Sheila Hicks: Material Voicesby 159
“In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component. Therefore, if you’re beginning with thread, you’re halfway home. There’s a level of familiarity that immediately breaks down any prejudice.” – Sheila Hicks
Although Hicks’s family taught her to sew, knit and crochet, she began pursuing weaving in earnest while studying painting at Yale University in the mid-1950s. There she met Anni Albers, perhaps the best-known textile artist of the 20th century, through her husband, famed artist and colour theorist Josef Albers. Anni Albers enlightened Hicks to the possibilities associated with fibre – a thrilling prospect in theory. Hicks admits, however, that learning to listen to her media while also making them work for her was challenging, saying in 2014, “At the beginning, you work with materials; you don’t know them very well, and try to get them to do what you think you want them to do. As time goes on, you understand the way to make them do what they want to do, but your way.” Hicks’s first attempts at weaving were modest, a function both of practicality and the probing nature of her early fibre constructions. Using a crude loom she built using a painting stretcher and nails, Hicks explored a language that she found aligned closely with her work on canvas. Cross-pollination has been central to Hicks’s practice as her language in fibre has diversified to include three-dimensional forms, such as bales, batons, and cords, among others. Just as the canvas is at once a support and a blank slate for a painter, the gallery wall fulfills both roles for the piece Full Regalia (2007). Liberating thread from the loom and the image from the frame, Full Regalia consists of dozens of “ponytails”, a recurring element in Hicks’s oeuvre – created by pulling together long pieces of soft linen and then binding them at intervals with threads dyed in bright colours. This work emerges from a tapestry tradition as it is unframed, thread-based, and placed directly on the wall; yet its execution pushes against received notions of what a tapestry should be. Bundling the threads gives them sculptural volume, eradicating the notion of a flatly woven wall-hanging. Hicks further breaks with convention by allowing each ponytail to dangle freely, resulting in a gently undulating surface that activates the site while providing for glimpses of the wall behind – a reminder that the artist acknowledges the interplay between her object and the architectural space that it inhabits.
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