Is Fiber's Foundation Firm?
|The weaving studio at the University of Washington
This spring, I called educators in three very different
fiber programs with some questions about fiber education at
the degree level. At a time when the medium often seems more
mainstream than ever before but when even mainstream arts
are suffering from budget cuts, I wanted to talk about philosophy
and structure, resources and syllabuses.
Lou Cabeen is a professor in the Fibers Program at the
University of Washington in Seattle. Maria Tulokas is chair
of the Textile Department at the Rhode Island School of Design
in Providence. Joan Livingstone is professor and chair of
the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School
of the Art Institute of Chicago. Thanks to these three for
their time and insights.
- Sunita Patterson
First, I'd like to give our readers a sense of the different
types of fiber programs that are out there. So let's start
with a little bit of background. How big is your program?
What is the emphasis? I would also be interested in a brief
history of the program and how it fits into the organizational
structure of your institution.
|Lou Cabeen of UW, with her piece 2002 Groundwork
(a continuous loop of handwoven cotton and twine, 8 inches
by 525 feet). Photo: Bill Bachhuber.
Lou Cabeen: The Fibers Program at the University of
Washington (UW) has two faculty. We are a small program in
some ways - we have between four and six M.F.A. students at
any one time, and our B.F.A. program graduates five to eight
students a year. The Art Division of the School of Art at
UW offers undergraduates the chance to major in one of seven
disciplines via the B.F.A. - fibers, ceramics, metals, photography,
printmaking, sculpture, or painting. However, we also offer
a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Visual Art. The Fibers classes
are full to bursting with B.A. students, because we offer,
I think, the most clearly articulated approach to mixed-media
studio work at our institution. And that pretty much sums
up our emphasis - which is to support and develop the students'
conceptual and technical ability, not only in weaving and
surface design but also in the expanded uses and potentials
of those media. Our advanced students have the opportunity
to work with computerized looms and textile-design software.
But just as many of our students take up the artist's book
as their expressive format, drawing on our program's emphasis
on mixed-media, conceptually based work and on the substantial
book-arts collection housed in the UW library.
Textiles, specifically weaving, has been taught on our campus
for many years (we are proud to claim Jack Lenor Larsen as
an alumnus). However, it was not a part of the Art curriculum
until the 1980s. During a time when UW was undergoing considerable
restructuring, weaving equipment from the College of Home
Economics and surface-design expertise from the Art Education
faculty were brought together in the School of Art, and my
colleague Layne Goldsmith was brought in to shape the newly
created Fibers Program's studio-art emphasis.
|The surface-design studio at UW.
Maria Tulokas: The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
Textile Department is now 125 years old; textiles was one
of the first areas of study when RISD was established. The
program's early emphasis on textile sciences and design eventually
gave way to interest in crafts and fiber art, which ran particularly
strong in the 1960s and '70s. But beginning in the 1980s,
the Textile Department clarified both fine arts work and design
as its major directions. The department integrated CAD [computer-aided
design] throughout the curriculum in the '80s and started
a graduate program, focusing on design, in 1992.
|Maria Tulokas, of the Rhode Island
School of Design, and her 2002 piece Big Fruit
(handmade paper, aluminum, thread).
In the past two years, because of an increased number of
freshmen choosing textiles as their major, the department
has grown from the optimal number of 65 students, including
13 in the M.F.A. program, to the current 83 students - and
next fall, 93 students will be enrolled. There are only two
full time faculty members, with a third one joining next fall.
Nine part-time faculty members who represent different kinds
of expertise are teaching at the department this year.
The Textile Department is part of the Fine Arts division.
Even though a strong part of the program's orientation is
in design, we see the development of the student's artistic
talent as our main objective. This objective connects us to
our division and forms a foundation for both fine arts and
design work in textiles. Skills are important because they
expand creative possibilities. Study of materials and color,
drawing, and the mastering of design issues form a foundation
for the development of ideas in both design and fine arts
work. In design, consideration of end use, production methods,
and market must figure in the process.
