Archive for the ‘textile art’ Category

Textile art triptich by Silvie Umiker

Textile art triptych by Silvie Umiker

Today was my first free day to leave Milan in over a month, and what fun I had with it!

I took the train to Lugano. Only an hour away, but I felt like a traveler again. Something about trains makes me feel free and adventurous.

Lugano is always a pleasant experience. Only an hour from Milan but worlds away. Today the pleasure was enhanced by good company and inspiring art.

Four artists have created a fascinating group exhibition, demonstrating both unity and diversity in their collected works. Bea Bernasconi, Marlis Egger, Nina Novikov Brown, and Silvie Umiker are four Ticinese artists who work in textiles. The exhibition, entitled Contrasti (Contrasts) is their first together. It is hosted by the Banca Coop in Piazza Cioccaro 3, Lugano as part of their Eva program for women.

Having met all four women at textile art courses and festivals, I knew they were a creative bunch. But the show exceeded my already high expectations. Silvie patiently guided me through the exhibit, answering my questions and offering both conceptual and technical explanations of the works. We spent almost two hours wandering through the array of colors and textures, and I’m ready to go back for more.

The show is organized by colors and shapes — both contrasting and harmonizing simplicity and complexity, round and rectangular, full and empty, essential and ornamental. Silvie’s work with rusted iron is especially fascinating — layering metal and cloth, blending hard and soft.  All four women show a versatility of technique and an ability to adapt to a variety of materials and ideas. Their enjoyment in playing with the color, form, and texture of their materials is evident. I’m inspired and humbled by what they’ve created.

The exhibition is open to the public during bank hours, from 8:30 to 12:30 and 13:30 to 16:30, Monday through Friday, through January 9. A must-see for all art lovers and certainly an eye-opener for anyone who thinks a quilt is something to put on the bed!

For info, email contrasti@marlisegger.ch or telephone +41 79 6802932.

From left to right, works by Nina Novicov Brown, Marlis Egger, Silvie Umiker, and Bea Bernasconi

From left to right, works by Nina Novicov Brown, Marlis Egger, Silvie Umiker, and Bea Bernasconi

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Endangered Tibetan art form

blossoms in Italy

Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:42am EST


By Barbara Cornell

MILAN (Reuters Life!) – She left for Dharamsala, India, as an economic and community development volunteer and emerged nearly nine years later as master of a rare Tibetan art form, the fabric Thangka.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo painstakingly transforms horse hair, fine silk thread, colorful Indian silk fabrics and luscious brocades into traditional depictions of Tibetan Buddhas. A single work takes four months to a year-and-a-half to complete.

Four of her traditional Buddhas and two Tibetan-inspired modern textile pieces are on display in Milan until December 19 at the show “Silk Mosaics: Sacred Images and Techniques from Tibetan Tradition.” Showings can be arranged through January 4.

Rinchen-Wongmo is also the subject of “Creating Buddhas,” a documentary released this fall that will be shown January 18 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, Calif., which hosted a large exhibition of her work in 2002.

“I never decided to do this,” she said at the Centro Mindfulness Project in Milan, where her work is on display. “When I saw it, it just took me.”

She first saw a crafts center producing fabric Thangkas while touring Dharamsala as part of an economic development team. The intricate, richly colored Buddha tapestries are used in ritual spaces like altars and temples but are so rare that even many Tibetans have never seen one.

Through persistence and luck, perhaps fate, she was allowed to train with a Tibetan master, perfecting delicate stitches amid swarming flies drawn by the raw meat juice smeared on the silk to stiffen it. She now uses a cellulose and acrylic mixture.

She spent a year just learning to embroider eyes.

Sixteen years after that first encounter, Rinchen-Wongmo, 48, is now one of a handful of women fabric Thangka masters and one of the few masters outside Asia. Married to an Italian, the California-born artist lives in Milan and Los Angeles.

She begins by making a drawing in traditional proportions to prepare a template for her bits of cloth. She gives contour to fabric shapes by appliqueing round threads made from three strands of horsehair wrapped in fine silken thread. She sews the shapes together and finishes with a brocade frame.

