Archive for the 'Art criticism' Category

Questions, questions (by Olga Norris)

In her juror’s statement in the Quilt National 2011 catalogue Eleanor McCain, started with the question ‘What about these works of art demands that they be formed from cloth and thread?  Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  What in the quilt form is important to the art?  As a fiber art professor once asked, “If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?” 

 I was struck with these questions which set me thinking.  I can only talk about my own work, which was successful in being selected for this exhibition.  I have not seen the discussion which June spoke of in her comments in the previous post, so forgive me if I am duplicating.  (I have had irritating experiences with Yahoo which are too tedious to go into here.)  The thoughts I have originate with my own work(s), but I hope that those thoughts will elicit responses from others. 


What about my piece demands that it be formed from cloth and thread?  Well, certainly not the subject, whatever people interpret it to be, because subjects can be explored and manifest in all sorts of media.  It is essentially how the artist wishes to express themselves that dictates what medium, and what techniques within the medium are chosen.  I suppose the question that I should perhaps ask myself each time I make a piece of work in quilt form is ‘Is this the most appropriate medium to choose?’  I do know that although those are the means I mostly use to express myself at present, some ideas and designs ‘do not work’ for me in cloth and stitch, and demand a different treatment.  This is a kind of discrimination on my part, but I must admit that I do not rigorously investigate how far my works demand to be formed from cloth and thread.

 This ties closely with the next question: Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  Again, the answer is probably no in the case of my piece.  Choosing a medium has more to do with the language, the voice in which I ‘speak’ rather than to do with the message or the meaning.  Of course the medium can colour the delivery of any message, just as it does the interpretation – but is it so important that the message should only be revealed in this medium?  Are there any – or many – messages which can only be revealed in this medium? What in the quilt form is important to the art?  At last a question I can answer without frustration.  As Eleanor McCain said: ‘The quilt is laden, even burdened, with symbolism.’.  It is that symbolism and the symbolic values of cloth and stitch generally which contribute to the way the message is both presented and interpreted.  Indeed this is part of what makes quilt-making a slow art: not only is it obvious that the making takes time, but also the full interpretation should take time.  In this way, being judged for exhibition becomes even more of a lottery if initial impact is not part of the message. 

One of the qualities of the art quilt is that it is derived from an everyday practical object to which one does not regularly pay much attention.  But in that familiarity as part of the background, at a receptive moment it can catch the viewer’s casual glance to reveal more, drawing the eye to consider and perhaps understand more.  Of course enigmatic work in any medium can do that.  And choosing to make work in quilt form is a double-edged sword in that by that very use of everyday materials which hang as they are the work can be dismissed as somehow inferior, easily made, domestic in a pejorative way compared with neat framed wall art which is believed to take skill, and uses special materials which are only to be found in artists’ studios.

I therefore think that it is so much more difficult to make good art using a medium which is so easily overlooked or dismissed.  But the question of good art was not raised. 

The professor’s quoted statement of ‘If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?’ I find it useful to keep asking myself questions such as whether I am a fibre artist.  I could be described as a digital printmaker who uses cloth and stitch.  And sometimes I develop images/designs which are not always suitable for use with cloth and/or stitch.   

Part of my use of medium, I must frankly admit is practical.  I develop designs digitally, which means that it’s clean.  I can pick up and put down my physical work almost anywhere without having to clean up or manage materials in the way that a painter or ceramicist must.  I can stitch while spending every afternoon with my aged mother with whom I do not get on and have nothing to say – but she approves of the activity which thus keeps me sane. I love the feel of cloth, and appreciate the meditative qualities derived from repetitive stitching.

But it is not just that.  I’m interested in comfort and discomfort in human relationships, and for that reason domestic techniques and materials are an appropriate language for me to use at present.

 What I am much more interested in really is Is it good art?  And in a way the only person who can answer that is me.  Hey ho.

Connecting thread (by Olga Norris)

Crafts magazine, May/June 2010

The work of artist Maurizio Anzeri came to my attention in this magazine last year, with an article written by Jessica Hemmings.  And recently I found that an exhibition of his work is on at Baltic, Gateshead.   I am intrigued by uses of stitch, especially when not on cloth, because I wonder what it is that drew the artist to the needle and thread rather than to the pencil, pen, etc.

