Sheila Hicks and the Art of the Yarn

An exhibition spanning the textile artist’s 50-year career celebrates a woman with a deep connection to making and materials.

A gallant attempt to translate in pulp what the artist was expressing in fiber, Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor won a gold medal at the 2007 Leipzig Book Fair for the “Most Beautiful Book in the World.” It was ironic. A paper product, albeit a particularly handsome one, made of mashed-up fibers, was being hailed for mimicking the look, texture, and feel of real fibers. At the time, I questioned whether the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom, who had crafted the award-winning volume, had served the subject matter she was supposed to celebrate. It was an example of the pedestal attracting more attention than the object it supported.

Now a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia—Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, presenting some of the artist’s largest and most ambitious commissions—amends the impression left by Boom’s beautifully designed monograph. Visitors to the ICA show are confronted with serpentine and voluptuous creations that challenge the idea that fiber is a tame and domesticated medium, or that weaving is a metaphor for controlling nature. For Hicks, this grande dame of textile art, weaving is not a symbolic activity but an opportunity to experience a concrete, tangible, palpable reality—an opportunity to affirm the recalcitrant beauty of the physical world in which we live.

“Let’s have a little talk before you turn on your tape recorder,” Hicks says when I first meet her in her Paris apartment. Within minutes I realize that this is not going to be a straightforward Q & A: the Hicks approach is anything but linear. She treats threads she weaves the way a novelist treats the various plot lines of story: she is attentive to their every twist and turn. In fact, her real talent is that of a raconteur. She transforms yarns into complex narratives, their woven texture sometimes as intricate as epic tales. Sitting in front of the loom for decades, she has learned to intertwine strands of material into mesmerizing visual conversations, acquiring in the process a skill that has become a way of life. “When you try to understand the behavior of things and get in touch with it,” she says, “the material reveals its essence to you. Once you’ve discovered what it is, you can ‘fool’ it. It collaborates with you—and you both win.”

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Hicks looks like central casting’s idea of a benevolent midwestern grandma. But this Nebraska-born septuagenarian, who moved to Paris in the mid-1960s and commutes regularly between France and the United States, is a fearless artist with a taste for wicked repartee. For women of her generation, a sense of humor at times comes in handy to dismiss condescending remarks about their art being “feminine.” Friendly and exceedingly generous (qualities the French associate with being American), Hicks is also someone you don’t want to tangle with. When she says “turn off your tape recorder,” you know that you’re in for more than you bargained for.

The interview quickly becomes a private master class. As we begin to chat, she casually grabs a small, primitive loom, as handy as a laptop, and proceeds to weave an assortment of silky threads, narrow hatbands, and antique leather shoe-strings into one of her “minimes,” as she calls her diminutive fiber tableaux. She encourages me to touch, knot, link, and play with a basketful of colorful rubber bands. She gets me to unravel the end of a herringbone ribbon. She explains how she knitted a blanket with two broomsticks instead of needles. For the next three hours, her fingers never idle, she distractedly shares random anecdotes about her travels, the famous architects with whom she has worked, her favorite museums, the joys of raising her kids in Paris—a medley of remarks and comments, as if to demonstrate how to braid together factual information, bits of art history, and blithe moments of unexpected camaraderie.

Jenelle Porter, one of the organizers of the ICA show, tells how Hicks was able to create this same sense of camaraderie with strangers during a lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA): “She got audience members to get up on the stage and build an impromptu textile sculpture right there, under her supervision, while she kept showing slides of her work. She had volunteers unpack a container full of nurses’ uniforms that she had dyed in bright colors in her Paris washing machine and stack them on top of each other. It was magical. The result was beautiful. Then she got the same volunteers to fold them up and put them back in the crate.”

Hicks would rather show than tell. “She doesn’t want to add theory to her work,” says Massimo Vignelli, who, in 2009, commissioned her to create large fiber pieces for SD26 restaurant, in Manhattan. “Sheila is best when she can adapt her work to whatever happens in the moment—when she
can have a dialogue between concept and circumstances.”

Known for improvising wherever she is, with whatever material happens to be handy (her nurses’ uniforms came from a previous installation and happened to be temporarily stored at PMA), Hicks can turn the most humble things—scraps of paper, twigs, strings, ribbons, wires, or tapes—
into mesmerizing fragments of tapestry. But what about the large pieces she creates for major institutions? How does she change scale in order to construct monumental bas-reliefs and sculptures that are both soft and sturdy? “One thing is sure,” she quips, “a fiber artist had better know the difference between ample and heavy—between graceful and hefty.”

In 1964, a MoMA curator showed Hicks’s work to Alfred H. Barr Jr., the legendary first director of MoMA, who, upon seeing her “pot holders,” as she herself describes her small weavings, asked her to “make a large one.” She went home (to Mexico, where she lived with her first husband, Henrik Tati Schlubach, a beekeeper), turned over the dining room table, used its legs to improvise a loom, and made her largest tapestry to date. Barr, who at the time was purchasing large abstract expressionist paintings for the museum, was disappointed. He wanted something significantly bigger. The quest for size—wall size—has been a driving force in Hicks’s career. She experimented with a number of strategies, from embroidery to knotting, tufting, stitching, and quilting, with various degrees of success, until she came upon the obvious tactic: the modular approach. It had the advantage of allowing her to produce small pieces that could be easily stitched together and, more importantly, shipped to distant locations in smaller crates.

