Artist Profile: Pat Hickman
Pat Hickman is a prominent conceptual fiber artist who creates forms we have never seen before. Her work is even more challenging as her signature material is unfamiliar gut or hog casing. Pat thoughtfully offers titles, clues to her silent communication; titles suggest metaphors; metaphors reveal stories. Pat Hickman is an artist and storyteller. It is rewarding to look and listen.
Pat’s study of ethnographic textiles and textile history began in Turkey. With a BA degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Colorado (1962), her first job was teaching English in a Turkish girls’ school. Living in a foreign country without knowing its language can be a solitary experience; however, Pat intuitively discovered the rich visual language of art, architecture and textiles. She began to learn to weave at the Applied Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul and discovered the silent communication of “oya”, an intricate, decorative needlelace edging found mostly on scarves.
1970s – 1980s
There was great excitement about the fiber medium in the early 70s, when artists in the San Francisco Bay Area were merging traditional craft and scholarship with art. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a Master’s Degree in Design and Textiles (1967), Joanne Segal Brandford taught textile history and textile studio techniques in Cambridge where Pat was her student and studio-mate. After a few years, Pat moved west to study non-loom textiles with Lillian Elliott at the California College of Arts & Crafts, and to study textiles and design including textile history with Ed Rossbach at the University of California, Berkeley. Pat’s Master’s thesis exhibition (1977) was based on ancient Peruvian textiles, especially scaffolded textiles, while her research and subsequent curatorial interests included ethnic wedding dress, especially Anatolian costumes and customs in Turkey, gut and fishskin textiles of Alaska, and Turkish oya.
The following excerpts are from Pat’s essay “Turkish Needlelace: Oya” written in 1983 (In Celebration of the Curious Mind: A Festschrift to honor Anne Blinks on her 80th birthday, Interweave Press). Pat described oya flowers with the acute awareness of an ethnographer and artist. Her observations deftly integrate rural traditions, innovations in urban centers, the cultural message of this textile art, the wordless communication of art, and the importance of time as a cultural concept.
Needlelace is most commonly of familiar flowers, hundreds of species–of growth patterns closely observed–plum flowers, daises, mimosa, even fleeting wild flowers. Oyamakers have converted something from nature into another medium. The lack of sweet fragrance, the feel, the texture are the only clues that the “imitation” is a step removed from the real….. Some of the three-dimensional oya flowers, stiffened, appear to be almost like miniature baskets turned over, connected together, each holding, defining, an airy volume, a netted membrane around air–nets stretched over tiny, briefly captured spaces….
There used to be a meaning attached to oya, for those who understood. Without saying a word, in complete silence, a woman with her needlelace “message” could convey her own feelings, refer to her family, to something very personal…..A woman could announce that she was pregnant before it was obvious, by wearing her ‘good news’ headscarf–tiny filled, stuffed netted forms secretly shared her surprise….. A blue headscarf with tiny blue needlelace flowers toward off the evil eye could be worn by a child whose health was thought susceptible.
Innovations are found in oya from urban centers …from the Aegean region where flowers can measure 4” in the widest dimension…… As a quick substitute for slower made needlelace, shiny glass or plastic beads are carefully strung in patterns to resemble blackberries or raspberries, so perfectly colored and textured to be edible……A most playful contemporary embracing of today’s materials can be seen on a scarf with foam strips cut and stitched on flowerlike… Oya making has changed in this innovative use of new materials–a few bits of valueless synthetic sponge, closely associated with other things, a semblance of modernity. It would be applauded by the young, bemoaned by their grandmothers–a transition almost too sudden to comprehend in a lifetime.
Oya illustrates a long cultural tradition that continued to change and renew itself. Pat appreciated that, as an outsider, she could never fully grasp the original essence or spirit of oya; however, she caught glimpses of the value and meaning of this unpretentious art. Thus, Pat’s story as a conceptual fiber artist began with her study of oya.
