Spotlight: Sharon Svec, Textile Artist

Sharon and her art

Spotlight: Sharon Svec, Textile Artist

To achieve her artistic vision, Sharon Svec has adapted and reinvented processes that incorporate movement and layers into her work. A complicated pregnancy that restricted movement forced Sharon to take a fresh look at her creative process and resulted in a whole new body of work.

Sharon Svec portrait

Why textiles? How did you get started?

There have been so many factors that contributed to my interest in textiles. But the way I got started with the tapestries seems to have no direct relationship with those.

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I had choreographed a butoh-inspired performance in Vancouver, WA in 2011. An opportunity to compose another performance came up in 2014. I was so excited to write the narrative, design the set and develop the foundation for the choreography. I had even made flyers and begun auditions.

Thing is, I was also pregnant. The day after auditions, I went in for my first ultrasound. The baby was healthy, but they expressed concern that I had placenta previa – which is when the placenta is blocking the exit. This can cause all sorts of complications including hemorrhaging during pregnancy and/or labor. I had planned a home birth, but that, as well as my performance plans all went out the window.

“You need to limit your movement,” they said. “Can I go to work? I’m a designer.” “Yes, just don’t move around too much.” “What about dance? I’m choreographing a performance.” “No,” they said, “too risky.” So I reluctantly called all the people and told them the show was off.

The show was meant to be part of an “art lab” where the artists create their works inside a gallery throughout the month, and display it at the end. I had to call the organizer as well and tell her it was off. “Maybe there’s something else you can do…” she said.

I did have something I had been lulling over for a while. It was an image of Ruth St. Denis. Ruth was a dancer from the early 1900s. I appreciated her style, strength and independence as a pioneering modern dancer at a time when ballet was the only dance form presented in public venues. Other dance forms were considered inferior, or too risqué for public consumption. Ruth and the Denishawn Dancers broke that norm.

When I first saw the image of Ruth online, it struck me deeply. It was always in my head. I wanted to see it bigger than what the little computer screens could offer.

I printed it on transparency and put it on an overhead projector. The wall was too rigid to view the image clearly. I hung a sheet. The sheet billowed with the natural air flow of the room. It was perfect. Ruth was dancing again. I could see her perform!

When I came to my studio, I would just put on the projector and watch her. Time passed and I was oblivious. I researched how to print images large… Silkscreen: I had experience with this, but not at this size. Large format printer: again, I had experience with this and I knew the quality would displease me. What other options were there? I was stuck.

Circling back to the performance I had to bow out of… I invited Karen Madsen, the curator, to see the image of Ruth and I explained my vision of printing her on the fabric. “You know, I’ve heard of this UV sensitive dye. Maybe it would work for you.” She sent me the name, and I ordered it straight away and began experimentation.

Karen encouraged me to continue participating in the Art Lab, even though my vision wasn’t fully developed. Her faith in me to create something gave me the confidence I needed at an integral time. Remember, I had just been told that I should refrain movement. My dreams of home birthing, as well as the performance were crushed. The industrial health complex put the fear of death in me and I was afraid to even stretch.

Art and Dancers
Art behind dancers by Karen Madsen

So I focused on Ruth. I decided against the image that inspired me and chose to make two diptychs. These were also of Ruth, but had better contrast. I was more confident in their quality. When I finally printed them at size, it was a week away from the show. They lacked something. I decided to layer additional imagery to create more interest. I intended to do it with dye, but I was working full time and with 5 days before the show, I wasn’t comfortable using the dye within this limited time frame.

Of the many experiments I had done, none involved layering colors. I decided to use spray paint instead. It turned out so much better than expected.

Honestly, I knew I liked it. But I never expected the overwhelming positive reaction I received from the guests of the Art Lab. So many people gave such incredible feedback. I saw their faces and I knew I had done something special. I knew I wanted to do more.

And that’s how it started.

Some of Sharon's fiber art hanging in a gallery

What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?

Since 2014, dance and the photographs of the Denishawn Dance Troupe inspire my works. I’m interested in the unknown and the unformed.

In my art, I attempt to identify the matter of the void. For example, the original photographs of Ruth and the Denishawns are fantastic, just as they are. They focus on the dancer and the costume, which at the time was significant and useful to their marketing strategy. I build upon these images, filling the empty space with what I consider to be representations of the material our rudimentary perception is unable to see.

So far, I have focused on series work. It is useful to my approach as it allows me to study the concept many times from different angles.

My current work uses photos that are in the public domain, usually from an expired copyright. I’m a strong believer that there is value in building upon the information of our past. When I use an image from the past, it inspires interest in me that can happen in no other way.

Take the Denishawns for example. I saw the image first through a site that showcases images with “no known copyright restrictions.” I often look to this site for historical reference. I was entranced by this image of Ruth and needed to know more. There was no photographer credited. So I researched the subject, Ruth St. Denis, and it opened up a whole world of dance history I had known nothing about.

One door lead to another and I connected to her story on so many levels. The Denishawns danced on the fringe. They took promotions into their own hands because no one would promote them.

Ruth brought culture to the people through her dance. Ruth’s partner, Ted Shawn, loved men as well as he did Ruth, and started a men’s dance troupe, which at times (and from my perspective) mocked the ridiculous and sexist role play that people still practice today. There is no other way I would have stumbled upon this fantastic history.