She has now perfected her art to the point that technique is no longer an issue. “Weavings are as permanent a material as wood or bricks or metal,” she says. “Their only enemy is glue—sometimes used to hold the fibers in place—and direct sunlight.” Her first modular textile bas-relief, installed in 1966 at the Ford Foundation headquarters, in New York, is still in great shape and, as part of the rest of the building, was landmarked in 1997.

In her early twenties, on a Fulbright grant, Hicks traveled to South America for a year, working with local weavers and studying their techniques. She met people up and down the continent—in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru—all the way to Chile and back up again when she went through Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. Some of the artists and
architects she befriended during that trip gave her names of people in Paris, where she went afterward on a Fribourg scholarship and lived as an artist among South American expatriates. During a brief interlude, she settled in Mexico, where she gave birth to her daughter Itaka. This nomadic existence—and the encounters it provided—were as formative as her sedentary years at Yale, where, in 1959, she had earned a master of fine arts under the supervision of Josef Albers, the renowned Bauhaus painter and color theorist.

It was during this period—the mid-1960s—that Hicks got her first institutional commissions, thanks to the architect Warren Platner, who arranged for her to work with the offices of Eero Saarinen and, later, Roche Dinkeloo. In 1965, she manufactured the first of a series of “prayer rugs” for the lobby of the CBS Building, on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan (it was eventually acquired by MoMA). The following year, she created two majestic linen and silk bas-reliefs for the Ford Foundation. In 1967, she produced a large mural for the Rochester Institute of Technology. She delivered three linen sculptures in 1968 for the Georg Jensen Center for Advanced Design, in New York. By then Hicks had moved permanently to France, remarried, and had a son with her new husband, Enrique Zañartu. As more architects and interior designers were discovering her, she had to get organized, hire help, deal with the French administrative procedures—all while raising her family. Most of her production originated from her Paris studio, a former upholstery shop in the sixth arrondissement, where she began to train and employ associates, some of them still with her today.

Her intensely collaborative style made this evolution possible and allowed her to be as productive as she was. Hicks seems uniquely able to arouse the curiosity of others and harness their talent in the process. But she remains secretive when it comes to explaining it all—a trait she may have acquired in France, where secrets of fabrication are as closely guarded as the family jewels. “I hope you don’t mind me not answering you directly,” she says after repeatedly evading my questions about her methods of construction. “But it’s how I like to proceed. I believe it’s important to elevate one’s work, not demystify it. I treat my clients, collaborators, and employees the same way—as my partners in crime.”

As early as 1964, to supplement her income and have the necessary funds to run her studio, Hicks acted as consultant with a number of firms, Knoll among them. She also struck a deal with a textile mill in Wuppertal, Germany, where she conducted experiments with an electric “gun” in an effort to manufacture shaggy carpets and wall coverings as woolly as sheep’s coats. She soon rejected this technique as not authentic enough, even though the result looked convincingly handmade. That the strands of wool had to be held in place with latex seemed unethical to her.

More gratifying was her relationship with the Commonwealth Trust, a huge hand-weaving workshop in Calicut, India, where Hicks helped develop contemporary-looking, high-end textiles that were woven on traditional looms by weavers still loyal to their ancestral methods. Each country where she was invited as a consultant provided a new set of challenges. In Morocco, she worked in carpet workshops on upright looms, a technique that allowed her to build up extravagant cascades of pile that she would then trim with scissors to create layered patterns.

Over the following decades, Hicks became known in architectural circles as someone who could walk into any situation, evaluate the potential of local artisans and resources, factor in the demands of the market, take into account the sensibility of the various players, and propose design solutions that were not only adapted but also innovative. She handled it all, whether it was an installation in a theater in Fuji City, Japan, a bank in Mexico City, an insurance company in Milwaukee, the IBM headquarters in Paris, or a university campus project for King Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There were disasters as well, she recalls, like the time she tried to hang a soft sculpture in the interior atrium of a Hyatt hotel and it just looked wrong.

“What counts is your level of engagement, not your level of accomplishment,” she says. Hicks never signs her work, assuming that it belongs to those who helped her create it, as well as those who live with it or care for it. Her installations develop lives of their own, as the places where they hang change hands and new owners sell the work, give it to museums, or move it to different locations.

The ICA show has such a piece, May I Have This Dance, a commission created in 2002 for the Minneapolis headquarters of Target Corporation. Shaped like a colossal knot, the bundles of wool-wrapped tubes required a cherry picker for installation. Removed in 2010, the massive sculpture was reconfigured in the ICA galleries, this time as a 20-foot-high swarm of exotic pythons. “Unpacking and handling the slithering pieces, because of their size, weight, and shape, required people to move in a certain way. It was like watching a modern ballet,” says Jill Katz, the museum’s director of communication. “Sheila was overlooking everything, and you could feel that both the fibers and the people were responding to her almost effortlessly.”

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