SDA Conference 2009 “Off the Grid” by Valérie d. Walker PDF  | Print |  E-mail

SDA Conference 2009  “Off the Grid”    by Valérie d. Walker, dyer/designer/educator


by night

pool by day and by night photo provided by Valérie d. Walker

érie d. Walker, dyer/designer/educator

Going back to Kansas City, Missouri for my 3rd SDA Conference there,  I felt a strong surge of familiarity.  Over 15 SDA conferences have been held at this same location, a 30-year history of place and event developing together, and Off The Grid is the last SDA conference here for long time.  Other locations have a high standard to live up to, given how much natural and artistic beauty surrounded the KCAI conference.   The campus is an open-air sculpture garden featuring ancient Ginko trees, inspired eclectic pieces such as Coosje van Bruggen & Claes Oldenburg’s Shuttlecocks, enormous Badmitton birdies tumble about the Nelson-Atkins museum, to land along-side Henry Moore’s recumbent curves, in the shadow of Magdelena Abakanowicz’s  “30 Standing Figures”.  While on the city-side of campus,  Louise Bourgeois’ Weaver-Spider dances around a Crying Giant  by Tom Otterness, in the shadow of a Giant Man’s Hankerchief by Coosje&Claes, on the lawn of the Kemper Museum.

Shuttle cocks

 Coosje van Bruggen & Claes Oldenburg’s Shuttlecocks,


30 standing figures

Magdelena Abakanowicz’s  “30 Standing Figures”.

After many years dealing with the demands of such a diverse group,  experience showed in the happy faces talking with the wonderful cafeteria staff and friendly student facilitators who were always helpful and kind.   It will be interesting to see how this homey quality changes as the SDA conference begins a more nomadic existance, in a different venue every two years.

 An major reason many go to SDA conference is the workshop experience.  Doing the entire conference would be 5 days pre-conf workshops + 4 days of conference + 5 days for post-workshops = 2 whole weeks in full fibre bliss!  An army of workshop volunteers, especially the in-class assistants, all unpaid, support the instructors & students in the workshops and provide a great deal of personal help and support to the many newcomers still trying to find their way around.  These wonderful volunteers are highly appreciated and need to be applauded and thanked by all!   Merçi beaucoups!!


Akemi Nakano Cohn


 Akemi Nakano Cohn

 Wanting to deepen and expand my experience with Katagami (cut paper stencils), and Rice Paste as a dye & resist, Nassen, I enjoyed a 4-day pre-conference workshop with a true Masteress,  the inspirational, humble, marvel Akemi Nakano Cohn. Cutting stencils & making rice paste, provided a rigorous mental, technical and physical work-out.  Demanding a great deal from a group that quickly became friends who’ve just met,  we happily worked in studio all night long.  Before our nights in studio, all the workshop participants and interested locals atttended the Workshop-Leader’s Artist talks. Featuring a different 3 or 4 of the workshop leaders each of the pre- & post-conference nights, these talks are a great way to find out more about the practices and methods of a diverse group of artists while meeting other workshop folks. Challenging in their scope and breadth of experiences, each night we discovered new ways to consider art, culture, focus, materials & techniques.  These talks inspired a great deal of animated conversation far into the night on the brick-mansion terrasse overlooking those massive ginko trees, a marvelously simple & lovely Andy Goldsworthy Stone-Spiral, plus a blinking sidewalk of coloured lights.  Pre-conference days melted very quickly into a final wrap-up and all the workshops had open studio visitations.  Lots of great felting and colours!


