Sheila Hicks, Do Not Disturb, 2022, linen, synthetic fibre, 20 x 18 cm. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

‘You have to think futuristically, not only historically’ – in conversation with artist Sheila Hicks

Issue no6
Dec -Jan 2022
zigzag 2022 > 2023 + nieuwe collectie

Sheila Hicks’ contribution to the emancipation of textile as a fully-fledged art medium is uncontested. Today, at 88, she presents new work at gallery EENWERK in Amsterdam. Sitting down in front of her colourful and vibrating Lianes Colsa, Christel Vesters asks Hicks what drives her, inspires her, and what, after a celebrated sixty-odd year career, keeps her wanting to make new works.

Amsterdam, Spring 1974. A woman sits darning socks in a shop window of the high-end retail store De Bijenkorf, located on the Dam Square in the city centre. She has surrounded herself with socks, mostly pairs, in various sizes and designs, while concentrating on another mending project. Outside everyday city life takes its usual course. The woman is the young artist Sheila Hicks, who is in town for her first solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The socks are from her own collection, gathered from cities and countries across the world, or donated by friends or complete strangers.

The small and unassuming gesture of mending worn socks by hand seems to be at odds with the monumental and wildly colourful fibre installations Sheila Hicks has become famous for; not only because of its (small) scale, but also because of its apparent socially critical statement. Mending textiles was – and still is – considered ‘women’s work’, usually carried out at home, not in the public eye. Also, repairing clothes in the window of a shopping Valhalla could be explained as a comment on our consumerist culture and its effect on the environment. But interpretations like these, that is discussions on the socially critical, political or ideological nature of Hicks’ works, are rare to come by.

The small and unassuming gesture of mending worn socks by hand seems to be at odds with the monumental and wildly colourful fibre installations Sheila Hicks has become famous for

Sheila Hicks darning in the window of De Bijenkorf, 1974. Photo: Wubbo de Jong

In almost every essay or article on her work, Sheila Hicks is hailed as a pioneer and great innovator in the field of Fibre Art; as an artist who has challenged the boundaries between art, craft, and architecture. Her sculptures and installations are admired for their universal language - a statement that is often followed by an overview of the artist’s many travels and collaborations with artists, designers, and architects across the world, including Peru, Mexico, Morocco, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. And her contribution to the emancipation of textile as a fully-fledged art medium is uncontested. Detailed descriptions of her works in catalogues, magazines and so on, emphasise how she uses traditional fibres like cotton, wool, and silk, alongside materials that are less common, such as porcupine quills, feathers, or stainless-steel fibres.

I too am a great fan of her work, and, I must admit, felt quite nervous at the prospect of interviewing her. But I was also curious to find out what drives her, inspires her, and what, after a celebrated sixty-odd year career, keeps her wanting to make new works.

While the sun outside courageously pierces through heavy rain clouds, we sit down in front of her latest work, Lianes Colsa, an absolute eye-catcher consisting of 50 lianes in a spectrum of bright oranges, pinks, yellows, and golds. Hicks finished the work just in time for the opening of her solo exhibition Make an Effort Every Day at EENWERK. The exhibition marks the five-year anniversary of the Amsterdam gallery. For Hicks the event is a ‘page marker in time’, she says, ‘a moment to pause and think back’. To five years ago, when Julius [Vermeulen ed.] founded the gallery and her solo-exhibition Sheila Hicks | Why Not? at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg had just finished; to ten years ago, when the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen showed one hundred of her Minimes; to twenty years ago, when she and Irma Boom started working together on the catalogue Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor.