Rinchen-Wongmo, who uses a Tibetan name meaning “precious, empowered woman,” works on commission so rarely assembles her far-flung Thangkas into a show. Eleven appear on her website, www.silkthangka.com. For exhibition details, visit “Exhibition in Milan” on her blog: stitchingbuddha.wordpress.com.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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Documentary explores the fabrics of spirituality

by Chris Martell, Wisconsin State Journal, Oct 4, 2008

Madison, WI (USA) — Threads of both time and spirituality are what Isadora Gabrielle Leidenfrost weaves together in her one-of-a-kind career. In addition to being a Ph.D. student at UW-Madison, she is a documentary filmmaker, and a historian who studies the role of textiles in religious worship.

<< Isadora Gabrielle Leidenfrost is a spiritual textiles historian whose new documentary will benefit the Deer Park Buddhist Center in Oregon, pictured here.

Her latest documentary, “Creating Buddhas: The Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas,” was released in September and will be shown at a series of screenings here and across the nation. The Deer Park Buddhist Center in Oregon will receive part of the money from DVD sales.

Leidenfrost’s documentary tells the story of an American woman, Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo, who spent nine years in India studying the endangered art of making fabric thangkas, and now splits her time between California and Italy and sews them on commission. Thangkas are narrative art that tells the stories of the Buddhas.

After a thangka is blessed by monks, everyone who sees it is said to gain enlightenment. In Tibet, fabric art is considered higher than painting or sculpture because silk is costly and applique and embroidery is so time-consuming.

Thangka-making is not meant to be a creative endeavor since they must conform to iconographic specifications, as well as regional and doctrinal style differences. Fabric thangkas, which date at least to the 13th century, were also treasured because they’re portable, which was important in nomadic cultures. While some thangkas are small, others weigh 1,000 pounds or so and must be carried by about hundreds of monks when they are brought from storage in temples and unfurled on mountains or walls.

“Fabric is very important to Tibetans,” Leidenfrost said. “You see it in the garments, the temple hangings and banners, and in the prayer flags.”

Many of Tibet’s fabric thangkas were destroyed when its monasteries were desecrated during China’s Cultural Revolution. And even if that hadn’t occurred, fabric thangkas are so rare that many practicing Buddhists have never seen one.

Leidenfrost stumbled upon the subject of her documentary during a Google search. Rinchen-Wongmo, who uses her Buddhist name, is one of the few female fabric thangka masters in the world. Leidenfrost approached her to ask if be willing to sew a thangka in the image of green Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion who symbolizes women’s capacity for enlightenment, and is a beloved mother figure.

“As a woman, I’ve always been interested in Tara’s story,” Leidenfrost said.

The documentary chronicles the process of Rinchen-Wongmo’s sewing the Tara thangka, which took about six months of full-time work. Leidenfrost found experts on related subjects to interview, and temple music to use in the background.

“If the music isn’t good, the film won’t be good,” she said. “Luckily, every musician gave me their stuff free.”

Also helpful were the grant-writing classes she took as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I’ve gotten grants for all my research trips,” she said. “When I started this, there was no published research on fabric thangkas. It’s a part of Tibetan culture that should be preserved.”

She has also done work with Hindu spiritual textiles, a film on African-American women’s church hats, and on textile traditions of Celtic women’s groups. In the future she plans to explore the spiritual textiles of Cambodia, Africa and South America.

Leidenfrost, 27, said that while she has an affinity for Buddhism, she doesn’t identify herself as belonging to any single religion. Leidenfrost’s father ran a multi-faith spiritual center, and she met the Dalai Lama for the first time when she was a year old. Many years later she gave him a “virtual thangka” she had filmed for him.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot, so it’s easy for me to cross borders,” she said. “I can do research, but stay on the outside.”

Unlike most documentary makers, Leidenfrost doesn’t aspire to show her films at festivals like Sundance.

“I plan to show my films in museums and places of learning,” she said. “Film is such an easy medium for teaching people.”

The Venerable Chowng, of Deer Park Buddhist Center, said at least 35 people attended the documentary’s premiere, and not all of them were Buddhists.

