, or larch tree. Perhaps some long-ago Japanese textile artist thought the finely articulated radiating pattern remniscent of the needles of a conifer, viewed from above.

Expand, detail.

21 February 2019

More Tammis Keefe

Woof, yellow colorway.

The Westminster Kennel Club show, America's most prestigious dog show, was held earlier this month in New York City.  Dogs of all shapes, size and colors competed for glory, although none of the dogs were as colorful as the pooches in Tammis Keefe's dog hankie above. This silk-screened accessory, designed by someone with obvious affection for canines, emphasizes the textures of furry coats - silky and long, curly and styled, short and smooth. Note the tiny white chew bones in the background.  Keefe's work is a wonderful exemplar of the long-standing tradition of dog-themed artwork.

After a long hiatus, my husband and I have added new items to our tribute website featuring the work of designer Tammis Keefe (1913 - 1960). Some of the new additions are highlighted in this blog post. 


Cats made the scene at the dog show too, in a "Meet the Breeds" event.  In the image above, three dogs (poodles?) will test their senses of smell to find the kitties in the center. The yarn threading its way through the twists and turns may be a nod to Ariadne, a legendary Cretan princess.  She gave mythological hero Theseus a string to mark his path through the labyrinth as he sought to find and kill the fearsome Minotaur. I really think Ariadne, not Theseus, was the clever one in that story.

Giraffes, pink colorway.

From domestic animals to beasts from faraway lands - purple giraffes run through a thicket of pink bamboo, above. Turns out bamboo is native to parts of Africa, although not necessarily in giraffe habitat; we'll allow Keefe some poetic license.

Most of the hankies here and on the website are roughly 14" x 14" and were silk-screened on fine linen. The printed rolls of fabric appear to have then been sent to the Philippines where the individual hankies were cut from the roll and hand-hemmed. The finished textiles were then sent back to New York for distribution to department stores such as Lord & Taylor.

Some of the hankies are approximately 9" x 9" square; perhaps these were pocket squares, which were just ornamental - not to be used anywhere near one's nose.  On our website I call a small square like the one below a mouchoir, which just means handkerchief in French.  I just like the sound of the word.

In French, a pocket square is a pochette or a mouchoir de poche.  Children's hankies were often smaller, too, but they usually featured some kind of child-friendly imagery.

Moth mouchoir, green colorway.

By the time Keefe died, in 1960, I suspect that all, if not most, printed cloth handkerchiefs were for show, rather than blow, as the saying goes, as Kleenex and other brands of disposable paper facial tissue were well-established.

Moths also make an appearance in the hankies below, along with dragonflies and some of my personal favorites, ferns. Perhaps Keefe, who lived in New York City for most of her textile career, encountered these insects and plants in her summer home, in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Fronds, brown colorway.

Hayscented, tan colorway.

Autumn, pink colorway.

Did Keefe do much gardening in Connecticut? It appears she had the tools. This hankie still has the "Kreated by Kimball" gold sticker.  Kimball Company contracted designs from Keefe and other artists and produced hankies and scarves. There's also a remnant of a price sticker on Autumn; Keefe's hankies did sell for a premium.

Floating Flowers.

From Connecticut to Asia -  I've categorized this hankie under Japan in my website as the flowers could be stylized chrysanthemums, a flower associated with the Japanese Imperial family. 

Shrine, green colorway.

Finally, this hankie in cheery purple, green and gold.  I situate this hankie in Southeast Asia; Keefe traveled quite a bit but I don't know if she visited any countries in this area.

How did I come up with the names? I labelled the hankies and other items throughout the website for ease of discussion and navigation.  Kimball advertised Keefe's hankies in publications like The New Yorker, and in these ads the copywriters sometimes gave names to the designs, but we don't know if these came from Keefe herself.  Mostly, I've named the designs for their imagery or theme. It's been a labor of love.

30 January 2019

Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time

El Anatsui, Many Come Back, detail.

