Cloth in Context – Unravelling Curatorial Intention

Unlike fine artists, rarely can ‘fine’ craftspeople command the appropriate recognition or monetary reward justified by the creation of a unique piece of work. In consideration of the full value of materials and skilled workmanship involved, even an “appropriate” price can seem questionable to the vast majority, including those who can afford to pay it. In this respect it seems appropriate to encourage a positive appreciation of the practice in accordance with contemporary perception of time as a commodity in modern society.[1]

It has been two decades since Leigh Mole wrote “Chronomanual Craft: Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Craft” and the term chronomanual entered the craft conversation; nevertheless, the popular undervaluing of time investment continues to plague the craft community. Arguably this is even more apparent in the case of hand crafted yardage (meterage) where end use often trumps craftsmanship in the mind of the consumer.[2] While the works in the exhibition are indeed one-offs, this translates into metres of hand-crafted woven, dyed, or repeat-printed cloth. Significantly, most are destined to be cut, reworked, and ultimately displayed in another form. In an interview with Natalie Gerber, the curator of Cloth in Context she confessed that given her practice focuses on creating printed yardage for the home she would often find herself being regarded as a supplier rather than a creative maker. And yet, for those ‘in the know,’ fine craft demands of its maker that they are the artist, the designer, the craftsman and the technician. Where then, does such hand-crafted work live within a culture that celebrates convenience coming from ‘fast’ design and ‘fast’ making. A culture where traditional craft knowledge and skills have been marginalized by mass production and mass consumption?

Gerber conceived of this exhibition of contemporary surface and textile design by Calgary artists soon after she moved into a new studio, a former classroom located in the old King Edward School [cSpace]. This was a well-considered decision signalling her commitment to her practice. I should explain that her practice began during her art-school-days as a home-based workshop relying on craft shows, word of mouth, and finally an on-line gallery for sales. Her new space is dominated by a very large surface upon which she prints yardage. As one enters the room there are shelves with bolts of printed fabrics, samples, and some finished accessories. The opposite wall houses the sink and shelves containing her tools – this is a working studio. The location, an art-hub, invites not only walk-in traffic but encourages those searching out her work to visit the atelier. To her amazement this space brought with it a perceptible change in attitude regarding her work. For the first time visitors came face-to-face with the complexities of the process and began to appreciate the skill-sets required to create repetitive design. They were suddenly thrilled to discuss the conceptual nature of her work and, to cut a long story short, became discerning collectors rather than demanding shoppers. With this insight the rationale behind the exhibition came into focus - Cloth in Context would create an opportunity to open the dialogue around process and making to a broader audience.

As curator and a maker, Gerber wanted to show not only spectacular examples of contemporary surface and textile design but to highlight the often discounted aspect – the value added to fine craft by the slower aspects of fine craft making. Although working with different techniques, what these makers have in common is that the materials and processes that they have chosen to use exact their own rhythm – indifferent to the speed, technology, and efficiency that defines so much of our modern age. To this end, she decided that the artists, Charis Birchall, Jolie Bird, Bill Morton, Irene Rasetti and herself would keep journals recording their processes – including time investment. Through these notations one becomes privy to not only the maker’s commitment to their medium but their high regard for rituality and the repetitive gesture that defines craft. It is hoped that these journals will inspire a greater appreciation of authenticity and the legacy of fine craft as distinct from the ‘fast’ consumer-driven production that promises instant, if fleeting, gratification. For in these works of fine craft we see that “Each mark made and each word spoken are born of a gesture or utterance through which a fabric of history unfolds, simultaneously both very old and very young, marking a passage of lived time and remembered rhythms.”[3]

Upon proposing this exhibition Gerber deliberated for some time over the title, finally settling on the word cloth, perhaps the most mundane of labels for what curators have spent decades re-framing as unique conceptual works of textile-art, art-fabric, or fibre-art. There is no doubt that the textiles that make up Cloth in Context fulfil the art criteria; nonetheless, by their very nature, they are destined to move beyond the frame and away from the pedestal, for these works have a role to play in the art of everyday life.   

Of one of my most prized possessions, a small piece of faded and rather ragged linen, my niece asked: “Auntie, after you die how will anyone know this is not a duster?”  I’m still laughing – but I have attached a small label. I purchased the fragment, a remnant of yardage designed in 1913 by Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Wolf) because I was smitten by what it had to tell me about the artist, modernity, and the London avant-garde prior to WWI. The first time I walked into Natalie Gerber’s studio I felt this same frisson of excitement as I began to engage with her original yardage. You can only imagine how pleased I am to be asked to contribute this essay – for I believe that this work and Natalie Gerber’s curatorial decisions are helping to move the craft conversation forward.  

Jennifer E. Salahub

Photography by Elyse Bouvier

10186 - 106 ST NW, Edmonton Alberta

[1] Leigh, Mole. “Chronomanual Craft: Time Investment as Value in Contemporary Western Craft.” Journal of Design History. 15/1(2002): 33-45

[2] The word consumer is highly charged – while few would describe a visit to a gallery or craft show as “shopping” excursion those on the lookout for functional craft do just that – a form of lifestyle shopping.

[3] Mitchell, Victoria. Between Sense and Place. Winchester, GB: Winchester School of Art Gallery, 1997, 5