Sheila Hicks is a curious combination of artist and anthropologist. She doggedly records her impressions of the places and people she sees and meets, doing so using an unconventional medium: textiles. The 82-year-old, Paris-based American carries a notepad wherever she goes, but prefers to capture her observations using a small, makeshift loom. “It’s a rack with nails on it,” she explains. “I don’t need luggage when I travel. I can get away with my wristwatch, a carry-on of clothes, a pencil, and my little loom.”
Hicks’s woven sketches, which she calls minimes (French for minimal, not a contraction of Mini Me), are currently on display as part of Material Voices, a retrospective of her work at Toronto’s Textile Museum – her first ever show in Canada. Each small tapestry tells a story. Hastings Grand features dried corn husks caught in an earth-toned weave of wool, silk linen and cotton. It’s a send-up to Hastings, Neb., where she was born, that captures the beauty of the quiet, easy-to-overlook place.
From Hangzhou to Shanghai intersperses white, punched paper (torn out from a sketchbook) with white linen. “I went to China for an international textile symposium,” she explains. “Between [Hangzhou] and the airport, I passed a new, modern city that was not yet inhabited. A phantom city being built.” The grid of the empty windows reminded her of the rhythmic hole punches of bound paper, which she wove into her piece. “The empty spaces are like pigeon houses” – repetitive, functional – “waiting for the pigeons,” she says.
She admits to being a scavenger who likes being open to using unconventional materials (bits of magazines, outdoor upholstery threads from Sunbrella). “I don’t like being prejudiced,” she says, preferring to play with new fibres to unlock whatever potential they have. But she also says she has a “severe and selective eye,” and spends a lot of time sorting through what she collects to focus on the most aesthetically interesting items. “I throw away a lot of things,” she says. “I spend about 30 per cent of my time eliminating the irrelevant.”
Discernment and discipline are traits shared by many of her mentors, which include some of the most notable figures in mid-century modern art, architecture and design. Hicks studied at Yale University in the late 1950s, at a time when the faculty included influential colour theorist Josef Albers and architect Louis Kahn (“Louis Kahn wasn’t famous when I met him,” she says, “but there’s no point in meeting someone famous. They don’t have the time of day.”)
Albers helped develop her sense of colour (her palette ranges from the subtle to the surreal and evokes strong emotions), Kahn her sense of space, the combination of which is evident in some of her most celebrated pieces. In contrast to her small-scale minimes, Hicks has also designed many massive installations for significant works of architecture. A pair of tapestries she completed in 1967 for the Ford Foundation in New York, for example, are composed of circular, honey-coloured, silk medallions on a neutral linen background. The medallions are an allusion to honeycombs, and the industriousness of worker bees – fitting for a company built on hard labour.
The installation is so beloved that when it was damaged (after an ill-fated attempt at fireproofing the fabrics) Hicks was asked to remake it from scratch, which she did over a year in 2014. While some of her friends and family questioned her for taking on such a large, stressful project in her early 80s, she was flattered by the commission. “Doing the same thing twice means I couldn’t improve the design.” In other words, it looks as good today as 50 years ago – a level of timelessness that’s hard for an artist to achieve.
Plus, Hicks scoffs at the idea of slowing down. “What’s retirement?” she laughs, noting that retirement is about being liberated from work, a concept that becomes redundant if you are liberated by your work. She further notes that at Machu Picchu, weavers were buried with their looms, so they could keep working in the afterlife. “I’m inclined to that myself,” she says.
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, December 28, 2016.