In January a friend and I explored an exhibit at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts but a world away in history and mission.  When Mrs. Gardner's only child died at age three, in 1865, this independently wealthy woman was understandably devastated; travel, she was told, would help. So travel she did, buying her way through Europe. Not content with the usual Grand Tour-style objects, Mrs. Gardner acquired bits of antique buildings and collaged them into a building she called the palace. 

Her acquisitions included tapestries and other luxury textiles and the exhibit Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time, on view from October 4, 2018 through January 13, 2019, responds to textiles in the collection. Using headphones, museum-goers listened to true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries, created by David Lang and Sibyl Kempson, in the tapestry room, hung with 16th-century Flemish textile masterworks illustrating the life of Queen Tomyris, valiant warrior queen who defeated Persian King Cyrus.  I can't connect you to the music but you may see the tapestries here, and learn more about how tapestries were made here.

The focus of this post, however, is the seven works in the Hostetter Gallery, part of the new wing of the museum.  The work with perhaps the most literal connection to anything in the Gardner's Tapestry Room is the large 21st-century textile, below, created by Elaine Reichek and based on a painting by Titian.

Elaine Reichek, Paint me a Cavernous Waste Shore, 2009-10.

The textile is captioned by an excerpt from T. S. Eliot's 1919 poem, Sweeney Erect:

Paint me the bold anfractuous rock
Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,
Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.
Display me Aeolus above
Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne's hair
And swell with haste the perjured sails.

Ariadne, of course, gave Theseus a spool of red thread with which to mark his path through the labyrinth of the Minotaur, sort of like Hansel and Gretel with the bread crumbs.  Theseus did slay the Minotaur and used the thread to find his back out of the maze, aided, not by sword or spear, but by a woman's cleverness and an item from her workbasket. And was Theseus grateful? - Nah, he abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and sailed away without a backward glance. However,  Bacchus finds her and falls in love with her.

By translating Titian's painting into fiber, Reichek reinforces the thread of the story (pun intended). I've encountered Ms. Reichek's work before, at the Drawing Center in Manhattan. In a way, her work recalls a time when monumental tapestries were more valuable than paintings, and great deeds were celebrated with needle and thread - see the Bayeux Tapestry, for example, which is not actually a woven tapestry but an embroidery.

Paint me a Cavernous Waste Shore, detail.

Another modern tapestry on display was designed by South African artist William Kentridge, as part of his Porter Series.  In the image below, a figure carrying a bed  moves in front of a backdrop of a map from an old atlas.  The rough silhouette of the figure, designed using torn paper, is a muddy brown, with indecipherable markings, mainly in coral and white, placed near the location of anatomical joints - ankles, knees, etc. - but also on the bed.

At any rate the tapestry itself, made in the South African studio of Marguerite Stephens, is a tour-de-force of weaving and embroidery, exhibiting the fine detail work achievable in warp and woof.

William Kentridge, Porter Series: Russie d'Europe (Man with Bed on Back), 2007

Man with Bed on Back, detail.

Modern ideas and traditional techniques also merge in the hand-woven wool carpet, below, designed by the New Delhi -based Raqs (pronounced rux) Media Collective and woven by Rodopski Kilim, a studio in Asenovgrad, Bulgaria.

Now, when I first looked at this artwork, before reading the wall text, I thought I was looking at rug, made with a knotting technique originated in ancient Persia, with imagery reflecting the conflict in the modern Middle East.  There is a precedent - Afghan rug weavers incorporated armaments and weaponry into their work during the conflict with Russia; these textiles are called "war rugs".
In the wool pile, I saw fighter jets - the black lines - and their contrails (aircraft exhaust) - the white lines. The blue stripes represented sky, and of course red is the color of conflict (blood). Well, was I ever wrong.

Raqs Media Collective, The Great Bare Mat, 2012.

According to the wall text, this rug responds to two small items in the Gardner: ancient Chinese bronze mat-weights, in the shape of bears. Evidently these weights anchored rugs on which scholars would sit, argue or play board games.  The black lines and dots in the rug are supposed to represent the constellations of the Big Bear and the Little Bear, and the white lines reflect digital conversation pathways.

Chinese mat weights, Western Han dynasty, circa 200 BCE to 9th cen. AD.

