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BAM's 'High Fiber Diet' Ties Art and Craft Together

Local artists experiment with fiber at Bellevue Arts Museum, writes Sarah Elson.

A disemboweled coyote created out of magenta fabric hangs from a tree limb, its insides draped gracefully over an adjacent branch. Around the corner, grey tubes knitted out of old T-shirts hang from ceiling to floor, draping and looping like jungle vines. And venturing a little further, white walls are covered with vibrant tapestries that look bold and simple from far away, but up close are filled with intricate stitches. 

The pieces are part of Bellevue Arts Museum's High Fiber Diet Exhibit, which is the second edition of BAM’s biennial. The exhibit focuses on fiber as a medium and features the work of 44 local artists. 

Stefano Catalani said the purpose of the biennial is to blur the line between art and craft, which is why he chose to focus on fiber.

“I think of all the traditional craft media, fiber is the one that diminishes this difference between art and craft the most,” Catalani said. “By definition fiber is very flexible, pliable and versatile, and for me what is exciting is that it’s a material that can be used for making art, for making craft or to design an object of daily use.”

All of the pieces incorporate fiber, and most were created specifically for the exhibit. Catalani chose from almost 300 proposals, basing his decision on whether fiber would add meaning to the object being proposed and if he thought the artist could deliver what he or she described. 

Most curators pick finished pieces for their exhibits, but Catalani based all his decisions on short written proposals. 

“I like to work with the artist and not with the art,” Catalani said. “But it’s a leap of faith on both ends.”

Catalani said he didn’t have a vision of how the exhibit would look beforehand, but he wanted to make sure there was a wide variety of pieces. 

“There is a vast range,” Catalani said. “There are a lot of traditional expressions of craft that are also associated with fiber, and then there’s this whole group of artists who don’t work exclusively with fiber, but when they use fiber that element affects their artwork.”

One of the most unusual pieces is Seattle artist Rock Hushka’s installment, which is the only one that includes a performance. Every Friday and Sunday Hushka embroiders in a re-creation of his own studio while classical music from his collection plays.

Hushka said he sees his performance piece as a way to try something that makes him uncomfortable. 

 “Most fiber people, me in particular, work very quietly away at home, no one sees us,” Hushka said. “And to turn the act of making a textile into a performance work of art … makes me confront what I’m saying I want to do with my art, which is using the needle and the thread to repair the social fabric.”

The exhibit also includes two awards. One is the Samuel and Patricia Smith People’s Choice Award, which will be decided by museum visitors who vote for their favorite piece. The other is the John and Joyce Price Award of Excellence, which was given to Nate Steigenga for his piece, “The Infallible Accounts of the Tilapia People and the Dead Which Soon Outnumbered Them: a Toile De Jouy.” 

Steigenga’s piece was inspired by traditional toile de jouys, but instead of depicting a typical story like a shepherd and his sheep, he created a horror movie scene inspired by science fiction. The piece was meticulously built with tiny pieces of fabric cut from bed sheets and glued together to create a landscape. 

Catalani said the piece was chosen because it is so engaging.

“You can stand in front of this piece for 20 minutes and still try to connect the whole parts,” Catalani said. “There’s storytelling going on, and the storytelling is very powerful and engaging.” 

Two women observing Steigenga’s piece were in awe of how detailed it is. 

“It’s amazingly intricate,” said Chris Blondino as she examined the piece. “I don’t know how somebody could do something like that.” 

Catalani hopes the exhibit is a good representation of how fiber is used artistically in the Northwest.

“I hope this exhibition remains a snapshot of what fiber is in the Northwest around this time so maybe 10 years from now we can come back to fiber and see how it’s changed,” Catalani said. 

High Fiber Diet will be on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum until Feb. 24. 

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(SARAH ELSON is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)

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