The String Theory Volume 38.2 Preview

The String Theory

CELTIC SQUARE KNOT, WOVEN PATTERN AND TREFOIL-DECORATED BEADS BY TOM HOLLAND, respectively 3.4, 2.9 and 3.4 centimeters high. The Celtic knot bead, also known as a Tibetan heart knot bead, took over an hour to make; the cross-hatching background contains eighty stringers of an inch and a half long, or ten feet of hair stringer total. Holland has made over sixty beads like this, with the same design on front and back, all of them exercises in muscle memory and heat control of the stringer. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

CELTIC SQUARE KNOT, WOVEN PATTERN AND TREFOIL-DECORATED BEADS BY TOM HOLLAND, respectively 3.4, 2.9 and 3.4 centimeters high. The Celtic knot bead, also known as a Tibetan heart knot bead, took over an hour to make; the cross-hatching background contains eighty stringers of an inch and a half long, or ten feet of hair stringer total. Holland has made over sixty beads like this, with the same design on front and back, all of them exercises in muscle memory and heat control of the stringer. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Making glass beads has been my primary income for over two and a half decades. I employ many techniques, one of which is working with stringer, those fine strands of glass pulled from a small molten gather and applied in the flame of the torch to the surface of the bead. Eight years ago I started investigating cross hatching and its decorative potential. Some of the beads had a fabric look, so I tried to accentuate this effect. The idea of using glass stringer to mimic string sparked the idea of projecting knot patterns on the bead’s surface. While researching knot patterns and string history I came upon an article by Bednarik (2000), who pointed out the dependence of the bead on the string and knot in order to be an ornament. Without the string and knot, the bead is just an object with a hole in it. The purpose for any bead is to suspend it from someone or something. Here are a few things I have learned about the triad of the bead whose primary function is symbolic or spiritual, while the string and the knot’s primary function is utilitarian.

 

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Tom Holland, along with his wife Sage, has been contributing to the contemporary glass beadmaking movement through research of historical techniques and lectures. They have written articles for Ornament on Warring States and Islamic Period glass beads, taught internationally, as well as the United States and have been featured in many books and periodicals. Holland will be making a presentation on the string, knot and the bead at the 2015 Gathering in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The couple found each other through their love of beads and continue to create glass art in the solar home they built in the woods of the Arkansas Ozark Mountains.

Chinese Children's Hats Volume 38.2 Preview

Chinese Children's Hats

TIGER HAT COMBINED WITH SCHOLAR’S HAT, a beautiful example of textile arts and symbolism, 15.0 centimeters wide. These hats were photographed in an improvised studio, on a brass armature, with a black Tufflock backdrop. They were lit with an external flash on a Canon 7D, with or without additional slipon diffuser, besides the Speedlite 580EX’s own translucent diffuser. When we felt the armature was too obtrusive, it was removed using the Photoshop clone tool (Liu 2014). Pam Najdowski Collection. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament .

TIGER HAT COMBINED WITH SCHOLAR’S HAT, a beautiful example of textile arts and symbolism, 15.0 centimeters wide. These hats were photographed in an improvised studio, on a brass armature, with a black Tufflock backdrop. They were lit with an external flash on a Canon 7D, with or without additional slipon diffuser, besides the Speedlite 580EX’s own translucent diffuser. When we felt the armature was too obtrusive, it was removed using the Photoshop clone tool (Liu 2014). Pam Najdowski Collection. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Chinese children’s hats reflect the powerful parental desires of the protective, aspirational and inspirational functions for these attire (Leung 2010, Lin and Lin 1996; Liu and Rossi 1991; Szeto and Garrett 1990). Like Chinese jewelry, they are replete with symbolism, which in turn can be read as verbal rebuses or auspicious sayings by those who are knowledgeable (Bartholomew 2006, Pei 2004). In fact, these children’s hats often have silver components sewn on, thus intermingling textile and jewelry techniques and the similar symbolism common to both (Duda 2002).

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His new book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to ornaments, both in and out of the Ornament studio. This issue he writes about his experiences teaching photography and black bamboo jewelrymaking workshops. Later this year, he plans to teach photography workshops at the Ornament studio. Liu also collaborates with Pam Najdowski about Chinese children’s hats, a disappearing folk art and now a sought after collectible. The images in the latter article were shot in an improvised hotel room studio, demonstrating another easy way to photograph textiles and fiber artifacts.


Educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, Pam Najdowski was a teacher and social worker for the Santa Fe Public Schools for over two decades, as well as school counselor for the International School of Tianjin, China, 2003-2005. She has extensive ethnographic experience with Chinese minorities, having both lived there and traveled almost two dozen times to minority areas of Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan. Najdowski has been the guest at two Chinese Folk Art Expos, and conducted extensive research, consultation and lecturing on Chinese minorities, their textiles, clothing and silversmithing. She operates Textiles Treasures in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

International Folk Art Market Volume 38.2 Preview

International Folk Art Market

 
COTTON HUIPIL woven by Florentina Lopez de Jesus, Mexico. Photograph © by John Bigelow Taylor.

COTTON HUIPIL woven by Florentina Lopez de Jesus, Mexico. Photograph © by John Bigelow Taylor.

 

With breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, for twelve years annually, Museum Hill in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has transformed itself into a colorful and lively outdoor world marketplace on Milner Plaza. For 2015, some one hundred fifty artists from fifty-seven countries present their handmade crafts to an audience of over twenty thousand visitors. For one weekend in July, the plaza is a vibrant, even overwhelming commingling of artists and an audience eager to partake of the cultural bounty that personal exchanges like this make possible. There are plenty of children’s events, dancing, a food bazaar, films, and music, but it is the handmade that is the seductive draw, and rightly so. People are still eager to appreciate and perchance to buy the works of individual craftspeople. The United States itself over the last decades has experienced an upswelling of just such an interest in craft made by its contemporary artists. So much so that American corporations have in the last years cannibalized the word ‘craft’ and it is used to define everything from beer to cars. Companies recognized and quickly seized on a powerful zeitgeist of value and authenticity the word communicates. There is a hunger out in the land for that which is real and genuine, and culturally and materially, it now drives for-profit decisions without true attachment to craft’s deeper meanings throughout human history.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s resident expert on contemporary wearable art. This issue she presents to the Ornament readership the International Folk Art Market, now celebrating its twelfth year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Market takes place on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill each July with one hundred fifty master artists from around the globe showcasing their handcrafted work. She also, as always, gives her own personal take on the issue in Postscript.

Jana Brevick Volume 38.2

Jana Brevick: This Infinity Fits in My Hand

PUZZLEGUTS NECKPIECE of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-four karat gold, nickel silver, steel snaps, plastic, polymer clay, fabricated and cast, 20.2 x 5.1 x 2.5 centimeters, 1999. Photograph by Doug Yaple.

PUZZLEGUTS NECKPIECE of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-four karat gold, nickel silver, steel snaps, plastic, polymer clay, fabricated and cast, 20.2 x 5.1 x 2.5 centimeters, 1999. Photograph by Doug Yaple.

These days it is easy to be nervous about our ever-increasing interaction with science and technology. Hackers break into our financial accounts. Drivers text instead of looking at the road. Our children will not get off their iPads. Drones can photograph you at your backyard cookout. But if you happen to be in western Washington, there is a way to ease your apprehensions. Visit Jana Brevick’s smart, charming and often humorous retrospective showing at the Bellevue Arts Museum through August 16, 2015.

      Brevick is a Seattle jewelrymaker and sculptor with a life-long interest in math, science and technology. No doubt she could have been a tech wizard. Instead she earned degrees in metal arts and apparel design and became one of the region’s most engaging artists. Over the years she has made jewelry and sculpture inspired by geometrical equations, chemistry charts, astronomy, space travel, deep-sea research, electronics, and robotics, among other science fair worthy subjects. But as this exhibition of some eighty pieces demonstrates, in Brevick’s world science is cool. Math is elegant. Technology has history and style. The pieces were made from 1998 through 2015.

INTERMITTENT SERIES RINGS of vacuum tubes set in fabricated sterling silver, 9.3 x 3.4 centimeters, 2000. Photograph by Roger Schreiber.

INTERMITTENT SERIES RINGS of vacuum tubes set in fabricated sterling silver, 9.3 x 3.4 centimeters, 2000. Photograph by Roger Schreiber.

