52 + Much More from Fiber Artist, Ellen Schiffman
Written by: Nancy Moore
Ellen Schiffman has shown her award-winning work widely in local and national galleries. She creates wearables as well as art pieces for the wall. The “52 Box Project,” a year-long project in which she filled a 9”x 9” box each week with a work in fiber, was recently featured in the nationally distributed Fiber Art Now magazine. She also serves as the Connecticut representative of the Surface Design Association, the premier international organization serving textile and fiber artists. Ellen Schiffman’s work can be seen on her website www.ellenschiffmanfelt.com.
“Thinking Inside the Box: 52 Weekly Works in Fiber… and Beyond.”
Nylen Gallery/Picture This in Westport, Connecticut, will be presenting the work of fiber artist Ellen Schiffman in a one-woman exhibition “Thinking Inside the Box: 52 Weekly Works in Fiber… and Beyond.” The show runs from October 1 to November 15, with an opening reception on Saturday October 11. If you are located anywhere near this gallery, don’t miss this exhibit! I recently had the opportunity to preview the work for the show and was blown away by the range and creativity demonstrated in the pieces I saw. Although I am familiar with Schiffman’s work and have admired her creative voice for years, the latest collection breaks new ground for her as an artist and broadened my own concept of what fiber art is and what the category of “fine art” can and should include.
This past year Schiffman decided to celebrate a milestone birthday by filling a 9” x 9” x 3” shadow box each week with a work utilizing fiber and employing both traditional and experimental fiber art techniques. Having worked as a fiber artist for over thirty years, she now set out to explore methods and materials in ways that stretched and redefined not only herself as an artist but also the fiber art medium itself. The result is a kind of visual diary, with each box presenting a fully realized, engaging, and innovative work of art, often prompting the questions “What is she using here?” and “How did she do that?” Again and again I found myself surprised and delighted as I realized what I was looking at: Q-tips, egg shells, lichens, drinking straws, rusted items, metal washers, and screws alongside the more expected silks, wools, and beads. Schiffman felts, embroiders, weaves, knots, wraps, dyes, beads, sculpts, manipulates fabric, burns – all with a masterful hand and a unique vision.
Playing with a concept
When the artist started her yearlong project, she did not know if she would end up with fifty-two independent works of art or whether the project would progress in an orderly fashion, with each piece relating to and building on the others. The artist says, “I embarked on the project as I do with all of my work – intuitively. I kept an Idea Book over the course of the year and chose the idea that spoke loudest to me each week. Often the concept was just a word like ‘Q-tips’ or ‘ruffles’ or ‘transparency.’ Sometimes a simple sketch would be the jumping-off place. I started to play with a concept, allowing the materials and techniques to speak to me until a vision and direction emerged.” As a viewer, then, it was fascinating for me to discover that the pieces were not consciously linked to each other, since these fifty-two boxes have a cohesion and powerful impact when seen together.
Schiffman says that she never knows what a piece will look like until it is done. This joyful spontaneity informs all of her work and gives vibrancy and life to this particular project as a whole. Her fine sense of design, her mastery of color, her sense of humor, her pleasure at finding beauty in imperfection, and her delight in the unexpected permeate the collection and create a common language from piece to piece. Although, in fact, each piece works on its own, certain themes emerge repeatedly over the course of the year. White-on-white pieces are subtle and elegant, relying on texture and form to make their statement. Personal pieces celebrate her daughter’s graduation from college, her son’s twenty-first birthday, and the artist’s own birthday trip to Paris with her husband. Numerous pieces are inspired by Schiffman’s reverence for nature – as twigs, stones, shells, and bark make frequent appearances over the course of the year.
Numerous large-scale works
More treats for the eye and mind at this exhibit include several thematic box series, as well as numerous large-scale works. All are inspired by a single box in the original series. Schiffman found that there were certain materials and themes she wanted to return to, to explore more fully utilizing the knowledge and skills she developed over the course of the year. Schiffman laughs, “I was having far too much fun with the boxes to stop after a year!” These variations on a theme create a symphony of insights into how an artist progresses and continues to grow. Viewers like myself will find themselves quite eager to see what comes next for artist Ellen Schiffman.
For more information please visit: www.ellenschiffmanfelt.com or Nylen Gallery/Picture This
If you enjoyed this article or have seen the exhibition “Thinking Inside the Box” let us know by leaving a comment below.
7 comments on “52 + Much More from Fiber Artist, Ellen Schiffman”
What a fascinating idea and I love these. You have really inspired to reach inside myself and not focus on the finished article, e.g. Where can I display it at home or is it a saleable piece of work? My workplace is my lounge in a very small home so I tend to let the space and the cream carpet (careful with paints and dyes etc.) dictate to me what I do but I want to expand my thoughts and experiments so here goes. Thank you
Angela, try adding a large cloth drop cloth over that carpeting in your work area — it will give you so much freedom! I’ve recently transitioned form collaging with primarily fabric to primarily acrylic painting, and the drop cloth is my security, well, carpet!
Putting pieces in boxes that are able to be displayed is a wonderful way of remembering all the processes that have been explored and perhaps forgotten along the way…. I think it’s a method I will begin to use for just that, initially, although I can see the potential as a continuing exercise!
I count myself among the lucky ones who are Connecticut members of the Surface Design Association. That’s how I know Ellen and benefit greatly from her imaginative and energetic leadership, not to mention seeing her incredible fiber art evolve and become. Her work is stunning … she will never run out of new ideas, I’m sure of it! The author of this article, Nancy Moore, has also become an awesome friend as a result of our membership in SDA. Nancy – Thanks for this super article about Ellen!
It’s interesting how the structure of the box helps bring about so many different ways to fill it! I worked with only denim wrapped and collaged onto cradled boards and I was amazed how much could come out of those limitations. First time I really understood why people like to explore through series. Thanks for this interesting article!
Intriguing project, not unlike my Made On Monday project that I began in 2015 that has attracted participants from around the globe working in all and any art medium. One 5” x 5” piece per week … I’m currently on #172! http://katebridger.wixsite.com/madeonmonday
I only became aware of Ellen’s work this morning, on the textileartist.org post. Talk about serendipitous! I love boxes, and have been playing around with them for years, mainly as a vehicle for displaying an artwork, rather than being the artwork. The idea of creating a series of works, then extracting elements from which to build an new series is not new, but being reminded of it so dramatically makes it so – and I am going to run with it. Thank you Ellen, and thank you Nancy for a timely and inspiring article.
I live in Queensland, Australia.