To give you an idea of my experience with textiles, the last time I tried sewing was when I was 6 and I almost bound my sensitive digits to the hideous boxy dress I was attempting to make.
But even though my knowledge of fabrics is limited, I believe fiber art deserves the same level of respect afforded more universally revered art forms like painting and collage, the practices with which it's most closely aligned. Like artists in those mediums, today’s quilters and fiber artists are moving beyond tradition into sophisticated new realms. In the four exhibitions featuring soft, fluffy materials at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, you’ll find that fiber is making a name for itself as not just your grandma’s hobby, but as a fine art.
New Quilts from an Old Favorite: New York Beauty from the National Quilt Museum features the most traditional of the quilts, but their kaleidoscopic shards of color have a contemporary flair. Entrants in an annual contest held by the National Quilt Museum, the artists made specific work to reflect the chosen theme. This year’s competition required usage of the New York Beauty block, a quilting pattern that resembles illustrative sun rays. With this small stipulation in mind, the quilters had free rein to go in a pictorial or abstract direction. One standout is Robin Gausebeck’s “On Monday, Broadway Goes Dark.” Photos can’t do it justice; it is a radiant piece with Swarovski crystals and metallic thread embedded in the simple black cloth, creating a shimmering landscape reminiscent of the Big Apple once the sun goes down.
In a similar juried-style show, SAQT Florida: Growth, the Studio Art Quilt Associate’s Florida chapter was asked to create work under the broad theme of “Growth” — from the cycle of natural life to urban expansion and everything in between. Expanding beyond quilting, these works incorporate mixed media, hand-dyed cloth and digital printing on fabric.
On the edgier side of threaded things are the works of Erin E. Castellan in her solo show Slow Seeing, merging fabric and paper elements to create multi-media works. In an increasingly fast-paced world, her aim is to use intricate tactile elements to slow us down and explore the physical world around us. In her most successful pieces, she ditches the traditional rectangular format and creates wild, irregular shapes with collaged fibers. “Auguri, Auguri, ping pong ping pong” is such a piece. Shaped almost like a map of North America, its sections of fibers and woven sequins are doused in latex paint, creating unusual, luscious textures.
Before making the trek to Dunedin, I already had my eyes set on the work of Karol Kusmaul. Her show of portraits, Shirt Tales, didn’t disappoint. Many artists document the people around them, but Kusmaul’s voice is unique in part because of the witty realness with which she approaches her subjects. Whether it’s a scene of a woman pumping gas in a wind-blown dress or a mustachioed man eating an ice cream cone while scrolling through his phone, the wall text adds a little inside story to each image.
Some of her most memorable pieces are those that depict aging in sometimes-humorous ways (like in “Flashes”), a theme you don’t see often in artworks. There’s a tenderness to these pieces that creates an instant connection, especially in the heartfelt “Come Out of Your Shell.” Two older women meander across the shore on a mild, overcast day, picking up seashells along the water’s edge. Kusmaul writes in the wall text, “Don’t let handicaps prevent you from getting out and enjoying life!” The artist’s passion for the little things in life is apparent, and becomes infectious when viewing her colorful works in person.
Quilting and fiber aren’t for the faint of heart, with some artists recording upwards of 1,000 hours in a single piece. As contemporary fibers aligns itself more with painting — with a cottony-soft color palette and brushstroke-like stitches — these exhibitions show the breadth of talent and innovation within today’s fiber community.
Caitlin Albritton, CL Tampa's visual arts critic, spends her time tracking down art you might not see anywhere else. She's also an artist in her own right. Follow her on Instagram or read her blog. Email her here.