The Great Bare mat, detail.

Speaking of "war rugs," Nevet Yitzhak's video installation, WarCraft, unambiguously references and conflates two traditions - the entrenched conflicts in the Middle East, and the entrenched tradition of rug-making.  Ms. Yitzhak's digitally "woven" rugs, projected in a gallery and accompanied by a battleground soundtrack, surround the viewer visually and aurally, and it's like walking into a video game.  Animated helicopters move across the screen in an endless loop.

Nevet Yitzhak, WarCraft, 2014.

WarCraft, detail. Blurred image is animated helicopter.

It was something of a relief to view a project about repairing the world, one mending stitch at a time.  Viewers were invited to bring a textile in need of mending to Lee Mingwei's installation, The Mending Project. Uncut threads trace arcs from the mended items, displayed on a table,  to wall-mounted spools of thread, forming a web of connection. The artist's statement is wonderfully clear and concise:
The gesture of mending for me has different levels of meaning.  The most obvious is that a piece of clothing is broken and needs repair.  It could also be in (a) completely different conversation about how the world is today.  There are so many things that are broken in the world now, with politics, the climate, relationships between people, between countries.
Can we do something about it?  I know I am just an artist and all I can do at this moment is something close to me.
So let me start with our second skin: the clothes that we are wearing.
-Lee Mingwei
Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009 - present.

Table of mended items, The Mending Project, detail.

Owners can retrieve mended items at the close of the exhibit.

While the mending project conveys its message in an accessible and immediate, if somewhat literal way, concepts of reuse and recycling are not so immediately obvious in the work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist now living and working in Nigeria. At first glance, the shimmery Many Came Back (below and at the top of this post) appears to be made of precious materials. However, it is in fact created from flattened aluminum liquor bottle tops which are linked, like chain mail, by wire loops.  Although not made of traditional tapestry materials-  wool, linen and silk - this work nevertheless drapes like a textile.

Finally, a communally created work, Standard Incomparable, organized by Helen Mirra.  Here's another work perhaps too dependent on wall text for explanation. Without the text, the viewer might think these were a single artist's variations on a theme, or a series of studio explorations. In actuality, each weaving was produced by an individual artist at the invitation of Ms. Mirra.

In 2015, Helen Mirra invited people of all ages and experience levels to weave with the following parameters: to use undyed wool from the weaver's locale to make a weaving the length of the weaver's arm, with seven stripes the width of the weaver's hand.  Each participant made two pieces for this collection, the other to be exchanged as a gift with another participant.  Standard Incomparable includes weavings from sixteen countries, made by people born between the years 1946 and 2009.

Helen Mirra, organizer, Standard Incomparable (partial), 2016-17.

Stripes, of course, are one of the most basic variations on plain weaving - the artist simply introduces another weft (horizontal thread) color.  Contrast is provided by color, although some of the weavings feature contrasting texture also.

Standard Incomparable, detail.

Stripes are now well-established in fine art, fashion and interior design, but are not without a checkered history (another pun, I know, I know...) as recorded in The Devil's Cloth, A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, by scholar Michel Pastoureau. You may remember the character of Robert Langdon, the "symbologist" in The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown? Well, Pastoureau is the real deal - an expert in the language, lore and history of heraldry and sigilla, those devices which announce status, lineage, and allegiance. According to Pastoureau, in the middle ages stripes were embued with negative qualities and associated with criminality and betrayal; the pre-modern mind preferred cloth either plain or with a clear figure-ground relationship.

Today, stripes are not as symbolically loaded although, before orange was the new black, prison uniforms often featured stripes, the anti-camouflage. This visual trope is still popular in cinema: for example,  an image below, from the delightful family film Paddington 2.


While I understand that credit goes to Ms. Mirra for the creative impetus behind this project, I still would have liked to know more about each individual piece, with maker, material and location details.  But perhaps such knowledge would undercut the emphasis on the communal, as opposed to individual, effort and impact.

