Sheila Hicks-Textile Artist & Anthropologist: Capturing Environments through the Medium of Textiles

Sheila Hicks (2015) Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow. Linen, cotton, acrylic fibres, size: variable. Photo by Cristobal Zanartu

The artist Sheila Hicks works primarily in fibre, weaving vibrant and dynamic sculptures and wall hangings that refer to traditional artisan textiles. That said Hicks’s practice is not just about creating objects and installations, but about living a life centred around making. She is unyielding in her ethics—enduring art and meaningful experiences derived from a conscientious, curious, and ongoing engagement with the material world. Hicks records her impressions of the places and people she sees and meets on her makeshift loom whereby her woven “minimal” sketches represent such experiencing as each small tapestry tells a story like the journey from Hangzhou to Shanghai (2015) with white linen.

Pioneering fibre artist Sheila Hicks blurs the boundary between painting and sculpture with her vibrant woven and textile works, which she creates in many shapes and sizes, from wall mountings that mimic the format of painting to suspended pieces that hang from ceiling to floor like textured columns. Hicks studied at Yale under the famed colour theorist Josef Albers and was encouraged by Albers’ textile artist wife, Anni, to travel and investigate the artisanal fabrics of Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, experiences that proved formative to Hicks’ artistic development. Her use of “domestic” mediums differed radically from the rigid industrial techniques of the Minimalists and hard edges of the abstract painters prominent amongst her contemporaries; Hicks is closely aligned with Eva Hesse, her fellow student and fellow innovator of sculpture made from soft, atypical materials.

Sheila Hicks (2015) Detail of Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow. Linen, cotton, acrylic fibres, size: variable. Photo by Cristobal Zanartu

These ‘Nomad Treasure Bales’, with their weave of criss-crosses, layer after layer, creating a web of patterns and shapes, binds the bales together. They almost look like large fabric buttons or marble coloured stones and their impact works with many of them together as they were. At the centre of each bale is a ‘treasure’ from her travels, cocooned in the netted fibres as a memory of her experiencing held in place forever.

Sheila Hicks (2009) Grand Boules- Linen, cotton, synthetic raffia, metallic fibre, size: variable.

Grand Boules (2009) present as hectic assemblages burst at the seams with colour and noise. They are energetic messes that replicate the ecstatic frenzy of the world out there, be it in the scramble to keep domestic order under control (some spheres were inspired by clothes compressed for the purpose of travel) and in the delirious rush of a busy marketplace, of places seen, visited and fully experienced.

Hicks’ Comets Sculpture (2016-2018), a bas-relief sculpture composed of circular sculptures in a range of vibrant colours, textures and shapes extended along one of the major walls during a prominent exhibition. An earlier version of this dramatic ensemble was presented in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

Comets (detail), 2016-2018, by Sheila Hicks, yarn and textile fragments, installation view at Magasin III Jaffa. Photography: Noam Preisman

What is wonderful about this artist’s attitude to her work beyond her glorious use of colour, making and materials is that she is so fully immersive within her own creative process. During one of her exhibitions she took a canvas off the wall to show everyone the handwritten title on the back. Then she took one piece of “Comets and Confidentiality,” an assortment of fibre rounds on the wall, and handed it round. Sheila Hicks noted “I need to have your intimate response to my intimate offering.” This artwork is not too precious. There is something big and messy about it, with its stray threads and scrappy fabric. The artist often used waste and recycled as the leather bits mixed into “Comets and Confidentiality” are leftovers from the Hermés workshop in Paris. Her work has the warmth of something homemade–imperfect but rich with emotion which I love and can relate to. I was and continue to be inspired by the artists use of materials, colour and process, of developing stories within her innovative and contemporary use of tapestry weaving, of changing the relationship with tapestry weaving as she developed intriguing environmental narratives about people, places, things. As the artist has interacted with the environment she has interacted with her creative process and her use of materials alongside interacting with those who see her work. Indeed, much of Sheila Hicks’ site-specific work responds to and animates the surrounding architecture, offering a compliment and contrast to the hard, structural materials with her soft, pliable installations…to situate itself well within the environment and landscape it inhabits.

Sheila Hicks, Perpetual Migration II, 2016-17. Bamboo, acrylic fibres, coins, cotton, wool, linen, metal wire, slate. Courtesy of the artist, Paris.

Trained as a painter, Hicks became interested in global, and particularly South American, textile traditions, going on to develop her distinctive merger of painting, sculpture, drawing, and weaving. For her, the way that the richly coloured lines of her pieces move and intersect is a form of drawing in three dimensions.

Sheila Hicks (2016-2018) Examples of Textile Wrapping-Use of bamboo, acrylic fibres, coins, cotton, wool, linen, metal wire, slate.
Sheila Hicks (2016-2018) Examples of Textile Wrapping-Use of bamboo, acrylic fibres, coins, cotton, wool, linen, metal wire, slate.

For the artist structural considerations are uppermost, of the importance of architecture and decoration in the art of Sheila Hicks with colour, form, and texture as her language. Her innovative use of weaving and sculptural installations has been influential in my own relationship with tapestry weaving alongside print, of being more expressive and experimental with my use of self, the environment including print and the materials used for weaving, to create new forms of weave, of warp and weft around the print to create new 3D forms and installations with the interaction of print and weave with the environment.

Of interest to Hicks was the immediate environment and how her artwork inhabited the space it was in, of the large open design of the ceilings and the sense of solidity she found in the stone floor of many galleries. By extending the cords so they unfurl from the ceiling and coil on the floor, she hoped to activate viewers’ awareness of these architectural elements as in Sheila Hicks (2013-2014) Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column in acrylic, linen, cotton, bamboo, and silk, 204 x 48 x 48 in. (518.2 x 121.9 x 121.9 cm).

As stated by Matthew Hague (2016) Sheila Hicks found inspiration in the light and colour of landscape and created miniature weavings on a portable loom, but also works on large scale installations that run ceiling to floor. Some of her creations merge closely to geometry and the hard edges are familiar and reminiscent of paint on canvas which have a subtly different result when made with string. Her wall-mounted rectangular frames strung with thread entitled Predestined Colour Wave I & II resemble abstractions by Gerhard Richter but maintain an independence that frees them from the artist’s hand. They are held together by their own tension but left open to the possibility of unravelling. In the remarkable fact of their existence is the gift of uncertainty. They are objects of wonder.

Sheila Hicks, Predestined Colour Wave I & II, 2015, linen. Threads are held together by their own tension.

Sheila Hicks stated “Textile has been relegated to a secondary role in our society, to a material that was considered either functional or decorative,” “I wanted to give it another status and show what an artist can do with these incredible materials.”

Sheila Hicks (2015) From Hangzhou to Shanghai: Telling Tales with Materials. The artist represented her experiencing of a journey through tapestry weaving, of a phantom high-rise city yet to be inhabited.

Some of Hicks’s work is large scale but all of it is joyful as saturated with rich colour. May I Have This Dance from 2002 was commissioned by Target Corporation for its corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. When the space was reconfigured in 2010, it was dismantled and reinstalled at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. As Hicks stated “it is both complex and very wonderful. It is made of linen surrounding cork tubes. It is what I call “transcendent sculpture,” which means it can be adjusted for spaces of different sizes and completely rearranged. It is strongly structured, but it is anti-structure in that it has infinite shapes and sizes. Textile is one of the few materials in art that is consumed by the object’s form or narrative. It is materiality and manufacture — threads, warp, weft — are always there.”

May I Have This Dance, 2002, reworked 2010 (Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, photo by Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media)

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