September 1, 2015

#KAF15 Carole Harris: Fiber Affichisme, Affectionately

“Fabric has memory,” says Carole Harris. “It holds onto time.” I love artists, across the boards, but let me tell you, I might love fiber artists the most. We just get each other. Carole is doing the hardest work of all–letting go of the structures and forms that have defined your medium, and walking all the way out on the invisible bridge of your own inspiration. Her pieces are like if quilts played jazz.

The structure is there, you see–the basic, the only, real rule of quilting is that there are layers, pierced and bound together. You can play it any way you want, but you’re going to be challenged to make it look more beautiful than Carole’s way. She’s been inspired, of late, by the ancient Japanese patching technique called boro, where common indigo-dyed workers garments and kimonos were endlessly patched with various bits of other, similar garments. The result is this incredibly patchwork that is led by function–trying to preserve one’s precious and limited wardrobe–and the aesthetics are secondary, almost inadvertent. But, of course, incredibly beautiful, in a way that is hard to avoid when a thing is made from quality materials by hand and with care.

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Carole and I had so much to talk about. We both came to fiber arts honestly, learning to sew so we could make our own clothing for off-brand figures–in her case, being very petite, and in mine…not that. We’ve both struggled with the coming-out process that faces fiber artist, particularly female fiber artists, around accepting quilt-making–or whatever else evolves out of it–as our “real” art. Like Carole with boro, I have been obsessed with the Asafo flags, made by the Fante people of Coastal Ghana for hundreds of years. Out of this has come a preoccupation with making flags of my own–fiber pieces, stripped of their function, occupy this tenuous place in the art world. It’s like people forget that all those paintings are sitting on top of canvas.

Carole’s beautiful apartment, which she shares with her husband, writer Bill Harris, and which also houses her studio, is a timely reminder to me that workspace needs to work for you. I still struggle with the fact that I basically require an entire roomful of table; always trying to leave more open space, and then find myself working on the floor. We talked briefly about fabric hoarding–there is a real danger, as a quilter, because every piece of fabric, no matter how tiny, is precious. It’s inevitable that things start to build up. Maybe that’s why Carole’s pieces are dealing with that accumulation. It is fiber affichisme. I just get the feeling, looking at them, of someone who cannot be limited by rules anymore. When you’ve steadily patched thousands of triangles, it’s time to try islands. It’s time to try entire archipelagos.


More on this process of building up and stripping away – we both used the word “strata” in relation to our new fiber works. Fabric does hold time, and so it seems natural to try and translate those layers to a different kind of time scale. It is such a comfortable, nudgeable medium. I was talking to metalsmith and ceramicist Kia Arriaga last night, and comparing the process of metal smithing–where your materials start out rigid, and spend a moment in a fluid state, and become rigid again–to ceramics, where they begin in a soft state, becoming rigid only when you’re finishing them. Fabric starts soft and stays soft. Gets softer, even. Learns things.

I can’t wait to see Carole’s finished pieces, in an upcoming three-person show that opens mid-September at the NCA Gallery. Her work will be shown alongside that of Saffell Gardner (what a perfect match), and Yolanda Sharpe (I don’t know about her, but I’m looking forward to it)!

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