After an intense week of studio work and talks, the conference seems to cause time to spin even faster; so many talks to hear, demos to see, vendor’s wares to sample & discuss and people to meet at the many gallery shows all around town.    Many new people came to town, a favorite of many was the Phantom Weaver.   She came to KC for Ke-Sook Lee’s installation, Thread Whisper”, an air-y, space-defining creation of whites on white filling a large room adjacent to Asiatica’s scrumptious kimono orgy at Dolphin Gallery.  After 16 years in the Crossroads art district, Dolphin is the first & most amazing gallery in the historic stockyard district of the “west bottoms”, now mostly vacant awaiting artists who will redefine and occupy its immense warehouses.  Once in town, Phantom Weaver quickly discovered Off The Grid and wandered the conference areas leaving woven momentos of her passing all over town,  in cafes, on newsracks and door handles; spotting her work made walking between conf. venues very exciting! Now it can be revealed that Phantom Weaver is Kathryn Pannepacker,  www.onliquid.com.  I hope she comes to Minneapolis to weave and wander there too!
 Phantom tree
phantom railing
Phantom Weaver is Kathryn Pannepacker

 The panel on the first day, led by Prof. Susan Taber Avila, of UC Davis, provided a cross-career levels discussion on the process of creating as an artist while working in educational or academic areas.  I was struck by Alice Kettle’s awareness and gratitude towards the community involved in her work’s creation, and Kim Eichler-Messmer’s  recollection of transitioning from her MFA into a year long residence at Arrowmont before starting to teach at KCAI.   Jennifer Angus described how fortunate she was to be at a university that has an active office of research which helps her find out about and attract funding to support her hard to install, conceptionally intense shows composed of thousands of insects, sculpted beeswax and large honey jars.  Difficult to transport and always requiring many volunteers who are able to pin very large (and smaller) bugs to the walls over days, Jennifer’s Terrible Beauty installations bring viewers to many realizations around our society’s environmental impact at all levels, and how large and important a role insects (ie., the natural world) have in our daily lives.

Hands-on technique demonstrations were given multiple times this year, allowing plenty of direct eye contact, while providing support for professional video recording, that will convey as much information as being there did.  Look forward to some useful info and good close-ups in the conference Demo DVD.  Having repeat sessions also meant it was easier to schedule seeing more of the conference while not missing a demo.  A great idea thanks! ( read Monica Bodirsky review of the DVD) 

 Textile-in-performance is an area that is very well recognized in academic and inter-media/performance art circles; albeit still new to SDA conferences. Mary Babcock’s “Performing Fiber: New Mappings for Social Change a presentation/performance/ lecture, captured and discussed many issues of culture and social opportunity encapsulated by or embedded in our personal fibres (clothing, skin, hair) and how they influence how others relate to us.

Raymond Materson’s talk was one of the most memorable for its simple truths,  and the idea of bringing fibre arts to convicts to help them find a way back to positive social engagement.  The laughs Ray created when the fire alarm went off and he assumed “the position” prison guards would require during a possible breakout”  helped the large group deal with evacuating the hall in the midst of his talk, he also ensured everyone returned to stay till the end.   Ray’s web site has a great deal of info on his projects bringing the power of thread to others still in prison or those in transition and searching for line to pull them up.  I recommend everyone take a good look at it, and if you can, bring Ray to speak in your area and show his stunning embroidered stories and portraits.

Of course the conference opening also means all the gallery shows in town kick-off.

There were over 17 shows in town during the conference, some with no “official” relationship to OTG, others an integral part.  To increase the presence of SDA members in off-conference galleries, the OTG staff worked hard to connect artists not in “official” shows with KC-galleries interested in featuring a variety of fibre-friendly art.   Teresa Cole’s mixing of textile-like printing techniques on paper, “Full Circle” at the Crossroads area Blue gallery, which also hosted Daniella Woolf’s encaustics was one of many truly off the grid gems!   It will be interesting to see how many of these galleries continue to seek out and feature fibres&surface design artists once the biennial arrival of SDA members moves elsewhere. Ideally each new landing will spawn a new textile-rich art space.


el anatsui’s shimmering mosaic-like patchwork “cloths” made of hammered pieces of metal waste,

