On the Velvet Highway: Four Days in Philadelphia by Joe Lewis PDF  | Print |  E-mail

 hosing in Philly

Betsy's Ross's House, Independence Hall and Amy Orr's "House of Cards" on display in Sense of Place at Philadelphia Arts Alliance
photo by Joe Lewis, Amy Orr "House of Cards" used with Amy Orr's permission 

The first weekend of March 2012, the I 90 in the north east United States became the velvet highway as I boarded the Mega Bus in Toronto and made my way to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the opening weekend of Fiber Philadelphia.   Textiles, aka “fibre,” have deep roots in Philadelphia. Soon after the American Revolution textile production in Philadelphia, while not fully mechanized, “became the largest producer of textiles, pioneered a style of production quite different from that found in New England.  since the latter was modeled on English industrial “Factory” Mills.  Philadelphia's textile industry was quite diverse. There were a few large mills that used water or steam power to drive machinery, but, for the most part, Philadelphia's textiles were produced in small shops or home-based operations. The workers who produced them, many of them British immigrants, tended to be highly skilled workers, able to undertake a variety of jobs. The management too was highly skilled, not only knowledgeable about the machines and processes under its control, but skilled in rapid shifts of resources, product, and markets. The products tended to be of high quality. The machines reflected what historian Philip Scranton has called "productive flexibility," their complexity and ease of adjustment allowing a broad range of output” *

At the time of the 1876 Centennial, the “Philadelphia School of Design for Women” now named Moore College, was well established.  It opened in 1848 as a charitable effort “to train "needy and deserving" young women in textile and wallpaper design, wood engraving, and other salable artistic skills."* Soon after the American Centennial cerebration the "Philadelphia University was founded in 1884 as the Philadelphia Textile School in the wake of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  A group of textile manufacturers, led by Theodore Search, noticed a sizable gap between the quality and variety of American textile products and those displayed by European mills. To address this, the group established the School to educate America’s textile workers and managers." **

One hundred and twenty eight years later, Fiber Philadelphia welcomes the world to its doorstep to celebrate contemporary creative textile work from an international roster of makers with over 40 exhibitions, March 2 - April 2, 2012.  Looking and talking was what this opening weekend was all about, although getting into the swing and rhythm took a while. The ability to “network” formerly called “Schmoozing” while casting a critical eye has become second nature to me. Time is always condensed at events such as this and as enjoyable as it is to catch up with and meet new people in the field, it is about seeing the work

In Toronto in 1998 I saw “Changing Spaces: Artist’s Projects from the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia,” at the Power Plant. It had work by Chris Burden -- an artist I did not associate with textiles.   His giant LAPD Uniforms gave one pause.   Renée Green's Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile is an extremely powerful work  in which what appears to be the standard bucolic deletes depicted on Toiles are in fact images of rape, lynching and other images from America's slave owning history.   Since growing cotton was dependant on this slave labour, and this cotton became the cloth on which the French printed their Toiles, there is a certain symmetry at work here. The scope of this exhibition opened a door into textiles that I ran through without looking back.

To have finally gotten to Philadelphia I was determined to see as much as I could.  Based at the Rodeway Inn on Walnut and 12th streets, I could not have been better located to walk to the 40 exhibitions Venues that make up Fiber Philadelphia. Heading out to Moore College for the official opening, I wandered past a mix of architecture spanning the late colonial Federal style to the Comcast Center that was designed by architect Robert A. M. Stern. Once there I greeted people I recognized and sought the organizers Bruce Hoffman and Amy Orr just to touch base after a couple of weeks of e-mails. Then I was greeted by Pat Hickman former Textile Society of America president, a fellow Canadian and a maker with a long and important career.   After hello, she told me this event was all about stitches. She said she has never seen such a concentration of needle work and that I had something to look forward to.


"Fiber in the 21st Century Art World.” lecture by Elissa Arthur


 The opening and official welcome got under way Philadelphia Mayor Michael Anthony Nutter welcoming guests and giving the official Fiber Art Proclamation declaring March Fiber Month. The pomp and circumstance of the key note lecture, "Fiber in the 21st Century Art World.” was delivered by contemporary art historian Elissa Arthur.  I initially felt she was  a questionable choice because,  since the publication of her 2009 book String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (University of Minnesota Press), and in subsequent writing , I  had been under the impression that she  considered  textiles  something  of a joke and not worth bothering about.   As she spoke I realised she has become hooked on textiles and has a desire understand why so many people are using then in their contemporary practice. After that it was a movable feast for the eyes.