After graduation, Pat taught a section of Ed Rossbach’s textile history class. She included Alaskan textiles because waterproof garments made of animal intestines intrigued her. Imagine internal organs being used for external protection! The beauty of the delicate, translucent, waterproof garments was unexpected. Simultaneously, Pat experimented with hog casings purchased from a delicatessen in Oakland. On a research trip to Alaska to learn directly from native people, Pat interviewed native makers about their process of working with seal and walrus intestines and with fishskin for making waterproof parkas.
She guest curated an exhibition and wrote the catalogue “Innerskins/Outerskins: Gut and Fishskin” at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum (1985). Pat continued teaching in the Northern California Bay Area, collaborating with colleague and mentor Lillian Elliott for 11 years. Together they experimented with a variety of techniques, textile structures, and materials. Lillian built basketry reed structures in their collaborative work; Pat provided the skin membranes in their art baskets.
When offered a full-time teaching position in the Art Department at the University of Hawaii, Pat seized the opportunity and shaped a fiber program over 16 years.
Early in the decade, Pat won a competition for a Public Art commission to design entrance gates for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Her successful design proposal honored the humble and functional net. The technique of netting was culturally integral to the island community with stories about nets, netted sub-structures in traditional feather capes and essential fishing nets. The completed project translated full-scale, over-sized nets of polystyrene cloth into cast metal. Pat’s web site has a video link to two YouTube videos about the design process, the risks, casting in metal and installation. Pat described the significance of the project and its challenges:
My gates made reference to Nets of Makail’i, Nets of the Pleiades, referring to that constellation, as for Hawaiians, stars represent the knots of suspended nets. During the rainy season, when these nets in the sky open, blessings pour down upon the earth, through the eyes or openings of the nets. It is a time of renewal, when wars cease, games are played, and nets are mended–to me an appropriate reference for an arts and cultural center.
The gate commission on Maui created a desire to transform materials, from fiber to metal, to think and work bigger than ever before. The opportunity to have work in fiber cast in metal and the magic, the alchemy, of transformation raised questions for me regarding hard vs. soft materials, questions of permanence, value in the art world placed on choice of materials.
Pat was also curator for an important exhibition “Baskets: Redefining Volume and Meaning” (1993) at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery. The catalog combined eloquent essays by Laurel Reuter, Ed Rossbach and Pat on the evolution of baskets as an art form with thoughtful statements by eleven participating artists. The group included Joanne Segal Brandford, Lillian Elliott, Ed Rossbach, and Katherine Westphal.
In 1994, the deaths of two of her closest friends– Lillian Elliott and Joanne Segal Brandford –can only be described as a turning point in her life and work. The loss brought a heightened awareness of time, death and impermanence into Pat’s work. In response, she created “Malignant” (1994), a tangled assemblage of knotted netting in gut circling and supporting itself while invading foreign materials (reed sticks) suggest the invasion of cancer and illness. To honor the historical impact of her colleagues on the fiber art movement, Pat continues to serve on a committee to award the Brandford/Elliott Award for Excellence in Fiber Art biennially to an emerging fiber artist. Please link to http://brandford-elliott-award.com/
Pat moved to the lower Hudson River Valley, New York, in 2006. Her studio is located in the Garnerville Arts & Industrial Center, a renovated pre- Civil War era (built in 1938) calico factory. Assimilating to the new home and studio, Pat introduced local artifacts into her work including abandoned railroad plates and iron railroad spikes from the woods by her house, near the train tracks.
