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  1. Visual Arts

Florida CraftArt's contemporary fiber exhibit crosses into fine art territory

Star Wars fans will delight in Andrew Fitzpatrick’s mammoth quilt, Darth Maul in Fabric, whose intent stare gives the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
Published May 30, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG

If the term "fiber art" evokes images of 1970s traditional weaving, crocheting, macrame and afghans, then it's time to visit Florida Craft Art's "Contemporary Fiber in Florida" exhibit.

Fiber art did have a heyday in the 1960s and '70s. It was historically considered women's art and was a part of the feminist movement. But since the 1980s, the genre has been moving from traditional to contemporary by becoming more conceptual. "Contemporary Fiber in Florida" showcases Florida artists who are continuing to move the genre forward.

Full disclosure: I was the gallery manager at Florida CraftArt for six years. During that time, I learned so much about fine craft, and it completely changed my perspective on how to consider art.

Fine craft often gets treated like the second cousin to fine art, which in many cases is unfair. I feel the distinction lies in execution and in concept. To me, art should be thought-provoking. Fiber art often straddles the line between fine craft and fine art because its many forms are conducive to telling a story or expressing a concept.

"Contemporary Fiber in Florida" is full of examples that blur the lines between fine art and fine craft. Curator Cindy Bartosek sought artists who push the boundaries of fiber art, either through updating or innovating traditional practices and materials or by incorporating other disciplines into fiber. The exhibition includes works in weaving, basketry, felting, surface design, art quilts and art to wear.

Two pieces by Sarah Knouse are the physical embodiment of the exhibition's intention. Cerement and Gossamer Daphne are transparent sculptures of human figures that appear to be floating, shrouded in black crocheted doilies and threads that cascade down to the ground. In both pieces, Knouse lifecasted herself to provide the human element. The floating effect was achieved by a resin mixture Knouse invented to create the stiffness for them to stand on their own, with absolutely no armature supporting them.

Yet for the astonishing construction of the pieces, it's the concept behind them that elevates them to high art. By using the doilies, Knouse hearkens back to the notion of fiber arts being women's work, as the tradition of crocheting doilies for decorations in the home. This becomes especially poignant in Cerement, which is a tribute to Knouse's deceased grandmother, who derived much of her identity from practicing crochet and macrame. A cerement is the waxed death shroud that some cultures use to preserve the form of a body in its final resting position. Here, the figure suspended in the air lies on its stomach, giving the impression of a death pose or a very deep slumber. The piece not only explores Knouse's grief at losing her grandmother, but also the grief the woman experienced when she lost the ability to use her hands and could no longer create.

"Contemporary Fiber in Florida" tears down the notion that fiber arts belong to women by including the work of a number of men. Two of my favorite pieces were created by Fabricio Farias, who used a screenprinting process called serigraph to create designs on felt. Mister Dan Dan is Farias' fun tribute to the "god of coffee," a saintlike figure complete with the halo and a body made up of various containers of Pilon coffee. His other piece, The Gospel of Willis, is a 30-foot long banner comprising a colorful pattern of blue jays, cardinals and lizards. What's astounding is that neither work is simply a design printed on one continuous piece of felt but rather separate pieces assembled, seamlessly, with glue. By doing this, the pieces gain texture and dimension.

A few pieces in the show enter the realm of pop art. Star Wars fans will delight in Andrew Fitzpatrick's mammoth quilt, Darth Maul in Fabric, whose intent stare gives the uncomfortable feeling of being watched. With #TBT Smiley, Madison and Matthew Creech take on pop culture with a hand-embroidered image of Miley Cyrus during that period where she always had her tongue sticking out, attached to a plastic Wal-Mart bag. The critique on millennials and the disposable nature of our culture is handled with humor. In Pamela Palma's weavings, Visit Florida I and II, maps of Florida encroached upon by shredded $100 bills address the impact of tourist dollars on the state's ecosystem.

John Mahorney's Virtual Fiber gives new meaning not only to fiber art, but also to the creation of art. The "piece" is actually an art app that the retired computer scientist created. It uses algorithms to create fiber art with virtual weaving, knotting and coiling.

Plenty of pieces in the show are more firmly rooted in traditional techniques but are contemporary because of style, use of color or unexpected materials, or inventive combinations of techniques. Roseline Young's Gone With the Wind combines weaving, quilting and the dyeing process shibori to make a statement about Florida's history in the Civil War, the mistreatment of Native Americans and hurricanes as nature's revenge. Stephen Sidelinger's hand-stitched, abstract embroideries use a very contemporary color palette. Carole Hetzel takes basketry to another level by weaving in industrial steel cable.

There's plenty more to see in "Contemporary Fiber in Florida," maybe a little too much. Given how strong the major works are, the collection could handle editing. That being said, through the work of Florida artists, this exhibition gives a sense of where fiber art has been and the countless directions in which it's going.

Contact Maggie Duffy at mduffy@tampabay.com.

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