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The Anti-Penelope

Miranda: Boeing 747 Silk

Silk bas relief for interior of Boeing 747 aircraft, Air France, 1969-1977. Silk on cotton canvas, 53 1/8 in. x 157 1/2 in. Private collection.

Born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1934, but since 1963 a resident of Paris.

A student of painting who found her true artistic vocabulary in fiber.

Maker of objects ranging from large commissions for corporate offices to small memory bundles—sentimental objects wrapped in yarn.

These are all characteristics of the extraordinary fiber artist Sheila Hicks, whose life and work seem to contain enough contradictions, originality, and triumph to sustain an HBO mini-series or a long novel by Willa Cather. Right now, though, you’ll have to settle for a blog post.

ICA is preparing to host an exhibition of Hicks’s work, co-curated by Joan Simon and Susan Faxon for the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. Sheila Hicks: 50 Years just opened at the Addison and won’t be on view at ICA until March 24, 2011, but Curator Jenelle Porter is working hard on it right now. She went up to Andover for the opening, and when she came back she said, “Everything was bigger or smaller than I thought it would be…so I had a lot of Christmas morning surprises.” Jenelle is organizing a series of lectures that explore weaving in relation to four cultural themes: the economy, the built environment, science, and religion. She’s also deciding how the show will work in our big open gallery, which is very different from the Addison’s small classical rooms. She has a three-dimensional model of ICA’s space, and her intern Grace has made miniatures of each of the pieces that will be in the exhibition to help Jenelle envision the possibilities. Here are some photos of the very cool model (though the work in it is that of painter Charline von Heyl, who is having an ICA show next September):
Miranda: First floor model

Photo: J. Katz

Some of Hicks’s work is small: flattish woolen weavings with names like “Zapallar” and “Rallo,” “She” and “Squiggle,” framed and hung on the walls. Some of it is made up of weavings piled in heaps or dangling from the ceiling. I love the name as well as the look of this one from 1969, rich with loops and wrappings: “The Principal Wife Goes On.”
Miranda: Hicks-First Wife

The Principal Wife, 1968, bundled and wrapped linen, rayon and acrylic yarns, 100 in. x 80 in. x 8 in. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (Gift in memory of Mary Josephine Cutting Blair 2005.42)

Hicks has designed fabrics for Knoll furniture. She has designed weavings that hung in Air France airplanes, back when flying was more of a luxury thing. She sometimes uses found objects as her raw material, as in her 1986 installation with Man Ray, “patchworks of disassembled nurses blouses,” or “Raining Baby Bands” (1978), which is made of strips of cloth with which Swedish women wrap their babies’ bellies to encourage the belly buttons to go in. She has traveled all over the world, working in Mexico and Chile, India and Japan, collaborating with local textile artisans in their workshops, advising tire engineers about threads of stainless steel, and (always) making art. These various practices overlap, interweave, braid, maybe sometimes snag.

Not a lot of women born in 1934 managed to have careers, let alone become artists—let alone become artists of international stature. The ones who did mostly didn’t have children, but Hicks managed all of it. There’s a story here I want to tell, though I don’t know how much of it is true and how much I’m piecing together out of the snippets of biography and art and other people’s lives—my own found objects. A young girl grows up in the Plains during the Depression, learns to sew and crochet and knit—the tools she’ll need as a wife and mother in that time and place. But instead of staying in Nebraska and becoming a homemaker, she turns these tools to something else entirely—something large and gorgeous, something for corporations and museums, those twin kingdoms ruled by men!

Hicks’s work can be monumental, yet it is soft. Sometimes it hangs in skyscraper lobbies, and sometimes it’s made of baby bands. There’s both an expansive embrace here and also a firm refusal: the work encompasses many cultures and many approaches, and it declines to be categorized as either masculine or feminine, traditional or modernist, art or craft.

A strong woman using the loom to control the situation. A woman who has the patience to make this much work. Can Penelope help but come to mind? But Penelope never left Ithaca, and everything she did she did while thinking of Odysseus, and she spent almost as much time unweaving that famous shroud as she spent weaving it.

I’ve begun to think of Sheila Hicks as the anti-Penelope: weaving many rooms full of vivid, gorgeous, wonderfully useless objects. Instead of shrouds, they are celebrations.

ICA is grateful for primary sponsorship of Sheila Hicks: 50 Years from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, and for additional support from Elaine Hornick Finkelstein.