There’s a lot going on in the world of textiles and fiber these days….a great deal of excitement about the possibilities in felting and knitting (some good, some–frankly–a bit scary), and a surge of interest in using technology to create new types of effects and fabrics (especially out of sustainable and recycled materials).
Hell, even that most humble of fabrics–denim–is the subject of a geeky fanaticism that’s fueled a recession-resistant market for premium denim (Japanese, please, woven on 1950’s era US looms of course).
But over in the more traditional world of fine art weaving, things are just a little quieter. Maybe not so much change, not so much excitement, not so much creativity and invention. Even a bit stilted, perhaps?
Which is why we were so intrigued to come across the subtly provocative work and ideas of Polly Barton, a Santa Fe-based artist. Her woven work is stunning, more painting in thread than anything else. The colors somehow manage to be both rich and muted, exuberant and quiet, with subtle variation, shade, and depth. And maybe that’s why her work feels emotional and energetic: it has fluidity, movement, depth, variability, texture, nuance. It has LIFE.
We’ve always loved artists for whom the craft medium/the material they’re working with isn’t just another “technique” but is an integral part of the story–their story. And for Polly it most definitely is.
It helps that she’s a master of her craft: she’s been weaving for 30 years (and is known for her silk ikats), first learning about weaving in Kameoka, Japan. (Before this, she studied art history at Barnard, and lived and traveled in Paris, Florence and Rome. Very nice.)
She’s in the midst of quite a career (she shows all over the US and her work is collected by the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) And while textiles are her main focus, she’s also an incredibly talented artist, working in watercolors, graphite, and pencil. Initially, these served as the sketches for her weaving but have come to stand on their own as beautiful, collectible pieces.
But really, what we love about Polly is that this established artist’s got a restless, buzzing energy that has her musing about new ways to push the craft of weaving, and new ways show her work and inspirations. You don’t always (dare we say often) find that, and we love it.
We’re at the start of a new year. What was 2010 like for you? It was all about experimenting with ideas, seeing which ones came back as possibilities, and which intrigued me, and what needs to be postponed. What I’ve been trying to do is to find a way to bring more of my work to the world somehow. The key thing is to find ways that are comfortable and manageable. (Oh ain’t that always the way it is?) It was very much about finding the right balance. (Yes!) But it’s still pretty unformed.
Speaking of balance, it’s really hard to do what you’re doing/known for at the same time as you’re exploring new things. How do you manage? Oh it’s very hard. I get into a tangle and get very much into my own head. (Been there.) But I keep coming back to the thread and what it can create. It’s always been that way. Even when I started drawing, I was, essentially, drawing thread. It’s like my head has handled thread for so long that that’s how I see, think, express. If I get too far ahead or away from the thread, I lose my way. That’s something I learned over the last year.
How did you come to be so drawn to weaving? Oh, it goes way back to my childhood. I was taught to knit and needlepoint and do a little embroidery by my great-aunt. My grandmother gave me a tabletop loom to make potholders–I think I was 6–but I never did enjoy that. But there’s something/some way in which the creative part of me was expressed. I never thought of it as my medium until I went to Japan. I don’t think I went to Japan searching for a medium as an artist but that’s what I got there.
So why Japan? I wanted to see the world, and I had the opportunity to be an exchange student there. I was in a town called Kameoka outside Kyoto where we learned all the traditional Japanese arts. What resonated during that period was the idea that the tool that was in your hand was the means for expressing the energy in the body, and the expressive energy of the artist. I certainly didn’t get that understanding in my more formal education. That was 30 years ago, but I still come back to that experience.
Why ikat? It always presented challenges to me…if it doesn’t push you as a challenge, it gets really boring. Ikat has always presented me with challenges AND it’s a way of playing with color. Why is it such a challenge? Ikat forces me to surrender. The pieces that are the most interesting are those in which the medium has forced me in a direction other than the one I was originally headed in.
And what about the drawing and painting? Are you thinking about a shift there? It’s so easy to think I should do just one or the other…but I’m on the fence, always will be. I can’t get away from working with thread. Yet I conceive of my work as paintings.
Who collects your work? Most work is bought by established textile collectors. (It’s in museums as well.) I did work for churches early on. And I’ve done some commissions for hospitals. (Her work is also carried by the Gail Martin and William Siegal Galleries.)
So what are the challenges in expanding who experiences your work? Well, the work is typically packaged as a contemporary exploration of older art forms. But that’s kind of limited. I’ve found that many people in the art world aren’t comfortable talking about textiles. They don’t feel familiar with it so it gets a little pigeonholed. I think textiles need to be seen in a whole different way.
And part of the problem is the medium itself. It really needs to evolve more. I think that the there are many textile artists who either fall into the Cheeseburger and Pepsi version of what they can do (the same old thing time and time again), OR there’s another side that gets very conceptual and angry, almost abusive of the material itself. I think there needs to be something completely new. And how do you do that? For me it keeps coming back to the thread and the texture and topography it makes possible. But I’m still trying to figure it out.
So how does your day flow? Ideally what I’m realizing is that I don’t need a whole lot of time to just weave to get the ideas going. But I do need a certain chunk of time every day and then it builds up its own momentum. If I don’t spend enough time at the loom, I get kind of lost. That is my centering space. Other things kind of fall into place.
What’s your inspiration? A lot of it comes from sketches or watercolors, or things that I’ve got posted around my studio. That’s something I’ve learned the past 2 years…I really try to understand what is it that this water-color or sketch is telling me. What’s the idea? My weaving is layers of ideas….It just takes a while for me to zero in on what it is that’s interesting me. In terms of external inspiration, often it’s nature. I love the quality of light and the trees in the mountains. I just saw piles of fallen pine needles that took on this wonderful shape. Very sculptural.
Any specific artists? Yes! I’m inspired by a lot of the abstract artists. Particularly Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline.…Anything else? Yes, I often hear combinations of words that intrigue me. Like? I heard this phrase “rivers clapping with joy”…..and it gave me an image of the piece. It’s very liquid. Suddenly that’s how it feels. (Very nice.)
OK, who would play you in the film of your life? The only person that pops into my head is Vanessa Redgrave. I don’t know why. (Because it works, perfectly.)
And what’s the story? Ooh it would be a quiet, meditative movie. Probably a Jane Austen film: does that sound like a cliché? But I’m very conscious of how lucky I have been to have had a career in which I’ve been able to have 3 children, work in a studio at home. I’m particularly lucky to have a husband who’s always gone out of his way to support the studio. I think that with Jane Austen, there’s a quality of the family circling around, growing up together. I’m very conscious of that. It’s kind of romantic and not too adventurous but it’s worked.
What would make you feel successful in the coming year? Ooh. I would feel a new measure of success if I could talk and share enthusiastically about my work. Definitely a challenge for me, and I love a challenge.
What defines you? You know, what defines me changes over time. I guess I have a bureautop that reflects this, has all the things on it that define me at any given time. So what’s on the bureautop now? One of the things that’s on there that I’ve been repairing is a model of a loom that my mother gave me…sometimes I have pictures of my kids….When I look at the bureautop I just realized that I get focused. I’m balanced. I know what I should be focused on and caring about.
Lovely. Jane would be proud. Thanks, Polly.