In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component. Therefore, if you’re beginning with thread, you’re half way home. There’s a level of familiarity that immediately breaks down any prejudice.” – Sheila Hicks
Exploring the many facets of Sheila Hicks’s lexicon, from her miniature weavings known as minimes to monumental commissions for architectural sites, Material Voices at the Textile Museum of Canada illuminates how the artist has employed “supple materials” to articulate a perspective that is at once global and deeply personal.
Sheila Hicks was born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1934. Her family lived there only briefly, but Hicks visited nearly every summer when she was young. She explains that she became “thread conscious” during those trips, learning to sew, knit, crochet, and embroider. Hicks went on to study painting at Yale University School of Art, where an independent streak led her to question the traditional boundaries among media. In 1957, a sojourn to South America would further broaden her worldview and sharpen her understanding of the ways fiber could be used in art. These elements of Hicks’s artistic origin, along with the story of her upbringing, lay the foundation for an oeuvre that pivots around the interconnected themes of memory, place, and space.
Hicks has called Paris home since 1964, but her work has taken her across the globe, from the Middle East, to Scandinavia, to Northern Africa, to the Indian subcontinent. The minimes are the most revealing records of her travels, describing an individual whose wanderlust has never subsided. These miniature weavings transport us to China’s eastern coast, a barren desert in Chile, a synagogue in Portugal, Nebraska’s innumerable corn fields, and many places in between. Often, Hicks’s work reflects her immediate response to the geographic locations and architectural spaces she encounters, yet in recent years she has turned her attention back to places she visited earlier in life, allowing older memories to find new expression.
Traveling has also exposed Hicks to a broad range of local textile traditions, many of which she incorporates into her diverse approach. In her own words: “I have worked through many different expanding notions of form making – I won’t even call it art. There has been an explosion of form making in different contexts, enriched by the discovery of unfamiliar areas and geographies.”
While studying at Yale University, Hicks met Anni Albers, one of the most well-known textile artists of the twentieth century. Albers opened her mentee’s eyes to the boundless possibilities of fiber, and Hicks found the prospects thrilling. Still, becoming comfortable with her new materials was a lengthy journey: “At the beginning… you don’t know [your materials] very well, and try to get them to do what you think you want them to do. As time goes on, you understand the way to make them do what they want to do, but your way.” The minimes have been at the center of this process of material discovery, guiding Hicks to find her “voice and footing” with fiber.
With their wandering lines, gaps and slashes, and use of non-fiber materials such as feathers, shells, paper, and wood, the minimes are among Hicks’s most experimental weavings. Working on a small scale provides her with the freedom to investigate colour, line, and form; to test new techniques; and to respond directly to her lived experiences. Indeed, when she leaves her house or studio, Hicks often carries with her the small loom she hand-built in the 1950s should inspiration arise.
The time Hicks spent in South America in 1957 before beginning her graduate studies intensified her resolve to incorporate weaving into her artistic practice. Still, she was not prepared to restrict herself to the label of being a fiber artist: “I was unaware that a fiber world existed. I was a painter interested in archaeology and ceramics and weaving and architecture.” What began as uncertainty soon morphed into a conscious resistance to the sharp divisions that separated painting, sculpture, architecture, and other less traditional media in the art historical canon.
With her earliest minimes, Hicks discovered a correlation between painting and weaving. This cross-pollination would expand as her language in fiber diversified to include three-dimensional forms, such as bales, batons, cords, and stacks. Continuing to question the boundaries of what constitutes fiber art has allowed Hicks to offer fresh takes on familiar materials and innovate with other less conventional materials.
Sheila Hicks’s interest in the built environment began during her time at Yale University, where she met the celebrated American architect Louis Kahn. After completing school, Hicks moved to Mexico to film a documentary about Félix Candela, an architect known for his elegant and daring designs. Although the film never came to fruition, the time Hicks spent studying Candela’s work helped sharpen her eye to the intricacies of architectonic space. Her passion for architecture deepened in the early 1960s through interactions with architect Luis Barragán, who had adapted the International Style – noted for its clean lines and use of industrial materials– to Mexico’s warm palette and abundant sunshine. The notion that an identifiable aesthetic could be subject to change based on context became a central tenet of Hicks’s work.
Much of the artist’s practice has grown from projects for buildings and architectural spaces, including the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City, the Fuji City Cultural Center in Japan, and Target Corporation’s headquarters in Minneapolis. With her many commissions over the last five decades, Hicks has been guided by the principle of integration – she conceives of installations with the understanding that site informs artwork as much as artwork defines and transforms site.
Material Voices celebrates the past and present of an artist who has created a lasting role for fiber in postwar art while also influencing a generation of artists working across many media. Placing older work in conversation with recently-made objects, this exhibition reflects Hicks’s understanding of her own artistic practice not as a trajectory, but rather as an ongoing exploration of material and form through innovation, appropriation, and reinvention.