The work can take many forms, from fabrics designed for interiors
or apparel, to two- and three-dimensional pieces. Techniques
and materials range from weaving on handlooms or jacquard
machine to printing with screens or the digital printer. New
techniques are continually being invented and applied to fabric,
paper, and synthetic and found materials. Whatever the students'
selections, the development of their own visual and material
languages becomes a central theme.
Two-thirds of each graduating B.F.A. class go on to become
designers of industrially produced fabrics, while others continue
working as artists or enter graduate programs.
|UW student work. Top:
Camille Narayan (weaver) / Kerrie Howell (designer), Coat
Collaboration #2, 2001; silk warp with weft of strips
of overdyed silk saris. Photo: Nancy Hines. Middle:
Laura Wright, Survival Blanket. Bottom:
Karla Freiheit, Magic Carpet, 2000; found rug,
grass, fishing line, installed with fishing line attached
to tree branches above; 48 by 72 inches (rug). Photo by
Joan Livingstone: Fiber has been taught at the School
of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) since the late 1930s,
originally under the direction of Else Regensteiner. In the
1970s, Park Chambers formally organized it into its own department
(1 of 19 studio departments at SAIC). It is currently one
of this country's largest fiber programs, with five full-time
and seven part-time faculty. In 2000, after much discussion,
the department took the name "Fiber and Material Studies"
to better reflect the nature of the curriculum and the kind
of students served.
|Portrait (and detail) of Joan
Livingstone, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,
by a 2001 M.F.A. graduate, Satoru Aoyama. Joan,
2001; embroidery on polyester; 22 by 22 inches.
Although we offer a B.F. A. and an M.F. A. degree, there
are no "majors" at SAIC. Students develop their own course
of study, most of them pursuing interdisciplinary and multimedia
pathways, with a strong emphasis on conceptual development.
Approximately 200 undergraduate students take classes each
semester in Fiber and Material Studies, and the department
supports 20 graduate and 2 postbaccalaureate students each
year. This year, an area of interdisciplinary study, Sculptural
Practices, has been developed to provide a conceptual coalition
of the Ceramics, Fashion, Fiber and Material Studies, and
Sculpture departments. Sculptural Practices provides curricular
opportunities for collaboration and shared discourse.
|Textiles by students and recent graduates
|Clay McLaurin, woven prototype for a
|Victor De La Rosa, design for interior fabric (CAD).
|Cara Campagnoli, printed fabric prototype
|Sandra Negron, design for printed fabric (gouache
|Heather Wells, digitally printed fabric
|Junghee Yoon, woven (with added resin) prototype
for fabric for partitions.
|Eve Singer, jacquard-woven fabric.
|Lauren Tremaine, jacquard-woven fabric.
|Philip Iosca, printed and painted piece.
The courses in Fiber and Material Studies loosely fall into
four main areas: mixed-media structural exploration; embellishment;
woven structures; and dye, paint, and print on fabric. A computer
lab is used by all classes and supports repeat pattern design,
woven structure development, computer assisted weaving, photo-silk
screening, and three-dimensional modeling. Advanced classes
are conceptually driven and include such concerns as "Propaganda
and Decoration," "Time, Material and the Everyday," "Studio
Stuff: The Paradigm of Collecting," "Installation: Context
and Materiality," and "Material Humor." New classes are continually
developed to stay abreast with both faculty and student concerns;
examples are "Permeable Membranes," "Sustainable Forms," and
"Drawn to Print." Additionally, through the Department of
Art History, Theory, and Criticism, classes on textile history
and contemporary critical issues are offered for both undergraduate
and graduate students.
Do you have to continually justify or fight for resources
for your fiber program within your institution? I'm particularly
curious about the UW program, considering the relative newness
of the textiles-as-art program. From time to time, rumors
circulate about weaving programs being cut or closed. Do you
all feel fiber education has a secure status in this time
of tight budgets?
