What the surface Reveals: The Threads Project 2001 –2007 by Nancy Engstad

NEThree In Red-gray-copy2

THREE IN RED  Triptychs  2003
Pastel on wrinkled paper, thread on tulle, thread on cotton
Each approximately 17 x 17 inches

I have just found the Ragged Cloth Cafe blog and it is an extremely timely discovery. As I write, my book What the Surface Reveals ~The Threads Project 2001-2007 is being printed by the on-demand company Blurb.

In this book I document my work of over six years in which I attempted to answer the questions put forth on Ragged Cloth concerning the issues of fine art and craft.

I was prompted to write when I read from the archives the article and comments on Angela Moll’s “Craft vs. Art, One More Time,” published March 7, 2008. It is clear that the subject is still, as I commented in the book, of great interest and remains open to further discussion. In particular, the response to the article by Lisa Call refers to the primary question I sought to answer with The Threads Project, “How do process and material affect meaning?” and by extension, “How is value then perceived based on these?”

In 2001 I began an extensive body of work which came to be known as The Threads Project. This body of work is an attempt to find a resolution to a personal issue that I felt hampered my creative work, and which may speak for other artists as well. The issue was the result of my own quandary and stalemate: on one hand my fine art seemed acceptable while on the other, my interests and experience with surface design and textiles, referred to as “craft”, seemed less so.

There seemed to be a division based on distinctions and judgments of assigned value, of gender issues relating to techniques and materials, of historical context, and perception and definitions of art.

Although over the years I had intellectually resolved the art vs. craft question as much as anyone, by the time I began thinking about this again in 2001, the reality of this issue still seemed less than equitable. During the initial period of inquiry I determined I needed to find a way to blur the distinctions that still divided fine art and craft. I needed to find a bridge between the two. I did, of course, find that bridge and the means and methods with which to use it. The sources for this journey extend back to my earliest interests in art where one was as likely to find me with paper and pencil as with needle and thread.

Drawing has been the lifelong focus of my work, and over the years I have created both figurative and non-representational work. At the same time I have always had an affinity not only for the surface often used in drawing-paper-but for the equally tactile surface of cloth.


Color pencil, thread, pastel, paper on black paper with hand-sewing
26.75 x 19.5 inches

I began using fabric in my work in the 1970’s, making sculptures and wall pieces. During this time artists were encouraged to break down old concepts of art, process, and techniques formerly defined as craft and narrowly assigned as fiber art.

Velour, cotton, batting, thread, marker
8 x 10.5 x 2 inches

In 1989 I began a serious exploration of surface design on fabric, including ancient dyeing methods such as shibori as well as painting and printing. After years of enjoying the creative results of working with fabric as a textile artist, (while continuing my fine art practice) I realized that I thought of my textile work as separate, eventually leading me to question the long-standing issue of art vs. craft on a very personal level. I needed to find a way to blur the perceived divisions between the two in my own work.

Early on several events provided clues that would guide my investigation. I attended an exhibition of Sean Scully’s paintings, which feature geometric bars and patterns that immediately called to mind quilt patterns. (This was before the exhibition of the Gees Bend quilts in which the value of quilts as legitimate art made such an important statement.) At the Scully exhibition my first thought was “If a similarly-sized and patterned quilt were to be hung next to this painting, created by an unknown maker, ‘Anonymous’ perhaps, what value would be placed on each?”

This led me to think that if two pieces were hung side by side in a gallery or museum, one of traditional method and material, for example, oil on canvas, and one a textile piece, each with similar size, shape, related perhaps in color and composition, then it would not be possible on immediate viewing to place a value based on the materials or processes used.

A short time later I came across a gallery announcement for an exhibition which paired 20th Century color field paintings with ancient dyed textiles. These events provided important formats for the bridge between fine art and craft- pairs and analogous images.

Although I never envisioned that this project would endure for over six years, I did have an idea from the beginning that it would be one based on a formal and detailed plan so that there would be a cohesiveness in the work. I began with two lists. In one, terms relating to traditional methods of making art such as drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage; and in the other, terms pertaining to textiles such as sewing, applique’, quilting, thread. Using the terms from the two lists then, I began to make works which combined fine art elements with those referring to textiles. This proved to be a fertile method for blurring the distinctions of art and craft. Over the years of the project, of course, many new directions developed. I will share some of the events and discoveries that were part of this six-year journey.



A Sampling of Notes for the Threads Project, 2001/2002

I attended an etching workshop at Crown Point Press in San Francisco. During the workshop I was struck, in particular, by the surface quality of aquatints. These bore a resemblance to some of my hand-dyed cloth. I decided to create an etching echoing the appearance and size of the cloth and to pair them side-by-side on a single sheet using the method of chine colle’.