These beautiful objects, made of humble materials and unified through pattern, gain status not due to any intrinsic value of the materials - no silver or gold - or historic provenance but in communion with their neighbors, as part of a woven confederacy.  This measured, structured process of collection building contrasts nicely with Mrs. Gardner's eclectic approach to the acquisition of precious objects and the sometimes inexplicable juxtapositions of those objects.  In some ways, the entire Gardner museum is a folly, an edifice and collection looking for a purpose beyond documenting the whims and idiosyncracies of one wealthy woman during the Gilded Age.

It is worth noting that although the Gardner was open to the public beginning in 1903, early access was very limited: two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall, with an admission price of $1, a large sum for the time. The new wing, although questioned by some critics, allows the museum to serve as a truly public space.

Standard Incomparable (partial) details of weavings.

28 January 2019

Wayland Fiber Market

Skeins from A Hundred Ravens.

On Sunday, January 27, DH and I motored to Russell's Garden Center in Wayland, a suburb of Boston, to the Farm Fiber Day.  This popular event drew over forty vendors not only from Massachusetts, but from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and upstate New York, too.

We were able to get up close (not too close) and personal with three very calm sheep from Prado de Lana farm in New Hampshire. The sheepherders, Alberto and Amanda, specialize in Lincoln and Romney sheep and sell natural-colored yarn only - no dyes here.  There is considerable variation in coloration between sheep, so the choices are still quite varied, and all are quite beautiful.  In a nice touch, each skein is labelled with the name of the sheep who grew it.  In the image below, one sheep wears a coat, not for warmth - the fleece is plenty warm - but to keep the fleece clean.

A trio of sheep from Prado de Lana farm.

Wool, and humor, from Prado de Lana.

Gorgeous, well-made blankets in timeless neutral tones of natural wool.

A palette of natural fleece colors is also utilized for the blankets and other items, in the image above, offered by the Baaay State Blanket program. (Massachusetts is known as the Bay State, for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the 17th-century settlement of colonists from England.)

This enterprise, initiated in 2007 by the livestock program at the University of Massachusetts at Hadley, uses wool solely from Massachusetts-raised sheep. The fiber for these blankets leads a peripatetic life - the shorn fleeces are scoured (cleaned) in Minnesota, then sent back to Massachusetts to be spun and woven.  Finished with a blanket-stitch edging, the blankets come in a variety of sizes, are just the right weight, soft, and very well-priced. Order one here: http://www.baaaystateblanket.com/index.html 
although the images on the website don't do justice to these attractive bed coverings.

While I love these built-in colors of wool, as it were, there were also plenty of vendors supplying the entire rainbow of yarn colors, including both natural and synthetic dyes.

Deep color from natural dyes used by Tidal Yarns.

Two young women almost buried in color from Romney Ridge Yarns.

Basket of skeins from Foxhill Farm, located in Lee, Massachusetts (no website.)

But there are plenty of things to do with wool in addition to knitting and crocheting.  Weavers, spinners, and felters, their activities and supplies, were in abundance, including the hand-spinner demonstrating her craft, below. Love her socks! Alas, I didn't get her name.  Subito Farm offered felted items, too, as well as their two-color project hanks. Each kit had a completed sample on display - I find the samples really helpful and wish more vendors would provide samples and swatches to see before I buy.

Spinning demonstration.

Felted pillows.

Lots of two-color kits, and samples, from Subito Farm.

Woven throws from Englishman Bay Trading Company.

The event was well-attended.

The market was very well-attended and, in addition to all the fiber, there were lunch options too - I enjoyed a tarragon sausage roll, while DH dined on coq au vin in a cardboard cup. Delicious! Other vendors sold wine, jams and mustards, and bags of heirloom dried beans. It's soup season here in New England, after all, and we need something in addition to wool to keep us warm.

Beans from Lover's Brook Farm, Maine.

Audrey Lin promoting Matting Change.

There's no limit to the creativity of knitter and crocheters, who also tend to be generous, caring people. Audrey Lin is one such person and this high school senior has found a way to upcycle plastic bags into something useful, using just a crochet hook and social media.  Her initiative, https://www.facebook.com/mattingchange/
organizes folks with needle arts skills to make sleeping mats from single-use plastic bags.  The mats are distributed to people who are experiencing homelessness, as a sort of ground sheet. Go Audrey!

