Image: Sheila Hicks in front of elements from The Treaty of Chromatic Zones, 2015. Photo © Cristobal Zanartu.
It is difficult to imagine the place of textiles in contemporary art today without Sheila Hicks’ sculptural weaves. She has vastly advanced the medium and played a role in textile arts’ propagation and legacy. Now eighty-four, the Nebraskan is renowned for her experimental and colourful textile installations, each holding a deeply personal message. She has thrived beyond the conventions of textile-making, refusing to limit weaving to the realm of decorative arts and transforming it into a sensorial and interactive experience.
Hicks’ education at the Yale School of Art was the foundation of her sources of inspiration. The combination of Bauhaus painting classes with Josef Albers and courses led by George Kubler, an expert in pre-Colombian art, shaped Hicks’ aesthetic from an early age. She still characterises Kubler’s seminars as her most memorable academic experience; ‘I began teaching myself how to weave because I was interested in how the pre-Incas structured thought with threads, with lines...They were engineering in three dimensions and creating their own materials.’ Using recycled painting stretchers, Hicks constructed her own improvised backstrap loom and set herself on a mission to explore the structures and languages of pre-Columbian textiles.
Image: Sheila Hicks weaving at her home in Taxco el Viejo, Mexico, c.1961–2, photographed by Ferdinand Boesch. Courtesy American Craft Council Library & Archive
Weaving, stamping, assembling, twisting and knotting, Hicks has embraced the many voices and techniques in textiles throughout her sixty-year career. Her works have incorporated everyday objects such as elastic bands, shirt collars, shoe laces and noodles, as well as natural materials including razor clam shells and slabs of slate. It was, however, Hicks’ travels that played a pivotal role in shaping her distinctive practice. In 1957, she was awarded a scholarship to Chile and a few years later she moved to Guerrero in Mexico. Initially intending to make a documentary about Félix Candela’s experimental architecture, Hicks quickly turned to textiles and met regularly with local artisans. She came to work for these indigenous communities, reinterpreting and producing textiles from native techniques. Hicks was especially fascinated by Mexico’s use of natural materials, a choice that continues to influence her today. She slowly shifted away from flatter woven surfaces towards stronger, structural patterns and played with local colours like the Mexican magenta used in her piece Solferino Tacubaya (1961).
Image: Sheila Hicks learning to knot with Rufino Reyes, Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1961. Photo by Faith Stern.
The artist’s insatiable curiosity has been the driving force behind her extensive career. The scrapbooks she has kept since her first trip to Chile in 1957 are filled with lengthy records of textile-making and speak for the breadth of her historic and contemporary references. At the heart of Hicks’ work is haptic learning and collaboration. She strives to foster important relationships with the local artisans she meets and consults the makers for guidance. Through her adoption of indigenous weaving practices in their country of origin, whether Mexican, Israeli or Saudi Arabian, Hicks always brings these community narratives to the forefront, assuring their long overdue space in textile history.
More recently, Hicks’ work has taken the form of large free-standing art. Traces of Hicks’ painting studies seep into her new weaves, with brush stroke textures and outrageous perspectives. These playful pieces are tactile in their shapes, silhouettes and unconventional materials and some gallery visitors have even been invited to touch the work. The overwhelming scale of the abstract textiles reduces the viewer to a childlike sense of wonder and transform the threads into environments in themselves. To this day, Hicks still uses the same pocket loom she has carried since her student days. With this loom, she creates Minimes, small intricate weavings on which she trials new techniques before producing larger versions.
Image: Sheila Hicks, Emerging with Grace, 2016.
Hicks’ textile pieces are site-specific and communicate her personal interaction with her surroundings. Whether mirroring the branches of a nearby tree in Constantinople or enveloping a crumbling staircase in Cork, Hick’s textiles have reinvigorated spaces with new life. Her work with the Musée Carnavalet responded to the architecture of the sixteenth century building, filling gaps between the gardens, embellishing the sculptures and even overflowing into the city streets. At the beginning of each process she asks, ‘What might be good in this room or space in this country and culture?’. Hicks intends to dialogue with her surroundings, and she has re-baptised her installations as ‘environmental sculptures’.
Hicks now resides in Paris, in a studio covered in floor-length layers of braided yarn and decorated with sculptures collected over the years. In 2018, the Centre Pompidou commissioned Hicks to retrace her career in an exhibition titled Life Lines. Collaborating with curator Michel Gauthier, the exhibition’s layout echoed Hicks’ research interests and unique aesthetic. It began in the museum’s outdoor spaces, reflecting the inspiration Hicks has found in vibrant natural forms, with her seminal work Sentinelles de safran (2018) peeping through the gallery windows. Once inside the Centre, the visitor was immersed into a sensory world from the monumental to the miniature; a testament to Hicks’ interdisciplinary talent. Waterfalls of multi-coloured yarn overflow into the gallery and are juxtaposed to more intimate pieces. Her previous shows and installations have been equally as mesmerising and transformed stark settings into rainbow rainforests of textiles.
Image: Sheila Hicks, Saffron Sentinel, 2017. Pigmented fibre. Courtesy of Magasin III Jaffa. Photography: Noam Preisman
From rubber to steel, linen to shell, Hicks has moulded a range of materials to her medium. Her weaves have blurred the lines between genres whilst raising important issues of class, race and gender in a privileged and powerful art world. Celebrating Hicks’ work should not only be limited to her incredible manipulation of thread and fibre, but also to her successful workshops in France, Germany, India, South Africa, Morocco, Chile and Mexico. From floating wool wall hangings in the minimalist style of Italian spatialism to handcrafted stacks of rugs influenced by Moroccan Berber weaving, the marks of Hicks’ inspiration speak for her lifetime of study and travel. Her vision continues to pay homage to the rich and diverse work of indigenous textile cultures without ever claiming ownership, and points towards her interest in the abstract forms of modernist wall hangings. She has embraced industrial progress in weaving techniques but remained dedicated to discovering ancient traditions too. Her works challenge categorisation, constantly breaking down boundaries between the local and the global, the historic and the contemporary.
Written by Lydia Caston