LC: Fighting for resources is just the name of the
game in any bureaucracy, and universities are no exception.
But it is true that the Fibers Program has had to face more
specific threats than other programs at the UW School of Art.
We had to mount a serious defense of the program in 1994 in
the face of severe budget cuts. And more recently, we had
to reorganize our teaching and graduate studios to make room
for the School of Art computer lab. Both situations were emotionally
trying and hideously time consuming. However, the end result
has been positive. In both cases, our efforts raised the profile
of the program both on campus and within the School of Art,
generated more opportunities for our students to exhibit their
work, and built cohesion and a certain esprit de corps between
alumnae and current students.
|A textile by a 2002 RISD B.F.A. graduate, Becky Beahm
(prototype for jacquard, dobby weaving and resist dyeing).
Surviving these events has led me to a couple of observations
about the specific threats to fibers programs in some institutions
- especially public universities.
The first threat is perception. The common set of questions
we encountered in 1994 can be paraphrased as: "What is Fibers
exactly, and why does it need to be taught at a university?
Can't you learn to weave at the yarn store down the street?"
Our administration, during the 1994 budget cuts, learned that
far from being a backwater program composed of "two girls
knitting," the UW Fibers Program has fielded illustrious alumnae,
provides quality education, and is linked to an international
network of colleagues and sister institutions. But they didn't
learn that by themselves - Layne and I articulated our philosophy,
purpose, and mission through slide talks, leaflets, student
exhibitions. ... Universal acceptance of Fibers as an art
form will probably not happen in our lifetime, and so that
task of education is an ongoing one.
The second threat is more concrete. Weaving specifically
can be at risk because of the nature of the practice. Looms
take up space, and they make the space they are in "single
use"; that is, it takes considerable effort to move them out
of the way to use the room for anything else. In addition,
they are usually used by one or, at most, two students per
quarter or semester, making that square footage in the studio
dedicated to a relatively small number of students. I am teaching
a full class of weavers this quarter, every loom is in use,
and there are 16 students in the class. The weaving room serves
16 students and only 16 students for the whole quarter. This
is great, as far as the students and I are concerned. But
I teach 25 students 3-D design in a classroom that serves
150 students this quarter (my class is one of six classes
that rotate through the room). So from an administrative perspective,
weaving classes are going to represent a luxury of space.
We have been encouraged by the administration to find ways
to teach more students weaving without using looms. Last quarter
I arrived for my weaving class to find exactly twice the number
of students registered for the class as I had looms, forcing
us to double up.
And lastly, a more subtle threat to fibers programs can be
their very strength. The mixed-media approaches that the field
is known for can become the very justification used by an
administration to eliminate fibers as a specialty, folding
it into another field such as sculpture. I think this is the
fate of many of the closed fibers programs. The faculty are
absorbed into the most sympathetic remaining program - sculpture,
printmaking, design. In that case, the philosophy can perhaps
live on in that individual faculty member's approach - an
emphasis on material, process, and structure, for instance
- but the sense of textiles as a specific field of endeavor
within art is lost.
|A work by an SAIC M.F.A. student, Noe Kidder. Lower
East Side, 2002; canvas, clothing, ink, beeswax; 6
by 5 feet.
MT: I like to think that the validity of one's artistic
expression is not dependent on materials or techniques. This
is the way, in my opinion, that RISD looks at the Textile
Department: as one of 18 different areas, pursuing the same
goals as other departments. Our current, much larger, size
- the Textile Department is now one of RISD's larger mid-size
departments - helps bring us more notice. But we are fighting
for space, as other areas are at the school; there has not
yet been an art school that I have visited that has not had
a space problem.
