Defining a Movement: Textile & Fibre Art

Defining a Movement

Fiber art is seen as an American term; art textiles a British one. Are these terms useful? Dated? This snapshot reveals some of the deeper issues surrounding perceptions and directions within the field.

When Fiberarts asked me to investigate the use of fiber art and art textiles I was, at first glance, tempted to assume that fiber art is simply the American equivalent for what the British, and some Australians, call art textiles. But as I found when I began to question various individuals whose disciplines help define the terms—art historians, curators, educators, and makers—things are in fact far more complicated than a quibble between British and American language preferences.

Lycia Danielle Trounton, an Irish-Canadian academic and sculptor based in Australia, remarks, “I’ve never had a problem with the term fiber art.” As a former student of sculpture at Cranbrook—where the textiles department is called Fibers—Trounton sees the phrase as “a more sculptural term with connotations to the large-scale work of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz in the 1970s and the like.” But Maria Tulokas, head of the textiles department at the Rhode Island School of Design, explains that she tends to avoid the term fiber art precisely because “I associate it with the work that was being done in the seventies. There was great enthusiasm at that time for fiber materials, and art was created relying on the expression of the material without concerns for formal issues or the content of the pieces. I also feel that with the term fiber art came a new separate category of art with its own criteria that did not necessarily coincide with the criteria used for other visual arts. These days many painters, sculptors, and other artists use textile materials and/or techniques in their work, and the borders between different types of art are dissolving through artists’ rigorous search for form and content.”

Similarly, David McFadden, chief curator and vice president of the Museum of Arts & Design, explains that he has eliminated the word fiber from his recent writing because he sees younger artists “not married to a single material” and feels all descriptions of artists defined by materials (fiber artist, glass artist, wood artist) are unhelpful today. Myra Goodall-Block, who with Susan Taber Avila runs the website, also sees contemporary work crossing material boundaries more frequently but believes that the term now encompasses multimedia work. She explains, “The purpose of has all along been to show the breadth of work in all media that has a textile sensibility. As long as the beauty, the ‘hand’ of the artist, and the materials are given credence, it shouldn’t matter what you call it.”

Dr. Jennifer Harris, deputy curator of textiles at the Whitworth Museum in Manchester, England, explains, “I see fiber art used more to describe, to pardon the pun, fibrous work.” Harris cites felt makers in particular as more apt to describe themselves as fiber artists in the United Kingdom; she also mentions three-dimensional work from the 1970s by artists such as Tadek Beutlich. In contrast, Harris notes that “art textiles” often “reference the textile rather than use it.” The art-textiles movement has recently been well documented by three arttextiles exhibitions mounted by the Bury St Edmonds Art Gallery in Surrey that have toured the UK in recent years. arttextiles3, currently touring, has received both acclaim and criticism in part precisely because of its lack of attention to materiality. Reviewing the show for Crafts Magazine, Ruth Pavey notes, “Textiles for textile’s sake, for the feel, look, hang of the stuff itself, was far from the subject of this show. Instead the focus was on the expression of thoughts or ideas associated with textiles . . . a good third of the work was the product, not of the loom or needle, but of the DVD or video camera.”

Attention to material and dimensionality, what some may call a certain “hairiness,” defines “fiber art” for some. And conceptual rigor can define “art textiles” for others. But Matilda McQuaid, exhibitions curator and head of textiles at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, also raises the question of function: “I think that when I use the term fiber art I’m discussing unique or one-of-a-kind pieces that are not meant to be functional or necessarily wearable. They can be two- or three-dimensional.” American art historian and practicing fiber artist Dr. Michele Fricke sees art historians use the term textile not as an “avoidance of the term fiber art for some political or prejudicial reason (although they sometimes have those prejudices)” but simply because it is “more inclusive.”

Fricke brings up the ongoing nomenclature debate of fine art vs. craft and suggest that this debate is disappearing only on a verbal level rather than a reflection of “a genuine embracing of all media.” “It’s easy to talk a good game” she observes, “but I don’t know how well it plays out in the classroom, the curated exhibition, or the museum.” Dr Hilary Carlisle, lecturer in cultural studies at the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art, similarly notes that, “The general issues with the word craft seem to hold true for fiber art, too. The terms still hold associations with femininity which have not escaped from the historical mapping of masculine prioritization. Aside from the gender issues, which any term containing words relating to fabric, clothes, or craft will inevitably connote, it seems to be very difficult to find terms that somehow distinguish between ‘hobby’ craft and the serious designer-maker (another term which has become increasingly popular in an attempt to combat the problem).” But consensus on the fine art/craft debate, I have learned, is hard to come by. Shelly Goldsmith of the Winchester School of Art in Britain sees that “craft” “has recently moved into a more respectable genre in London” and thinks that it now struggles far less than the term fiber art.

The Winchester School of Art has decided to add the term fibre to the title of its undergraduate textile program: “BA, Textiles, Fashion and Fibre.” Dr. Lesley Miller, who until recently taught at Winchester and is now a senior curator in the Department of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, explains that the word fibre was included in the course title for its ability to “conjure up something specific for the American market.” Clio Padovani, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at Winchester, explains that the introduction of the term to the new course title was very much an attempt to reengage specifically with the fiber art movement, one that she thinks has been subsumed by fine art’s interest in textiles and the conceptual interests she associates with art textiles. Padovani hopes that the inclusion of the term fibre will “reopen debate about the legacy of fibre art as an activity distinct from commercial production and more involved with materiality than art textiles.” She adds, “We are resurrecting the term because I believe we have not fully explored the implications of what fibre art might be.”

A more thorough and comprehensive understanding of the history of the terminology than this article has provided is certainly necessary. In the meantime, it is interesting to speculate on how artists in the coming generation, many of whom are using multiple media and engaging with fiber and textiles in ways that both establish a dialogue with materiality and address conceptual concerns, will align themselves with the terms fiber and textile and with exhibitions and organizations devoted specifically to these media.

FiberArts magazine (Sept./Oct. 2005: 30-33)

image: Sheila Hicks