Totally Warped: Traditional art with a conceptual, modern twist

Everything in Totally Warped is created from fiber, even the bowl of produce at the entrance. Photo courtesy of the Duluth Art Institute For Beverly Martin, president of the Duluth Fiber Handcrafter’s Guild, weaving is a puzzle. It’s the challenge of “coming up with a problem and how will I solve it.”

Martin takes her inspiration from nature. She finds ways to present the image on her loom. Unlike other weavers, she paints her dyes directly on the warp, creating something she believes is uniquely hers.

Guild member Christine Hensolt describes her artistic process differently.

“Everything was precise and structured and then I started to open up and went wild,” said Hensolt. “I just love the variety and experiment with all kinds of things.”

Both artists are part of Totally Warped, a fiber arts exhibit at the Duluth Art Institute. Fourteen members of the Duluth Fiber Handcrafter’s Guild transformed their crafts of spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing and other fiber work beyond the functional to the conceptual.

Though the stereotypical modern view of weaving developed from thick-yarned ponchos during the 1970s, Martin notes that weaving is more sophisticated today, using much finer yarn.

Her piece, three panels of swaying grasses and a butternut tree on a blue background, demonstrates this sophistication—its warp has 56 threads per inch. In comparison, another piece in the exhibit has 12 threads per inch.

Christine Hensolt's Ceremonial Garment, made of Uzbekistan silk, Tenerife lace, and dyed felt, glimmers under the lights. Photo courtesy of the Duluth Art Institute

Totally Warped also displays several sculptural pieces, including the felted birch trees by Marlys Johnson, another Guild member.

“Felting is one of those things that anyone can do. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. Anyone can engage with it and have a fabulous time,” Johnson said.

All three women are long-time participants in the fiber arts. Martin worked on potholder looms as a child and began weaving in earnest in 1975. Hensolt wanted to become a home economics teacher when she was five. She has a Master’s in Textile Design and is now retired from her childhood dream job.

Johnson, however, had a slightly different introduction. She worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn., and learned to spin for demonstrations. The next natural step was weaving.

“Weaving is a really technical process and I loved that part, but it was a little too controlled and I would get stuck,” Johnson said. “We were raising sheep at the time and a friend introduced me to felting.”

Johnson, a psychologist by profession, is drawn to felting because it complements her work.

“Felting is the balance of the mind and emotional work,” Johnson said. “You lose yourself in the sensory experience.”

Hensolt can relate to Johnson’s experience with fiber’s tactile nature.

“I love fiber. I love the texture. I smell it, I touch it, and I just love the touch of it,” Hensolt said.

Visitors to Totally Warped can examine individual stitches on the pieces, but fiber art is accessible to everyone, even children.

“You put wool or felt in front of kids and it’s magical,” Johnson said with a smile.

These birch trees are Marlys Johnson's felted wool Winter Birch, not actual trees.<BR> Photo courtesy of: the Duluth Art Institute

The Butterfly Felting Classroom Experience, funded by the Karen Sather Memorial Project, is one of the Guild’s outreach programs. Each year, about 15 pre-school classrooms take part in the free program taught by Guild members. Children learn about, and participate in, the felting process.

“It’s a perfect medium because they can’t fail,” Johnson said.

Community involvement is an important aspect for the Guild.

“One of the missions of the Guild is to keep all of these crafts alive, so they don’t become lost,” said Martin.

Totally Warped runs through April 24, 2011, at the John Steffl Gallery, part of the Duluth Art Institute, located in The Depot.

Have you been to Totally Warped? What did you think? Do you know anyone involved in the fiber arts? Tell us about it in the comment field below.

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