I managed to make it to 14 of the 40 exhibitions over the next 3 days.  Individual makers who stood out to me as I made the rounds included embroiderer Erin Endicott, who was in three exhibitions: Narrative Thread: Orly Cogan, Flore Gardner, Erin Endicott, and Donna Rosenthal at the Wexler Gallery, I Mending =  Art at Gershman Y, Borowsky Gallery and Intimate Stitches at Interior Design shop Kellijane for which she was  co-curator with Bruce Hoffman.  Weaver Sandra Brownlee:  New Weavings Liao Collections & Asian Antiques and Felt maker Andrea Noeske-Porada, who had a 3-D piece in Outside/Inside the Box at the Crane Arts Building, Icebox Project Space that caught my eye.   Exhibition curators who produced exceptional group shows were Bruce Hoffman “Sense of Place” at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and Diane Savona “Mending =  Art” at the Gershman Y, Borowsky Gallery these two shows along with the 8th International Fiber Biennial at Snyderman-Works Gallery where highlights of my 4 days in Philadelphia. I tried to blog daily which was interesting if exhausting.

Mending + art

 Mending + Art at Borowsky Gallery, Gershman Y 401 South Broad Street.
left to right: Wolfie E. Rawk, curator Diane Savona, Dorothy Caldwell, Libbie Soffer and Erin Endicott

 There was a lot to see and, as I said earlier, many people to meet and greet. It was great to see fellow Canadians such as Dorothy Caldwell (8th International Fiber Biennial and Mending=Art), Kia Chan (8th International Fiber Biennial), and Sandra Brownlee.  Equally, it was an opportunity to meet makers whose work I admire. Having seen Virginia Davis’ Ikat weaving in Lincoln Nebraska during the Textile Society of America symposium, I had the chance to meet and talk with her at Snyderman-Works gallery ; a week after arriving home she sent me a DVD of  VIRGINIA DAVIS - TEXTILE ARTIST a film by Linda Upton and Moira Ellis. While at the Outside/Inside I was captured by a piece of three dimensional black and white felt "Inside is Outside, 2010 100% merino wool, 9.06" x 7.87" x 15.75  A woman dressed in black and red that I had notice earlier at the official welcome came forward and identified herself as Andrea Noeske-Porada the maker of this piece.  A conversation about twist, memory and the reaction to heat that we began in front of her piece lasted for three days.

embroiderers in Philadelphia

Emily Barletta, Ellen Schinderman myself and Erin Endicott at the ''Intimate Stitches" at Kellijane 171 Spruce Street, Philadelphia

Earlier that day I met Erin Endicott whom I mentioned above, the next day I met Andrea walking down the street and we had breakfast and went to the “Intimate Stitches” show that Erin was co-curator . That brought me into a circle of young talented stitchers including Ellen Schinderman who is as riotous as her work. She has kept me updated about a first solo exhibition and a show she is curator of,  "Home is Where the Needle Marks" [Suburban Art and Poptart galleries in Los Angeles}. This show features 25 stitchers from across the US and if I could be there I would be. Half the makers are facebook acquaintances; some I have met in real life and seen  their real work -- not just photos.   

 People are as much of a draw as the things they make and being able to talk the language of textiles with other practitioners in a celebratory atmosphere such as that provided by Fiber Philadelphia is a privilege outside daily life  


* Teacher's Essay, Early Industrialization, Copyright © 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved. http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/eitessay.html   Accessed 5/23/12

** Nina de Angeli Walls in "Art and Industry in Philadelphia: Origins of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women"  article was originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Volume CXVII, No. 3 (July 1993), pp. 177-199. a re-keyed version can be found on line at  Traditional Fine Arts Organization's website http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa463.htm  Accessed 2/23/12

*** From the university's web site http://125.philau.edu/index.php Accessed 2/23/12


String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art by Elissa Arthur (University of Minnesota Press, 2009 reviewed  in fQ Volume 6 Issue 2 Summer 2010 (There Is No Joy in Mudville) String Felt Thread

VIRGINIA DAVIS - TEXTILE ARTIST:  a film by Linda Upton and Moira Ellis © 2011 To purchase a DVD copy of the film, contact Moira Ellis: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Wolfie E. Rawk, http://wolfieerawk.com/home.html

Diane Savona, http://www.dianesavonaart.com/

Dorothy Caldwell,

Libbie Soffer http://www.heronartstudios.com/libbie.html

Erin Endicott http://erinendicottart.com/

 Andrea Noeske-Porada http://www.kuimsou.de/

Emily Barletta, http://emilybarletta.com/home.html

Ellen Schinderman  http://www.schindermania.com/schindermania/home.html

 Amy Orr http://www.amyorr.net/

Fiber Philadelphia http://www.fiberphiladelphia.org/

Fiber Philadelphia from other points of view:  Idiosyncratic Fashionistas


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