Spotlight Barbara O’Steen: Fiber Artist

Weaving by Barbara O'Steen

Spotlight Barbara O’Steen: Fiber Artist

Barbara O’Steen’s art career has spanned many years and many obstacles that would have kept a lesser woman down. Through gender barriers, supporting a young family as a widow and economic downturns, Barbara reinvented herself and created new opportunities, all while finding (or making) a path and keeping her creative fire burning.

Barbara's jacket that started with fixing a hole

In the senior years of my life, 86, I’m still creating art; and answering questions about my life journey as an artist. Since the blog has such a funny name, I thought to begin with this sweater which I recycled from a thrift store. My friends particularly liked that the moth hole I was repairing was only the size of a quarter; well, you know, there’s just all these colorful scraps on my table.

How did you get started sewing?

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I grew up with an artist Mother who always had art materials around for us three girls. Together each year we created the family Christmas card, using different techniques each year. I loved art.  

The summer I was 12, I was full of plans for bike rides, wading the creek, swimming the public pool and climbing trees. But Mother called me into her bedroom on a June evening. A most unexpected event. Seems one sister had arranged for a summer series of Singer sewing classes; this very afternoon someone had dropped out and my sister was in tears because now it would be cancelled. Mother said to me, “No argument; you are going.” Well, we did, and my sister rarely sewed again and I continued for my whole life. You never know!

One winter Nashville had a spectacular ice storm in January that closed everything(!) for two weeks. We cooked food in the fireplace and walked to a small grocery. The owners walked there to open it for us! Turns out my Mother had purchased a pattern and some linen for an Easter dress for me. She and I spent the first week studying the pattern and cutting it out.  The aqua dress had a white yoke, so she had me create a design and stencil it onto the yoke. Finally, electricity returned and we sewed the dress before school started again. My love of original clothes began there!! And now that my energy for original wall pieces, whether fiber or tapestry, has slowed down, creative clothing is my great fun satisfaction. 

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Describe your journey as an artist.

My artist’s path continued in high school with art classes and on to college. There I said I wanted to major in sculpture and they said I could not because I was FEMALE! The continuation of my frustration that had started in grammar school with things I was not allowed to do! Classes I was allowed to take included mastering shapes, and charcoal and watercolor and oils and human figures and on and on. In my last year of college, I traded a painting of the landlord’s childhood home for one month of rent.

Sculpture by Barbara O'Steen
Sculpture by Barbara O'Steen

What was the most unusual way you brought creativity to your early years as a teacher?

After college in Illinois I taught public school and believe strongly that every human alive has some creativity!! It may be for music or dance or acting or sewing rather than drawing or painting, but it is absolutely there and up to all of us to recognize it in ourselves, in others, and develop it as teachers.

In Seattle my husband insisted I stay home with our two children so no more teaching art. After they got older, I was able to attend the UW for a Master’s degree. Not in Art as I requested but only as a Masters in Teaching Art (MAT). The way they spoke to me revealed a very dismissive, snooty attitude about my age (40) and ability to be a serious artist. My Illinois teaching credentials, due to the wonderment of state government, were not enough. I needed two more years of WA college in education to teach in WA, even with my new MAT. I watched job news the previous two years with no art teaching jobs within 50 miles. The high school and college posts were occupied by and went to men only.

Why have you continued to choose fiber to express your creativity?

While a housewife and student, I took a 2-year weaving course at a new private school in the University district. I used that knowledge from The Factory of Visual Arts for my thesis for the Masters.

The thesis was on the history of Weaving, with text and slides. I presented that thesis as a program for The Seattle Weavers Guild. That encouraged me to phone the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and ask for their curator of Modern Art, Charles Cowles. The craft movement was just beginning to be recognized across the country. He agreed to meet with me to present my thesis. He was impressed with the slides of modern weaving, especially the Europeans like Magdalena Abrokaniwitz of Poland. Unlike the US, Canada had continued an active interest in weaving for all of their history; the Vancouver Art Museum had presented a marvelous recent show of the European work. That’s where I photographed most of my modern slides.

Charles Cowles mentioned that one of Seattle’s grand dames of art support had been pushing him to display glass from Pilchuck. He decided he might create a show of glass and fiber, and accepted me as his assistant for contacting fiber artists and included two large works of mine, (pictured). (Some of those fiber artists are still working today, though many have moved away or given up.) SAM had recently begun using a building at the Seattle Center as an additional gallery, calling it the SAM Pavilion. The show was there and most successful, but much more so for the glass artists than the fiber ones. Charles Cowles moved to New York to open a gallery in his name, but he showed only paintings.

I worked on a large tapestry towards the end of my two years in both schools. A friend loaned me in a small room to do the work. I nailed one board across the floor of one wall and another board across at the ceiling. Then I hammered in nails and began hand weaving by sitting on the floor. The photo is me working my way to the top for a 9‘x 12‘wool tapestry. Once I had the go-ahead word from Mr. Cowles, I created a wool sculpture, 15‘tall, in that same small room. At last I was beginning a career in ART!

Barbara weaving
Weaving by Barbara O'Steen

Then my husband died of cancer and I was a single Mom, strapped for resources. Yet I was able to continue using that room for free for the next 9 years where I created tapestries for commercial offices. 

I had gallery representation in Seattle, in Bellevue and in San Francisco. Most galleries at that time still preferred paintings but were handling a few craft items. We had to provide binders with 8 x 10 photos. They displayed only one of my tapestries at a time, if that. But it was enough to manage with the financial support of renting part of my house. 

It all ended when Boeing Airplane Co., who had contacted my Bellevue gallery and agreed to buy the large tapestry from the SAM show ($9,000 in 1979) for the lobby of a new building, lost the TFX contract.  They not only canceled all purchases, but fired a lot of engineers. That is when one pundit said, “Will the last person out of town be sure to turn out the lights”. 