RUST 1   2001
Hand-dyed cotton, spit-bite aquatint etching, chine colle’
Each: 4.5 x 3.5 inches

Another idea, using thread as both medium and subject led the work in an interesting direction; I unspooled tightly-wound loops of thread onto large sheets of watercolor paper, sewing and gluing them to the surface, resulting in a raised thread drawing. This took the idea of a thread drawing from two dimensions to three as the loops rose above the surface of the paper. Works such as Dusk (below) were then also analogous in imagery to thread-like drawings on paper with color pencil as seen below Dusk in Threads: Visual Energy.


DUSK  2001
Thread, glued to watercolor paper
30 x 22 inches


Color pencil on black paper
27.5 x 19.5 inches
Expanding on the idea of thread drawing I used rectangles of white sateen as though approaching a sheet of drawing paper. (I did not want this to reference embroidery.) The black thread stitches on white cotton are marks or thread drawing, while the in-and-out pull of the stitches created a textured surface. Small rectangles of black and white cloth are the analogous collage element on the piece below, from a suite of four Quilted Thread Drawings.


Black cotton, cotton, thread on cotton sateen
12.5 x 17.75 inches

A spontaneous triangular stitch used initially on a textile piece became a significant motif. I used this stitch-mark as a linear drawing technique in drawings, paintings, and frottage pieces, as well as, of course, in textile pieces.

Thread, color pencil, Okawara paper
Approximate dimensions: 12 x 17 inches

The combining of elements on the initial two lists developed much farther than I ever anticipated. Overall, during these six or so years, the work created in The Threads Project not only explored the issue of fine art vs. craft, in this case cloth and paper, textiles and drawing, but went on to challenge my definitions of drawing, my primary means of expression. It opened my eyes to digital drawing and to a deeper investigation into painting, mixed-media work, printmaking, artists’ books and sculpture. The issue of fine art vs. craft was the beginning, but in the end became the means.

I consider myself an artist. I make quilts occasionally but do not consider myself a quilt artist or a fiber artist. I use cloth and textiles to create as I would use paper, paint, and canvas. As an artist who was present and participated in the early discussion of art vs. craft, I am gratified to see the changes that continue to blur the divisions between them. As I state in my book, I hope that my efforts in The Threads Project add to the discourse and perhaps create a unique body of work reflecting the changes being made.

In the context of our time it is clear that the art world is arriving at the same conclusions as art and craft find common ground. Definitions such as art, craft, and design are increasingly fluid. An example of this changing outlook is the renaming of The American Craft Museum in New York to The Museum of Art and Design. Their mission statement speaks for the wonderful potential today for creativity in all its aspects:

“Today, the Museum celebrates materials and processes that are embraced by practitioners in the fields of craft, art and design, as well as architecture, fashion, interior design, technology, performing arts, and art and design-driven industries. The institution’s new name, adopted in 2002, reflects this wider spectrum of interest, as well as the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the Museum’s permanent collection and exhibition programming.”

While my work with The Threads Project seems finished, its impact continues in other work. I have continued painting using the thread-stitch triangular motif in a series of paintings, three of which were juried into “Paint” at the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, Massachusetts in 2007. Currently a series of Black Drawings which descend from a major textile piece in The Threads Project, “River, Stones,” can be seen on the website of The Drawing Center’s online Viewing Program in New York.

Following the publication of What the Surface Reveals~TheThreads Project 2001-2007, I plan to document the drawings and paintings which continue the motif of the stitch-mark begun in The Threads Project. This will be titled Webs and Threads and will give a wider view of works which were too large in number to include in the first book.

Works from The Threads Project have been exhibited in solo exhibitions in the United States and group invitational and juried exhibitions in the United States and Africa.

What the Surface Reveals: The Threads Project is available from Blurb Books for $44.95 (softcover); $58.95 (hardcover, dust jacket); $61.95 (image wrap)


A biographical note:

Nancy Engstad lives and works in San Francisco. Her work includes drawing and works on paper, painting, sculpture, artists’ books as well as textile design and jewelry. Since 2005 digital photography has become an important medium as well.

Her work has been exhibited and collected in the United States, Japan, Europe, and Africa. More photos of her work can be found on flickr


15 Responses to “What the surface Reveals: The Threads Project 2001 –2007 by Nancy Engstad”

  1. 1 Scott Johnston February 14, 2010 at 10:55 am


    Your work is outstanding, especially your treatment of color. The variety of images and different mediums is very broad and compelling to keep the reader engaged and moving through the wide array of images.

    I look forword to you next book.


  2. 2 Wen Redmond January 11, 2010 at 5:31 am

    I love this approach, meaning using fabric thread etc and presenting using ‘traditional’ modes. And why not. All great artists think outside the box. Great work!

    • 3 websandthreads January 11, 2010 at 11:42 am

      Thanks Wen.
      Looking back over the process of making pieces for The Threads Project, particularly analyzing for the writing of the book, has given me a wider perspective.My original motivation relied on the “separation” of categories of creativity that I felt existed, and my intent was to find ways to bridge these.

