Journeys in Fiber
There is no playbook for how to create what they envisioned
If you wanted to create a meticulous, life-like image of a mushroom or of a piece of bark, in what medium would you work? Would clothing scraps be your first choice? If you were planning on recreating a photograph of a favorite place, would you fall back on using pieces of vintage Japanese kimonos to build it in layers and layers of said fabric? Well, this is what our artists of the month do. While you could refer to their creations as “fiber art,” upon closer examination, it is so much more and ultimately more complicated.
Kim Tepe is a costume designer by trade who had the idea to recycle scraps from her workplace at the time, to create her art. Alycia Allen Tolmach started out as a journalist, but left that field almost 30 years ago to embark on her own creations. What is common to both artists is that they have created their own techniques along the way. When an idea pops into their heads, both are extremely innovative in trying to find a way to make it happen. Sometimes it's about applying an existing approach in a novel way or with slight modifications. But if there is no playbook for how to create what they envisioned, they are writing it along the way. Journeys in Fiber indeed!
Moving Fiber Art Forward
Alycia creates her landscape art quilts working from photographs she has taken from her travels, mostly in Europe, using a collage technique with fabric. “Unlike most landscape quilters, I don’t fuse my fabric down first before I sew it. I cut it and pin it and appliqué it with a free-hand zig-zag stitch.” Many landscape quilters tend to fuse elements made up of cut-up pieces so everything stays in place and nothing moves when the element is being manipulated or stitched. Early on, Alycia took a class that involved fusing and hated the results, which were “stiff and flat, with no life to them.”
“What I do is called ‘raw-edge’ or ‘bad girl’ appliqué. I don’t fuse anything. I cut pieces out. I layer them on my design wall, pin-baste them with straight pins and zig-zag around with a sewing machine.” This produces a very different result. In Alycia’s words, “It lets the fabric billow and breath. It is soft and pettable and catches the light. It comes out touchable.” And she does it all using almost exclusively fabric from vintage Japanese kimonos dating back from World War II to the 1960s. But more on that later.
"Instead of painting with paint, I use fabric and thread"
Kim started as a quilter but as she says, quickly left that world. “I am trying to recreate moss, lichen on bark, things you find on the forest floor. I collect bits of bark and lichen and try different things to recreate it.” Of course yarn and fabric are always in the mix, and she is trying to find different fiber art techniques to recreate specific textures. Where she ended up in her quest might surprise you. “I took craft felt, painted it and hit it with a heat gun. As it turns out, this process makes great bark! I painted Tyvek and melted that. I’ve experimented with a shibori technique, putting buttons into fabric, knotting it tight and boiling it. I use wet felting as elements. I work the wool and water use my hands to shape it until it felts.” Since she never needs a lot of any one thing, she is a regular at ScrapPDX where she finds materials for her inspirations. Adds Kim, “I try and find things, as opposed to buying new. I just need a little bit, a little square that has the right color and texture.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is difficult to put a label on such a creation. “Sometimes I say that instead of painting with paint, I use fabric and thread,” explains Kim. “But now, my new creations are no longer flat. My wall pieces are dimensional and I also started creating 3-D sculptural pieces.”
Central to Alycia’s art is the fact that she is working in vintage Japanese kimonos that she takes apart and makes into smaller pieces. “Each is spectacular in its own way. There are designs that glow, have different weaves, distinct dying and painting techniques. Sometimes, the back looks completely different from the front.” The way she sees it, “the fabric is magic! it has a life of its own; it contributes.” Using typical commercial quilting cottons would pale in comparison. “This particular fabric is like a silent partner that adds so much life to my art.”
An Extremely Labor-Intensive Process
Kim’s goal is it to recreate something natural in fiber. While at times has worked from photographs or pictures, she now mostly gets inspired by bits and pieces she finds on the ground in the woods. She is a perfectionist who wants you to be surprised that what you are looking at is fabric. “For me, the biggest compliment is somebody asking me how do you preserve the pine needles on your fabric? I don’t; it is all fabric. But people think I used the real thing!” she explains. “I want them to be drawn to it from afar and be amazed when looking at the stitches. I really want to share it with people, because it is so different.” Not surprisingly, the most fun for Kim is “when all comes together and it works. When I found that technique that works, having people in the gallery look at it and stop and wanting to touch it.” Kim started out doing landscapes but is now firmly into creating perfect tiny worlds. Just look closely at one of her mushrooms sitting in a batch of moss and you’ll understand. “There is a lot of hand embroidery; there are endless hours of tiny knots. I like it, very zen.”