The warehouse-sized, multi-floor Belger Art Gallery space housed the members show, a big draw, it’s a material expression of diversity in materials, techniques and imagery.  The top floor of the Belger, contained an international, cross-cultural rendering of techniques and fibre-based interpretations.  Beginning with el anatsui’s shimmering mosaic-like patchwork “cloths” made of hammered pieces of metal waste, from his Nigerian town’s liquor distillery and other scavenged discards, seemed to span time. Connecting the ancient kingdoms of Africa, the “gold coast”,  to the current post-colonial reality of Nigeria and other West African societies.  Awesomely beautiful, unbelievably delicate and yet heavy and dangerous (some of those edges look very sharp!)  these large metallic hangings seem to be robes for the leader of a society striving to deal with post-colonial impacts on the environment and decaying social relationships in Africa today. 

 jennifer angus

Jennifer Angus, Chiyogami (détail), 2004 Photo:Julie Sando. Avec la permission d’Artcite inc 

In “Small Wonder, Secrets of a Collector”  an immersive room full of repeating wall patterns created by giant insects pinned to the wall,  Jennifer Angus took us deeper into her exploration of the power of rhythmic patterns colliding with our visceral reactions to being a room literally crawling with bugs!   Ever humorous, Angus toys with us,  overcoming our apprehension by drawing us into closer, deeper contact with these insects by creating large dioramic scenes of daily life in the world of a Victorian community entirely composed of mutant insects.  Angus re-uses all of her broken bug bits, “stitching” their parts together to create new and even more bizarrely humanoid insect folk.  Her scene of a revival church meeting with shouting preacher, choir and impassioned attendees,  all bugs of course, makes one laugh and shudder at the same time.   Large apothecary jars full of various colours of raw honey and the rich smells of beeswax sculpted and formed into the architectural components of these bell-jar captured worlds created a sensorial immersion into our human  - environmental interactions.

alice kettle

Alice Kettle embrodery  image provided by SDA

Alice Kettle’s immense thread paintings, layer upon layer of machine stitching carried the weight and impact of a community.  A Pause in the Rhythm of Time, was a retrospective of Kettle’s work and showed her painterly roots as much as her true love of fibre and the tactile, colour-filled possibilities each piece of thread brought to her daily exploration of line and image.   The piece with her daughters gathered around her in a scene from their daily routine, contained pieces from dresses handed down through the family, a tender personal touch that made each viewer pause and smile.

Raymond Materson, also invests an incredible amount of time stitching, creating exquisite, miniature embroideries of scenes from his troubled early childhood, personal addiction and inner world.  While in prison he found a way back to redemption creating these tiny zones of escape into beauty, his life transformed via embroidery’s stitch-based  healing power.  Mere inches in size, thousands of meticulously placed stitches create densely laden stories frozen in layered scenes,  reminiscent of tapestries, each image represents another step on Ray’s path to literally stitch his life back together.

Obsession and process, common threads entwining these artists, the power of their works in-sync with each other made an immersive sensorium that was nearly impossible to leave.   Tearing ourselves out we headed to the many other galleries, most within walking distance to each other in the Crossroads district.  This once abandoned, now booming and trendy downtown area of the city hosted many SDA gallery events over the years, in response all that artistic energy helped the area to blossom, developing into a downtown destination with regular public events.  It’s often mind-boggling for KC newcomers to realize how many private art galleries are there, and how diverse their representations are. Most galleries have a café or restaurant near them so one is constantly tempted to linger and absorb the various art-forms of the city-scape.The changes in the CrossRoads area have made development into other border-areas such as the “bottoms” the next logical step for galleries wishing to branch out and create new art-friendly affordable neighborhoods. 

 The conference speakers were an inspired and ironic take on the idea of being “off the grid” versus on it, or indeed what the grid itself might consist of.   With too many speakers and presentations to mention each here, the following have reverberated especially often in my heart and mind this summer, and continue to inspire deeper reflections into my own development as a fibre-based artist and cultural nomad. 