The themes of time, memory and history are literally presented by castings in gut of these artifacts. The castings –translucent and resilient–give new life and form to anonymous yet historical artifacts. Pat comments on her use of animal membrane, metaphors and themes:
My signature material continues to be animal membrane, a translucent, permeable, inner skin, close to life. This hog casing or gut is altered, becoming an exterior planar skin or a linear structural component. It is malleable when wet, picking up the mark of a wire net, an old nail, or a bed frame abandoned in the bush. The rusted metal is already changing, deteriorating. When these elements are brought together, each receives aspects of the other–the gut takes the form of the metal, the rusted metal leaves its stain on the gut. What is ephemeral suggests what is lasting–vellum or parchment, penned by an ancient hand. Playing with these materials, I explore memory, loss, aging, mortality–calling attention, bringing them to mind. (2008)
A photograph of Pat applying gut to a rusty elevator door at the 175 year old calico factory near her studio is very intimate, suggesting the “laying on of hands” of a healer. Her experienced hands are touching and transforming one material into another. Pat reminds us that for an artist, “Hands are the most sophisticated tools that we have today…..” She accepts that fiber art techniques and processes are labor-intensive, adding that the observer should not feel burdened with an awareness of the time invested. Rather, Pat clearly values quiet time and labor:
Quiet time is essential to my work; my excessive, obsessive labor is a slowing down of time, a stepping out of the urgent pace of daily life. Out of seemingly nothing – a thin thread, a scrap of paper, a rusty nail – something emerges, makes a statement, holds brie?y what cannot be captured: light, breath, time, impermanence, mortality. (Ripples Exhibition, University of Tasmania, Launceston, 2008)
A compelling work of gut is “Light Passage” (1995; 8’ 3” x 40” x 2”), an assemblage of molds of many door hinges. The translucent gut glows with an inviting filtered light, the natural parchment color of gut. The title invites the viewer to cross its sensory threshold, as in liminal space, passing from one world to another, raising questions.
Communication is a prominent theme, as titles refer to written and silent communication. A related theme is the power of attention and memory. “Dry Notes” (1996; 12” x 18” x 2.5”, when shown open) is a book of gut pages, an ancient manuscript of parchment with new computer generated symbols printed by Allyn Bromley. “Mnemonics” (2009; 8’ high x 6’ wide) is a wall piece of suspended, mahogany-dyed, curly, gut castings that resemble Asian calligraphy. (The word mnemonics refers to devices used to assist memory.) “Silent” (2011; 62” x 66”) is a wall piece composed of rows of rusty nails encased in strips of gut, with repeating clusters in the familiar grouping of five with four vertical and one diagonal. The piece appears to be a metaphor for written communication as the installation resembles a paragraph.
A second large work of gut resembles a wall quilt. “Downriver Ravages” (2011; 8’4” x 5’ 8”) was assembled with overlapping gut castings, natural and mahogany-dyed, of rusted railroad plates. The latter could be a metaphor for time; built in the 19th century, the railroad significantly changed people’s experience with travel time. The title also suggests a response to Hurricane Irene that damaged the calico factory complex. Although the castings of storm-pitched railroad plates are arranged in an artful manner, the array does not offer the comfort associated with a fabric quilt.
In 2011 Pat introduced a new material from disintegrating trees found in Maine at the Haystack Mountain School. “River Teeth” (2011; 75” x 12’ wide) is an installation of intriguing, weathered, wooden shapes mounted on the wall with specimen pins. The shapes are cross-grained, pitch-hardened, pointed masses where branches once joined the tree’s trunk. When trees decay in a river, these shapes survive and resemble teeth. In planks of wood, the masses are called “knots”. (The term “river teeth” is credited to author David James Duncan.) Installations of “River Teeth” are not guided by a grid; rather, they are arranged in pleasing linear and circular patterns. The shapes, sometimes reminiscent of Neolithic tools, have stories to tell as witnesses to history, defying time and destruction. The material is another metaphor for Pat’s obsession with permanence and impermanence. As one might expect, Pat created “Linger” (2011; 10’ x 5’ x 6.5’) by suspending gut castings of river teeth, literally a visual memory of the surviving river teeth.
While this article features works of gut and river teeth in the exhibition, I would be remiss to omit other work and other media. After the gate commission on Maui, Pat began to cast small works in metal. “Gone” (1998) and “Ordnance” (1998) were cast in bronze from full-scale models of nets in gut; the latter resemble ash covered archeological relics as portions were burned and lost in the casting process. Sheath” (2002) and an oversized bulb of “Garlic” (2001) were made with Hawaiian palm sheaths and were made to look like metal by rubbing the gut skin covering them with a bronze metallic art stick—good fakes! “Cocoon Walk” (2010) combines golden silk cricula cocoons, colorful staples and spaced dyed thread. “Vesicle” (1999) is a suspended large knotted cocoon form with gut as both structure and skin. Excluded completely from the exhibition were Pat’s works with color. There is much more to know. Take time to look and listen; the stories will unfold.