Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women

Media - 2019.15 - SAAM-2019.15_1 - 137377

Emma Amos, Winning1982, acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cotton, wool, polyester, silk — fiber is felt in nearly every aspect of our lives. The artists in Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women mastered and subverted the everyday material throughout the twentieth century.

The thirty-three selected artworks piece together an alternative history of American art. Accessible and familiar, fiber handicrafts have long provided a source of inspiration for women. Their ingenuity with cloth, threads, and yarn was dismissed by many art critics as menial labor. The artists in this exhibition took up fiber to complicate this historic marginalization and also revolutionize its import to contemporary art. They drew on personal experiences, particularly their vantage points as women, and intergenerational skills to transform humble threads into resonant and intricate artworks.

Description

Several themes place artworks in conversation with an emphasis on the artist’s own words: the complex (often contradictory) influence of domestic life; feminist strategies for upending the art world status quo; shared knowledge of traditional and experimental techniques; and pushing boundaries of the perception and possibilities of fiber art. A dedicated gallery space of archival materials provides a window into the artist’s studio, deepening insight into their creative processes with sketches, mail art, and photographs. Together, these categories illuminate how artists have invited moments of contemplation about the interplay between material and message.

The artworks are as diverse as the women who made them. Among the artists included in this exhibition are Adela Akers, Neda Al-Hilali, Emma Amos, Lia Cook, Olga de Amaral, Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Sheila Hicks, Agueda Martínez, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Scott, Judith Scott, Kay Sekimachi, Lenore Tawney, Katherine Westphal, Claire Zeisler, and Marguerite Zorach. The artists expressed themselves in the form of sewn quilts, woven tapestries and rugs, beaded and embroidered ornamentation, twisted and bound sculptures, and multi-media assemblages. Each artwork carries the story of its maker, manifesting—stitch by stitch—the profound and personal politics of the hand.

All of the artworks are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection; archival materials and interviews are selected from collections of the Archives of American Art. To further amplify the voices of the artists, SAAM will produce a narrative podcast. The audio program will highlight some of the most compelling backstories that are woven into the exhibition. The project is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator; Mary Savig, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft; and Laura Augustin Fox, curatorial collections coordinator.

Visiting Information

May 31, 2024 January 5, 2025
Open Daily, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m
Free Admission

Events

7
Friday
Jun
SOLD OUT

Free | Registration encouraged
11
Thursday
Jul
Free | Registration required 

Audio

Credit

Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. Generous support has been provided by The Coby Foundation, Ltd., The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation, the James Renwick Alliance for Craft, and the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation. This exhibition received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum.

American Women's History Museum Logo
A black brush script logo reads "Colby"
Logo for the James Renwick Alliance for Craft

