The Fabric Workshop: A Philadelphia Treasure


 

I recently had the opportunity to see an exhibit at the new home of the Fabric Workshop and Museum .  It’s a roomy, comfortable space that takes up several buildings on Arch Street in Philadelphia.   You no longer have to climb flights of stairs to get to the exhibits and it’s conveniently located on across the street from the Philadelphia Convention Center.

The current exhibit, New American Voices II showcases the work of  four invitational artists-in-residence: Bill Smith, Jiha Moon, Robert Pruitt and Jim Drain.    New American Voices II was definitely not the visual version of a string quartet; it was the work of four soloists, each of whom chose different media and themes to express a unique point of view.   The FMW  tries to showcase artists from across the United States with varied backgrounds and perspectives and encourages them to work with materials they might not have used before.  From what I saw the FMW accomplished its mission and it looks like the artists enjoyed the process.  The exhibition had so much to offer that I can only hit the highlights  in this post.  To get the full flavor, you must see it for yourself.

 

South Korean-born Jiha Moon’s mixed media wall pieces combine collage, sewing, painting, and screen printing with an Asian color aesthetic.   She makes  plentiful  use of Asian and American popular culture symbols and much of her work reminds me of traditional Asian embroidery, not because of any needlework she might usem, but because the designs are expansive and flowing.  Much of her work consists of fanciful pieces that incorporate images from folklore and advertising , but she showed her serious side in a work that appeared to explore the tensions between North and South Korea.     The piece below, which is a little different from the others, features pin cushions, ribbons and beads.

                                       

Jiha Moon

Jim Drain’s huge (and I mean XXXXXL) colorful  machine-knitted dolmen sleeve sweaters remind me of  the big suit David Byrne wears in Stop Making Sense, and fantastic Noh costumes.  I suppose they could be worn, but they were displayed on stands that let the viewer examine every nuance of the designs.  A two-dimensional picture cannot convey the surprises that jump out as you circle the sweaters.  The colors shift and there are lots of subtle details and embellishments.   At first, the color choices appear to be mostly random but on further examination, you realize that every skein and thread works with everything else in the sweater.  Nothing is there that doesn’t belong.

 

Jim Drain

What fascinated me most about Robert Pruitt’s work was his use of period cameras to photograph members of a fictional African-American family to depict ancestors from years past like you’d see in a family album.  Now that’s attention to detail and real dedication.  For me the most powerful photograph was one of a young woman wearing a grass skirt and what appears to be a European colonial officer’s dress uniform jacket.  The golden shoulder cord is replaced by rope that appeared to be a noose.   Pruitt also uses  traditional African symbols and imagery pulled from contemporary urban America.   I found his work  disturbing and compelling.

Robert Pruitt

Bill Smith’s mechanical sculptures meld engineering and art in a way that any fan of Jules Verne or Nicola Tesla would admire, but his inclusion of organic objects like Emu eggs and feathers along with organic looking plastic forms that resemble jellyfish or brain synapses takes his work out of the realm of Steampunk into another world that seems really strange (or is it strangely real?)  Along with Emu eggs, he takes water, magnets,  quirky copper wire, electronics and computers to fashion  several interactive contraptions that manage to look organic, old-fashioned and futuristic all at once.    When walked up to one sculpture,  the Emu egg started to spin, the wires started to sway and the room  filled with a low humming sound.  Then projectors started flashing images onto the white walls of the gallery.  Amazing.   Here’s a video of a similar device he designed and built.

New American Voices II runs until the Spring.  Admission is only $3.00 but you can  donate more if you like.    Treat yourself to this exhibit and the ones planned for the future.  We are so lucky to have a venue like the FMW in Philadelphia.  Let’s support it.

For more pictures of the artists’ work, press here, here, here, and here.

My Sewing Teacher

I’ve posted before about the sewers in my family and have even shown a sewing project of my own.  I  would like to tell you about my sewing teacher.  She’s my mother, Rosemary, and I wish I still have some of the lovely things she made for me when I was growing up.  OK,   I admit they weren’t all lovely.  I remember that pair of bell bottom pants, only Rosemary didn’t have a pattern for bell bottoms, so she made  wide legs.   And since I had wide legs already, the pants had w-i-d-e legs.   The fabric came from the remnant  pile at a local fabric store and was a garish black and blue striped double knit, ( new at the time.)  My mother loved double knit fabric because she didn’t have to iron it.  I swear, this woman would iron anything-even washcloths.  Well, maybe not washcloths, but she did iron our sheets and my father’s underwear. 

