Pat Hickman: A world of visual communication
When Pat Hickman first came upon a gut parka made by native people in Alaska, she saw how an animal’s inner membrane could be used as an outer protective skin. She then began her exploration with a similar inner membrane that became her signature material.
Today Pat lives above the Hudson River. Her recurring themes are the passage of time, the inevitability of change, cycles and seasons, memory and loss, aging and mortality. She brings to these themes elements and images of the natural world of which she feels she is a tiny part.
Pat makes use of river teeth, so named by sailors who found them in water and imagined they came from some unknown creature. Instead, they are the last piece of the tree to decay and combining them with hog casing, she makes visual metaphors, continuing her obsession with impermanence. Tooth and skin, object and shadow, her hands take these ordinary, but mostly unseen materials and make something visible and new.
Pat’s achievements are many:
She taught as a Professor of Art at the University of Hawaii for sixteen years. Her commission, ‘Nets of Makali’i – Nets of the Pleiades’, stands as monumental entrance gates for the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.
Pat twice received NEA Individual Artist’s Grants. In 2005, she was elected a Fellow of the American Craft Council.
She curated two traveling exhibits: ‘Innerskins/Outerskins: Gut and Fishskin’ (1987) and ‘Baskets: Redefining Volume and Meaning’ (1993).
From 2008-2010 Pat served as president of the Textile Society of America and was honored to be in the 12th Biennale Internationale de la Tapisserie, Lausanne, Switzerland in 1985.
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Patricia Hickman: My grandmother made quilts, always flower garden patterns. Even when she could no longer organize quilt blocks, she loved moving printed cloth patterns and colors around, putting them together. She had such a good eye and passion for what she did.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by the Fiber Medium?
It was while living and teaching English language and literature in Turkey, exploring in Istanbul and in the countryside, that I discovered Ottoman Turkish art and architecture, including beautiful, handcrafted textiles. I wanted to learn about them and so began my study of textile processes. I eventually attended a class at the Applied Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul and began to learn to weave.
A world of visual communication
Later, I felt very lucky to be in graduate school at the University of California Berkeley during the 70s and 80s. Since I hadn’t studied art as an undergraduate, I lingered longer than was usual in the Textile Design program studying with Ed Rossbach, completing a written thesis on Turkish ‘oya’, needle lace edging. I had returned for a research year to Istanbul to study what I had observed earlier: how women communicated visual messages with tiny three-dimensional edging on their headscarves. For example, if a woman was arguing with her husband, she wore a scarf with red pepper edging and nothing needed to be said. Or she could announce her pregnancy with small stuffed pink forms, or inform her community that her son had gone to the army. I found this silent communication of great interest. Such wordless communication is what art does. I knew I wanted to be part of this world of visual communication through my studio making.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in a small town in northeastern Colorado, on the prairie. My mother was a grade school teacher; my dad was a butcher who co-owned a small grocery store. I had trouble watching him occasionally butcher at his sister’s ranch. People in my family hunt and fish, eating the meat they get. I liked going with Dad to find arrowheads or to discover ‘treasures’ in a dump. Dad had a curiosity about the larger world. He loved National Geographic Magazine.
For 21 years I lived on the Great Plains of Colorado – flat, hard, dust-blown. The endless expanse where I grew up held little beauty for me.
In my piece ‘Tumbleweed’, made with knotted-netting, I express yearning, knowing I was shaped by that place where I started, even as I had to leave it.
I was late in discovering that there was such a thing as art. In high school, the art teacher was a coach and driver’s education teacher, not someone who opened us to the world of art. Going to art museums was not part of my growing up.
A deep interest in ethnographic world textiles
After my two years in Turkey, I returned to the United States, to the Boston area, and began to take textile art classes at the Cambridge Adult Education Center, studying with Joanne Segal Brandford. This was in the early 1970s, when there was great excitement about art in the fiber medium. The mood at that time in the fiber world was that everything began in the 1970s. From my appreciation of traditional Turkish textiles I knew otherwise. By then, I had a deep interest in ethnographic world textiles, in textile history, and wanted to learn more. Joanne encouraged my pursuit of that direction, along with learning through my hands as a maker. When my family (my husband and twin daughters) and I were leaving the east coast for Berkeley, Joanne encouraged me to study with Lillian Elliott and with Ed Rossbach once I was in California, convinced that they could become remarkable mentors for me.
Drawn to indigenous textiles
What was your route to becoming an artist?
As an artist, my work – most of all—has been informed and shaped by the study of world textiles. Beginning in Berkeley with the Design Department’s study collection, and the ethnographic collections in the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, I began to learn textile history the way a painter might study art history. I spent hours photographing world textiles, seeing them as an idea file, a sketchbook for me. I didn’t want to imitate or duplicate what anonymous makers had done so well, creating objects for use in particular cultures at a particular time. But their remarkable, sophisticated skill was astounding to me. I was and am drawn to indigenous textiles, which to a Western eye, seem to be created with surprising juxtapositions of color and pattern and techniques, operating by their own set of rules.
These textiles, over many years of looking, have entered my imagination, becoming part of my vocabulary as I continue to make my own work.