“They seemed very interested because this is something unique, and people were quite interested in the craftsmanship involved,” he said. “This is nice because there aren’t many films about textiles, or Buddhism, or even Tibetan culture. A couple of people asked if (Rinchen-Womgo) was accepting students, and we were told she expects a three-year commitment from her students. Thangka-making is a very tedious craft — you can’t just whip them out.”

Chowng said a giant fabric thangka, at least three stories high, was loaned to Deer Park during last summer’s visit by the Dalai Lama, and the center’s own collection includes several fabric thangkas, including some of Tara.

“Everybody loves Tara,” he said. “She’s one of the most important figures in the teaching of Buddhism. She’s always ready for beneficial activity, so you never see her in full lotus position. She’s always pictured with one leg stepping out, ready for action.”

The documentary “Creating Buddhas” by Isadora Gabrielle Leidenfrost will be shown:
Thursday Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. at Shambhala Center of Madison, 408 S. Baldwin St.
Friday Oct. 10, 8 p.m. at Mimosa, 260 W. Gilman St.
Sunday Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m. in room 21, at UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, 1300 Linden Drive
Saturday Nov. 8, 1 p.m. at Alisha Ashman Madison Public Library, 733 N. High Point Road
Tuesday Nov. 11, 7 p.m. at James Reeb Unitarian Church, 2146 E. Johnson St.

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Okay, this may be old news for many of you — since apparently Faith Ringgold started painting her own version of “thangkas” in 1972 after visiting an exhibition of Tibetan art at a museum in Amsterdam — but I just found out. Thanks to my Google alert for “Tibetan art,” I learned something new a few days ago in this article about a current exhibition of Faith Ringgold’s work at the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery at Keene State College in New Hampshire. I have loved Faith Ringgold’s work since the early 1990s, and I decorated my room at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala with a pack of notecards of her story quilts. I’ve looked her up several times over the years, admiring her innovative textile art and her courageous creativity in exploring questions of race and gender. But I never knew she had been influenced by Tibetan thangkas! Or that she had produced a series of paintings (the Slave Rape Series) framed in cloth borders VERY similar to the traditional brocade borders of thangkas. What a revelation! I’m going to buy this book to learn more!

Reading around the web, I’ve discovered that the thangka form appealed to the seamstress in her (her mother was both an inspiration and an assistant in this regard) as well as to the woman artist with limited means who wanted to show her work widely and couldn’t get her big paintings down the stairs. Paintings framed in cloth, not stretched on a rigid support, are infinitely more portable and less costly to ship.

I have appreciated this portability issue myself recently after experiments in the other direction. Departing from the flexible softness of thangkas and quilts, I began to stretch works on a wooden frame. I was drawn to the smooth tautness such a support provided. And with John Annesley‘s help, I learned to stretch my finished pieces like canvas on high-quality wooden stretchers. Three Mongolians and Pool of Light benefited from this new skill, as did a couple of smaller pieces. But recently, I’ve returned to the soft format partly motivated by a newfound fascination with machine quilting and partly motivated by the same economic and portability advantage that appealed to Ms. Ringgold.

Three Mongolians has appeared in two juried exhibitions in the US (New Fibers 2008 and Fiber National). I finished the work in Italy and subsequently took it off the stretcher to carry it to the US since it exceeded airline baggage limitations. I then restretched it on a new stretcher frame in California and shipped it to the show in Pennsylvania. The re-usable packing crate from Ashley Distributors and two-way insured FedEx shipping were costly then, as they were again to Michigan this summer. I’m looking forward to an upcoming solo exhibition in Milan this autumn, but cannot even consider carrying the Mongolians back to Italy for inclusion in that show. Likewise, I could not carry the Pool of Light to Nottingham via Ryan Air in May. So I’ve returned to soft works for both traditional and contemporary pieces.

And I feel, more than ever, connected to and inspired by the deep and moving, whimsical and wonderful artistry of the great Faith Ringgold.

