Sheila Hicks: The Art of the Yarn
"Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor" was a gallant attempt to translate in pulp what the artist was expressing in fiber. It won a gold medal at the 2007 Leipzig Book Fair as the “Most Beautiful Book in the World.” It was ironic. A paper product, albeit a handsome one, made of mashed-up fibers, was being hailed for mimicking the look, texture and feel of real living fibers!
At the time, I questioned whether the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom, who had crafted the award-winning volume, had in fact served the subject matter she was supposed to celebrate. It was an example of a pedestal attracting more attention than the thing it supported.
At long last, a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia—Sheila Hicks: 50 years, presenting some of the artist’s largest and most ambitious commissions—amends the impression left by Boom’s beautifully designed monograph.
Visitors to the show are confronted with serpentine and voluptuous creations that challenge the idea that fiber is a tame and domesticated medium, or that weaving is a metaphor for controlling nature. For Hicks, this grande dame of textile art, weaving is not a symbolic activity but an opportunity to experience a concrete, tangible, palpable reality—an opportunity to affirm the recalcitrant beauty of the physical world in which we live.
“Let’s have a little talk before you turn on your tape recorder,” Hicks says, when I first meet her in her Paris apartment in preparation for this article. Within minutes I realize that this is not going to be a straight-forward Q&A: the Hicks approach is everything but linear. She treats the threads she weaves the way a novelist treats the various plots of a story line: she is attentive to their every twist and turn.
In fact, her real talent is that of a raconteur. She transforms yarns into complex narratives, their woven texture sometimes as intricate as epic tales. Sitting in front of the loom for decades, she has learned to intertwine various strands of material into mesmerizing visual conversations, acquiring in the process a skill that has become a way of life.
“When you try to understand the behavior of things and get in touch with it,” she says, “the material reveals its essence to you. Once you’ve discover what it is, you can ‘fool’ it. It collaborates with you—and you both win.”
Hicks looks like central casting’s idea of a benevolent mid-western grandma. But this Nebraska-born septuagenarian, who moved to Paris in the mid-sixties and commutes regularly between France and the United States, is a fearless artist with a wicked taste for repartee.
For women of her generation, a sense of humor came in handy to dismiss condescending remarks about their art being “feminine.” Friendly and exceedingly generous (qualities the French associate with being “American”), Hicks is also someone you don’t want to tangle with. When she says “turn off your tape recorder,” you know that you’re in it for more than what you’ve bargained for.
No Iddle Hands
The interview quickly becomes a private master class. As we begin to chat, she casually grabs a small primitive loom, as handy as a laptop, and proceeds to weave an assortment of silky threads, narrow hat bands and antique leather shoe strings into one of her “minimes”, as she calls her diminutive fiber tableaux. She encourages me to touch, knot, link, and play with a basket full of colorful rubber bands.
She gets me to unravel the end of a herringbone ribbon. She explains how she knitted a blanket with two broomsticks instead of needles. For the next three hours, her fingers never idle, she distractedly shares random anecdotes about her travels, the famous architects with whom she worked, her favorite museums, the joys of raising her kids in Paris—a medley of remarks and comments, as if to demonstrate how to braid together factual information, bits of art history, and blithe moments of unexpected camaraderie.
Jenelle Porter, one of the organizers of the ICA show, tells how Hicks was able to create this same sense of camaraderie with strangers during a lecture she delivered in front of 300 people in the museum auditorium: “She got audience members to get up on the stage and build an impromptu textile sculpture right there, under her supervision, while she kept talking and showing slides of her work. She had volunteers unpack a container full of nurse’s uniforms that she had dyed in bright colors in her Paris washing machine, and stack them on top of each other. It was magical. The result was beautiful. Then she got the same volunteers to fold them up and put them back in the crate.”
Hicks would rather show than tell.
“She doesn’t want to add theory to her work,” says Massimo Vignelli, who commissioned her in 2008 to create large fiber pieces for the SD26 restaurant in Manhattan. “She is best when she can adapt her work to whatever happens in the moment—when she can have a dialogue between concept and circumstances.”
Known for improvising wherever she is, with whatever material happens to be handy (her nurses uniforms came from a previous installation and happened to be temporarily stored at ICA), Hicks can turn the most humble things, scraps of paper, twigs, strings, ribbons, wires or tapes into mesmerizing fragments of tapestry. But what about the large pieces she creates for major institutions?
How does she change scale in order to construct monumental bas-reliefs and sculptures that are both soft and sturdy? “One thing is sure,” she quips when I ask, “a fiber artist had better know the difference between ample and heavy—between graceful and hefty.”
The first large commission came in 1964 from Alfred H. Barr Jr., the legendary first director of MoMA, who, upon seeing her “potholders,” as she herself describes her small weavings, asked her to “make a large one.” She went home (to Mexico where she lived with her first husband Henrik Tati Schlubach, a beekeeper), turned over the dining room table, used its legs to improvise a loom, and made her largest tapestry to date.
Barr, who at the time was purchasing large Abstract Expressionist paintings for the museum, was disappointed. He wanted something significantly bigger.
The quest for size—wall-size—has been a driving force in her career.
She experimented with a number of strategies, from embroidery to knotting, tufting, stitching, or quilting, with various degrees of success, until she came upon the obvious tactic: the modular approach. It had the advantage of allowing her to produce small pieces that could be easily stitched together and, more importantly, shipped to distant locations in smaller crates.
She has now perfected her art to the point that technique is no longer an issue. “Weavings are as permanent a material as wood or bricks or metal,” she says. “Their only enemy is glue—sometimes used to hold the fibers in place—and direct sunlight.” Her first “modular” textile bas-relief, for the Ford Foundation in New York, installed in 1966, is still in great shape and, as part of the rest of the building, was recently landmarked.
