Q&A: WonderRoot’s Unsettled Breaks Conventions of Textiles

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Leisa Rich, Swap Meet, detail from top panel, 2012, vinyl/metal framed panels, acrylic, thread, micro beads, flocking powder, velvet, vinyl, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy the artist and WonderRoot.

According to Jess Jones, curator of Unsettled: New Work in Textiles at WonderRoot Community Arts Center, people have historically thought of textiles as an atypical medium. It proves unconventional in its marrying of different materials such as fabrics, paper, or thread to produce comprehensive works.

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Jones, whose own work appears in Unsettled, chose five additional female artists who challenge classic textiles methods while still using traditional forms like embroidery. In exploring the concept of a changing city, this new work ranges from interactive designs to practical pieces like quilts and digitally printed fabrics. Textiles assisted in creating these types of practical materials throughout history and were crucial to trade and economics, yet technology continues to evolve and enhance the way the medium influences art. It’s clear in viewing Unsettled that innovations that feel distant to us now have contributed to how current textiles artists think about and produce their work.

Unsettled effortlessly parallels the histories of ever-changing environments and textiles with fresh interpretations and processes unique to the medium itself. In East Lake Tracks, for example, Stephanie DeSantis unconventionally produces a Hipstamatic print of a photograph on silk habotai, silk chiffon, and silk organza to present an image of a distinguished urban setting. In doing so, she rediscovers a landmark that is personal to her through a methodical and innovative process many fail to associate with textiles.

The compositions seem to unintentionally complement each other, and though the artists use their materials differently, it’s as if there is an unspoken shared knowledge among the work. To better understand the synergy among the artworks in Unsettled and how they function as responses to the changing landscape around them, I emailed several questions to curator and artist, Jess Jones.

BURNAWAY:  Your goal in creating a textiles exhibition was to expose Atlanta to a new perspective on textiles with artists that go beyond conventional methods.  Do you feel you accomplished this in Unsettled?  

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Jess Jones:  The field of textiles is so broad and it can refer to many processes, and I think a lot of people think of textiles as fabric for domestic use or weaving. Nearly every artist in the show uses stitching, fabric/paper, pattern and thread but I wanted to include work with both traditional and very nontraditional processes. For example, while I am a technically a quilter, I add a lot of mixed media to my work, including painting and drawing elements as well as digital processes.

BAWhat is the overall theme you hope to relay to the viewers?

JJ:  I see a lot of textile shows and statements that deal with a response to the beauty of the natural environment and the therapeutic nature of the medium. I moved to Atlanta from being an artist-in-residence in a cabin in the woods near a lake in Tennessee, and I felt it was such a complete shock to my system, coming from a peaceful environment to this restless and busy one. It ended up a positive change for me, and I love it here, but I struggled initially finding my way. I felt that my mind was so distracted. I wanted to find work from artists that were interested in a similar response to this environment. A response to place and the idea of mapping are common themes for any media, but I rarely see a response to a restless environment of a city in textiles. I wanted to find artists working in textiles that respond to this social, geographic, or mental landscape.

Leigh Peacock’s piece of stacked fabric squares cut from clothing references how a traditional pieced patchwork quilt is begun. The way the fabric squares are displayed, however, in a solid stack from the floor to the ceiling makes this material associated with comfort and tradition generate tension from the evidence of the obsessive repetitive process.

The digitally printed silk panels by Stephanie DeSantis use not only layers of imagery from her iPhone as she travels through the city, but the moiré pattern in the layers of transparent fabric creates a dizzying effect.

Leisa Rich’s work is about a fascinating and complex family history, and she uses machine embroidery techniques on storage cube parts she found. I love how those materials and techniques enhance the content of the work; I feel like the reexamination of every day materials is a real strength of fiber and textile artists.

BA:  You not only curated the exhibition, but you also have your own pieces in the exhibition.  How long have you been working with textiles and what about it interests you?

JJ:  I began studying as an artist working in oil painting, figure drawing and intaglio printmaking and then I started working with collage. Paper and canvas started to interest me a great deal, and I realized there was something about them that seemed more interesting in texture and surface. I became interested in fibers about ten years ago, and I was specifically interested in sewing and printing with fabric. I wanted an experience that involved working more with material in grad school and as part of my studies as a fibers major, I took courses in bookbinding and then eventually received a grant to apprentice as a papermaker. I love the ephemeral quality of these materials and all the very loaded associations with fabric.

BAIn your artist statement, you describe your experience of working with textiles as emotional and nostalgic.  Would you consider it more interactive and personal than other art forms like drawing or painting?

JJ:  I do feel that textiles is inherently more interactive and personal. One of the most important considerations in my choice to make work out of fabric and paper is that these materials surround us and touch us all the time and I think that makes them even more interesting and powerful. When I talk to people about my work, my use of digital processes never seems to strike a chord with anyone. Yet, when I call myself a quilter and describe how my work is essentially the structure of a quilt, people want to talk about that and share their experience with quilts, and that connection is really meaningful to me.

BAFrom a curator’s perspective, how do you evaluate individual work while making sure all the pieces function together to produce a successful group show?

JJ:  Because of the theme of responding to a restless environment, I think other interesting ideas emerged. Many of the pieces use modules and are in a grid structure. This is something common with textile artists and it may be a reaction to the structure of woven cloth, the nature of pattern design, or in this case the landscape of the city. One work that has all of these elements is the piece by Genevieve Leavitt, a beautiful digitally printed repeat pattern map of Atlanta. Calligraphic line emerged as another surprise element. Sophia Frissell uses machine sewing to connect sections of her expressive drawings and pieces of fabric into three-dimensional forms. The ink lines are (on a smaller scale) similar to the printed images of graffiti in my quilts. I wanted the pieces to work tightly together and I chose several pieces by each artist and then narrowed down the work that had interesting visual connections.

BA:  Were you already familiar with most of the artists that you chose to include in Unsettled?

JJ: Some of the artists were completely new connections made through WonderRoot or my own research. Some I had met before, but never really worked with. I wanted an age range and experience range in the show. I have one very established Atlanta textile artist included in the show. I included another person teaching at the college level. I included both a student and a person working in the textile design industry, so I like that a few different perspectives are represented. In selecting work for the show, I ended up selecting work that is youthful and fun, but also thoughtful and appropriate to the space at WonderRoot.

BA:  Do you think the work has a greater impact in a smaller space like WonderRoot Gallery?

JJ:  While WonderRoot doesn’t have tall gallery walls and bright lighting, the space being a house was actually interesting in the context of a textiles show. I wanted to keep the work less sculptural because the space has to function each day for all the activities that WonderRoot does. I think it was a really fun environment for the show, a very intimate space, and I want to continue participating in WonderRoot’s mission.

BA:  How does the title of the show reflect the theme?

JJ:  I chose the title, Unsettled, because of the way that textiles is hard to define and that fabric is flexible, soft, and constantly absorbs and reacts to its environment. I am also interested in the environment of Atlanta—I’ve been here over a year and I wonder when I will no longer feel that I am new here.

The exhibition Unsettled:  New Work in Textiles is on view at WonderRoot Community Art Center through Tuesday, January 8, 2013.