The pants were so loud that a group of kids who were a block down the street  howled  the first time I wore them outside.    Had I known about Christo in those days,  maybe I could have pretended to be an art installation or something. 

But  my mother took a sewing class with her friend Peg  and  finally  came into her own  as a seamstress.  Her work was impeccable.  She made me tops, pants, dresses, suits, slips and even a coat.  While I could never talk her out of the remnant pile (she was a Depression kid), I was proud to wear the things she made for me and never hesitated to announce that “my mother made it.”   Her special touch could make cheap fabric look good.  And I monitored the fabric selection after the baggy pants incident.

Rosemary taught me cross stitch and embroidery when I was little, how to thread a needle and how to make minor repairs on garments without sewing them to my pants.  But it wasn’t until after my father died and I got to spend long periods of time with her that I got more serious about the sewing.   I never was much into making clothes, but she taught me how to make pillows, curtains and slipcovers.  One time I went to visit her when she lived  in Florida, I carried two of my couch cushion covers in my suitcase.  She taught me how to make a pattern from them, how to make box cushions and how to sew piping.  I still use the patterns we made more than 20 years ago.

Rosemary doesn’t sew anymore.  She has Alzheimer’s disease.  I moved her to Philadelphia about five years ago and she lives in a nice facility where my brother and I can see her on a regular basis. They have activities in the Memory Ward  where Rosemary has a cute little room.  She painted this picture  a few months ago.

Sometimes Rosemary knows me and sometimes she doesn’t but we always have a nice time when we are together.  It amazes me that I still enjoy her company.   Before she was stricken with the disease, I interviewed her and other relatives for a family history, so I know the story of how she met my father,  what Christmas was like when she was growing up,  the name she gave her favorite doll,  and other things about her life.

 There is a song that says, “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”  So what remains when the memories are gone?   Love is always there if you are open to it.



My Old New Couch

OK, so it’s not really new, but the cushion covers are. I also made floor pillows (shown on the couch here) throw pillows for the couch and leather chairs, and covers for a couple of bed pillows (the pillows slip in a slit in the back) that are  good for lounging.  I heard someone say that being “green” does not mean that you throw away your belongings and buy new things made with organic materials; it means you find a way to reuse what you already have. That’s what I did.  One less couch in a land fill.


These are called “hamburger cushions.    My mother-in-law had them on her sofa and I always admired them.  My mother taught me how to make box cushions and piping,  but I had no idea how to make hamburger cushions and could not find a pattern.  I don’t sew enough to be able to figure it out.  Then, one day, someone on my block threw out a sofa with hamburger cushions.  I swiped  one of the covers and figured out how to make my own.  Saved by my not-so-inner dumpster diver.

I tacked the striped material to the front of the couch.

Throw pillow on leather chair.  Brown fabric on reverse


This is the back of the bed pillow cover.

I had to make miles of piping for this project.  I learned a wonderful new way to cut and sew the fabric fast and neatly.  Here are the YouTube videos.

I hereby nominate Karen Erickson for a Nobel Prize in sewing!

One last thing.  Most home decor junkies are lamenting the passage of Domino Magazine. The good news is  the former editor of Domino started  Lonny Magazine which you can only read on line. Check it out!

My New Hat

     Life has its ups and downs.  Sometimes a girl’s just gotta get herself a new hat.  I got this great hat from The Hats You Want Then I decided to dress it up for the summer with ribbon and some fabric flowers. I love it because it is crushable, packable and so very me.

Life’s Rich Fabric



I have boxes of old family photographs that bring back memories every time I look at them. But the women in my family preserved the family history  with different materials.  They sewed, knitted, crocheted, tatted, and quilted.


In my living room an afghan my maternal grandmother Emma crocheted is draped over a chair. Over another chair is a patchwork quilt my paternal grandmother Mattia pieced together from her bag of fabric scraps collected over the years. My mother Rosemary, who is still living, was a marvelous seamstress and I treasure her Singer Slant-O-Matic from the early ’60’s. Clothes she made for me still hang in my closet, and I have scads of towels and aprons she embroidered.


My mother-in-law Vicky, who died earlier this month, was also an accomplished seamstress. She made beautiful jackets for a few lucky women in the family (including me) from vintage velvet, lace, and her stash of fabric scraps. I wear mine on special occasions. I was fortunate  to have  inherited her sewing machine.  I will remember her every time I use it. 


Here are some pictures.