Online Gallery

Miriam Schapiro, Wonderland, 1983, acrylic, fabric and plastic beads on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of an anonymous donor, 1996.88
Wonderland
Date1983
acrylic, fabric and plastic beads on canvas
Not on view
Marguerite Zorach, My Home in Fresno around the Year 1900, 1949, wool embroidered on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift from the Collection of Tessim Zorach, 1970.65.12
My Home in Fresno around the Year 1900
Date1949
wool embroidered on linen
Not on view
Alice Eugenia Ligon, Embroidered Garment, ca. 1949, embroidered muslin, cotton crochet; pencil; cotton rick-rack trim, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., 1989.78.2
Embroidered Garment
Dateca. 1949
embroidered muslin, cotton crochet; pencil; cotton rick-rack trim
Not on view
Joyce Scott, Necklace, 1994, beads, fabric, and thread, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dale and Doug Anderson, 1996.31, © 1994, Joyce J. Scott
Necklace
Date1994
beads, fabric, and thread
Not on view
Clementine Hunter, Melrose Quilt, ca. 1960, fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Barbara Coffey Quilt Endowment, 2014.5
Melrose Quilt
Dateca. 1960
fabric
Not on view
Louise Nez, Reservation Scene, 1992, commercial yarn, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson, 1997.124.189
Reservation Scene
Date1992
commercial yarn
Not on view
Marguerite Zorach, Untitled (Embroidered Bedspread), ca. 1918, linen fiber: tabby weave with plied wool yarn and chain stitch embroidery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Helen Miller Obstler, 1985.52
Untitled (Embroidered Bedspread)
Dateca. 1918
linen fiber: tabby weave with plied wool yarn and chain stitch embroidery
Not on view
Faith Ringgold, The Bitter Nest, Part II: The Harlem Renaissance Party, 1988, acrylic on canvas with printed, dyed and pieced fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1997.18, © 1988, Faith Ringgold
The Bitter Nest, Part II: The Harlem Renaissance Party
Date1988
acrylic on canvas with printed, dyed and pieced fabric
Not on view
L'Merchie Frazier, From a Birmingham Jail: MLK, 1996, silk, photo transfer, gel medium, dyes, and beads, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of L'Merchie Frazier in memory of Watty and Alberta Frazier and James and Merchie Dooley (grandparents), 2002.41
From a Birmingham Jail: MLK
Date1996
silk, photo transfer, gel medium, dyes, and beads
Not on view
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Virgen de los Caminos, 1994, embroidered and quilted cotton and silk with graphite, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1996.77
Virgen de los Caminos
Date1994
embroidered and quilted cotton and silk with graphite
Not on view
Claire Zeisler, Coil Series III--A Celebration, 1978, natural hemp and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1984.163
Coil Series III – A Celebration
Date1978
natural hemp and wool
Not on view
Susan L. Iverson, Ancient Burial IV--Night, 1989, wool on linen warp, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Jane and Rogers Hollingsworth, 2003.23A-C
Ancient Burial IV – Night
Date1989
wool on linen warp
Not on view
Ed Johnetta Miller, Rites of Passage II, 1998, machine-pieced, machine-quilted, and embroidered cotton, indigo, batik, silk, and shells, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 2002.40
Rites of Passage II
Date1998
machine-pieced, machine-quilted, and embroidered cotton, indigo, batik, silk, and shells
Not on view
Carolyn Mazloomi, The Family Embraces, 1997, machine reverse appliqued, hand-stitched, and quilted cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 2002.20
The Family Embraces
Date1997
machine reverse appliqued, hand-stitched, and quilted cotton
Not on view
Matilda Damon, Protected in Bliss, 1991, handspun wool with native and vegetable dyes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson, 1997.124.186
Protected in Bliss
Date1991
handspun wool with native and vegetable dyes
Not on view
Agueda Martínez, Tapestry Weave Rag Jerga, 1994, woven cotton cloth on cotton yarn warp, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1995.46
Tapestry Weave Rag Jerga
Date1994
woven cotton cloth on cotton yarn warp
Not on view
Marguerite Zorach, Horses, ca. 1923, fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift from the collection of Tessim Zorach, 1968.87.28
Horses
Dateca. 1923
fabric
Not on view
Lia Cook, Crazy Too Quilt, 1989, dyed rayon; acrylic on woven and pressed abaca paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance and Bernard and Sherley Koteen and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1991.199, © 1989, Lia Cook
Crazy Too Quilt
Date1989
dyed rayon; acrylic on woven and pressed abaca paper
Not on view
Else Regensteiner, Red and Blue, 1969, wool and other fibers, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Helga Regensteiner Sinaiko, 2006.29.2, ©, Helga Sinaiko
Red and Blue
Date1969
wool and other fibers
Not on view
Judith Scott, Untitled, 1994, mixed media and string, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.67, © 2005, Creative Growth
Untitled
Date1994
mixed media and string
Not on view
Sheila Hicks, The Principal Wife Goes On, 1969, linen, silk, wool and synthetic fibers, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., 1977.118.2A-F
The Principal Wife Goes On
Date1969
linen, silk, wool and synthetic fibers
Not on view
Olga De Amaral, Cal y Canto, ca. 1979, linen and gesso, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Isidore M. Samuels, 1991.109
Cal y Canto
Dateca. 1979
linen and gesso
Not on view
Cynthia Schira, Reflections, 1982, woven and bound resist-dyed cotton and dyed rayon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible in part by the James Renwick Alliance and Roberta Golding, 1985.29A-D
Reflections
Date1982
woven and bound resist-dyed cotton and dyed rayon
Not on view
Mariska Karasz, Breeze, ca. 1958, embroidered linen, plastic and mixed fibers, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Solveig Cox and Rosamond Berg Bassett in memory of their mother, Mariska Karasz, 1991.132.1
Breeze
Dateca. 1958
embroidered linen, plastic and mixed fibers
Not on view
Lenore Tawney, In the Dark Forest, ca. 1959, woven linen, wool, and silk, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1992.90, © 1959, Lenore G. Tawney
In the Dark Forest
Dateca. 1959
woven linen, wool, and silk
Not on view
Lenore Tawney, Box of Falling Stars, 1984, cotton canvas, linen thread, acrylic paint, and ink, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1992.83, © 1984, Lenore G. Tawney
Box of Falling Stars
Date1984
cotton canvas, linen thread, acrylic paint, and ink
Not on view
Adela Akers, By the Sea, 1987, sewn and woven sisal, linen, and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of KPMG Peat Marwick, 1993.54.1
By the Sea
Date1987
sewn and woven sisal, linen, and wool
Not on view
Maria Faedo, A Matter of Trust, 1994, paper on fiberglass screen with cotton thread, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1995.21
A Matter of Trust
Date1994
paper on fiberglass screen with cotton thread
Not on view
Kay Sekimachi, Nagare VII, 1970, woven nylon monofilament, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1972.183
Nagare VII
Date1970
woven nylon monofilament
Not on view
Neda Al-Hilali, Medusa, 1975, mixed fibers, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Phyllis Mael, 2002.54
Medusa
Date1975
mixed fibers
Not on view
Emma Amos, Winning, 1982, acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by the Catherine Walden Myer Fund, 2019.15, © 1982, Ryan Lee Gallery, New York
Winning
Date1982
acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric
Not on view

Artists

Adela Akers
born Santiago de Compostela, Spain 1933

In 1965 Adela Akers traveled to Peru as a weaving adviser to the Alliance for Progress Program. In South America, she was deeply influenced by the innovative textiles of pre-Columbian Peruvian weavers, and researched ancient fiber traditions.

