A hidden medium, woven into Milwaukee
Organizations and events like Warped Milwaukee, ABK Weaving Center and a UWM program in fiber arts have helped cultivate an often community-less medium.
When Harmonie Baker organized the first Warped Milwaukee exhibition, an art show featuring works of fiber art, she knew there were plenty of talented artists out there. She just had to find them.
“I think I spent like a month just begging people to submit to it and searching for fiber artists,” she says. “It’s like they were all hiding under rocks.”
That was three years ago and pretty much sums up why Warped Milwaukee began. If Baker, a fiber artist herself, couldn’t find other artists, how was the public supposed to know they were there?
Working with fiber is a largely solitary practice. Unlike more traditional media, there are no organizations to join, no social scene and until recently, no dedicated gallery space or shows. And yet, fiber artists are woven into this city once you start looking. Last year’s Pfister Hotel’s artist-in-residence was Timothy Westbrook, a fiber artist from New York. Throughout the Milwaukee Public School system, fiber artists use their craft to teach confidence and creativity to at-risk youth. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers a bachelor of fine arts degree in fibers.
Liz Carr has always been an artist, though she only recently began working with felt. She has a graduate degree in illustration, but was always fascinated by textures. She primarily creates landscapes through felting or dying and matting wool.
“I think there are some misperceptions out there that have to do with the breadth of what fiber art can be,” Carr said. “If you say fiber art, people think quilting.”
At UWM, one commonly taught definition of fiber art is “creating art with pliable materials, often times using traditional textile processes.” But the matter is always up for debate. Could a ceramic piece be fiber art if it’s woven? Does digital fiber art exist? There are no definitive answers.
“It’s bigger than fabric, that’s for sure,” said artist Shannon Molter.
Molter is an alumna of UWM’s fibers program. Today she sits on the board of the Riverwest Artists Association and teaches art in programs around the city. She also maintains a studio practice, creating sculptural pieces and making landscapes with found materials.
“I don’t think that it lacks any respect in the community, but maybe it’s one thing that people don’t fully understand. Yet.”
People in Milwaukee are curious about fiber art, Molter says, and have the do-it-yourself spirit necessary to appreciate the pieces.
Fiber arts student Taylor Easton, a senior in UWM’s program who also won Warped Milwaukee 2012, thinks the key is for fiber artists to get out of their bubble and into the public eye. “I think the more that fiber artists put themselves into shows that aren’t concentrated in fibers, it will open up Milwaukee to the art that is a craft, but is an art. I think people get kind of confused about that, too.”
Baker herself started weaving about 10 years ago and embraced it as fine art a few years after that. Then she set out to raise awareness for both ABK Weaving Center, where she sits on the board, and for the city’s artists in general. The show she created grows in popularity among artists and attendees every year, and it has created a sense of community previously lacking.
ABK Weaving Center is an education resource in the basement of Gaenslen School, which focuses on children with special needs. ABK members work with that school’s students each year, as well as students at other grade and high schools. Artist Susan Buss does weaving residencies at MPS schools, teaching kids the process and guiding them in completing a finished product together. Baker will bring her loom into her ten-year-old daughter’s classroom to teach the kids the math and measurement of weaving. Jill Engel, an art teacher at The Alliance School for students who have suffered from bullying or harassment, completes many fiber arts projects with her students and even puts on exhibitions of their work.
“I think some of the adjectives we’ve used to describe fiber arts make it a natural choice,” Carr said. “You always try to choose things that give some level of catharsis, some level of patience, and you can create a good product at any experience level, which is really unique. And particularly for at-risk youth, in my experience, it’s particularly important to show them that they can do something that they’ll be proud of at the end.”
None of these artists harbor any illusions that all of these children will pick up weaving on their own time. It’s a hard hobby to get into. It is time-consuming, expensive, and requires a lot of patience. But things may be changing. ABK, which had been chronically underutilized, now fills up every class. Perhaps they are lighting a spark.
“One of my instructors regularly could bring tears to her eyes talking about wool,” Carr said. “She always said ‘I love wool like I love man.’”
The women laugh together, but it is a laugh of recognition. Through these programs, maybe they too can succeed in passing on the love of fiber arts.