The difficulties of defining textile art
Erin M Riley learned sewing in Home Economics and set the record for threading the sewing machine in her class. It was something she was instantly hooked on and, for her next birthday, she received the sewing machine she still owns today. Her passion led to her studying at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and since then she’s become a highly regarded voice in the textile art world.
In this article, which is part of the Business of Art series, Erin discusses the topic of identity and debates what impact working within a niche has on us, whether it enables or restricts.
Stuck in the middle spot
Erin M Riley: “I am a tapestry weaver,” all of my profiles across the board used to say that; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of them. When I met someone new in the art setting and they asked what I did, I would say “I weave tapestries” which was generally always met with looks of confusion and the questions of functionality and wondering what type of “things” I made. I still have some business cards that read: Erin M. Riley, Tapestry Weaver.
Even within the fiber community my work was never quite fully described with the terms tapestry weaving, and rarely was it supported amongst tapestry guilds or traditional weaving communities until I showed no signs of giving up. I was stuck in this middle spot that I feel like so many artists who have a strong and long term academic relationship with textiles find themselves. I received my BFA and MFA in fibers and still felt as though I didn’t fit in, despite my work technically being quite traditional. Out of graduate school I began to venture off, applying to less and less fiber- centric opportunities and meticulously studying the eligibility requirements for “fine art” exhibition calls. I remember looking through an issue of New American Painting (a juried regional exhibition in print) and seeing embroidery, I found the eligibility requirements where they stated “we define the activity of painting broadly…as long as the work is singular.” I applied to this and was awarded a spot in the 2009 issue as well as the more recent 2014 issue. This opportunity allowed my work to be seen outside of the textile context, and more importantly, it gave me some validation that I could further pursue opportunities in contemporary fine art galleries and communities, where my work is now more often found and supported.
Betraying the higher laws of craft
In the past few years I have been seeing resurgence in the exposure textile material and techniques were receiving. Artists of all genres were engaging with weaving, many with no textile background, and I find without the baggage of the craft world artists tend to flourish with less self-imposed restrictions. Many artists who were taught in the apprentice, mentor or grand mothered traditional mediums and communities feel as though they are betraying the higher laws of crafts if they want to experiment or go off on their own. I never understood this side of the craft world, why keep a medium in one place alienating all of the people who are interested in progressing and keeping the medium afloat for future generations.
Frame loom weaving has been something I have seen go from an “intro to fibers” process instruction to something weavers in the past 4 years are devoting their lives and businesses to. This is a hugely controversial move amongst many floor loom weavers but it is thriving nonetheless. This is why when I was recently asked to be on the jury for a grant that gives to “individual artists and crafts people” I was shocked to find 2 submissions out of the 200 utilized textiles, one of which was a weaver. I was wondering why so many textile artists either weren’t looking for funding, or were self-jurying themselves out of the running for opportunities. I wonder if because so much about the textile craft causes us to be supporting cast for designers, painters, fashion designers, etc. we lack the ego that is required to put together a proposal asking for funding for our work.
I am an artist first
Initially I had prejudices towards people who have no textile backgrounds exploding in the art world for utilizing a technique that I had seen people take years to master, but I think that this is the important fact, they have a thesis, an idea, and the medium is the means to the ends. We have been taught that jumping into overshot is not allowed; you must first take basic weaving, understand twills and simple weave structures before you can explore the more complex, but why force such long term investment when so many people do not have the privilege of time. I finally realised that while I am a weaver, I am an artist first and not against exploring other mediums, but I am currently focusing my efforts on tapestry weaving. Our medium should not restrict us from opportunities that first and foremost support the visual results of processes.
As an end result, I have removed tapestry from the description of my work, it now reads “wool, cotton” because while I know it is a “hand dyed, hand woven wool tapestry on a cotton warp” it is a visual piece of work first, and if the image of the piece does not pass the first round of jurying the fact that it is a tapestry is irrelevant in either direction.
For more information visit: www.erinmriley.com
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