In her early twenties, on a Fulbright grant, Hicks had traveled to South America for a year, working with local weavers and studying their techniques. She had met people up and down the continent, in Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, all the way down to Chili, and back up again when she went through Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
Some of the artists and architects she had befriended during that trip gave her names of people in Paris, where she went afterward on a Fribourg Scholarship and lived as a starving artist among South American expatriates.
During a brief interlude, she settled in Mexico where she gave birth to her daughter Itaka. This nomadic existence, and the encounters it provided, were as formative as her sedentary years at Yale, where, in 1959, she had earned a Master of Fine Arts under the supervision of such legendary figure as Josef Albers, the Bauhaus painter and color theorist.
It is during this period—the mid sixties—that she got her first institutional commissions, thank to architect Warren Platner, who arranged for her to work with the office of Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche.
In 1965, she manufactured the first of a series of “prayer rugs” for the lobby of the CBS building on Sixth Avenue (it was eventually acquired by MoMA). The following year she created two majestic linen bas-reliefs for the Ford Foundation.
In 1967, she produced a large mural for the Rochester Institute. She delivered three environmental fiber sculptures in 1968 for the Georg Jensen Center for Advanced Design in New York. By then she had moved permanently to France, remarried, and had a son with her new husband Enrique Zañartu.
As more architects and interior designers were discovering her, she had to get organized, hire help, deal with the French administrative procedures—all while raising her family. Most of her production originated from her Paris studio, a former upholstery shop on quai des Grands-Augustins, where she began to train and employ associates, some of them still with her today.
A Legerdemain Technique
Her intensely collaborative style made this evolution possible and allowed her to be as productive as she was. Hicks seems uniquely able to arouse the curiosity of others and harness their talent in the process. But she remains secretive when it comes to explaining it all—a trait she might have acquired in France, where secrets of fabrication are guarded along with the family jewels.
“I hope you don’t mind me not answering you directly,” she says, after repeatedly evading my questions about her methods of construction. ”But it’s how I like to proceed. I believe it’s important to elevate one’s work, not demystify it. I treat my clients, collaborators and employees the same way, as my partners-in-crime.”
As early as 1964, to supplement her income and have the necessary funds to run her studio, she acted as consultant with a number of firms, Knoll among them. She also struck a deal with a textile mill in Wupperpal, Germany, where she conducted experiments with an electric “gun” to manufacture shaggy carpets and wall coverings as wooly as sheep’s coats.
She soon rejected this technique as not authentic enough, even though the result looked convincingly handmade. The fact that the strands of wool had to be maintained in place with latex seemed unethical to her.
More gratifying was her relationship with The Commonwealth Trust, a huge cotton mill in Calicut, India, where she helped develop contemporary-looking, high-end textiles that were woven on traditional looms by weavers still loyal to their ancestral methods.
Each country where she was invited as a consultant provided a new set of challenges. In Morocco, she worked in carpet workshops on upright looms, a technique that allowed her to build up extravagant cascades of pile that she would then trim with scissors to create layered patterns.
Over the next decades, she became known in architectural circles as someone who could walk into any situation, evaluate the potential of local artisans and resources, factor in the demands of the market, take into account the sensibility of the various players, and propose design solutions that were not only adapted but also innovative.
She handled it all, whether it was a community of craftsmen in Chili or an installation in a theater in Fuji City, Japan; a bank in Mexico City or an insurance company in Milwaukee; the IBM headquarters in Paris or the university campus project for King Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There were disasters as well, she recalls, like the time she tried to hang a soft sculpture in the interior atrium of a Hyatt hotel, and it just looked wrong.
“What counts is your level of engagement, not your level of accomplishment,” she says.
Hicks never signs her work, assuming that it belongs to those who helped her create it, as well as those who live with it or care for it. Her installations have a life of their own, as the places were they hang change hands, new owners sell the work, give it to museums, or move it to a different location.
The ICA show has such a piece, May I Have This Dance, a commission created in 2002 for the Minneapolis headquarters of Target Corporation. Shaped like a colossal knot, bundles of wool-wrapped tubes had required a cherry picker for installation. Removed in 2010, the massive sculpture was reconfigured in the ICA galleries, this time as a 20-foot high swarm of exotic pythons.
“Unpacking and handling the slithering pieces, because of their size, weight and shape, required people move in a certain way. It was like watching a modern ballet,” says Jill Katz, the museum’s director of communication. “Sheila was overlooking everything, and you could feel that both the fibers and the people were responding to her almost effortlessly.”
1/12- An early bas-relief fiberwork, "Linen Lean-to", 1967-68
2/12- By Irma Boom, "Sheila Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor", shows Hicks's small pieces, 2007
3/12- Recently published, "Sheila Hicks, 50 years" is an important retrospective, 2010
4/12- For the now legendary American artist, weaving has always been a way of life.
5/12- In her Paris courtyard, Hicks photographed by her son Cristobal Zanartu, 2010
6/12- One of the major fiber pieces displayed a the Hicks "50 years" retrospective, 2011
7/12- View of the exhibition at the Philadelphia Institute of Comtemporary Art show, 2011
8/12- "Soft Stones" are fiber forms that Hicks sometimes calls "Family Secrets"
9/12- An installation in Paris, Passage de Retz, 2007
10/12- For Hicks, all fibers are a source of inspiration, including rubber bands, 2011
11/12- Sheila Hicks website shows works large and small, spanning five decades
12/12- Informal portrait of Hicks, 2011