Harmony Susulla’s eye-opening talk on the enviromental consequences of cotton  production, helped as all realize that from growth to manufactured product, cotton is one of the worst environmental offenders, with one of the highest percentages of worker injuries during its production  process.   Harmony happily told us about the newly agreed upon GOTS standard now used worldwide in identifying really organic (from seed to fabric) cotton.  The GOTS standard for organic cotton is in use and growing. Visit the HarmonyArt web site for further examples, discussion, and purchasing info.  The “Why Organic Cotton?”  page makes it clear how much of an improvement we’d each make using only or just more organic fibres, as long as they are really organic from seed to manufactured product.


The power of the consumer to create change in a huge industrial marketplace was Harmony’s deeper message.  We can demand and ensure that no person and no part of our planet is injured or oppressed in order to bring any product into our hands.

We must refuse products from companies who don’t take their world-wide responsibility seriously, and tell them why we’re not buying it.



Gerhardt Knodel’s Keynote talk, provided a taste of the “Cranbrook” inspired educational experience many who’ve studied in Canada and the USA have benefited from. A legend in the world of textile arts,  himself one of the original grid-makers, Gerhardt’s talk was a visit to the source.   After 45+ years at Cranbrook, he has retired and begun to re-visit his previous studio work.   Knodel gave us a variety of ways to rethink our relationship with the grid.  He offered possible methods of occupying and relating to the grids within and around us,  while reflecting on his own grids as he begins a studio-based life again.  He wove a grid of possibilities with a personal, touching story of meeting a young child while on vacation.   The child, Tristan, drew a picture of his ideal tree-house.  Of course it was solar and wind powered, wifi-networked, in an inter-linked community of similar self-powered tree-houses.  After all where would one’s friends live?  Inter-connected via a series of tree-top bridges, these natural playhouse-hide-outs symbolized the roles of self and community from a child’s perspective.  Naming each tree-house to illuminate our personal artistic grid-scape,  Gerhardt gave us a sense of the opportunities we create via the grids we’re emeshed in.  As it was a true Cranbrook moment, he assigned homework for each of us to complete before the end of the conference.  Using Tristan’s image of a network of future-ready, power-perfect tree-houses, we were told to define the occupants and purposes of each tree-house in relation to own practice and process,  see GK_1 to try this yourself. 


Victoria Rivers took us on a fun, wild, roller-coaster (or powder-puff race car) ride through the fascinating career of someone whose textiles and life were illuminated by shining surfaces.  She’s a fascinating speaker and another of one those teachers who’ve defined or created parts of the grid.  If you love golden shiny textiley things her book will become your bedtime companion.

 ShaSha Sha Sha Higby in performance

The new Bloch wing of the Nelson-Atkins museum was the setting for the fashion show.  The presentation was an immersive parade of models moving throughout the crowd and space. The amazing Sha Sha Higby, in a very difficult setting, gave a yet another ethereal performance, her costume creating a naturalistic-environment within the brightly lit, marble blocks of the Bloch-wing. The initial performances with the garments were hard to see due to lack of seating and the huge size of the crowd.  Happily everyone began to wander, seeking new views to the diverse, marvelous and well modelled fashions.  The new Bloch extension to the Nelson-Atkins museum created a series of stunning frames for moments of fashion unreality.  The moving models and visitors re-imagined the museum space into a floating world of beauty.  Noguchi’s inside-outside garden, the luminous glowing walls lit from within, the evening seemed way too short as we hunted for our favorite garments in the various levels of the new wing. Bravos to those who discovered how many different pieces glowed in the black-light room, in addition to the Rave gowns designed for both black and regular lighting.  That was SO kool!!