There is of course the added dimension of both the thread and its effect – in this case the latter being the holes caused by the needle.  So is this use of needle and thread rather than pen and line adding the active dimension of piercing and pulling.  Piercings on anonymous faces from the past, and is it a drawing out of their individuality in its unknown chaotic form, pulled out to form the imposed order of the stitched pattern?

Brigitte Family Album

And do they remind you as they do me of those so fashionable pictures made with nails and string on a dark background – when was that? 

To me these works by Anzeri are the dark side of stitching, somehow destructive of human sentiment because they take time, delicacy, precision, to overlay, to obliterate   Taking the tradition of pattern stitching, historically used to denote cultural difference, originally used in a positive way: treasured reminders of meaningful family moments, added to the similarly important marker of the photographic portrait – from years before the constant instant snapping of today – these spirographic doodlings may be attractive in an abstracted way, but I find them fundamentally cruel in outlook.

But we humans are a cruel species, and just as there is excessive sentimentality about photographs, so at the other end there is this twisting of view of what they might mean.   The artist Julie Cockburn also distorts found photographs, as well as sometimes embroidering on them.

Little one (left) Daydreamer

Mary (left) Warrior

 Is this kind of work yet another way in which an artist can say what others are feeling?  That far from venerating our ancestors and their aspirations for us, their progeny, we want to impose our own patterns on them retrospectively?  Is this form of art chosen because abstraction is not direct or personal enough?  The abstract can be taken in whatever way the observer wishes, such as in the work of  Alison Schwarz.


This does not even have a title to point the viewer.  But the altered photographs link directly with every viewer in a very personal way. 

I managed to find a middle ground, using photograph and thread – although with nails this time, not specifically stitch – a use of collage/assemblage by Dayna Thacker.  Do we find this more attractive/acceptable?  And if we do, is it because we prefer to sugar our pills?

Birth of a Prophet

I think that use of traditional materials, domestic skills, and use of previously highly regarded cultural markers can be incredibly powerful semiotic tools in expressing ourselves today.

A publication and a publisher hit the dust (by Olga Norris)

From the age of four I wanted to be an artist.  Later I grew to appreciate writing in its various forms, and was lucky enough to have a fulfillingly creative career in publishing.  When the career became distinctly less creative I turned my attention more fully onto becoming more involved with personal expression.  This was aided and perhaps even specifically directed by an inspirational magazine I found while living in the USA in the very early 80s: Fiberarts.  

I did not turn to textiles immediately.  Such is the power of the accepted view of what being an artist is that I worked first in acrylics on paper.  But I subscribed to Fiberarts, just as I had subscribed to Crafts magazine for years previously.  It was a combination of my previous experience with textiles as a child, the constant inspiration and broadening of my thinking by reading Fiberarts, and the encounter with a fascinating exhibition entitled Art of the Stitch by the UK Embroiderers’ Guild which finally tipped me over.

 I found a voice of my own at the turn of the century, but the desire for incoming inspiration and information about the work of others, their expressions and their intentions has not diminished.  I am sad that Fiberarts is now no more.  I must admit that I have been expecting it ever since it was bought by a company which seemed primarily interested in enormous circulation; but I take no pleasure in being proved right.  I am only glad that the Internet is there to supply serendipitous delights – but what is missing there is critical nourishment.

 I had hoped some years ago that Telos books would grow into a list spanning from introductions to the artists in various countries using textile as their medium, through monographs on particular artists, to academic texts.  The visuals were stunning.  The design seductive, but the text was sadly lacking, and increasingly more so as the price increased.  Even a book addict hooked on art textiles stopped buying some years ago now.  So now Telos is also no more.

 Does this mean that there is no market for thoughtful, thought-provoking critical analysis within and about art which uses textile forms and techniques?  Have those of us who want to exchange thoughts more about intention than technique been swamped by the seemingly ever increasing thirst for the latter?  Is it out there and I’ve just missed it somehow?