JL: SAIC is refreshingly nonhierarchical, and Fiber
and Material Studies is well respected and considered one
of the strongest departments in the school. Although the entire
school is currently facing fiscal challenges, Fiber and Material
Studies is very secure and looks forward to continued development,
especially in relation to new technologies and combined resources
with the Sculptural Practices program. There is consistent
institutional support for the creation of a "smart textile
lab" that will expand the facilities of computer-assisted
weaving, embroidery, knitting, and printing technologies.
I'd like to ask you more specifically about the blurring
of boundaries between fiber work and the mainstream contemporary
art world. Is this blurring of boundaries all good? How does
your department approach this question? I'm curious about
the attitudes toward "fiber art" that you see in your students.
LC: This is a tough question; I have very mixed feelings
about it. On the one hand, the increasing embrace of fiber,
fabric, and related processes by contemporary artists of all
stripes is evidence of what many of us have been saying all
along: that these materials and methods are potent, evocative
means of communicating visually. They can be strong supporting
metaphors. I show my students strong work in relevant materials
no matter who has produced the work. On the other hand, this
same phenomenon seems to reinforce a very traditional view
of art and artists working within the fiber discipline. While
crochet in the hands of a sculptor is seen as transgressive
and creative, for example, it is assumed to be a safe and
conservative choice for someone identified with fiber.
I can't really comment on the attitude towards "fiber art"
that I see in my students because it is a phrase I never use,
except to refer to the magazine - and of course, my students
pick up my discomfort/dislike of the word. Whether they are
drawn to the Fibers Program by the traditional processes or
by our approach to mixed media, they do seem universally enthusiastic
about the particular point of view fibers offers - a demand
that the materials and processes used in making art be considered
as essential aspects of the content of the work.
MT: This past winter, an interesting thing happened
in the art world; quilts from Gee's Bend, an isolated black
community of 700 people in rural Louisiana, were shown at
the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Now the pieces
continue to be shown on a national tour in major museums.
Art critics hailed the work, made over the last 50 years,
as modernist masterpieces. The quilts, made of used clothing
and Sears corduroy fabrics, are products of lifelong activity
learned in childhood and practiced out of necessity. The work
is so strong in its artistic expression that it enters the
realm of art. [See FIBERARTS March/April '03 for a review
and images from the exhibition.]
To me, this exhibition shows not only the blurring of borders
between different categories of art but also the blurring
of boundaries between design and fine art. These quilts were
made as utilitarian textiles, but the form allowed the makers
to bring forth their spirit with the help of an intuitive
grasp of the composition of color, pattern, and material.
In my daily reading of the New York Times, I have become
aware of reviews of textile work by Michael Kimmelman and others,
and think that the art world is ready to consider this area.
The question that remains is: Are those counting themselves
as textile artists ready to pursue their vision and rigorously
bring their work to formal resolution? I feel the field is open
for a reinvention of form and image in textile pieces.
|SAIC student Cariana/Carianne, Action Response
III (performance stills), 2001; 7-minute video.
Faced with the reality of having to start paying back student
loans soon after graduation, many students, including some
who are focusing on fine arts work, prepare design portfolios.
In their design work, we encourage students to integrate their
own vision. Recently there has been news of textile companies
wanting to place a new emphasis on design, and students have
been taking part in projects and competitions organized by
fabric producers interested in a fresh look. We are trying
to expose students to the parameters of design that, in the
end, make the work challenging and exciting.
JL: SAIC's Department of Fiber and Material Studies
is interested in investigating the relationship between concept,
materiality, and process in contemporary art. While it honors
the history of fiber, textile construction, and fabric painting
and printing, the department encourages students to develop
interdisciplinary approaches emphasizing contemporary concepts
and new technologies. As many forms of cloth and fabric making
were once a social or communal undertaking (and remain so
in some cultures), the department stresses the importance
of community-based, collaborative, and environmental projects.