We sit down in front of her latest work, Lianes Colsa, an absolute eye-catcher consisting of 50 lianes in a spectrum of bright oranges, pinks, yellows, and golds, which Hicks finished just in time for the opening

Sheila Hicks with the author in front of Lianes Colsa (2020 – 2022). Courtsey EENWERK, photo Koos Breukel

Hicks reminisces about her first solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1974 and her participation in the group show Perspectives in Textiles, five years earlier. Liesbeth Crommelin, co-curator of both exhibitions, described those years as ‘full of changes, sensational, and liberating. Especially in the field where art had always been called “applied”. All at once it was possible to improvise with the material at hand.’ Hicks was part of a generation of artists who in the 1960s and early 70s challenged the primacy of Abstract-Expressionist painting and sculpture – art forms that at the time were imbued with masculine qualities – by introducing fibre and textile as equally robust, monumental, virile, and expressive materials. In art historical surveys, the use of the soft, pliable materials and techniques such as hand weaving, typically associated with women’s art, has often been presented as a feminist statement. Sheila Hicks, however, has always avoided talking about her work along those lines. When posed the question, back in 1974, if a creative woman had more problems or possibilities then a man, she answered: ‘The moment a human being, female or male, becomes creative, he places himself in an exceptional position, and all exceptional people have difficulty to express themselves, to communicate, to survive.’

When I ask her what she thinks has since changed in the field of textile art, she picks up a copy of Sculpture from the table in front of us. ‘You know, I never owned a loom. I was an orphan, adopted by a community of weavers, not by sculptors.’ She flips through the pages pointing out the wide variety of objects and installations made with textiles. ‘Look, a whole magazine of Sculpture dedicated to textile and fibre, and they all do something different with it. Is it sculpture? Is it craft? Is it architecture? It is a hard thing for people to adjust to the fact that we have broken through these lines demarcating different categories.’ That’s why she rather speaks about her works as ‘presences’ instead of sculptures. ‘They are present in the space; they interact with the architecture, the dimensions, the light, and with the people – if they want to.’

Back to Lianes Colsa. The vertical sculpture is made from thousands of threads in various shades of yellow, pink and orange. The cotton threads are tied together in separate bundles, each consisting of a different combination of coloured threads. At various hights, and in no discernible order, each bundle has been tightly wrapped with a linen yarn in various shades of gold and pink. Lianes Colsa (‘colsa’ is Corsican for rapeseed) is a symphony of colours, flowing from one end of the spectrum to the other, radiating, vibrating, filling the room and lifting my spirits.

Hicks speaks about her works as ‘presences’: ‘They are present in the space; they interact with the architecture, the dimensions, the light, and with the people – if they want to’

Sheila Hicks, installation view 'Make an Effort Every Day' at EENWERK, Amsterdam. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

Sheila Hicks, installation view 'Make an Effort Every Day' at EENWERK, Amsterdam. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

Sheila Hicks, installation view 'Make an Effort Every Day' at EENWERK, Amsterdam. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

Looking at the work, I understand why Hicks describes it as a presence, and why she talks about her artistic process as a form of ‘visual composing’. ‘You can feel the presence of the hand, don’t you? … and of the heart.’ I ask her if the idea of ‘the hand’ plays an important role in her current thinking about art? All her works, big and small, are made by hand, and she once remarked that ‘the hand connects the eyes and the brain. Hands, eyes, brain: it’s the magic triangulation’. I was surprised by her answer: ‘Of course, hands are important, but why only talk about the hands when we now have access to amazing new materials that we never had before? There is a whole industry fabricating new fibres that give us opportunities to try new things and go where the hands are not able to go. We have to follow progress!’ Hicks points to the tangle of twisting and coiling cords draped around a steel structure in the backspace of the gallery, Gardien de la Paix (2006). The variegation of greys, blues, grey-blues, greens, blue-greens and grey-blue-greens is endless. The threads are made of stainless steel fibres mixed in with synthetic fibres, a new technology developed in the auto industry. ‘By heating the fibres at different temperatures, then cooling them in cold water, and then heating them again, the steel takes on different colours’, Hicks explains.

But continuing experimentation with new materials is not the only kind of progress Sheila Hicks alludes to. She also refers to a state of mind, and to life in general: ‘You have to open up to new developments’, she says. ‘Don’t be reactive or stay stuck in closed references.’ I mention one of her mentors Anni Albers, with whom she shares a deep fascination and respect for pre-Columbian textiles, and who in her seminal book On Weaving from 1965 lamented the mechanical advancements of the loom as they ‘… lessen the freedom of the weaver and the control of his design in working.’ Hicks answers: ‘Anni Albers was left behind, she could only see developments up to a certain point. You have to be at pace with your times, you have to think futuristically, not only historically.’ During our conversation, Hicks would make this point repeatedly, referring to the need for artists and people in general ‘to stay alive and aware of the world you are really living in, not a fantasy world of the past.’