Alycia’s landscape art quilts are created from layers and layers of kimono silk. Working from her own photographs, she builds her landscape from the horizon or sky forward, always keeping a keen eye on the proportions to ensure it will look as realistic as possible. “I have to get the proportions in the background right and more importantly the tones. If the scale of the background is too big, or the colors too bright, by the time you get to the front, everything is wrong and you have nowhere to go,” she says. Every one of her pieces is built up in that way. “I can have a sky that is made up of seven layers of transparent colors. In some places, there can be 10 layers. There is sky underneath the buildings, mountains behind the trees.” This adds to how approachable her pieces appear.
“I encourage people to touch my art, to feel it. I want my pieces to be touchable and want the fabric to feel really nice.” And she goes on saying, “I am trying to share a sense of a place that struck me as really special -- and maybe my take on it is not the traditional take, but it is something that touched me. By recreating that in fabric, I am trying to add to that, integrate how I felt when I was there and what kind of person I was then. I am trying very hard to recreate that moment in time. And, to tell a story as well.” Conveying the story, the things that one cannot see but form in the mind of someone looking at her art are equally important. She succeeds when people cross the threshold that is often between the piece of art and the admirer of art. “What makes me happiest is when people reach out and touch my quilt. It is a physical manifestation of what I want to have happening: I want the quilt to touch them.”
Like Kim, Alycia puts in a lot of thought and effort into creating her art. Because her quilts often depict architecture as well as countryside, she is constantly making up techniques as she goes to meet the challenges. Numerous rounds of trial and error occur before something is how it was imagined. Alycia knows she has succeeded when “the decisions start coming easier.” She explains that “there is usually a point where I absolutely hate the piece. Getting over that, is like a big sigh of relief. There is a point where it just starts to work and it is just getting better. That’s when I am in the zone and decisions are right and happening and it just keeps getting better and better.”
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
This chapter title is the title of a book by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s one of the sources Alycia falls back on for encouragement. Neither one of this month’s artists can name distinct individuals or artists who influenced them. In fact, both for a very long time doubted their own capabilities. Alycia admits that she has had a lot of dry spells when she was out of the studio or when other things took precedence in her life. Still, “even when I am not working, I am thinking about the process or the particular problem that I am having with a piece sitting on a wall. And now, I’ve figured out a sustainable way to work, so I expect to be much more productive.” Kim recalls that she had doubts about calling herself an artist. “For a long time, I didn’t identify as an artist because I use a lot of craft techniques. I doubted that what I do is real art. I think sometimes that I walk a thin line between art and craft.” For Kim, it took “just a level of confidence and acceptance” to come to the conclusion “that what I do is art.”
For Alycia, one of the biggest things she had to try to overcome is “that I am a real perfectionist and that can be very paralyzing. I try to make each piece spectacular and that makes it hard to experiment and be willing to fail. Working smaller is the answer for me; and continuing to push through even if it feels like you have no talent whatsoever.” Being part of the Alberta Street Gallery, surrounded by other artists, has been really inspiring for her and helped her in her work.
No Rest for the Weary - Always Trailblazing
Kim started experimenting recently with a process called eco-printing. She combines natural fibers, leaves and natural dye. When rolled tightly and steamed, the image of the organic material transfers to the fabric. For now, it’s part of her scarves. Eventually, she would want to cut out those images and stitch them onto her sculptures. For now, “I need to perfect the printing process first.” But you can be sure that she’ll figure it out eventually.
Alycia’s next challenge is creating the water in a waterfall quilt. Depicting water and waterfalls is common in quilting but she hasn’t seen one yet that truly impressed her. In 2014, getting ready for an art show in California, she was trying to finish a quilt of a waterfall set in Nice, France. When it came time to create the water itself, “It looked so hokey. But I was out of time and we had to get in the car and go! So as soon as we got home, I took off the ‘stupid’ water, and the quilt has been waiting on the wall ever since.” Now, 5 years later, she says, “I think I have figured it out but I have since learned that I need to experiment on smaller quilts first, to perfect and master the technique. Which is what every other kind of artist does, but it has taken me years (and the Art and Fear book) to give myself permission to work small, play, fail, start over and not have to have each quilt be the be-all and end-all of my abilities.”
Figuring out how to work smaller has been a revelation to her, and she is very excited with her new work, which she can complete in weeks or months. Large pieces, like her waterfall, sometimes percolate over several years. But regardless of the finished size, “there is a lot of contemplation that happens in my art; it’s not a straight start-to-finish process.” And for a good reason: “My art is a way for me to live on in somebody else’s life after I am gone.”