      The first display case as you enter the exhibition contains four robots on chains, wearable as necklaces. These helpful little guys and one robot gal are mostly sterling silver, punctuated with features of gold, plastic, gemstones, and found objects. At about eight inches long, they have loosey-goosey, articulated joints and benign expressions. They are miniature versions of what might happen if C-3PO and the Tin Man had offspring. Snackbot is especially endearing. Open the combination lock on his torso and out pops a tiny bag of chips, a chocolate bar, an apple, and some pop. Who would not want this android around the house?

Mathematically inspired pieces include silver earrings twisted into Mobius strips and a cleverly engineered ring representing a Venn diagram of overlapping discs of pure metals and alloys. There are silver neckpieces resembling three-dimensional geometric equations. Parallel, from the Intergalactic Parallax Series, is a sleek, chic, silver neckpiece that refers to the parallax principle. If you cannot quite recall parallax from high school physics, it is the effect that occurs when a stationary object appears to be in different locations depending on the angle from which you are viewing it. This is a useful principle when measuring the distance of stars from the earth, among other things.

You do not have to whip out your smart phone and look up the meaning of Brevick’s jewelry titles. But I often did, and it was enlightening. Her neckpiece called Moh’s Scratch Test Minerals is a string of aspirin-sized mineral samples on a sloping wire, all framed in a silver rectangle. There is a numeral 1 at the bottom left next to a droplet of talc. There is a numeral 10 at the top right side next to a tiny, uncut diamond. In between are samples of gypsum, quartz, topaz, and other minerals. Metalsmiths and geologists know exactly what this chart is, since it is a measure of the hardness of minerals, with talc being the softest and diamond the hardest. And now, thanks to this striking neckpiece, I know that too.

TRACE ELEMENTS 1 BROOCH of fabricated sterling silver set with aluminum, iron, nickel, copper, zinc, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, silver, indium, tin, iridium, platinum, gold, 8.4 x 4.5 x 0.5 centimeters, 2000.

TRACE ELEMENTS 1 BROOCH of fabricated sterling silver set with aluminum, iron, nickel, copper, zinc, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, silver, indium, tin, iridium, platinum, gold, 8.4 x 4.5 x 0.5 centimeters, 2000.

      Brevick has a historian’s soft spot for outdated technology. What was once cutting edge is now a footnote, a mere paving stone on the never-ending forward march of science. Her rings made of vacuum tubes from the 1940s—believe it or not these were used in early computers—honor that once state-of-the-art technology. Even her humorous 2001 wedding ring set made of an ethernet jack is starting to seem old fashioned now that Wi-Fi is the new normal. There are also plenty of sturdy black plastic knobs and dials in this show, all repurposed from mid-twentieth-century appliances into jewelry or small sculpture.

There are pieces about the immutable laws of physics and metallurgy and the highly mutable human heart. Included are some of Brevick’s Everchanging Rings, which are pure gold rings that she melts down and redesigns on a periodic basis for each buyer. The idea is conceptual; each redesign uses exactly the same materials as its former iteration. But the process is also a litmus test for owners of the rings, who must measure the passage of time and changes in their lives with the physical change in the ring. Over the years Brevick has discovered that some owners of Everchanging Rings become so attached to one design phase that they are reluctant to have the rings re-designed. Change can be tough. Also in the show are large necklaces made of such materials as thick black coiled electrical cord and eight-inch-long wooden floats that may have been harvested from crab traps. The large and cheerful pieces have a slightly ethnic look, as though taken from the jewelry box of a stylish Amazon.

EXHIBITION INSTALLATION for “Jana Brevick: This Infinity Fits in My Hand,” at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, Washington. Photograph by Bellevue Arts Museum.

EXHIBITION INSTALLATION for “Jana Brevick: This Infinity Fits in My Hand,” at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, Washington. Photograph by Bellevue Arts Museum.

      Finally, there is a spaceship. It is perhaps no great surprise given Brevick’s fascination with outer limits that she has built a life-sized passageway that visitors walk through as though approaching the Starship Enterprise command center. The best part of the installation, which she calls Atomic Exfiltrator Ship Seven, is the series of “portholes.” Peer through a porthole and you see the pitch black of infinite space. But you also get a peek at a tiny spacecraft, perhaps something NASA thrust into the heavens and forgot about. One of my favorites is Broadcast, a sterling silver, steel and fine gold saucer and tower that seems to be on a lonely, never-ending voyage, trying to communicate with whatever is out there.