For Hicks ‘staying present’ manifests itself most clearly in her way of working. ‘I think like a dentist. Each new work, each new situation is like a new patient: I look into their mouth as it where, and observe what is there, what needs to be fixed and what I can make better. I observe. What can I do with the materials, the space, the light? How do these things [colours, shapes, volumes, space, light, ed.] fit together? How can I play with them, make an intervention that makes me laugh? When I was in Peru, back when I was still a student, I was deeply fascinated by the stonework at the archaeological sites, by how they were fitting together, creating beautiful patterns without the use of cement. I guess that is what I do too, fitting pieces and things together, improvising, experimenting, seeing things in relation.’

The wrapping of textiles, bamboo sticks and other materials was inspired by techniques she encountered during her travels through Latin America, including Mexico and Peru, in the late 1950s and early 1960s

Sheila Hicks, Lianes Colsa, linen, cotton, 50 lianes, 2020-2022, 175 x 240 cm. Currently on view at EENWERK. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

Sheila Hicks, Lianes Colsa, linen, cotton, 50 lianes, 2020-2022, 175 x 240 cm. Currently on view at EENWERK. Courtesy EENWERK, photo: Peter Tijhuis

The lianes or cordes enveloppées are one of the ten or so archetypical textile forms Hicks has worked with throughout her career, experimenting with different colour compositions, fitting them together in different constellations in the space. The wrapping of textiles, bamboo sticks and other materials was inspired by techniques she encountered during her travels through Latin America, including Mexico and Peru, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Experimenting with what she observed, Hicks developed the cordes enveloppées (linen threads tightly wrapped with threads in different colour compositions) and their cousins the cordes sauvages (threads wrapped more loosely and wildly). Other archetypical forms include the boules (a piece of textile wrapped with coloured threads); migrating and talking sticks (bamboo wrapped with different kinds and colours of treads) and of course the minimes (small weavings that function as a diary entrée). In all her works – and Hicks’ artistic output has been prolific – Hicks uses the materials that are at hand, left-over bits laying around in her studio or fibres she picked up from the place she would be working in at that particular moment. The exhibition Make an Effort Every Day shows examples of most of these archetypes in the backspace of the gallery.

In the last few years, several attempts have been made to relate Hicks’ works to that of a younger generation of artists who use textile as their medium. I included a selection of her Trésors (treasured items of clothing from friends, lovingly and carefully wrapped by the artist as gifts) in my exhibition Interwoven Histories last year at Rozenstraat – a rose is a rose is a rose, bringing them into relation with the works of younger artists whose practices engage with topics of care and repair. And in Everyday, Someday and Other Stories, the current presentation of the collection in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, her famous Trapéze de Cristobal (1971) is placed next to an installation by the young Peruvian American artist Sarah Zapata, who in her work explores the ceremonial textiles from the ancient Peruvian ceremonial complex Cahuacchi. By juxtaposing the two artworks the curators seem to hint at our changing perspective when it comes to engaging with indigenous textile traditions.

Installation view Everyday, Someday and Other Stories. Collection 1950–1980. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Just like Sheila Hicks has never been forthcoming in validating a feminist interpretation of her work, she does not seem over-invested to engage in any current discourses around textile and the decolonial turn. But, I guess that does not mean she is oblivious to them either. During our conversation and in any other interviews, Hicks speaks with respect and deep admiration of all the local textile traditions and craftspeople she has ever worked with. She has observed them, learned from them, became inspired by what she encountered and absorbed it into her own artistic intuition. Her art is simply a visual and tactile, and not an 'intellectual', pursuit. Maybe, at 88, you learn how to stay open and at the same time steadfast in threading your own course.

Sheila Hicks' exhibition Make an Effort Every Day is on view at EENWERK, Amsterdam, until November 13th

Christel Vesters
is an art historian and art critic. She is the initiator of the platform Touch/Trace: Researching Histories through Textiles and currently writing her book Interwoven Histories: Contemporary Art, Migratory Narratives and Textiles which will be published by nai010 publishers Spring 2023

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2022