Fiber Art Invitational a wrap

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JULY 16, 2009 7:15 AM

Astrid Bennett knew exactly what she wanted to do this summer.

“There was the Midwest Weavers’ Conference taking place in Grinnell,” said Bennett, the marketing director of the Iowa Artisans Gallery. “I thought, ‘Why not mount a fiber art show here?’ ”

The Fiber Art Invitational celebrates its last day today in the Iowa Artisans Gallery, 207 E. Washington St. The gallery will open at 10 a.m.

Fiber art is a form of artistic expression involving the use of various textiles, usually fabrics, yarns, and natural or synthetic fibers.

To the casual eye, the showcased work looks like a random, if colorful, assortment of quilts. Look a little closer, and the distinct detail work is evident.

“One in 12 Americans quilt,” Bennett said. “These are not your grandmother’s piece quilts.”

Bennett, one of the four fiber artists whose work hangs on the gallery walls, knew of three others, she wanted to exhibit at the event.

“There were two Illinois artists,” she said. “I was the fiber-arts contact in the Midwest, so it wasn’t too hard to set this up.”

The other artists in question are Kathy Weaver from Highland Park, Ill., Tricia Coulson from Le Claire, Iowa, and Bonnie Peterson from Elmhurst, Ill — who began her journey into quilting back in 1993.

“I started making these when a friend of mine died of breast cancer,” Peterson wrote in an e-mail. “There was a contest to use special mammogram fabric in a quilt.”

That first quilt, Talk to Me, looks from a distance to be a collection of brassieres on an autumn-colored background. Upon closer investigation, all the elements are discernible. The piece included knitting, glass beads, and dye printing onto cotton poems and articles on the subject of breast cancer.

“[It] was so rewarding to watch people’s reactions at ‘quilt’ shows,” Peterson wrote. “They’d titter and laugh at a far-away glance, but when they got up close, they … started to speak to their friends of their [breast-cancer] experiences.”

Though Talk to Me was not one of the quilts featured at the Iowa Artisans Gallery this summer, her other work, a variety of political or emotional statement and geographical pieces, has drawn attention.

On display are Keweenaw (a American Indian word meaning “crossing place”), a full-size quilt with the maps and heat-transferred photos, and Trip to Blake Point, a long, thin quilt mapping the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.

“[Peterson] very keen on environmental issues,” Bennett said.

The other Illinois artist, Weaver, started her artistic life as a painter, producing political art on subjects such as militarism and gun violence. With the messages she wanted to share with the world, she knew she needed an bigger audience.

“It occurred to me that many more people attend quilt shows than galleries,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The symbolism of soft fabric for hard messages appealed to me.”

Weaver taught art in public schools for years and drew inspiration from the bright colors of the children’s artwork she saw every day. Leaving strict painting for the textile medium (and introducing Xerox transfers and airbrushing), she chose another child-like figure to feature in her quilts.

“I began to use the robot as a metaphor for an everyperson, a coyote, a doppelgänger or a soothsayer to say what I wanted about ecology, expenditure on weaponry, violence, and the status quo,” she wrote.

Weaver’s textile robots illustrate her thoughts on the direction technology is taking and how science will influence the future of the world. Still, she remains grounded in the present, focused on her art.

“Heaven is being in my studio, without interruption, making things,” she wrote. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

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