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Benefit 2011: Sumo Balls

It’s early evening, and the servers are holding trays of champagne glasses—not flutes, but the saucer-shaped kind said to have originally been molded from the breast of Helen of Troy. The guests filter through the glass doors in their finery: a blonde in a shimmering green dress, a smiling man in bow tie, a young woman in a gown printed with foxes. The ICA staff has spent the day arranging the dark purple calla lilies in their vases, dealing with a shortage of electricity, buying extra tequila, and laying Mylar—sent all the way from France—across the tables. I myself have spent an extraordinary amount of time proofreading names on place cards; you wouldn’t want to get that wrong. It’s nice to have all that behind us now, and to see the guests enjoying themselves.
Miranda: Benefit-table

Photo: Shira Yudkoff

The large ravioli filled with cheese and quail egg seem to be a success. In the gallery (champagne and ravioli left outside), a woman points to large hanging Sheila Hicks sculpture and says to her companion, “We need one of those!” I presume she can afford it. This is ICA’s Benefit, the night our most generous donors pay a tidy sum to honor a special figure in the art world in support of the museum’s programs. This year’s honoree is Sheila Hicks, whose current ICA exhibition Sheila Hicks: 50 Years is the first major retrospective of this extraordinary artist who works largely in fiber: cotton, wool, linen, silk, bamboo fiber, synthetics, rubber bands. Sheila, who lives in Paris, was around through a chilly March week for installation, and it’s nice to have her back in this celebratory mode.
Miranda: Sheila-and-art

Sheila in the gallery. Photo: Shira Yudkoff

After cocktails, everyone moves out onto the Terrace for dinner, where luckily the heavy rain had held off. The Mylar tablecloths look lovely with the dark flowers on them. They reflect the deep purple of the programs and the bright yellow of the wine. After the caponata and the beef cheeks (SD26 Restaurant and Wine Bar prepared the dinner), there is a pause. ICA Board Chair Andie Laporte welcomes the guests. ICA’s director, Claudia Gould, tells a story about a man who picked Sheila up hitchhiking in Mexico in 1950, where she was studying indigenous textiles, and got taken back to her house for a good meal. Poet Bill Berkson, an old friend, takes us on a leisurely journey through the Paris streets to Sheila’s studio: “If you are in Paris, and you’re coming from the Marais, you take the 96 bus,” he says. Then Sheila herself floats up to the podium:

“I was thinking we could take off our clothes and I would wrap them for you, and then we could decide who was worthy of taking them home. Who will give me something that I can wrap?”

Murmurs and laughter rise through the night. People start passing bits of clothing up the tables: socks and stockings, a hair ribbon, a glove. A man stands up and takes off his tie.
Miranda: Kirk giving tie

Taking off the tie. Photo: Shira Yudkoff

At the podium, Sheila asks for scissors. She lifts spools of thread from a bag: silk and cotton, synthetic and linen, green and gold and blue. She begins to wrap the flotsam clothing the tide washes up, making sumo balls—commemorative pieces that cocoon significant objects in thread. She wraps a man’s shirt. She wraps a pair of pink and white lace panties. Claudia takes the microphone: “I want everyone to know that one of our Board members just gave up her bra!” she reports jubilantly.

A man approaches solemnly with his hand in his hand; he has a prosthetic hand, which he has removed, and he passes it silently over to Sheila who takes it quizzically, tenderly, wraps a ribbon around it, and passes it silently back. Two men, a couple, offer up their ties, and she unspools purple silk, then blue linen, binding them together into one bright sphere, enfolding intimate objects in the blessing of thread.
Miranda: Sheila-wrapping

Sheila wrapping. Photo: Shira Yudkoff

Sheila wraps and wraps, beaming as she works. She likes working. As the night wears on, it seems to me that she looks younger, as though she is unspooling not just thread but also time; as though she is moving back toward that young woman she used to be, hitchhiking through Mexico. The woman who loved textiles, color, pattern, texture, but couldn’t yet guess what she would make of them.

Sheila Hicks: 50 Years will be on view at ICA through August 7.

To sign up for Miranda’s mailing list, email rpastan@upenn.edu.