New Exhibition at the Renwick Gallery Celebrates Women Artists Who Revolutionized Fiber as a Powerful Medium for Contemporary Art

Fiber has long inspired women artists, although their ingenuity with threads and cloth was often dismissed as domestic work and therefore inconsequential to the development of 20th-century American art. “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women” seeks to address the historic marginalization of fiber in contemporary artmaking by centering the skilled contributions of 27 artists who mastered everyday materials, subverted conventions and transformed humble threads into sublime creations. 

Offering an alternative history of art in the United States, “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime” is on view at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum dedicated to contemporary craft, from May 31 through Jan. 5, 2025. 

Artists featured in this exhibition include 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.

“SAAM has long been dedicated to showcasing women artists and creative disciplines traditionally considered domestic pursuits,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Spotlighting visionary creators who have both uplifted and advanced the tradition of fiber crafts speaks to our mission of expanding the conversation around American art.”

The exhibition is organized by Mary Savig, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft; Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator; and Laura Augustin Fox, curatorial collections coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The featured artworks are drawn entirely from the museum’s collection, and the presentation includes interviews and related materials from the archive'’s collections. The Renwick Gallery is the only venue for this exhibition.

“Each artwork carries the story of its maker, manifesting—stitch by stitch—the profound and personal politics of the hand,” Savig said. “Collectively, they highlight the depth and diversity possible in the medium of fiber.”  

Dating from 1918 to 2004, the 33 works in this exhibition range from sewn quilts, woven tapestries and rugs, and beaded and embroidered ornamentation, to twisted and bound sculptures and mixed media assemblages. Each work carries the story of its maker, drawing on personal experiences and skills passed down for generations as well as textile traditions from around the world.

Placing artworks alongside the artist’s own words drawn from oral interviews from the Archives of American Art, the exhibition shows the complex influence of domestic life, shared knowledge of historical and experimental techniques, feminist strategies for upending the art world status quo and the perceptions and possibilities of fiber art. A gallery of archival materials from the archives’ collection, including sketches, mail art and photographs, deepens insight into their creative processes.

The Archives of American Art developed a digital presence for the exhibition that offers a deeper look into several artists’ lives. It is available on the archives website.

To complement the exhibition, the museum produced a 10-episode narrative podcast, “Backstitch,” that allows listeners to hear directly from the artists in their own voices. These short- form audio explorations take a deeper look into the lives and creative practices of 10 trailblazing artists represented in the exhibition. The podcast is narrated and produced by Emma Jacobs and Rachel Ward. The interviews were conducted for the Archives of American Art by Suzanne Baizerman, Robert F. Brown, Joanne Cubbs, Paul Cummings, Erin Gilbert, Mija Reidel and Robert Silberman. A link to the podcast is available on the exhibition webpage.

Public Programs
The museum will present three programs in conjunction with the exhibition. An open house with Savig and selected artists is Friday, June 7, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Savig will give a free, virtual lecture Thursday, July 11, at 7 p.m.; registration is required. A hybrid public program, “Archives Live with Joyce Scott,” features fiber artist Joyce Scott discussing her papers housed at the Archives of American Art Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 6:30 p.m. This program is co-hosted by the museum and the Archives of American Art; registration is required. Additional information is available on the museum’s website

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

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the flagship museum in the United States for American art and craft. It is home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. The museum’s main building, located at Eighth and G streets N.W., is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum’s Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check online for current hours and admission information. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website:

Press Images

Fiber art with a silhouette of woman. Her arms and one leg are raised as if mid-jump.
Press - Subversive Skilled Sublime, Winning, Emma Amos

Emma Amos, Winning, 1982, acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric, 75 × 64 in. (190.5 × 162.6 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by the Catherine Walden Myer Fund, 2019.15, © 1982, Ryan Lee Gallery, New York