That meant that there would be no Seattle commercial offices willing to purchase from me for quite a while. AND at that same time there was a considerable drop in craft interest. The San Francisco gallery wrote that the bank that requested I ship a tapestry lost their new space. The gallery returned not only my tapestry, but the book of photos and our contract.  

And a few other comments on shrugging off the disappointments. After the SAM show, Westin Hotels (Seattle is home office) commissioned a large tapestry for a Saskatchewan hotel ballroom. It was woven (8’ x 20’), shipped, hung, and within a year stolen off the wall!! The local art director told me he wanted me to weave more such tapestries. But after the theft, they had to give up the art program altogether due to the number of burglaries. 

My woven sculpture that sold to Bell Telephone, situated on the executive’s floor and unavailable for viewing by my friends, then went away when telephone contracts were reorganized nationwide. My tapestry hanging on the 17th floor of a downtown tower(!) went away when the import bank that owned it closed. The 1% for Art program for public buildings, both city and state, provided a great opportunity for possible work, supposedly, but there I often came in second or third, enough encouragement to keep trying but never a winner. Then the Boeing fiasco and my Seattle gallery failed and I was done. One Art career done!!

The best available jobs then were computer programming, so I took the two-year course and then what? No more jobs. After 6 months of looking, Boeing hired me for editing because of my Bachelor’s in English. Even though I was soon programming in a different department, they always pay you based on increments of your beginning salary! Anyway, it was a job for many years and gradually, by requesting different departments, I got jobs creating tutorials where I could use programming, art, and teaching.

Sorry to write so much, but a career in Art is a grand dream. But LIFE can definitely get in the way. I have taken care of my health and been fortunate to live a long time. So finally, when I retired from Boeing, I began to work in fiber for many hours a week. But then I was so much older and did not have the energy that I had had in the weaving years. 

I joined the Contemporary QuiltArt Association, a WA state organization. They have several juried shows a year and that has been most of my opportunity to exhibit. I got accepted once to International Quilt Festival in Houston after many entries; I got published in the SAQA Quarterly on a page with 5 other tapestries, and have shown a number of times in the Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum

Whenever I got rejected, and that was often, I overcame the sadness and satisfied my need to be in the sewing room by creating one-of-a-kind clothing for myself. Then some shows started asking for clothing to jury, and I thought it was pretty funny to be sending my playful things as entries.

Anyway, I now create more clothes than wall hangings. I love fabric, fibers of all kinds, color and more color. And problem solving; I rarely use a pattern for the clothes.  

Barbara O'Steen in her purple Cutouts coat and matching hat
Cutouts; Wearable art outfit including hat, wool cape, nylon dress, silk scarf and shoe spats. Juried display at RAGS show in Tacoma, 2020

Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach? 

I do not create in a series as I am too full of ideas and go exploring in various directions.

How has your work changed over time? What led you to new techniques and ways of working?

My work has changed over time partly because of circumstances. When I gave up weaving, I no longer had the separate studio with a wall where I wove the large tapestries. So I sold the floor loom that stood in my living room when I had to move. During my years at Boeing I wondered what I would create when I retired, and that came together for me with seeing two Art Quilt shows.

Extinction art quilt by Barbara O'Steen

Does your art have stories to tell? Would you share a couple of examples?

I have a strong pull towards a message about climate change and a number of my art quilts have dealt with that, especially trees. And I add words sometimes. 

One Left woven art by Barbara
One Left
Three Trees; The camels and desert were part of a series on worldwide land changing to desert. Barbara designed and sewed her jacket.

Do you plan your work out all ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?

Themes, stories, planning or plunge in: I think ahead about each art piece, sometimes for weeks. I sketch a little, pin and drape fabric on my design wall of a white flannel sheet, change it, etc. I walk in the park. When thinking or working I listen to classical music.

Sea Floor fiber art piece made entirely from wool
Sea Floor; Entirely made from wool, mostly crochet, then constructed with hand sewing and embroidery. Created for an exhibit for the Surface Design Association

Do you do anything special to get your “creative juices” flowing? Please explain.

Inspiration – I have belonged to the Contemporary QuiltArt Association (CQA) for more than 20 years. The members there, the speakers we have, being exhibit chair for shows – these are great inspirations for me. I subscribe to various art magazines and find Craft especially stretches me to go beyond what’s in the fiber-only magazines; although I quite like the Journal of the Surface Design Association. Since my theme is the environment, I read the Sierra Club magazine and other environmental writings.

Fields art quilt
Fields; displayed in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah and at the Texas Quilt Museum
Emerging fiber art by Barbara
Emerging; piece is 3″ deep

As you look back on your years as a prolific artist and look forward to the creative years ahead, what advice would you offer to beginning or mid-career artists?

My answer is to embrace where you are. Try to find what might work for you, and when times are tough look ahead to a different future. 

When I worked as a computer programmer my friends thought I should create art on the weekends. Well, it does not work that way for me. I need continuity for thinking and working with the creative process. 

The computer programming was so stationary that I craved exercise. Every weekend for years I hiked most every trail on Mt. Rainier, kayaked in salt water, even along Vancouver Island, in New Zealand and Hawaii, cross-country skied and went snowshoeing. I relished these activities!!! And would not have wanted to miss out on them. Now when my knees and shoulders ache, I can spend all my time with fabric and art, especially clothing! (And no place to wear it – just masks.)

Landscape, wearable art blue wool suit
Landscape; Blue Wool Suit, front
Landscape wearable art back
Landscape, Back
Barbara O'Steen Quote

More of Barbara’s work on Contemporary QuiltArt website.

Interview posted August 2020

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