Brevick’s intellectual curiosity is infectious. Science and technology give her entry into new worlds of discovery and constant delight. Spend a few minutes looking at her work and you, too, will likely find yourself cheerfully optimistic. We humans make many mistakes on a very grand scale. But Brevick’s work suggests that the adventurers among us will always seek solutions that extend the boundaries of our universe.

 

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Robin Updike is a Seattle writer who has followed the Pacific Northwest’s rich metal arts scene for several decades. She first spent time with Jana Brevick and her work in 2005, when Updike wrote a profile on Brevick for Ornament in Volume 29, No. 2. Now, a decade later, Updike is pleased to have the opportunity to consider Brevick’s first solo museum show, a retrospective organized and presented by the Bellevue Arts Museum. “Jana’s work is always compelling,” says Updike. “Her ability to blend intellectual exploration with humor and craftsmanship is no easy feat. Yet that particular alchemy is her signature as an artist.”

Workshop Experience Volume 38.2 Preview

The Workshop Experience
Making Bamboo Jewelry

STUDENTS HEATBENDING BAMBOO, from the Washington Guild of Goldsmiths workshop. They are using acetylene torches and have gloves on their dominant hand, for protection from the heated culm. Clamped to the workbenches are various sizes of round wood mandrels, used to bend the heat-softened bamboo. THE ALICIA BUCKLER-WHITE TORQUE OF BLACK BAMBOO, PMC/ART CLAY AND LAB RUBIES was completed at her home studio after a snowstorm prevented Buckler-White returning to the second day of the workshop in Laurel, Maryland, February 2014. Her plant motifs and the ability to conform silver elements to the bamboo are an excellent match of materials and style. Photograph by Alicia Buckler-White. ALICE ST. GERMAIN-GRAY is heating a culm with a propane torch, about four hundred degrees cooler than acetylene. By heating a section of the bamboo at a time and quickly bending around the wood mandrel on the table behind her, the bamboo is gradually formed into a curved torque. Not visible is a container of water for quickly cooling/setting the bent bamboo. Beside the propane canisters are black bamboo formed into torques. Most workshop photos taken with a Canon 7D, 17-55mm IS lens. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament, unless noted otherwise.

The teaching of craft has changed much in the time since Ornament began covering jewelry and artist-made clothing over four decades ago. Then, most workshops originated from colleges and universities where a professor, who was an expert in some technique, would teach this skill to invited instructors or artists (Liu 1980). As crafts spread beyond the traditional metals, ceramics and glass, to more and newer media such as polymer and PMC or popular jewelrymaking practices like beading, beadwork, wirework, and lampworking, knowledge became an important salable commodity (Liu 2013). Classes and workshops, as well as their tools and supplies, have become a sizeable industry and are an accompaniment to many venues. Organizations, private schools and individuals offer classes and workshops year-round, part of what we have come to call lifelong learning.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His new book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to ornaments, both in and out of the Ornament studio. This issue he writes about his experiences teaching photography and black bamboo jewelrymaking workshops. Later this year, he plans to teach photography workshops at the Ornament studio. Liu also collaborates with Pam Najdowski about Chinese children’s hats, a disappearing folk art and now a sought after collectible. The images in the latter article were shot in an improvised hotel room studio, demonstrating another easy way to photograph textiles and fiber artifacts.

Wendy McAllister Volume 38.2 Preview

Wendy McAllister: Worldly Geometry

ARCTIC SUMMER NECKLACE of vitreous enamel, copper, sterling silver, glass, adjustable 40.6 – 48.3 centimeters length, 2014. Photograph by Victor Wolansky.

ARCTIC SUMMER NECKLACE of vitreous enamel, copper, sterling silver, glass, adjustable 40.6 – 48.3 centimeters length, 2014. Photograph by Victor Wolansky.

At the moment when perfect symmetry acquires the merest hint of imbalance, exacting line begins to waver ever so slightly, and pure, unmodulated color takes on faint tinges of a disparate hue, art leaves the realm of circles, squares and triangles and enters the environs of naturalism. That this transition can be almost imperceptibly smooth, like the gradual increase in volume as one turns the knob of an amplifier, suggests that geometry and nature—the domain of flawless forms and that of imperfect being—are separated not by any wall or gulf but rather by conditions of chance and circumstance that the mind transcends but the material world cannot.

