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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Color pencil on black paper
27.5 x 19.5 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.
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