Balancing the precision of laser cutting with the serendipity of silk dyeing, fiber artist Barbara Matthews engages both left and right brain when creating her art. By adhering silk to freestanding acrylic glass panels, Barbara’s pieces allow light to play with the color and transparency her technique makes possible. She executes all parts of her process, from the silk fabric dye pot to the laser cutting software to the band saw in a community woodshop.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I was fortunate to graduate from the University of Washington Fiber Certificate program, which launched my art career. In the beginning, I had dabbled in weaving, knitting, quilting, and silk painting and I extended these methods to my art. I loved the radiance of dyed silk. I took a class with Karen Sistek, a Master Silk Painter, who adhered her paintings to canvas. When I tried the same method on acrylic glass, I found the silk seemed to become one with the acrylic. This allowed me to stand my pieces upright so that light could shine through.
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Discovering this opened-up avenues into laser cutting and woodworking. I use the laser cutter to cut shapes from acrylic glass, then I adhere the dyed silk to these shapes. The process is enjoyable from beginning to end, starting with drawing templates by hand to tracing the images within a software program to the final trimming of the silk on the acrylic form.
Because I needed a base for my pieces to stand upright, I took classes in woodworking and ultimately became hooked on wood. I love the juxtaposition of soft with rigid – silk with acrylic glass, fiber with wood. The contrast emphasizes the beauty of both.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Fine craftsmen inspire me, especially those who work with wood, but also paper, textiles, glass, and metal. The ability to transform a material to a shape and form of art requires not only years of experience, but a deep appreciation and understanding of the material, plus a profound desire for perfection.
Are there recurring themes in your work?
I am intrigued by those things that are larger than life, like trees. These regal beings have a knowing grace that seems to surpass our limited knowledge of the world. Their lives span many of our generations, but their strength and sturdiness remain vulnerable to the finality of an axe. This contrast between strength and fragility is interesting and perhaps represents our own vulnerability. I am shown here in front of a 2,000 year old Redwood in Stout Grove Reserve in the Redwood National Park. In “Happier Days” I imagined the inner life of a tree before it is felled.
Likewise, glaciers have an exquisite beauty that is only deepened by our knowledge of their age in millennia. Still these massive structures suffer a demise at the hand of man. The pieces here are “Glacier Cathedral” and “Ice Star”.
Perhaps because I am an introvert myself, I recognize the vulnerabilities within people as well. Am I the only one who sometimes does not feel comfortable in her own skin? It was that idea that lead me to create “Aliens Among Us”.
Then further, appreciating the wabi sabi among all of us as humans, I created “Perfectly Imperfect”. The wonder and sometimes burden of being human leads to a never-ending source for my art.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Everyone has the capability to be creative. Gardeners, woodworkers, cooks, even housecleaners create as a result of their interest or profession.
I would argue that creating is a state of mind. It has to do with taking ownership and pride in your work. I have frequently thrown together a dinner that was food and not at all creative. Likewise, I have taken the time to create a lovely meal. I made masks for the pandemic that were strictly utilitarian, while others took the time and dedication to create well-made and practical masks. I could even suggest that we could look at our interactions with our children and friends as creating. We are creating adults of the future and relationships that are lasting and meaningful. If we thought of the creation aspect, would that not elevate the importance of our conversation with more pleasing outcome?
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Fine artistry for me has been a challenge. Because of my years as a researcher in my prior profession, I have the experience and proclivity to plan. A well-designed process has always worked for me and I love that part of my art—graphing designs, measuring angles, engineering pieces. I also work from a concept, so have the additional challenge of representing that concept without being literal. Because of these tendencies, I have found my pieces sometimes are unexciting and lack magic.
To counter this, I took Jane Dunnewold’s Creative Strength Training class and I have purposefully started to improvise pieces, so folding and cutting paper to create structures without first graphing the size and shape. Plus, I have introduced play into my process by doing collages and mark-making without any intention of ending with an art piece.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
One thing I do is mix my own dye colors. Because I love the science of colors (of course), I only have magenta, cyan, yellow, black dyes and my own dye mixtures in my cabinet. I even mix my own black starting with a commercial black, because it is not the black I seek.
I am not aware of others who are applying dyed silk to acrylic glass in art pieces. Some have applied silk to glass bowls for a very lovely effect.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I use a sketchbook for ideas and a journal to document my process. I frequently go back to prior dye recipes and these are thankfully documented. Recently the wood on a piece I had sold years before was warping. I was able resolve and correct the issue by identifying the wood and gluing process I used.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
When I started using acrylic glass, I knew I needed a base for the pieces to stand upright. I consulted a carpenter friend, who made a prototype. Then I needed to have access to a shop and learn how to use the equipment. I took a woodshop class, made a coffee table, and learned how to use a table saw, chop saw, band saw, jointer, planer, belt and disk sanders and router. My design for a base has evolved; my last was version three and there will be a version four.
Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on pieces for specific calls for art and so these deadlines drive my process. I am usually working on several pieces at a time.
Learn more about Barbara on her website.
Photography of art pieces by Michael Stadler, Stadler Studio Photography
Interview posted July 2021
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