Neda Al-Hilali
born Cheb, Czechoslovakia 1938
Emma Amos
born Atlanta, GA 1938-Bedford, NH 2020
Lia Cook
born Ventura, CA 1942

Born in Ventura, California, Lia Cook studied theater at San Francisco State Universtiy before receiving her B.A. and M.A. degrees (1965 and 1973 respectively) at the Universtiy of California, Berkeley.

Matilda Damon
born Ganado, AZ 1962-died Las Vegas, NM 2005
Olga De Amaral
born Bogota, Colombia 1932
Maria Faedo
born Havana, Cuba 1946

Painter and conceptual artist. Castagliola came to the United States from Cuba in 1961. She has B.A. (sociology), B.F.A., and M.F.A.degrees from the University of South Florida in Tampa and has taught art as an assistant professor at the university.

L’Merchie Frazier
born Jacksonville, FL 1951
Sheila Hicks
born Hastings, NE 1934
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Clementine Hunter
born near Cloutierville, LA 1886/7-died near Natchitoches, LA 1988
On a Louisiana plantation built on the labor of enslaved workers and reinvented, in the twentieth century, as an artists’ and writers’ retreat, Clementine Hunter painted everyday scenes she felt historians overlooked.
Susan L. Iverson
born Madison, WI 1951
Mariska Karasz
born Budapest, Hungary 1898-died Danbury, CT 1960

Self-taught embroiderer Mariska Karasz arrived in the United States from her native Hungary at the age of sixteen. The influence of Hungary's rich folk-art tradition is reflected in her early work.

Alice Eugenia Ligon
born Boone County, MO 1886-died Fulton, MO 1959
Agueda Martínez
born Chamita, NM 1898-died Española, NM 2000

Weaver, born in 1898 in Chamita, New Mexico. Attending primary school until 1913, Martinez first began to weave rag rugs at the age of twelve. In 1916 she married a weaver and schoolteacher and by 1937 had given birth to ten children.

Ed Johnetta Miller
born Spartanburg, SC 1945
Louise Nez
born ca. 1942
Else Regensteiner
born Munich, Germany 1906-died Chicago, IL 2003
Faith Ringgold
born New York City 1930-died Englewood, NJ 2024
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Miriam Schapiro
born Toronto, ON, Canada 1923-died Hampton Bays, NY 2015

Miriam Schapiro earned her master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1949 and in 1952 moved to New York City with her husband, the artist Paul Brach.

Cynthia Schira
born Pittsfield, MA 1934

Born in Providence, Cynthia Schira earned a B.FA. degree at the Rhode Island School of Design an an M.F.A. degree at the University of Kansas, where she has been on the faculty since 1976.

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Joyce Scott
born Baltimore, MD 1948

Joyce Scott relates her work as an artist to her family's craft traditions and to her African American heritage. In her jewelry and sculpture, she employs humor and irony to address cultural stereotypes and issues of racism and sexism.

Judith Scott
born Cincinnati, OH 1943-died Dutch Flat, CA 2005

Against the odds, Judith Scott became an artist of great renown, making fiber and mixed-media sculptures that encase forever-softened objects. Scott and her twin sister were born in Ohio.

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Kay Sekimachi
born San Francisco, CA 1926

Born in San Francisco, Kay Sekimachi studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1946 to 1949.

Lenore Tawney
born Lorain, OH 1907-died New York City 2007

In 1954 Lenore Tawney abandoned sculpture for weaving and in the process, transformed the ancient craft of the weaver into a new vocation—fiber art.

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Consuelo Jimenez Underwood
born Sacramento, CA 1949

Fiber artist and weaver Consuelo Jimenez Underwood is the daughter of migrant agricultural workers, a Chicana mother and a father of Huichol Indian descent.

Katherine Westphal
born Los Angeles, CA 1919-died Berkeley, CA 2018
Claire Zeisler
born Cincinnati, OH 1903-died Chicago, IL 1991

Born in Cincinnati, in the mid-1940's Claire Zeisler attended the Institute of Design in Chicago (now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), where she studied sculpture with emigre artist Alexander Archipenko.

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Marguerite Zorach
born Santa Rosa, CA 1887-died New York City 1968

Painter, weaver, graphic artist. Along with her husband, sculptor William Zorach, she was an innovator in the modernist movement in the United States. With her embroidered tapestries, she distinguished herself as an outstanding designer.