Making your way through the creepy, funky, and inspiring FiberPhiladelphia exhibition "Outside/Inside the Box," in the Crane Arts Building's Icebox Project Space, is unexpectedly affecting.
There is a surprising intimacy to these materials that makes the art very direct and personal, and it tends to follow you around throughout your day. And why not? When Brenna K. Murphy is using hair in her art, or Riccardo Berlingeri is transforming burned newspapers (and one hopeful green shoot), or Rachel Udell is working with material from her late mother's clothing, these artists are hitting you where you live, work, and feel (and maybe helping to explain why your dad's chamois shirt is still in your dresser drawer).
Then there are linen, mop heads, sheets, wool, lace, rope, grapefruit peels, ribbon, tarp, upholstery, turmeric-dyed canvas, diary pages, X-rays, cotton, silk, glass, and recycled vinyl-coated polyester. There are rethought variations on quilts, bedsheets, portraits, and dolls; the art is hanging and hung, three-dimensional and existential.
All you want to do is touch the stuff, but even when you know you can't, this is art you can definitely feel on your fingertips and in your gut.
"I think fiber art in general is extremely intimate," says Udell, 37, of South Philadelphia, who fashioned a very organic, biomorphic-looking sculpture out of crocheted material from clothes she had saved years after her mother's death. "There's a visual component, but then there's also a really tactile component. That's really intimate. You're not really supposed to touch the work, but I think people can't help it.
"I was trying to say literally we're all made of the same atoms on a microscopic level. How do you tell where you end and the world begins? We feel like these great entities, but we're really not. Everything we do and say and are affects the world around us."
For a long time after her mother's death in 2001, the clothing still connected the two in a visceral way, even as the literal feel and smell of the lost parent began to fade. The piece in the exhibition is titled The Shapes of My Dreams and of My Nightmares.
"For a long time, I could smell my mom, her perfume. That piece, I used a lot of pajamas. I wore her clothes. They were quite a bit smaller than me. They were very much a part of her and my memories of her. It didn't even occur to me . I had a lot of her clothes, but it was so precious, too precious."
Eventually, though, this wealth of material, bound up with memories, feelings, and textures of all sorts, called out to her. "I'm kind of a person that works through things, through my art," she said. "This became a real powerful way for me to kind of connect and address some of these things maybe I hadn't done before, had been afraid to do."
Jodi Colella, another artist whose work resembles something organic or biomorphic, for years collected - with the help of a lot of people - the colorful plastic bags in which newspapers are delivered for a work titled One Day. Its oval shape and mass of curls might remind you of a half-view of a brain, or a big chunk of coral, or maybe short spirals of multicolored hair, depending on your mood.
The Somerville, Mass., artists says she likes that oddity: that inorganic synthetic material such as plastic can be reworked into something that feels so organic and alive. (She has a degree in biology.)
"I get a lot of feedback from people," she says. "They all get a gut reaction to it. They identify with it in a bodily way. That's how I feel when I'm making it. I identify with natural systems, the design of them, a lot of the science behind them. I see it as a metaphor for being human. There's a dichotomy between things. The plastic bags look very organic, but they're not."
The process of turning newspaper bags into art was elaborate and intricate: She crosscut the bags into loops, created a strand, spun that strand on a spinning wheel, compressed it, then crocheted the strands from a very small center, each time adding a layer of round, radial pieces, resulting in layers of circles with tendrils extending from them.
(Take that, you people who think using your bags for walking your dog is innovative!)
Colella says people may find the fiber show especially intriguing because of how immersed we are in our virtual - non-tactile - interactions. "In the digital age, with all our devices, all our interactions are very indirect," she said. "Everything is through a keyboard and computer screen. I really do think the tactile nature of the materials in these shows is fulfilling something we've been devoid of in our life with all this connectivity."
On the subject of intimacy, look no further than Joetta Maue's ironically titled Waking With You, in which she embroiders a woman right onto the bedsheets with nothing but words next to her. Or the two exhibits that feature hair as their medium, one a large-scale untitled quilt by Brenna K. Murphy, the other a tiny and intricate re-creation of a leaf (with veins) titled leaf (brunette), by Jenine Shereos.
Murphy, 29, a Philadelphia preschool teacher who grew up playing with her hair, can assure you that she isn't working with stuff from her shower drain (too much shampoo scum), but that most of the hair she uses did come from her head. (If it comes off while shampooing, she'll stick it on the tiled walls for collection après shower.)
"I just was kind of constantly having tactile experience with my hair," she said. "My mom even told me I used to do it with her hair before I had my own."
Trained as a photographer, she began stitching hair into the photographs and "the hair just kind of took over."
"It has that very personal connection," she says. "It's a very interesting material because it's so loaded. People have really strong feelings about it. People see my work, the hairier works, especially - the thin-line work people aren't so disgusted by - the hairier work, they are disgusted and revolted and find it fascinating and beautiful. Everyone has their own feelings about it, when it's on their head, when it comes off the body. As soon as it ends up on the floor, it's disgusting."
The work at the Icebox is quiltlike and muted. It features patterns made up of hair from different people, so there are different colors and textures. Murphy says she wants to use her mother's hair in a future project; she says it is turning a beautiful gray and will be able to evoke themes of aging and the mother-daughter bond. And if you think hair art is something she invented, Murphy points out that the Victorians were doing strange things with their hair (in addition to saving locks of it) long before her.
"I like that viewers bring their own kind of feelings about my work," she says. "Fiber art is so fascinating. People have this very intimate connection with the fiber material. How much contact do people have with oil paint in the course of their day?"