A most frenetic, exciting time
My route to becoming an artist was, and still is, greatly informed by place – by where I live. The 1970s was such a heady time in Berkeley, which (we were convinced) was the center of the Fiber movement. Many well trained fiber artists, who’d come out of programs at California College of Arts & Crafts and/or the University of California at Berkeley, wanted to linger there, teaching part time in whatever classes they could offer at Pacific Basin School of Textile Art or at Fiberworks. Artists from elsewhere came to these local institutions to be part of the scene. I went to every possible lecture and museum exhibit in the Bay Area, which was hopping with visiting artists passing through, offering workshops – a most frenetic, exciting time. Those of us who lived there and were part of this time benefitted from it all.
I purchased hog casings and began my exploration
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
When I completed my degree, Ed Rossbach was going on sabbatical and asked me to teach a textile history course for one semester. It seemed terrifying. I didn’t know enough; I’d be teaching students who were my peers. But Rossbach recognized my deep interest in the subject. He trusted that I would rise to this challenge long before I had recognized I could move in this direction. Teaching his course helped shape what I subsequently wanted to offer in my own teaching, along with studio courses.
One of the areas I included in my textile history course of the Americas and Europe focused on the textiles of Alaska. I’d seen a gut parka on display in an exhibit on Ethnic Textiles which Anne Wilson curated at the downtown center of the de Young Museum. In preparation for teaching the textile history course I carefully studied and photographed many gut and fish skin parkas from Alaska in the Lowie collection, and felt the need for my own hands to experiment with a related material. So from a delicatessen in Oakland, I purchased hog casings and began my exploration.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
There was no ‘how to’ reference for working with animal membrane. My process has been one of exploration, an intuitive process of experimenting, creating a tough membrane, almost like parchment, through the building up of layers. I work with wet sausage casings. When they dry, stretched over a structure, they become taut. I’m interested in both structure and skin. The contraction of gut when drying, the pulling power of those membranes, changes the shape of a structure, finally achieving a balance, a resolution of the separate materials.
Also during this time the artist Lillian Elliott and I had become close friends and colleagues. I studied with her for one year at CCAC. We both had small children, yet were determined to find time to create our artwork along with family responsibilities.
Elliott was creating baskets at this time, along with tapestries and other items. We started getting together one day a week in our shared studio to focus on our own individual work. One day Lillian spoke of covering a form she’d created with a paper skin. I suggested that the material I was working with, animal membrane, might attach to her reed structure, and thus began our eleven years of collaborative work, creating structure and skin three-dimensional sculptural forms.
Lillian built the structures, I covered them with skin membranes. One or the other of us would paint the finished work. Our own individual work, very different from our collaborative work, continued throughout these eleven years – a very productive time.
This was a very important phase in my development as an artist. Lillian was a most important mentor for me; she’d known she wanted to be an artist since age three. I was a latecomer to the world of art.
What environment do you like to work in?
I respond to place through the materials available to me as potential art materials, materials that to me carry meaning and ideas. When living in Hawaii, the materials around me – palm sheaths and other natural plant materials I could transform – influenced me. Where I live and work now in New York, I’m responding to the mark making by rust, to found, abandoned railroad plates.
In a brick complex near my studio in Garnerville, NY, I covered a rusty elevator door, appr. 170 years old, with gut. Workers, in this series of buildings beginning in the 1830s, dyed and printed calico cloth. The elevator door speaks of time and change. Some of the metal has disappeared exposing the weathered wooden frame beneath. I have picked up the patterning from the rust, transferred it onto the gut skin membrane, responding to the history of this place. I like the intimacy of this material – one thing becoming another through touch and the passage of time. Most recently, after the devastation of Hurricane Irene on this complex, with debris pouring through the creek and destroying the gallery, the heart of this place, I’ve partially covered this door, ‘Calicoed by Rust’, with what appear to be tossed metal railroad plates, creating ‘Downriver Ravages’.
What currently inspires you?
My work and ongoing investigation seem related to my paying attention to what is around me, studying shape and form. I’m now doing this outdoors, most recently at Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine, where I gather river teeth in the woods and create, responding to what these materials give me.
At home, I’m inspired by what is outside my windows, where I see the Hudson river and its movement.
I went with what nature was giving me
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particular memories and why?
‘The River That Flows Both Ways’, with credit to the Native American name for the Hudson, mug-he-kun-ne-tuk. In this recent work, I used the river teeth in a new way for me, drawing with them – with their shape to capture movement and flow. I went with what nature was giving me in those found wooden forms, rather than imposing a configuration that they fit into.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Scissors, a Dremel, and of course a refrigerator to store my hog casing.
Do you give talks or run workshops?
Yes; I am most likely to teach at one of the summer craft schools in the US – Haystack, Penland, Arrowmont, Peters Valley – offering intensive 1-2 week long workshops.
If so where can readers find information about these?
Check my website: www.pathickman.com, or check the catalogues of those institutions.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I mostly exhibit in invitational exhibitions.
Where can readers see your work this year?
August 20 – November 1, 2015
Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, MI
December 6, 2015 – March, 2016
Dennos Museum, Traverse City, MI
Oct. 2-30, 2015
West End Art Depot, Las Cruces, NM
A Very Long Engagement
October 2, 2015 – January, 2016
Traveling exhibition as part of the Society for Contemporary Craft
Satellite Gallery, BNY Mellon Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Encounter: Pat Hickman and David Soo
October 11 – November 15, 2015
Opening Reception: Sunday, October 11, 2 – 4:30 p.m.
Outside In Gallery, Piermont, NY
Gravers Lane Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 215-247-1603
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For more information please visit www.pathickman.com
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