      The path that “motivation” and “intent” then took was anything but linear, and here lay the potential to think outside the box. It was not a conscious idea at the time, but what was happening was essentially finding answers to the question that many artists ask as they work, “How will meaning be affected by the choice of material and technique?”

      “A thread is not a thread” then, on one hand,yet sometimes that is all that it is.

  3. 4 websandthreads December 10, 2009 at 8:58 am

    To all who read and responded to my post “What The Surface Reveals” and who may wish to order the book from Blurb.com, a notice arrived from them with a nice offer of a ten dollar discount on any of the three versions of the book, softcover, dust jacket, or image wrap. This offer is good until December 31. The offer is extended to other currencies as well. Here are the promo codes to be used when placing your order.This offer is good one time only on books priced at $29.95 or more:

    Orders from the US (using US $): GREATGIFT

    Orders from UK (using UK £): GREATGIFT2

    Orders from EU (using EU €): GREATGIFT3

    Orders from AU (using AUD $): GREATGIFT4

    Happy Holidays~


  4. 5 websandthreads December 3, 2009 at 5:36 pm


    I am sorry to be so late in responding, having just arrived back from long travels. Your comment on the fundamental element being the thinking behind the art re-states my idea that it is the intention that is significant in the art-making process.This idea has of course been around for a long time.The post-modern attitude that all materials are acceptable in making art seems to have worked in favor of resolving the old art vs. craft issue, but it seems in the “catholic” acceptance of materials, some are still “more equal” than others.

    Nevertheless, we progress!

  5. 6 Olga November 22, 2009 at 3:45 am

    Nancy this great project of yours is very interesting. I’m fascinated by the way that you have separated out the craft elements of ‘fine art’ and related them to textile techniques. You show very well that what is in the end the fundamentally vital element in art is the thinking behind it. How it is made is part of the information about the art, but not an essential signifier for appreciation. As for art (market) value – well, that’s a completely other kettle of fish!

  6. 7 Deborah Ruth November 13, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Wow. Nancy! The book and your work are beyond terrific! I knew you created unique bead necklaces, but I had no idea you were so elegantly involved with “threads.” I’ve never seen anything like these — they are all amazingly wonderful. Pardon my clumps of adverbs and adjectives, but your work has left me at a loss for words. Hope we can meet and talk soon.

  7. 8 suburbanlife November 5, 2009 at 11:04 am

    What a beautiful project! There is absolutely no reason, in my mind to separate the art practice of drawing and painting with “traditional” media from that of working with fabrics, fibres and the tools used to animate these materials. The examples you have used show the relationship and kinship, clearly. The conceptual underpinnings of your project are sound. keep on keeping on! G

    • 9 websandthreads November 5, 2009 at 12:15 pm

      Thanks Suburbanlife. I find your remark about “working with fabrics, fibres and the tools used to animate these materials” quite evocative.

      Without this “animation” , the quality of a work which calls up a response by the viewer, what is the point?

  8. 10 june November 4, 2009 at 9:23 pm


    An interesting counter discussion to your argument can be found as a pod cast at the American Craft Council Conference proceedings: http://www.craftcouncil.org/conference09/?p=1329

    The ACC website has a review of a lecture by Garth Clark, called “How Envy Killed Craft.” I found out about it at a panel discussion entitled (honorifically, believe it or not) “Sloppy Craft.” You may have read about it on Art and Perception ( http://www.artandperception.com )

    Here’s a quote from Namita Wiggers’ ACC review: “Arguing that the desire for parity with the fine arts by artists, crafters (the term Clark prefers), collectors, academia and institutions has created the demise of the movement itself, Clark expressed concerns that nostalgia and envy plague an aging community. As a result, he wryly quips, success is measured by escape from the “penitentiary” of craft into the “nirvana” of the art world. Instead of seeking a bridge to the fine arts, Clark advocates re-unification with design.”

    You can order a text copy of the lecture from http://www.museumofcontemporarycraft.org/salesgallery_publications.php

    The discussion continues…

  9. 11 Jean Judd November 4, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Looks like a very interesting book by Nancy. A true labor of love and it is good to see that she already has plans for a second book continuing to look at some of the work developed during the project.

    Continued Success!

    • 12 websandthreads November 4, 2009 at 10:19 pm

      Thank you Jean.

      Writing the book to document all the years of work has been as instructive as doing the art. This gave me a chance to take a longer perspective on the ideas, motivation, and methods.

      WEBS AND THREADS, the title of the second book,is also the title of my new blog on WordPress. Both are just beginning!

  10. 13 Wen November 4, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    love the thread play
    just lay it on

    • 14 websandthreads November 4, 2009 at 9:50 pm

      Thanks for your input Wen. The possibilities-and pitfalls- of using thread as medium and subject seem endless!

      I like to think of all the exploration in The Threads Project as exactly that…Play, where all things are possible, there are no mistakes,and we are free to experiment without judgment.

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