      As Wendy McAllister observes, “there’s math out there in nature. Underneath everything there are patterns of growth. They’re not followed perfectly. There are going to be variations, because maybe a plant didn’t get enough water, or sunlight, or nutrients from the soil. It’s not the perfection that you would get by drawing with a compass and ruler; it’s geometry that has interacted with the stresses of life.”

 

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Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History and the Art Department’s Director of Graduate Studies at Kansas State University, was interested to learn of Wendy McAllister’s successful career as a ceramicist prior to her focus on enameled jewelry. He was also impressed by the range of exploration exhibited by her enameled jewelry. “It’s obviously driven by a strong curiosity about form,” he observes. “She has explored the gamut from geometry in simple monochromatic shapes to complex asymmetrical arrangements of bright and varied organic elements. It’s highly diverse, but—like the nature that inspires it—it all works!”

Eric Silva Volume 38.2 Preview

 
NECKLACE of shed deer antler, sterling, lava, 7.6 x 182.9 x 2.5 centimeters, hand-carved, hand-fabricated chain, 2014. Photograph by Shana Crawford.

NECKLACE of shed deer antler, sterling, lava, 7.6 x 182.9 x 2.5 centimeters, hand-carved, hand-fabricated chain, 2014. Photograph by Shana Crawford.

Eric Silva
The Mystery of Objects

Eric Silva starts each day surfing, whether the waves are Southern California perfect or the ocean is rough and unwelcoming. He may take one or two of his four sons and often meets his friends at the beach. Despite the company, surfing for him is a solitary endeavor. It engages him completely and relieves the pressures generated by owning his own business. He proclaims, “It’s my joy!”

      After returning home he steps out of his door to the detached garage that has been his studio for the past eighteen or so years. One of his assistants begins work before he arrives, skillfully assembling components of his production jewelry. Preferring to create in solitude, Silva often just helps her organize supplies and oversees progress, then returns later in the day or at night to design new works or carve elements that will be incorporated into one-of-a-kind creations.

The “cluttered organized” studio, in Whittier, outside of Los Angeles, is filled with tools and raw materials, thrift store acquisitions and oversized tables. The central maple table is about five by six feet and is where he and his assistants work, with their pliers, stones and wire accessible in the middle. His jewelers bench, an oak table, and a steel cabinet table are special—his great-grandfather Joe made the steel one, and his maternal grandfather, Joe’s son, “Little Charlie,” made the first two. He says of Little Charlie, “He always gave me anything I needed to make a shop. I always had a helper.” Silva keeps beads in antique wooden machinists chests and jewelry is organized in an old card catalog. A little hallway houses grinding tools for cutting gems, and additional areas outside are home to his anvil and blacksmith materials. He describes the spaces as “my little world.”

 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. Her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion will be published by the University of Georgia Press in December. She met with Eric Silva when he attended the American Craft Council show in Atlanta and appreciated his willingness to speak with her about his work, art, surfing, thrifting, and the craft world.

Nicki Marx Volume 38.2

Nicki Marx: Feathered Fantasies

#38/14 of rooster and Golden pheasant feathers, glued individually feather by feather on backing of deer suede, 2014. Also being worn is a vintage Ring-necked pheasant cummerbund. VINTAGE NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. Photographs by Phillip Dixon, courtesy of The Nartonis Project. Model: Fanny Inanga Vega.

A compelling story has a defined beginning, middle, and end, and a protagonist whose dimensionality and intrigue hooks the reader into the narrative. Cape, Shaman’s Robe turned out to be the hook that drew me into the story of Nicki Marx, artist of singular wearables and wall sculptures crafted with feathers and other natural materials. Constructed of feathers, horsehair and leather, it was exhibited in California Design 1976, at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, and subsequently featured in the Chronicle book California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style (2005). The dramatic, fluttering cloak was cited in the Fiber Revolution chapter of the book as emblematic of the time when artists dared to make body coverings that were highly expressive, larger than life-size, sometimes outlandish, and constructed more as costume than clothing.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

      Indeed, the striking, earth-trailing robe made a forceful statement about this explosive period in the fiber/wearable art movement (page 48). But this was just the tip of the quill—the beginning of what would reveal itself as a richly woven narrative. Marx’s career as an artist took flight when she discovered she could use feathers, shells, seeds, bones, bark, bugs, driftwood, flowers, minerals, and earth as her primary ingredients to make a signature statement in wearable and mixed media artwork.