Fit for purpose (by Olga Norris)

I recently visited an exhibition of the work of art editor and graphic designer David Hillman.  He is a man whose work I have long admired – and indeed did not know that he was the one behind all the different manifestations.  From the days of the iconic Nova magazine, the glory days of the Sunday Times newspaper, the surreal Benson and Hedges cigarette advertisements, all the designs for Pentagram , … these are images which brought feelings of wonder, excitement, a need to see and know more.  This was the kind of design that I dreamed of aspiring to in my publishing work.

In each case the image was more than the sum of its parts, and was definitively fit for purpose: it drew the appropriate attention to the product, not to the designer of the image – except from fellow professionals.  Good product design similarly excites me, as does brilliant architectural design.  In each case the end result should be at the very least fit for purpose, and also hold some individual integrity beyond the sum of its parts.

 Design is done to a brief which provides boundaries and requirements, as well as the discipline of a necessary respect for the materials and techniques involved.  I have always believed that the more one knows, but the less one indulges oneself the better prepared becomes the vital tool of the brain’s back burner.

 Although art and design are different disciplines, they should overlap, just as they should both overlap with craft.  The more frequently exercised debate is the one between craft and art; but the one not often enough heard is that between design and art, most especially the question of fitness for purpose.

Of course this fitness for purpose in art this is not so clearly defined as in product design, architecture, even graphic design and craft.  And it goes without saying that I am not in the least talking about any practical purpose.  The artist themselves and time are the important judges of what that purpose is; but the informed observer – whether a practising artist or not – should keep seeking to make critical judgments of their own – even if those judgments are later refined or even revised in the light of further enlightenment.  And by critical I do not mean only negative judgements or observations.

 I do believe that there should be a fitness for purpose in one’s art, and that this should constantly be under consideration.  This design thinking, once second nature, along with mastery of appropriate craft and its twin, appreciation of materials, facilitates those special tools of the artist – imagination and the back burner – in making good art: something more than the sum of its parts.


This post was also published at my WordPress blog Webs and Threads. At June Underwood’s invitation I am sharing this interesting work by weaver Aymar Ccopacatty since it coincides with my recent travel and experiences with trash in India. Aymar’s emphasis in weaving is on using trash found in the landscape of Peru.

(For some reason, the wonderful youtube video of Aymar in Peru weaving  isn’t currently being accepted on this blog but can be seen at the Webs And Threads blog and at Aymar’s website listed at the end of the post. I will try to add it again later.)

~Nancy Engstad

From my post on

One of the things that is ubiquitous in India is the presence of trash. This is something that seems to exist whether in city or countryside and it was quite an overwhelming part of being in this country for the first time. The roadsides are covered in it; adults, children, and animals seem oblivious to the tide of discarded paper and trash of every type that is part of everyday life.

I had an opportunity in Udaipur to chat with an Indian activist, visiting from his home in California. He was a guest at the home of my friends there, sharing with them their great passion for aiding the people of India. In the course of our conversation I did ask finally, about this tremendous problem. His answer made perfect sense. In times past, he explained, trash in India was of the organic kind which in time, would degrade or decay. The trash of the 20th and 21st Centuries has an infinite lifespan and confounds the old traditions of keeping the interiors of homes spotless by sweeping out daily litter from the door.

A street scene in India.

A gypsy camp by the roadside in India at dusk.

So the topic of trash was in my mind when I received an email announcement for an exhibition from an artist I’ve known since his first exhibition at the age of three. Aymar Ccopacatty had just immigrated from Peru with his Peruvian father and American mother when we met. His father Peruko, is also an artist and comes from the ancient Peruvian people, the Aymara.

Now thirty, Aymar Ccopacatty, spends time both in the United States and in Peru where he pursues his weaving and is passionate as well about preserving the ancient Peruvian traditions of weaving.

Recently Aymar sent me an announcement of his exhibition in New York City of the weavings he had created using trash from the landscape of Peru. As in India, the old and the new seem to collide in Peru, without a means of managing the detritus of modern times.  Aymar has addressed the situation in Peru by using trash to spin and weave into art, a powerful statement about his culture and the relationship of his traditions with the West.