 Maria Elena Buszek lived up to her reputation as a “spark and a barb” (in SDA journal editor Patricia Malacher’s word).  Her talk tried to stir things up and get the hands-on artists in the audience excited about the possibilities of craft history to also speak about craft-as-art now.  Her lecture neatly summarized the established discussions going on in Craft theory writings today.  Expanding from her forthcoming anthology Extra/Ordinary: Craft and contemporary art” which she previewed at the 2007 conference,  Buszek discussed the recent explosion in craft based writing of the last 3-4  years.   Her lecture is a primer on Craft-Art today.  Virginia Commonwealth University’s, Professor Howard Risatti, in “A Theory of Craft: function and Aesthetic Expression, calls for craft artists to find strength in the physical “purpose” of their craft.  As Maria Elena explained, in this Kantian type of thinking, craft serves the needs of the body, therefore that purpose holds the beauty of the object, consquently craft’s history (of making things to use) is always part of a craft-art’s relevance, according to Risatti.  Buszek dove into Risatti’s assertions that Craft-Art is entwined with nature and social function, making craft-art into a bridge connecting society with the natural world.   The NeoCraft anthology which came of out the 2007 NeoCraft conference in Halifax, due to NSCAD Prof. Dr. Sandra Alfoldy, was presented as an attempt to connect craft’s roots with technological and modern impacts.  As a presenter at the NeoCraft conference I heartily recommend both the book and podcasts online.


Imogen Racz and Glenn Adamson both based in the UK, were examined in depth by

Buszek.  Racz’s book Contemporary Craft give a historical, process based argument

that follows strong cultural grids. Adamson’s Thinking through Craft is a more Mind over Body, problematic approach that I hope Maria goes into further in her own book.

Buszeks’ discussion of Adamson’s new Journal of Modern Craft in comparision to the updated journal, American Craft contextualized current access points to critical craft writing, while leaving the door open for greater discussion. 


There has been a steady increase in critical theory and academic Craft/Fibres dialogue at the conference over the years. With the guidance of Chair Carolyn Kallenborn’s team, which has worked together on the past 3 conferences or more,  this discussion has soaked into talks, discussions and even the Fashion show.  As Fibre/Textile Crafts visibility and importance in areas such as: education, techno-development (future ready, so-called intelligent or smart textiles for example), craft-based learning principles, design aesthetics, environmental and social impact (is that jacket from recycled or eco-sensitive materials?) has increased, it’s been exciting to see the conference and journal support more of this kind of discourse.  As the conference continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how critical theory discussions develop.


It may be intimidating to consider moving the conference every two years or so, but it is definitely time to make that leap.   Travelling around to the members will bring in new inspiration; there’s also the possibility of developing wider awareness of Fibre art in new venues.  As Conf. Chair Carolyn Kallenborn pointed out,  it takes a full two years to organize such a broad-scope conference.  After a number years in the same place the local community can become burnt-out from the demands of essentially working on the conference all the time.  Moving around will provide new groups of members the opportunity to volunteer,  share and develop their local textile connections without draining volunteers of enthusiasm for another conference.  Minneapolis is conference home for 2011,  unconfirmed locales are lining up to be 2013’s host.  Wouldn’t Montréal be an great site for SDA 2017?!


Besides locations, a huge change for many conference goers will be not seeing Joy Stocksdale’s beaming face behind the membership tables.   Joy retired from her SDA duties this year and the Joy Stocksdale prize was created to honor her and make sure that everyone realizes how important a piece of the SDA quilt she’s been over the years.  I know many others, like myself, want to thank Joy for all the help connecting with SDA she’s given us!   Now she’ll get to take workshops too!


I was deeply saddened to find out that my shibori-guru, Koji Wada, of Kasuri dyeworks has passed away.  Debby Danford-Wada and the Kasuri team will carry on and they have my deepest sympathy. Koji was very generous and a constant advocate for Shibori Kimono techniques.  I know we all miss Koji’s booming laugh and even his incessant smoking!  There are many memories of Kasuri-times still waiting to be written. 


Now is the time to be immersed in a world of fibres, colours, the making of things, the how-to’s and why’s of fibrous intents of making, the deep power of the tactile, how a slender thread can save a drowning man, lessons from Off The Grid, 2009.














if you want the full breakdown of the GOTS standard go to global-standard.org




www.thedolphingallery.com/exhibitions/surface design 2009/lee_01.html



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