Living in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, in the freewheeling 1970s, Marx, who consistently worked on both wearables and wall sculptures, became identified with a close-knit community of artists who were following their own visions in artwear. Wholly self-taught, Marx popularized natural feather-patterning: the process of creating decorative compositions through arrangement of colors and designs inherent in the natural feathers she would glue to a substructure, most often leather. The brilliance of the hues, iridescences and patterns of the feathers are distinctive to their species, and Marx favored peacock, pheasant, rooster, and duck.

During this time, and in this place, Marx was part of a vibrant artistic circle. Artists Marian Clayden, K. Lee Manuel, Gaza Bowen, and Eliot Marshall Smith were also part of the creative community in Santa Cruz. Clayden actively advanced new techniques in textiles, such as silk resist and clamp dyeing; Manuel introduced methods for painting on leather and feathers; Bowen charted new territory in boot and shoe construction infused with content; and Marshall Smith made strides in mask fabrication with alternative materials.

Marx and other artwear artists were recognized for creating vanguard works by inclusion in important exhibitions and documentation in publications. “Maximum Coverage, Wearables by Contemporary American Artists,” an exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 1980, followed by the eponymous publication in 1981, highlighted the works of these Santa Cruz artists, among others, who were influential in the art-to-wear movement. Marx’s wearable featured in the exhibition and catalog was a collaborative piece (page 48) with artwear designer Ben Compton: A spectacular, shimmering, vicuna leather/rooster-feathered, full-length cape with headpiece, Bruja De Plata (Sorcerer of Silver), appropriately titled the hundreds of rooster feathers—covering the entire surface of the leather cloak—were silvery and reflective as if the feathers had been dipped in liquid silver. More accessible than a museum exhibition, the wearables produced by artwear artists could be viewed, sampled and purchased at Julie Schafler’s Julie: Artisans Gallery, a prestigious Madison Avenue emporium in New York City. Marx’s capes, vests, collars, and cloaks were shown at, and purchased from this gallery in the 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently have landed in significant collections of artwear.

#37/14 of Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014. #33/14 of striped rooster feathers, 2014. #48/14 of rooster and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014.
Photographs by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

      The wearables of Marx and Manuel were often exhibited in the same shows and appeared in the same publications, and it has been noted that there is an aesthetic kinship between Marx’s feather breastplates and Manuel’s feather collars. The two women were friends and lived in the same community, and according to Marx, they may have started making feather collars at the same time and incorporating feathers into other artwear. However, there is one notable, and distinguishing difference: Manuel had studied fine arts in college and considered herself a painter; her impulse was to paint the feathers and have them serve as painted elements of the composition. Marx, an ardent environmentalist who reveres earth and believes nature is sacred, sees beauty in the feather’s pristine
state. Marx’s objective is to make dazzling arrangements, naturally, without alteration; feathers become “her tubes of paint—her palette.”

At any rate, it is a moot point to consider which of the two artists arrived first at the idea of making feathered adornments. According to costume and textile curator Dale Carolyn Gluckman, both were building on a longstanding tradition: “Marx’s and Manuel’s use of feathers on clothing and neckpieces has antecedents in geographically diverse ancient cultures. For example, among the Nazca people in precolumbian Latin America between A.D. 600-800, ceremonial capes, aprons and standards were covered with the intensely colored feathers of parrots, macaw and other tropical birds, many obviously traded long distances.”

Further, documented research by Dr. Zvezdana Dode, an authority on the textiles and dress of the Mongols of Central Asia, reveals that robes decorated with feathers were mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and have been found in Mongol noble burials dating from the second half of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth. Thus proving that the threads of cultures connect through centuries. Suffice to say, Marx and Manuel can lay claim to reviving an ancient tradition, making it relevant to their time, and imprinting it with their personal stamp.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

      Self-identified as The Feather Lady (announced on her feather-trimmed business card), Marx continued a rich and flourishing production of art-to-wear and performance pieces, and wall compositions (some with feathers, some with encaustic, all with natural materials) from the 1970s through the early 1980s, showing in major galleries nationwide, and building an impressive publication and exhibition record. Along the way, Marx fulfilled several high-profile commissions, most notably Eye Dazzler, a monumental mural comprised of Golden and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers created for Stanford University’s Sherman-Fairchild Science Center in 1976, still on display today.

