COVER: The tapestry

Fiber is taking over the metro art scene

COVER: The tapestry
provided
A 2017 FiberWorks entry by Pamela Husky

Many of Oklahoma City’s biggest summer art exhibitions share a common thread. Fiber art has entangled the local scene.

There was no grand meeting of art galleries and institutions to plan shows around the broad medium. But with at least three major fiber exhibits in the metropolitan area running all at once, there clearly is a lot of contemporary interest in the potential of the medium’s varying forms.

“I’m not sure if I’m just noticing it now or if this is really just kind of a resurgence of fiber arts into the culture,” said Sarah Atlee, a longtime painter who switched her art focus to quilting two years ago.

Atlee is one of many featured artists in Once Old Is New, an exhibition by the Modern Quilt Guild’s OKC chapter. The exhibit — dedicated to presenting traditional American quilting styles with a fresh, contemporary twist — opens 

Thursday at [Artspace] at Untitled, 1 NE Third St., and runs through Aug. 18.

But that’s far from all. Here is a short list of the other fiber shows going on in the state:

The juried FiberWorks exhibit has become the state’s definitive annual fiber art event. This year’s show — running Friday-Aug. 10 at Individual Artists of Oklahoma (IAO), 706 W. Sheridan Ave. — is the 40th yearly exhibit for Fiber Artists of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center welcomes Japanese-born and Kansas-based fiber artist Chiyoko Myose into its main gallery space for her solo exhibit Sojourning, which opened in early June and concludes Aug. 11 at the art center’s State Fair Park location, 3000 General Pershing Blvd.

Outside the metro area, Oklahoma State University Museum of Art’s Layered Voices national quilting exhibition is open through Aug. 18 at 720 S. Husband St. in Stillwater.

Obviously the fiber arts — knitting, crochet, needlework and other fiber arrangements — are enjoying a local renaissance. But the medium is as tied to the past as it is the present.


COVER: The tapestry
Mark Hancock
Sarah Atlee switched her full-time art focus from painting to quilting two years ago.

Once Old

Painting used to be like a chore for Atlee, which is unfortunate considering her dream of finding prestige as a renowned gallery painter.

Atlee grew up knowing how to sew. It is a skill she learned from her parents, who made their own clothes — a tradition that goes back in her family at least a few generations.

Growing up in an art-appreciative household, Atlee felt at home expressing herself creatively in a variety of mediums. While she has been a quilter for as long as she has been a painter and appreciates both as valid forms of art, she always viewed painting as her most direct ticket to professional artistry.

As Atlee worked toward her goal of becoming an accomplished painter, she never stopped quilting. In fact, her love for the activity only intensified over time.

More and more, painting was becoming something she did to fulfill other people’s desires and expectations. Quilting felt more personal and more rewarding.

“Quilting was joyful,” she said. “It was my dessert, but I had to eat my vegetables first.”

Eventually, it dawned on Atlee that there was no reason quilting couldn’t be her main course. After wrapping up a series of paintings she had committed to finishing for a gallery exhibition, she decided to turn her full art focus and energy toward quilting. Atlee has been a full-time quilter for the last two years.

“I am so glad I did that,” she said, “because it has been the most fun I’ve had making art in years.”

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Amanda Lipscomb / provided
Sarah Atlee is one of several artists with quilts on display in the Once Old Is New exhibition at [Artspace] at Untitled.

Atlee is a member of OKC’s Modern Quilt Guild, which is comprised of between 100 and 150 members. Once Old Is New, the group’s show at Untitled, will feature dozens of quilts that apply a fresh perspective to traditional quilting forms.

Quilting is an art form that exists in many cultures, and thus there is no one standard quilting tradition. Once Old focuses on the classic American styles and blocks, like the common “diamond square” or triangular “flying geese” patterns one might recognize from something a parent or grandparent made.

“We love to take something — a pattern that has been in use for hundreds of years — and give it a modern twist,” Atlee said. “That might mean blowing it up real big or using wild and crazy fabrics. Or maybe a quilt that is just one giant triangle and it’s the flying geese.”

Some Modern Quilt Guild members might label themselves artists while others would be more reluctant to do so. Atlee said the beauty of Once Old is that it puts all the quilts on display in a legitimate fine-art venue. It is simultaneous validation of the art form and its sometimes-unhailed artists.

“I think for probably several people in our group, they’ve never had a quilt in any show before,” she said. “[For them] to have one in this gallery here is so exciting for me personally.”