Terrains of deconstruction, pattern, personal and autobiographical
imagery, sculptural forms, and installation are explored in
conjunction with theoretical and aesthetic concepts, as well
as experimentation and research. Investigations into the structure
of the Internet and its potential for lateral, embedded, interlaced
research; networking; and contemporary forms of communication
and time are developed in relation to textile processes. Interventions
into the public sphere in the form of architectural proposals
and actions, critiques of commodification and materialism,
and, again, collaborative community projects are explored.
Students and faculty are equally excited about the ways in
which an expanded approach to fiber, cloth, textile, and cultural
artifact can provide meaningful reflection on contemporary
Have you noticed changes in the demographics of your student
population? Are students more career oriented? Is gender an
issue any more? Are you seeing trends in terms of interest
in particular media?
LC: Our students are still predominantly women. So
gender does still seem to be a factor. At one time, we seemed
to also have a large number of returning or nontraditional
students. That seems to be on the wane, but I suspect it is
because of university policies rather than a shift in the
field of fiber. Because of statewide budget cuts, it is becoming
more and more difficult for the nontraditional student to
be admitted to our university, sad to say.
Weaving is enjoying an upsurge of interest among our students.
The university in general has placed an emphasis on career
issues, but I don't see the students themselves pursuing art
in order to get specific career training.
MT: The Textile Department's demographics seem largely
unchanged; minority enrollment is low (in spite of available
scholarships); most of the foreign students (around 6%) come
from Asian countries, primarily South Korea; and males are
a very small part of the student body. Interestingly enough,
the M.F.A. program in textiles attracts more males - currently
4 out of 13 students - than the B.F.A. program. Interest in
knitted and printed fabrics for apparel has been on the rise
over the past few years. In this regard, we have hired a full-time
faculty member in this area. Interest in weave design has
been strong. In their final year, students are moving from
handweaving to jacquard, taking advantage of the department's
JL: Students who attend SAIC have chosen to go to
a private art school devoted to developing practicing artists
and scholars. In Fiber and Material Studies, the students
tend to be ambitious and are frequently mature, if not older.
Most are female, with a few male students in each class; many
are foreign; and many are transfer students. The students
tend to seek careers in a variety of studio and art-related
practices that frequently include creative combinations of
full- and part-time work, exhibition, and community projects.
|SAIC student Saya Woolfalk, Performing Desire
(detail), 2003; 1-hour performance; cloth, thread,
Much of the work in Fiber & Material Studies is multimedia,
including forms that frequently embrace a material construction
in relation to time-based imagery and phenomena, be that photography,
video, film, light, or sound. Language - spoken and textual,
installation and performance - are also frequently integrated
into student work.
From talking to young artists, I get the impression that
when they leave school, they enter a challenging period in
terms of finding their place in the marketplace and earning
a living from their artwork. What advice do you give your
students for after they leave the school setting? Does the
system support emerging artists well enough?
LC: Graduation from school means freedom to the fledgling
art student, but also a loss of structure. It can be a very
hard jolt to realize that the assignments and deadlines you
chafed under were, in fact, the very framework required to
make yourself make art.
In our senior projects seminar, the students must determine
what their work will be about, they must arrange or develop
studio space of their own to accomplish it, and they are responsible
for their own materials. To support these efforts, the seminar
meets every two weeks to discuss issues that are arising for
the students, troubleshoot technical problems for each other,
and discuss readings - which provides a model of community.
Generally, in the fall quarter, a student will struggle with
identifying his or her own voice and developing a visual vocabulary
with which to manifest it. Winter quarter is spent developing
a series of finished works, and in the Spring quarter, the
B.F.A. thesis exhibitions are held. Our hope is that in this
way, our students grapple with some of the problems facing
the emerging artist while still supported by the structure
of school. In addition, we discuss basic career skills of
the artist - writing an artist statement, documenting work,
how to find and select exhibitions, what options exist for
ongoing education, and how to apply to graduate school. We
have an interdisciplinary seminar for the graduate students,
involving students from a number of disciplines within the
School of Art. One focus of the seminar is professional practices,
and we concentrate on specific career skills such as gallery
representation, grant writing, residencies, the procurement
and maintenance of studios, etc. The seminar also builds skills
in the writing of artist statements, the documentation of
work, and resumé development.