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I’ve been slow. Summer in Milan can have that effect as routines break down and everyone leaves for vacation. I actually finished my Chenrezig art quilt/thangka two weeks ago. Here it is:

Chenrezig art quilt thangka

Chenrezig art quilt thangka

This “thangka” is a unique combination of traditional and new, eastern and western techniques. I drew the figure of Chenrezig (that’s his Tibetan name. In Sanskrit, it’s Avalokiteshvara.) several years ago while studying thangka drawing in Sarnath, India with Alex Kocharov. Chenrezig embodies all the fully awakened compassion of the enlightened mind and is the deity closest to my heart. In China, he takes the feminine form of Kuan Yin. In Japan, he is Kannon. The Dalai Lama is a living manifestation of Chenrezig too.

I pieced this figure in the traditional Tibetan fashion, using pure silk satins and gold-patterned brocades from Varanasi. He’s seated on a deep blue and violet lotus, inspired by this traditional Tibetan poem found in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

Avalokiteshvara is like the moon
Whose cool light puts out the burning fires of samsara
In its rays the night-flowering lotus of compassion
Opens wide its petals.

After the figure was pieced, the nontraditional aspects of this thangka began to emerge. I suggested the nimbus of glowing light around the body with a transparent metallic-effect synthetic organza, machine stitched with radiating lines. I cut the head nimbus from a beautifully patterned cotton scarf remnant purchased from the Etro designer outlet in Milan, Italy. Chenrezig’s immediate background is a deep, variegated, blue of hand-dyed (not by me but by a woman near Munich in Germany) cotton sateen, quilted in a pattern echoing the outlines of the form. Surrounding this central block are six quilted blocks of cotton fabric from the US. I arranged these to form horizontal bands of color reminiscent of some of the oldest Tibetan applique thangkas where sky and ground are represented by three graduated horizontal bands. The six sections also imply the six realms of sentient beings — the forms in which we can take birth, or the reactive filters through which we can see our experience and react to it. Narrow strips of red and white cotton separate these blocks as Chenrezig’s bodhicitta permeates the worlds. The sun and moon are quilted in the dark sky above.

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Today I stitched some pieces of what will become the background for my Chenrezig. I’m very excited about this piece and don’t know whether to call it a thangka, a quilt, or something else. The figure is purely traditional. I used the traditional piecing and applique techniques I was trained in by Tibetan masters in Dharamsala. I created the drawing myself while studying how to draw within sacred proportions with Alex Kocharov in Sarnath many years ago. I have a special love of and connection with Chenrezig as a meditation deity, the representation of fully enlightened compassion and of our own potential.

And this Chenrezig will become part of a cloth wall hanging more similar to a contemporary art quilt than a traditional thangka. It’s an adventure, an experiment, which thrills me with a sense of risk and daring but also feels lovingly respectful of this Chenrezig figure I’ve created.

So today I was quilting. And since I’m still so new to quilting, the work was accompanied by a bit of fear of screwing up and curiosity about what technique might work best. While building some skill over the past months and waiting for some fabric to arrive, I’ve brainstormed design ideas which have changed multiple times. Now I think I know what I want the piece to look like, but bringing that vision into physical reality is something else.

My biggest discovery for the day was my love of free motion quilting, the life of the stitches, creating a rhythm of motion and breathing. One section, in particular, is long and horizontal, with long, rougly parallel lines of stitching running its length. In my practice pieces, I experimented with a normal presser foot and a walking foot — feed dogs up — as well as with a darning foot in free motion — feed dogs down. Because I had difficulty stitching smoothly at the long edge in free motion, I did the first few and the last few rows with the walking foot. But for the rest, I played joyfully in free motion. I have to say I like the subtle (well, at least as subtle as I can manage) irregularity of the stitches. I like using my breath to guide and time the movement. Here are some pictures of my results:

green quilting

turquoise quilting

purple quilting

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sharonb has started a new forum for textile enthusiasts on Ning. It’s called Stitchin Fingers and has already attracted over 240 members in just a few days. Looks like it will make for some fruitful sharing, so I look forward to having time to peruse!

But first, I’m heading to Nottingham, England for teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’ll have a table in the “Big Top,” a tent set up a few minutes’ walk from the arena where the teachings will take place. Green Tara — featured in the Creating Buddhas documentary — will be there with me. If you’re in the area, please come by to say hi.


I’m flying to England on Ryan Air and am having quite a time trying to stay under their 15kg (33 pound) baggage limit — with postcards and posters to sell!

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