SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Beautifully woven garments, delicately detailed accessories, and experimentations with fiber adorn the walls of Hera Gallery, each item a work of art in its own right and collectively forming a regal showcase.
The urge to assemble various pieces into an ensemble is strong, perhaps combining a beautiful “green pattern dress” by Caroline Rose Kaufman and made from hand woven wool, cotton and athletic mesh (the sort of material that you ordinarily see in the form of gym shorts, transformed here into an evening number), paired with a statement necklace featuring a large insect designed by Seanna Poirier.
Or one could choose a leather jacket with painting detail and the words “Be Your Own God” by Molly Clare Coyle, worn with earrings made from Chinese paper money sewn together and threaded with beads by Tzu-Ju Chen.
Or perhaps an ochre colored jacket hand knit with wool by Kaufman and paired with a sleek hair pin or rings designed by Erin Myles, with the option of adding a hand woven scarf dyed and designed by Sarah Swift.
The power behind these items radiates around the room, each an example of how an ancient craft form can be elevated to a fine art, and how everyday accessories can become sculptural adornments and artisanal armour.
Collected together under the title “Material Roots,” which opened July 27, the show exhibits the work of eight women, including the curator, Sarah Swift, whose backgrounds range from jewelry and fashion design, to work with textiles and interior design. The idea is for the exhibit to explore “wearable and experiential art and design that interacts with the body or that can be utilized in functional ways,” according to a description for the show, which adds that throughout history these items have had various roles of importance and prestige, allowing for different forms of expression and identity to emerge through their use and application.
“There are so many women artisans in Rhode Island that are doing such unique work that it barely falls under ‘artisan craft’ and is really fine art,” Swift said on a recent Saturday afternoon at Hera. “This is the chance to combine all of these really awesome woman doing radically different stuff,” she said.
She began organizing the show last summer, when she was the gallery director at Hera; Swift left that role in December to focus on commissioned artwork, and has remained a gallery member. She studied painting and printmaking at Pratt Institute in New York City, where she graduated in 2015, and returned home to Rhode Island the following year and has since been focusing on fiber art and weaving.
Now, she lives in Providence and shares studio space in Rumford with two of the women featured in the show, Maggie Semrau and Erin Myles, who in their own ways inspired the exhibition. The former hadn’t been in a gallery show in 10 years, and the latter had never shown her work in a gallery, and Swift felt strongly about showcasing their designs along with those by other women working with natural materials, specifically “emerging artists that were established but young [and] exploring their fields.”
Three of the artists, Kaufman, Coyle and AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston, are people Swift knows through Pratt; Seanna Poirier she met while attending Exeter-West Greenwich High School; and Tzu-Ju Chen is the current gallery director at Hera.
On this particular Saturday, Swift led a demonstration on her natural dyeing and weaving practice as part of the gallery’s “Food For Thought” series. About eight people gathered in the gallery for the event, which included talk of different dyeing processes and the various plants Swift derives pigments from.
“Know what material it is your dyeing — make sure it’s natural,” Swift advised. “Synthetic fibers won’t take dye the way natural fibers will.”
Rayon is one of her favorite materials to dye, and wool takes natural dye “the absolute best,” she told those gathered. Onions, she noted, are one of her favorite elements to create pigment from, and she also procures color from cabbage, hibiscus, eucalyptus, avocado pits and tumeric.
One of the most essential fibers she dyes is yarn, which she weaves into her artworks, either on a loom, or through her own style of freestanding woven work that she likens to painting.
“I taught myself this on the internet — it’s so accessible,” Swift said of her knowledge on natural dyeing processes. “I go to Savers all the time, and they often have big bags of yarn … you find the craziest stuff [there],” she said.
“So much of my studio practice is experimentation and play,” she said, adding that one of her favorite parts of the process is color mixing, “The amount of possibility is just endless.”
Much of her knowledge of loom work was acquired from Jan Doyle at The Octagon House in Charlestown, where Swift began studying as a college student, approaching the medium from her background as a painter and printmaker, which has led her woven work to be a bit less traditional and perceived as more radical.
“My big thing is that I want people to consider the materials around them,” Swift said. “There are so many rules and ‘should-bes’, especially in art and creative expression ... [we need to] get rid of all the ‘should-bes.”
An artist talk is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m., and will feature a handful of the exhibiting artists; the show is on display through Aug. 31 at the gallery, 10 High Street, Wakefield. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Friday from 1-5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. For more information about Hera, visit heragallery.org.