The goals of these seminars are the same for both sets of
students - building skills with which to continue to pursue
their art outside of school. You will note that I have not
said that we prepare them to "make a living from their art."
These seminars prepare students to continue making their art,
exhibiting their art, and deepening their art whether or not
they draw income from it.
As to the issue of support for emerging artists - when has
this ever been a priority for American society? We emphasize
self-empowerment for our students by visiting artist-run co-op
studios, galleries, and living spaces. We encourage the development
of ad hoc critique groups, which emerge among the students
and often continue past graduation. While we seek to demystify
the institutional art world, via visits and discussions with
gallery directors and curators, we and our students know that
emerging art and artists often flourish best in a noninstitutional
setting in which experimentation and risk are prized and the
rent is being paid with a day job.
MT: Of course, artists are seriously underfunded in
this country. ... It is a tough and competitive world out
there, and in the design world there is a lot to learn about
the market and the end use of textiles. A strong foundation,
an awareness of the world around oneself, and an ability to
learn quickly are necessary qualities for anybody to avoid
being swallowed up by the commercial world. One needs to understand
the requirements of production and market and within these
parameters create designs that work and, at their best, bring
something new to the field. Those making their way out to
the world as fine artists need to have a real faith in their
own view in order to persist in their work and find opportunities
to show it.
JL: Chicago is a great city for emerging artists,
with a large alternative gallery scene, exhibition and collaborative
projects, art centers, and museums. The students are encouraged
to take full advantage of the many opportunities and venues
- both traditional and nontraditional - available in the school
and the city, providing a variety of models for negotiating
the complexity of the art world. Students are exposed to the
multiplicity of possible roles that practicing artists frequently
embody - maker, exhibitor, educator, advocate, critical thinker,
researcher - and encouraged to invent their own most appropriate
School Contact Information
University of Washington, Fibers Department,
Box 353440, Seattle, WA 98195-3440, (206) 543-0999,
Rhode Island School of Design, 2 College St.,
Providence, RI 02903, (401) 454-6136, http://www.risd.edu/.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 37 S.
Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60603, (312) 899-5163, http://www.saic.edu/.
Additional images of student works
|Judith Leeman, Untitled (below; detail above), 2003;
blackout cloth; 5 by 4 feet. Leeman is an SAIC M.F.A.
|Detail of a "living sausage" with seven people inside
casing, by SAIC student Chelsea Wagner. Memorial to
Meat-Packing Industry; photo screen print on nylon;
feet long, 3 feet in diameter.
|A pattern prototype by SAIC student Lisa
titled Guns or Butter.
|Erin Danforth, fabric prototypes for outdoor furniture;
woven with plastic. Danforth is a B.F.A. student at RISD.
|Deb Sokolow, Attempted Taxonomy for
Glue #1 (detail),
2002; glue, ink, shelves; 8 by 40 by 8 inches. Sokolow
an M.F.A. student at SAIC.
|An installation, incorporating iron rods and nylon,
2002 RISD B.F.A. graduate Dena Molnar.
|A handwoven wool blanket by UW student
Color Study after Richard Landis, 2002; 105 by
Photo by the artist.
|Michelle Milne, untitled installation, 2001; zippers.
Milne is a 2001 B.F.A. graduate of SAIC.
|Knitted apparel fabric by RISD M.F.A.
student Haewon Shin.
|Dianna Frid, Flying Machines, 2002; cloth,
aluminum foil, adhesive, pins; 7 by 30 by 22
inches. Frid is an SAIC M.F.A. student.
|A resist-dyed and felted piece by 2001
graduate Carol Lebaron.
|Apparel by RISD B.F.A. graduate Sarah Hudson, 2001.
Photo: Howard Huang.