Other remarkable credits to Marx’s name, that shot her into the stratosphere of rock-star-artwear fame, were purchases by celebrated artists Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keeffe. This visibility brought production managers from the fashion industry to Marx’s studio doorstep; she was approached with the idea of having her designs produced by other artisans. “It’s a totally intuitive process,” explains Marx. “It’s like breathing. Breathe in—select and place the feather; exhale—glue. It’s so natural for me. Having other people laboring in my studio would change the meditative quality of the work.” Hence, Marx continued along the path of handcrafting each piece, affixing each feather individually, tallying hours of artistic labor.

By 1985, Marx was at a crossroads: primed for a change in both location and creative direction, Marx relocated to Taos, New Mexico, and decided to discontinue making wearables. The remoteness and wildness of the New Mexico landscape had been drawing her to the region; she had lived there part-time for the last fifteen years, and felt “connected to the peace and violence of the natural surroundings” she found outside her door. Evolving out of her wearable work, Marx brought the same skills and intuition to the wall sculptures, which she worked on exclusively through the mid-1990s. Two important series emerged that were politically themed reactions to the horrors and devastation of war: the Gulf War series and the Aftermath series, the latter based on a vision of the world after nuclear destruction. Marx’s artistic diligence was rewarded with a twenty-five-year retrospective in 1996 at Sun Cities Museum of Art, Arizona, where all phases of her career were represented, demonstrating the totality of her creative output.

In any story, this would be considered a happy ending; but the narrative has only reached the end of the second act. Marx’s life took a sharp left turn when a car crash sent her into disability and forced her into a challenging time of survival. Unable to produce work of scale due to injuries caused to her arms and neck, Marx turned to making jewelry from precious metal clay and minerals. The necklaces and pendants that she made from her Taos home and sold locally sustained her during this period of time—more than a decade—that she spent recovering from the injury and regaining her mobility.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

Her art career having faded from view, but not ready for it to “fade to black” (as when the screen goes dark; the end), Marx was yearning for a comeback. Then, in 2014, opportunity came calling, literally: a phone call exchange ended with an offer to re-enter the art scene, via a Los Angeles gallery that specializes in craft and design. Katie Nartonis, twentieth-century design specialist, had been on the other end of the phone. The outcome was a solo exhibition of wearables and feather-based wall sculptures, “Marx: Rising,” co-curated by Nartonis and Gerard O’Brien. Presented were vintage feathered artwear along with recently crafted versions of collars, breastplates and vests, and feather wall compositions hung on three contiguous walls.

Shown at The Landing at Reform Gallery, in Los Angeles, the 2014 opening produced a powerfully intoxicating effect, as viewers were surrounded by the sumptuous body adornments and wall ornaments, and further, were tantalized by models wearing the collars and breastplates created from the brilliantly hued feathers of many species of birds. These neckpieces, some with vertical extensions of suede and braided leather, fell gracefully at the chests, shoulders and backs of the models as they strutted through the aisles, mimicking the proud birds whose feathers they fluttered with every pivot. By all accounts, Marx had a rousing re-discovery.

During the run of the exhibition, there was excitement over, and purchases of, the wearables and wall sculptures. A vintage 1970s breastplate of peacock feathers was acquired for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for inclusion in a major exhibition in 2016, demonstrating that Marx’s body adornments were signifiers of their time. Additionally, famed fashion photographer Phillip Dixon was inspired by Marx’s feathered fantasies. Dixon’s visionary approach resulted in photographs of a nude model wearing only a collar or breastplate. These photographs present the opportunity to see Marx’s body adornments with great clarity and raw energy as they function as true body coverings, skimming over skin without the mediation of clothing.

Her art career once again soaring, Nicki Marx is taking advantage of the momentum. She is back at work in her Taos studio, creating new bodies of artwork. Recently ten of her wall sculptures went on view at the Gallery at the El Monte Sagrado Resort, Taos. But Marx, who just turned seventy-one, knows the power of pause and contemplation. Marx reflects on her re-launch and renewed popularity. “I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to pick up the thread and continue the tapestry of my life. I’ve hung on to my inspiration; I’ve stayed the course. My work was part of the zeitgeist of the ‘60s and now it’s timely again. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to manifest my vision all these years.”

