ART CLOTH is cloth TRANSFORMED by adding or subtracting color, line, shape, texture, value, or fiber to CREATE a compelling surface.

Art Cloth - A Historical Perspective

by Jane Dunnewold

Art cloth springs from revered fine craft traditions. In Asian culture, for example, artisans who spend their whole lives perfecting dyeing and weaving skills are honored with the title National Living Treasure. In the United States, traditional crafts - quilt making, basketry, ceramics, weaving and metalwork - have always occupied a special niche - renowned as examples of the human impulse to create. During the past thirty years many traditional craft forms have evolved into something more than perfectly executed, functional works. Nonfunctional pieces - in basketry, metalwork, ceramics and glass - are all examples of the finely crafted "object", a work of art with roots in a craft medium.

Art quilts sprang from the uniquely American tradition of piecing cloth and sewing it into a layered bed covering. As mundanely useful objects, traditional quilts offered women with limited artistic opportunities a chance to explore color and pattern in a socially approved setting. The move to appropriate the quilt as a nonfunctional art form - literally taking it off the bed and hanging it on the wall - was stimulated at least in part by an updated version of this sensibility. Art quilt makers found appeal in the link to the past and to other women, in the recycled aspects of quilt making, and especially in the notion that this was uncharted territory.

Similar impulse informs the growing interest in art cloth. With roots deeply imbedded in the fertile soil of fine craftsmanship, art cloth encourages the entwining of branches that include traditional women's work, high fashion and historical textile processes like batik, shibori and African mudcloth.

Art Cloth pays homage to all of these but synthesizes them in a specifically contemporary way. The cloth becomes an object with a rightful existence as itself. These one of a kind lengths tell stories, challenge perceptions and invite contemplation. Like all good works of art, they refresh, renew or challenge, every time they are encountered. Art cloth is unique because it can also be transformed - into home furnishings, and into individual special garments - without being compromised.

Cloth can also be collected with the intent to keep it forever intact. Hung over a rod, displayed against a wooden screen, draped inside a lighted box, suspended from the ceiling - art cloth is suited to the world of small and personal spaces. A collection doesn't have to take up much room. It is interactive in a way few media are.

This ability to invite interaction is part of what draws artists to the idea of cloth. The actions of creating cloth are physical - lifting cloth into buckets of brilliant dye, washing it out later, ironing and stretching. Folding and smoothing. A real satisfaction comes from the physical effort that goes into making the cloth. It stems from an ongoing interaction with the process, and from an ongoing interaction with the spirit of the cloth as each length approaches completion. With luck, the interactivity continues. The viewer is involved and the owner is drawn in. If the piece is to be transformed into some other object there is the dialogue about who and what it will be. If the piece becomes part of a collection the interaction takes on a different character. But there is always interaction. Owning art cloth is never static. It satisfies because it is active, it is tactile, and it is personal. 

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