Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Rebecca Lyon: Shielding the Torso


Rebecca Lyon: Shielding the Torso

Indianapolis-based fiber artist Rebecca Lyon explains that a desire to “create three dimensionally without returning to the loom” led her to industrial wool felt, her current material of choice. Within industry, the tough material is used to pad machine bearings because the natural lanolin contained in the wool acts as a lubricant. It may not sound like a tempting inspiration, but Lyon explains that she is attracted to the “muscular” quality of the material and its ability to “look experienced, abused, and molded by life.”

In spite of the strength of industrial felt, Lyon’s working process is remarkably similar to that of a watercolorist building layers of subtle color on a textured surface. After the felt is cut to shape, it is left to soak for several days in a bath of ammonia and water and, when ready for dyeing, placed flat on a table and colored with layers of Tinfix Design dyes. The washes can take up to a week to dry and change color as well as intensity during this time. By happy accident, the steaming process, which is necessary to set the final color of the felt, also creates a bowed shape (particularly evocative in Lyon’s recent shield series) because the material must bend to fit inside the steaming machine. Steaming also changes the texture of the material; at times the felt picks up patterns from the inside of the steamer or ripples from the heat into what Lyon describes as faux elephant skin.

Lyon’s shield series alludes to the “the lower two thirds of the female torso,” an area she wanted to explore in her artwork after growing tired of seeing the breast as the predominant symbol of women in Western culture. The area suggested by the form takes on an ambivalent role in this series of work; it is not only the site of conception and birth but also an area heavily policed by unattainable standards of fitness in American culture. Thus the shield’s ability to protect as well as celebrate the lower female torso suggests many of the contradictions surrounding notions of beauty and female identity in the West. Works such as “Taut” take this sense of contradiction even further to offer both a visual and verbal pun, which suggests that our skin is at one and the same time a delicate and ever changing surface but also a protective layer which we must learn to strengthen in the face of public scrutiny.

“Every four years or so,” she explains of the recurring themes in her artwork, “there is a strong presence of female anatomy or sexuality in a somewhat abstracted form in my work.” She cites a uterine-shaped basket made in the 1970s before she and her husband turned to renovating historic homes full time; Female Sun, a painted and collaged fabric piece that she made upon her return to artmaking in the 1990s; followed by the first work of her shield series. Is the cycle coming to an end? For the time being, she suspects so. New work is looking once more to other themes, but with an established cycle of revisiting the female body, it seems likely that she will return to it again.

Jessica Hemmings is a contributing editor to Selvedge magazine and a regular contributor to FiberArts.

FiberArts magazine (Sept./Oct. 2005: 18-19)