 

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Jo Lauria is an independent art/design curator and author living in Los Angeles. She first came across the wearable art of Nicki Marx during research for California Design, The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style, which she coauthored with Suzanne Baizerman. Lauria was intrigued by the exotic leather and feather Cape, Shaman’s Robe that Marx had created in 1975 and exhibited in California Design ‘76, but had no idea that she would actually meet the artist who created this extravagant cloak. That opportunity presented itself in late 2014 at an exhibit of Marx’s feather neckpieces, wearables and wall sculptures. “It was a great pleasure to meet her and presented the platform for me to interview Nicki for this article and learn of her renewed energy and commitment to her singular vision.”

Laguna Beach International Wrap Festival 38.2

LAGUNA BEACH
INTERNATIONAL WRAP FESTIVAL

 
TSHERING CHODEN

TSHERING CHODEN

RASUL AZIZ MURTAZAYEV

RASUL AZIZ MURTAZAYEV

ASIF SHAIKH

ASIF SHAIKH

 

A recent endeavor to bring together international textile artists to Southern California is bearing fruit. The Laguna Beach International Wrap Festival, showing from July 14 – 19, developed out of various connections made by Edric Ong, a Malaysian textile artist and preservationist who has partnered with American fiber artist Olivia Batchelder to bring this event from idea to reality. Ong has visited the United States annually since the mid-1990s, and is Senior Vice President of the World Crafts Council/Asia Pacific Region.

         The week-long presentation is in fact an amalgamation of things-to-do in the Laguna Beach area. Among the festivities are workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions, and, of course, the marketplace. A number of partnerships with other local festivals and Seven Degrees gallery have expanded the Wrap Festival to that of a community affair.

The idea behind the festival is a celebration of the universality of handmade textiles between countries. As the bond that ties the whole event together, the wrapped garment, being the simplest method of utilizing cloth as garb, is the star. An equal number of international and national fiber artists have been gathered in Laguna Beach to present fashion as art. As the centerpiece of the festival, the Gala International Fashion Show takes place on July 16, where wrap-themed collections will be modeled on the catwalk at Seven Degrees.

Among those artists who will be in attendance are Tshering Choden of the Chimmi House of Design, Bhutan; Asif Shaikh, India; Merdi Sihomberg, Indonesia; Miyoko Kawahito, Japan; Aidai and Dinara Chochunbaeva, Altynai Osmoeva, Kyrgyzstan; Edric Ong, Malaysia; and Rasul Aziz Murtazayev, Uzbekistan. Seven California designers will be their counterparts, and include Serena Abel, Olivia Batchelder, Reem Khalil, Edith, Michele Lantz, Marilynn Pardee, and Helga Yaillen. Weaver Antonio Mendoza is the featured artist, who will be presenting his tapestries as part of the show.

Also taking place concurrently is the Sawdust Art Festival, which in the spirit of the event will be having an International Day of Cultural Celebrations on July 18. The fun of this thematic element is the presence of the international designers themselves, dressed in their country’s traditional clothing. As guest actors, they will stroll throughout the festival to share both their culture and their art with attendees.

Woven fabric has a long history within the human record, and the development of the loom allowed for the use of technology to amplify technique. Like basketry, the discovery of weaving has been said to have sent the human brain down a novel path of neural evolution, as the complexity of pattern combined with the need for planning one’s design created a new plateau. For many of us living today in first-world countries, the value and intrinsic effort represented by fabric is vastly overlooked. It is in the interest of drawing awareness to the preciousness of cloth that the Laguna Beach International Wrap Festival has been founded, as well to demonstrate the fraternity between nations and the diversity of our small globe. The wrap, as the primordial clothing one step beyond leather and hide, finds its voice and expression thus honored here in the modern day.

 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. With the arrival of the Laguna Beach International Wrap Festival, Benesh-Liu provides a brief synopsis of the event, the participating artists, and how it came about. The Festival will pair an equal number of international and national artists. This year he attended his first Society of North American Goldsmiths conference, where he found that metalsmiths are some of the best partiers, and is planning on attending the American Craft Council Show in San Francisco. As usual, he provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft news, where you can find out what’s happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.