COVER: The tapestry
provided
A 2017 FiberWorks entry by Molly Murphy Adams

FiberWorks

Fiber Artists of Oklahoma was founded in 1976 as Hand Weavers League of Oklahoma, and Sue Moss Sullivan was one of the group’s founding members. In ’78, the first FiberWorks show was held at Kirkpatrick Planetarium, now Science Museum Oklahoma.

“It was not a juried show,” Sullivan said. “It was just an exhibit to show what quote ‘fiber art’ meant.”

What fiber art actually means, Sullivan said, is quite broad. Fiber art can be anything from crochet to a large, abstract gallery installation. What defines it is the use of string, thread or other supple, flexible materials to create something more elaborate.

Sullivan said many traditional fiber art forms got their start as “women’s work” — at least in this culture. But respect for and refinement of the works has grown over time.

“Anything considered fine art now began as a craft,” she said. “Painting on cave walls thousands of years ago became fine-art painting.”

Many forms of fiber art have strong ties to familial tradition. This is because sewing and crochet skills were once necessary for survival. Before people could go out and buy a blanket at the store, they needed to make their own.

“There are very few people who look at all of these fiber pieces and [aren’t] reminded of their grandmother who had a quilt,” Sullivan said.

The kind of works that are submitted into FiberWorks has evolved over time, but Sullivan said fiber artists have been challenging the conventions of the art form for decades. The show is always a good opportunity to keep up with the work of the area’s best and most well known fiber artists, but Sullivan’s favorite part of each year is learning about new, emerging talent.

“Just come see the show; the work speaks for itself,” Sullivan said. “Every year, it’s different.”


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Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center / provided
Visitor Ruby Jean Butler takes inspiration from “Akari” during the Sojourning opening. “Akari” is made of shoji paper and wood strips, used to make shoji panels that serve as room dividers and doors in traditional Japanese architecture.

Sojourning

If something is still in place, but just barely, people often say it is hanging by a thread. To get somewhere in a hurry, we weave in and out of traffic. When people say they are on pins and needles, it means they are alert.

The English language includes many allusions to fiber work.

“It’s not a coincidence,” said Jennifer Scanlan, Oklahoma Contemporary’s curatorial and exhibitions director. “It really is a source from which we draw a lot of ideas about how the world works.”

Myose’s Sojourning contains several large fiber installations. Often, her thread acts as a tangible representation of figurative threads, like the passage of time of the bonds that exist between people.

Scanlan said Myose began her art career as a painter but shifted to a fiber focus because of its three-dimensional potential.

“She’s very excited about her work being accessible, so she chose fiber on purpose to bring people in,” she said. “She very much enjoys creating these immersive environments.”

Art can sometimes feel intimidating or foreign. But Myose puts her installations together with common thread. One piece titled “Bloom” uses stones and dryer sheets for great symbolic purpose.

When a piece is familiar and inviting, it is easier to think about it more critically as art. Fiber art is often made of things people see and touch on a daily basis, which helps break down walls.

“There’s something about it that’s really approachable,” Scanlan said. “And there’s a long history of fiber, so there’s these great traditions in cultures all over the world. It’s one of those things that connects us to all of humanity.”

COVER: The tapestry
Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center / provided
Families add knots to “A Thread X A Thread” during the opening of Chiyoko Myose’s Sojourning.

‘Big comeback’

In some cases, quilting is an art form that is passed down within a family from generation to generation. That process slowed down in the post-industrial years when people were working with thread less often.

There might have been some risk of a lost art, but these days, people can learn the basics of quilting without having a grandmother who even knows how to sew. Atlee learned how to quilt by watching YouTube videos. The internet has made sewing, weaving and other fiber-related skills easy to pick up.

“There’s this incredible new resource we have for learning these things,” she said.

There is a common misconception that art cannot be functional or that things are functional could never be considered art. Atlee has found that often, when she gives quilts to people, they tell her they will never use it because it’s a work of art. That is not Atlee’s intention.

“There is no hard difference [between art and function],” she said. “There’s subtle distinctions that are different for everybody.”

Atlee encourages anyone considering quilting but intimidated by it to press forward anyway. Nothing, she said, should hold a person back from trying something new. It is a surge of self-starters that has helped fuel the fiber revolution of today.

“Culturally, we lost touch with it for a little while,” Atlee said, “but it’s having a big comeback right now.”  

Location Details

Artspace at Untitled

1 NE Third St., Oklahoma City

405-815-9995

1ne3.org

Location Details

IAO Gallery

706 W. Sheridan Ave., Oklahoma City

405-232-6060

iaogallery.org

Location Details

Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center

11 NW 11th St., Oklahoma City

405-951-0000

oklahomacontemporary.org

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