Sharon at work in her studio

What is the most important takeaway you want viewers to gain from your work?

There is something, even when there seems to be nothing. Only we must look for it.

Technique(s)? What do you do differently? What is your signature?

I think the whole process is different. I begin with a photo, which I need to edit on a computer. Then I use UV sensitive dye and layer with paint and stencil. Since the dye is UV sensitive, I have to be careful during the entire time it’s exposed to light.

I manufacture the hanging apparatus as well, usually from wood. During a visit to my studio, one guest asked how I started, and I told her the story above. Without hesitation, she said, “It looks like you found a way to dance after all.”

She put the nail on the head. Creating the works; manipulating the large swaths of fabric, dying them, spraying them… it all requires a lot of movement. Don’t tell my doctor.

Sharon spray painting some fabric

Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

The UV dye is indispensable. The brand I had first heard of stop producing within my first 2 years of creation. Fortunately there was another company which made the same or similar product for years. If they stop making it, I’ll have to reevaluate my process.

Is there a tool in your studio that would surprise us?

I’m a small person, so I’ve learned that I need to utilize tools to do things that others can do with sheer strength. In every circumstance of my life, I consider the best tool for the job.

In my art, I use a drill and electric hand saw to make the hanging sticks. Because of the 6 months of cloudy weather in the Pacific Northwest, I fashioned a UV exposure table by hanging lights from the underside of the table and exposing on the fabric below. I made a rolling tray for the floor, so that I could access the fabric easier during the process.

Most recently, I made a custom dipping bath for the fabric out of a gutter and some PVC pipe.

Sharon Svec Exposure Process

When you begin to create, do you have a finished product in mind? Or does the work evolve?

I usually have an idea of what I want to achieve. Sometimes I will try over and over until I achieve my vision.

Other times, I will let it evolve naturally. That usually takes more time, but is in some ways it’s more inspiring.

I don’t think one needs to know the outcome in order to create something beautiful. It’s a practice in meditation and patience.

Regardless of the plan or lack thereof, the end result is always a surprise. Because my process involves exposing negatives and using stencils, and because it is at such a large format, I cannot see the outcome until the process is done. It requires a sensitivity to the technique.

If I’m not fully present (mind, body, spirit) during the final stages, it can quickly get derailed.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people must develop?

I think it comes naturally to people who are regularly exposed to it— especially at a young age, and/or in their home environment. I think anyone can develop the skill.

Sharon working on one of her pieces outside

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be?

Gosh, there are so many. Most recently, the works and or the stories of Ruth St. Denis, Rodin, Loie Fuller, Emily Carr and DaVinci draw me in. I don’t think I would want to interview them. I’d want to collaborate with them… make them tea at the least. That said, I’m sure there are hundreds (if not more) creative people that I’ve never meet, who will never become a household name. Sitting with them would please me just as well. I think creativity has something to do with perception and interpretation. I think fame often starts out as a motivator to continue creating, but ultimately it becomes a distraction. So, speaking with a famous creative person would probably not be as rewarding as speaking with a creative neighbor.

Outside spray painting

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as an artist?

This is my 2nd attempt at “working” as an artist.

Because I’ve worked as an employee for most of my life, the idea of working as an artist has been very hard for me to embrace. It requires a whole different set of strengths. Even though I’ve set myself up with a decent savings, and have healthcare through my partner, it’s habit for me to think that if I’m not bringing in a regular income, if I’m not making more than I was last year, then I’m doing it wrong. But when I dig deep into my gut, I know my decision to work now as an artist is the right move for me.

I also have experienced challenges coming from a non-profit environment to my artist work. When I received considerably less than peers in my profession; when I despised the system that makes it okay to pay non-profit employees less; I took solace in the idea that what I was doing was helping people. And while I understand now that my art does help people, it was initially very difficult for me to perceive. I let that uncertainty of funds, and the “guilt of value” be a scapegoat from the challenge of working as an artist.

I went back to work – the same job – and in time, I realized that the gifts I can give to people through my art, and through encouraging creativity in others, actually has considerable value.

At work inside her studio

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given or received?

Somebody asked me once how I come to make the decisions I make in life. There are two things that I can think of. I have strong faith in my instincts. I trust them and I follow them. This usually works, but occasionally a situation arises which I instinctively want to pursue, but some other part of me resists.

To this, I reflect on a conversation with my dad where he told me, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “You can always change your mind. There are very few things in this life that you have to commit to. Commitment has great value and when you stay committed, you will discover a great deal about yourself and the thing (or person or idea) that you’ve committed to. However, if you ever feel along the way that you’ve made a wrong turn, there’s nothing to say you can’t get out of the car.” These words of wisdom help me a lot when I’m struggling with a decision.

Sharon and her art
Sharon Svec Quote

What are you working on now?

I’m doing a collaborative project with a fashion designer who adapts vintage clothes. We’re working on some patterns to use in the clothes as well as some headdresses to be used on the models.

The theme is nature related, and I’m a big nature lover, so I am really enjoying the study of nature during the process. I’m also preparing for a group showing of fabric work from the Surface Design Association to be presented at the Aurora Gallery in Vancouver, WA.

Interview published November 2018

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