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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the April 28, 2004

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Ingenuity & Diversity in Fiber

In a 1953 article for Craft Horizon Magazine entitled "Ingenuity and Diversity in the Fiber Arts," Lore Kadden Lindenfeld, curator of the current exhibition at the Montgomery Center for the Arts, wrote about the exacting standards imposed by the textile apparel industry on its designers. For many artists, compromising a creative impulse to meet commercial demands can be a painful experience.

Lindenfeld, who graduated from Black Mountain College (BMC) in 1948, found no such dilemma, in large measure because she had been exposed to a new kind of visual thinking at BMC. At the college, no distinction was made between fine and applied art; and she found her job as comfortable and stylish as the high-fashion textiles she was designing.

The doctrine of equality in art was brought to BMC by Josef and Anni Albers, German emigres who had fled Nazi Germany and the historic Bauhaus Academy at Weimar. Their thinking flourished in the U.S., and continues unabated today.

If you are seeking an insider’s perspective on fiber art, let Lindenfeld be your guide. She is first and foremost an accomplished artist, but she has also been a commercial designer, a teacher, a writer, a speaker, a docent and a curator. Her co-exhibitors to whom I spoke by phone, all praised her commitment to fiber art.

On the day I visited the Montgomery Center, Lindenfeld was my guide. I learned that Nancy Koenigsberg, one of the exhibitors, is co-founder of the Textile Study Group, which meets every third Wednesday in New York. Forty or more members and guests gather in space on Union Square to hear a speaker, swap ideas, and network. The group started with six members in 1977; its current membership is 150.

It is from the Study Group that Lindenfeld chose the five women who are exhibiting with her at the 1860 House. Why did she select these five, I asked. "I wanted artists who have been at this for some time," she replied, "20 years – even more. I wanted commitment and maturity. There are many good fiber artists, but I chose these five because I wanted to show their great diversity."

"I selected them more for their differences, " she added, "in order to highlight the depth of their diversity." Lindenfeld looked around the gallery, evidently pleased with the result. "See, it is not too crowded either."

As we walked through the gallery the curator explained each piece. Her hands moved tellingly as if she were experiencing the allure of the materials for the first time, or replaying the creative process that combined them. She discussed aspects of her own work, like the reason she avoids framing with glass, and the influences of her travels on her work.

Glass creates a barrier to sensing the tactility of materials, she explained. A lover of nature, she learned new insights from a six-month stay in Japan where the Japanese integrate nature and habitat in the daily rituals of life. These sensitivities combine in a piece entitled "Taking Flight." in which Lindenfeld pairs two sets of branches which mimic the skeletal frame of birds’ wings. The result is something like the visual equivalent of a haiku poem.

The curator seemed happy discussing her own work, yet she was eager to move on, to redirect our attention to the work of the others. As one of her co-exhibitors told me later, in addition to being an advocate for fiber art, Lindenfeld is also very generous.

While we moved through the gallery Lindenfeld divided her time equally between Pamela Becker, Katherine Crone, Kerr Grabowski, Nancy Koenigsberg, and Betty Vera. Because Lindenfeld has done such a good job of highlighting their differences, their commonality was not immediately self-evident. It is clear, however, that they all use nature’s materials to restate nature. They are at once the lens and the filter. "We," they seem to say in unison, "respect the integrity of the materials we use."

One has the impression that if pressed Lindenfeld would insist emphatically that she has no favorite among the artists in this disparate group. She provided anecdotes about each. Grabowski is something of a "character" she told me. "Kerr is wonderfully spontaneous and creative. Just look at what she does with cat hair!" Her narrative picked up, gathering traction. "Kerr lives in Sussex near the Delaware Water Gap. She used to be part of the Peters Valley Craftsmen in Layton, [where Lindenfeld taught] Kerr used to make silk gowns – for wearing – she had a passion for gowns but also for cats. She loves cats and one day after she lint-rolled some fabric, what she discovered was cat hairs, thousands of cat hairs, and look what has become of them. The patterns they make, aren’t they wonderful?"

We were looking at adhesive strips, each with its very own signature – its own agitated field of cat hairs. They have found their way into a collage entitled "#1 Detritus." The piece suggests that there is nothing either prosaic or inconsequential in nature.

Becker met Lindenfeld at the Morris Museum Craft Annual in 1995. Lindenfeld was fascinated by the range of Becker’s color, which is spectral and fully saturated in contrast to the understated nuances of Lindenfeld’s color. For the three wall hangings in this show – variations on a theme – Becker worked out a prototype, using graph paper and a numbering system. This model gives her the start point for the work, which includes both the dynamics of draping and the schematics of color. The final result is stunning.

Becker’s pieces are proportionally and structurally alike. They derive their mass from gravity, which acts on the fabric like an internal inertia, causing it to swell incrementally as one layer builds on another. "It starts with the sag at the top," Becker told me, "so that the descending layers augment like a pile of sugar."

The pieces have a lovely, undulating form. If they were monochrome they would be no less elegant than are the specific palettes of each piece. "One is the iris, one is the rose, and one is the fall colors of Sonoma Valley," according to the artist. Color grows all the more complex through strategies of interlacing. The color seems to be embedded rather than simply veneered to the fabric.

Influenced by the "linear" in nature, Vera is the artist who best represents the "Ingenuity" side of the show. She has many ideas to synthesize in her response to nature. She told me, for example, that it is not so much the landscape that interests her, but the grasses and twigs within nature, the secrets and whispers, and the linear shadows that bend and warp, resembling ancient scripts like the runes and images of the Druids.

A certain degree of ingenuity is required in order to give these somewhat intangible ideas a visual identity. Vera, like Becker, does preparatory studies. She built maquettes (small models comprised of wood shavings), which she later photographed and scanned into the computer (Photoshop). Later, the image was imported to a digital loom (Norwegian T. C. 1). Trained as a painter at the Maryland Institute of Art, Vera is accomplished at the classical Jacquard handloom.

It is obvious from talking with her that she is open to alternate methods of production. She has a wonderful color piece in this show, but it is her digital black-and-whites that best demonstrate what Vera calls "the thrilling optical mixture of threads." These gorgeously opulent black and white pieces suggest the glisten of wet pavement.

I asked Vera whether the design, once digitized, had the fidelity of the original and she give me a painter’s qualified "Yes." She quickly added that even the classical Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was "really a punch card system, one pixel equals one thread." She also noted that although the work could be mass produced (it is after all, on a disk), she prefers an edition of one.

Lindenfeld and I ended our tour in front of Vera’s work, agreeing that her ingenuity served her vision well and that although the work may be the result of a binary system, it had not a shred of sterility. When I said that Vera was perhaps my "Best in Show," Lindenfeld laughed and gave me a look that said, "These are all my children; and I have first bragging rights."

Ingenuity & Diversity in Fiber Arts, Montgomery Center for the Arts, 124 Montgomery Road, Skillman, 609-921-3272. Invitational featuring Pamela Becker, Katherine Crone, Kerr Grabowski, Nancy Koenigsberg, Lore Lindenfeld, and Betty Vera. These artists’ media include yarn, fabric, stitching, inkjet printing, steel, and wire. Show continues to May 9. Free. The center is open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.

"Contemporary fiber artists are exploring new artistic expressions in their chosen medium, often crossing over into other techniques and art forms while still considering the tradition of fabric," says the show’s curator, Princeton fiber artist Lore Lindenfeld. "Their inventions and diversity reflect the liberating spirit of today’s textile art."

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