Finally,  in addition to admiring the visiting  sheep, we also had the chance to gently stroke this very fluffy bunny, an angora rabbit, who, believe it or not, is not yet fully grown. He looks a little worried in this image, but in person actually seemed to quite enjoy all the attention.

Giant angora rabbit - incredibly soft - from Evergreen Farm.

There is one more fiber market at this venue, on March 3, 2019, from 10:00 to 3:30.

05 December 2018

Quilted Fabric Collages by Susan Carlson

Pumpkin Moon, 2001.

The New England Quilt Museum mounted a show of Maine artist Susan Carlson's work, on view from September 26, 2018 through December 30, 2018.  Ms. Carlson has perfected her technique of raw-edge applique, gluing and stitching snips and snibbles of printed cloth onto a fabric base, sometimes adding overlays of sheer or net fabrics, and securing everything with free-hand quilting.

Early portrait work from the 1990's.

The show is something of a retrospective too, with some of Ms. Carlson's early work, see above. This early work features a subdued, naturalistic palette with accents of red and blue. At some point Ms. Carlson adopted the almost psychedelic color schemes of her current work. It would have been interesting to know more about the impetus for this major transition, as I'm always curious about an artist's approach to color.

The portrait below, of the artist's son Sam at age 3, mixes realistic and non-realistic colors for the flesh tones and hair, controlling for value (light/dark contrast) to create shadows and highlights.

Samuelsaurus Rex, 2001.

Samuelsaurus Rex, detail.

Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales, 2012.

When Sam was thirteen, Ms. Carlson created another portrait of him, influenced by the multiple image formats of Andy Warhol, and displaying the full-blown "Grateful Dead" palette.  Any similarity to the late John Lennon is intentional, as Sam is also a Beatles fan.

Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales, detail.

Ms. Carlson's animal quilts have been widely exhibited, including the award-winning quilt below, which imagines her pet dog's fantasies about life in the outback. See this quilt, which features commercial fabric designs based on aboriginal art, in progress.

Dixie Dingo Dreaming, 2011.

Another quilt with a link to Australia is the enormous work below, celebrating the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus), native to Australia and the world's largest reptile. The animal is fancifully re-named and shown life-size, but in technicolor, in the expansive quilt below, too big even to photograph inside the exhibit space.  The exhibit featured a laptop with video of Ms. Carlson working on this quilt in her studio; in time-lapse style she layers fabric shapes over a black-and-white outline drawing on cloth.

Crocodylus Smylus, 2015.

Detail of teeth, Crocodylus Smylus.

Another fantastically colored animal, below, is derived from an etching by Albrecht Durer. Durer had never seen a rhinoceros but constructed his image based on textual descriptions.   Durer attempted a "realistic" imaging of the animal but did not have the resources to provide an accurate representation.  The rhinoceros, an exotic beast to begin with, becomes even more fanciful, in some way "improved" over reality.  Ms. Carlson builds on this tradition of artistic license by going even further, using a throbbing pink and orange palette to emphasize that this is no real rhinoceros, but a celebration of the artist's imagination.

Ms. Carlson used a fair amount of tulle as an overlay in this work; the tulle masks the underlying fabrics a bit, resulting in a sort of blending and blurring of the individual appliqued pieces.

Tickled Pink, 2005.

Detail showing overlay of tulle netting.

Tulle and other sheer fabrics are also applied to the surface of the work below, an image of a butterfly (although to me, it looks more like a moth). I particularly like the binding treatment of this quilt, which is made of irregular squares of fabric folded over the edge in overlapping layers.

Exuberance, 2003.

Binding edge detail.

Exuberance, detail.

For those wishing to have a go at this type of quilt-making, Ms. Carlson' book, Serendipity Quilts, has patterns and instructions for several small projects. There is also a lot of information on her website (see above link).  As I finish this blog post, it's almost dark here in New England, where the winter sun sets soon after 4 pm. So, appropriately, the last image captures daylight ceding to dusk.

Twilight, 1994.

Twilight, detail.