Explore Fiber is a collaborative website showcasing and exploring fiber as a fine art material.
Continuing this short series of fiber artists that use their art as tools of advocacy for the many issues we are facing in today’s world, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn Skei who I came to know through the Dallas Area Fiber Artists. Here is our conversation….
What processes or techniques are you using for your fiber art?
I have worked with fusibles since my daughter, now 50, was a toddler. Most of my art quilts are fused and would probably qualify as fiber collages. Fusible web provides the “glue” for the collage. I don’t always sidestep the more traditional forms of quilting like piecing and applique, but I gravitate naturally to the freedoms afforded by working with raw-edge fabric, an iron, and lightweight fusible web.
Most pieces of mine that have been juried into recent major shows could be described as figurative textile or fiber art collages. Some pieces are improvisational and non-representational, but many of the quilts that have gathered nice honors are based on colorful iPad abstractions of figurative photographs.
Why do you think the fiber arts are a good medium for advocacy projects?
I should explain that I grew up in the years when “children should be seen and not heard” and my adored father was a relatively quiet person, so I don’t itch to grab the nearest microphone or make a video about what moves or outrages me. That said, I think all truly creative individuals prefer to examine their subjects carefully — to explore the intricacies of issues. Creating a piece of tactile art around a tricky subject allows us to do that.
When the massacre of concertgoers took place in Las Vegas, I was overwhelmed by the news. As a way of processing a happening that I had no control over, I grabbed a big piece of hardware-store canvas and a handful of pens and started scribbling down things said by reporters and commentators. That canvas was soon covered with everything from the text of the Second Amendment to boldface words like “CARNAGE.” As the days wore on, I printed body maps on linen and embroidered them with red X’s to memorialize the dead. The finished piece — “Particularly American Horror” — was juried into the exhibition Guns: Loaded Conversations. The collection traveled under the auspices of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) to various museums across the country for two years. I was really moved to see a photo that showed gallery goers in Michigan studying my quilt — perhaps reliving the event and perhaps reevaluating what we know, or think we know, about weapons of war in the hands of gun enthusiasts.
Can you talk about two or three garments or quilts you have created that act as advocacy tools for various issues?
My most recent political statement (in textiles) is a small quilt called “Bibles and Pepper Balls.” I was watching live coverage the afternoon that peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park, adjacent to the White House grounds, came under fire as police and unidentified military dispersed them with rubber bullets and tear-inducing pepper balls. Minutes later, Donald Trump strode across the cleared area to historic St. John’s Church, to pose for media with his prop of the day, a Holy Bible. My gut churned, and I started pulling together the elements for a quilted commentary on this newest hypocritical act of our reality-show President.
That quilt, by the way, will be part of this fall’s online auction of art quilts made by members of SAQA (www.saqa.com). Explore Fiber fans would enjoy seeing the enormous variety and beauty of the hundreds of 12” x 12” quilts that are always part of the auction.
On the subject of threats to our planet, I made a “Climate Change Kimono” last fall for the Recycled Runway show of Dallas Area Fiber Artists. It is constructed of repurposed upholstery and drapery samples from an interior design studio, and it honors brave young Greta Thunberg, who continues to urge world leaders to face very real existential challenges to our planet. The two halves of the kimono front contrast a healthy environment with a polluted one, and the back of the garment bears Greta’s words to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit.
As you have been working on your projects, and listening to the news, what thoughts or feelings have bubbled up for you?
There is little doubt in my mind — and gut — that the United States has reached what is often described as an “inflection point.” A friend many years ago said she thought our country would not fulfill its mission in history until it faced conquest and oppression. Sometimes I think that time has come! And those forces of conquest and oppression are largely forces from within. We are boiling over with resentments, unfinished projects in equal justice, unresolved moral priorities, environmental threats — and Covid-19 rounds out the threats.
I often feel it is time to “fish or cut bait,” as a treasured friend would put it. Idle daydreaming is not an option. For artists, it is time to put our convictions into our art.
Have you always been a quilter, or have you explored other fiber processes?
Long before I thought I could assemble a quilt, I was learning fiber processes — sewing, tailoring, knitting, crocheting, embroidering, macrame, fabric dyeing, batik waxing. Those all have been a part of my 85-year journey. Paper is fiber, too, and I guess I should admit to having had fun exploring processes like bookbinding, paste papers, printmaking, and Gelli printing.
My closest friends have been those with whom I’ve shared that kind of adventure. “Want to get together on Saturday to paint silk … to try marbling … to experiment with Polaroid transfers on watercolor paper?” Those friendships have lasted across the years and the miles. Last summer a friend I made 50 years ago in California came for a visit to Texas, and we spent days producing art.
How does working with fibers make you feel?
For me, there has been a lifetime of familiarity with textiles – and great affection for cloth. My associations with fibers are distinctly positive — my maternal grandmother sewing dresses at her treadle sewing machine, my mother’s fringed, cherry-printed tablecloth brightening the dining room, my Scout troupe’s matching cowboy shirts (for which we earned our sewing badges), the first draperies I ever sewed, the appliqued sundresses I made decades ago for my toddler daughter….
I love my cameras and computers, of course, but fibers are my hands-on medium. One of my newest quilts involves a custom print on cloth of my hand. “The Creative Hand” is an iPad whole-cloth image “blossoming” with countless colors of thread, and with perle-cotton hand stitching.
Several years ago, at a large local art show that featured many oil paintings and watercolor paintings — what we tend to take for granted as “serious” art mediums — a quirky quilt of mine took Best of Show. It was such a thrill to have that judge take a piece of fiber art as seriously as all the rest. Thanks to Explore Fiber for that same serious validation!