Here is a scene sent by Aymar of a lake view in Peru.

Following is a statement from Aymar on what he considers his life’s work, preserving the ancient traditions of weaving as they meet with the changing modern influences in the Peruvian culture.

“I was born in Peru, my Father’s land, of two distinct cultures.We lived there until my second birthday, before returning to my Mother’s land in the U.S. Since then, much of my life’s exploration has been dedicated to fully understanding the dichotomies of these two greatly different cultures as they exist within and outside of myself.

I am a weaver. My work combines modern material with ancient technique. I n myexplorations I have built looms, spun and knitted using trash such as plastic and rubber tires. Much of the trash comes from Lake Titicaca, an ancient and ecologically sensitive environment 12,000 feet above sea level. The language and culture here is Aymara, a millennial language dating back to pre-Inca Wari and Tiwanaku empires. The work is a synthesis of tradition with modernity. I feelthat sometimes tradition must change and build upon its origins in order to achieve continued relevance in modern contexts, while also serving as a vehicle to express the concerns of an isolated and culturally marginalized people on the fringes of Peruvian society.

I learned the techniques of spinning, weaving and knitting within a traditional indigenous Aymara lifestyle. My Grandmother Maria, a master weaver, would spend her days in the fields and nights at home, all the while spinning her drop spindle to a rhythm of lake and sky. At the age of fifteen I began learning from her. Traditionally men wove bolts of cloth on a stiff heddle loom, and the women wove their elaborate and colorful designs on string-heddled tension looms. I saw that as things changed, both men and women might abandon this knowledge completely.

Slowly this abandonment has come to pass. The Awayu is the traditional carrying cloth of Andean women. As the Aymara enter modernity many of these traditional cloths are now being made of synthetic materials on machine looms. This combination of new material and process cuts us off from the past. The traditional Andean weavings are warp-faced and are strung up to the desired final length. If looked at from the side, one sees the shape as an Infinity symbol. They are never cut or sewn. The older weavings are thought to contain a bit of the Elder’s presence and energy, and are therefore sacred. Within the traditional weaving of the Aymara, originating millennia ago, are held elements of color, composition, and structure that form a metaphysical complexity and language of great cultural meaning. This art form is now threatened with extinction.

Peru is a nation built on layers and layers of human habitation and pre-Colombian cultures dating back through time. Now, more than five hundred years after the Spanish conquest, the nation is just beginning to accept its indigenous identity and rich past. As with most indigenous peoples worldwide, life for these peoples in modern Peru hasn’t been equal or fair.

This interplay between ancient and modern society is something very necessary today. Though both societies find each other sharing a shrinking Planet, there is room for all.

Indigenous people combine form and function. Woven and knitted pieces, are simultaneously used to acknowledge and celebrate our ceremonial place in the Universe, while also providing everyday uses such as, clothing, backpacks, lower back support, plates, weaponry, boats and roofs. Spiritual significance is not separated from functional object. This unity of ideas over time have found expression in my people’s weaving tradition.

The Aymara traditionally use the term “Qara” to denote one outside of their culture.This word literally means “Naked” or “wears no identity”. Taken further, it implies that Western clothing originally struck the Aymara as lacking a ”transmission of ideas”.   To us these conceptual signifiers of color and design transmit our ideas as the highest expression of Humankind’s place in the Cosmos. Since the traditional weaving of Peru is and has truly been a vehicle for transmission of ideas I feel that it rises above the merely functional “craft” definition, existing rather as an expressive and communicative art form. Only in broadening and changing the way the West shapes its definitions can we hope to preserve our ancient spiritual and creative heritage to share with future generations.”

Beautiful examples of the transformation of trash from the Peruvian landscape into art by Aymar Ccopacatty.

As an experimental textile artist, Aymar has used interesting methods and materials to weave his pieces. With an emphasis on found materials, you will see that he has recycled both the “fiber” and the loom from found material of the most humble and simple variety.

While “found” objects and material are now often used in the making of art, Aymar’s work invests an intention in his pieces that draws on his heritage and calls upon us to view them in that context.  They are both thoroughly “new” and “old” at the same time.

Aymar Ccopacatty

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