Art with a (re)purpose
Phyllis Cullen represents Chico in new Avenue 9 installation that makes use of recycled materials and found objects
“They often beg to be touched, but please don’t,” said semi-retired Chico anesthesiologist Phyllis Cullen. Cullen—also a fiber artist who has taught her craft in countries such as Chile, Israel, Nicaragua and Canada—was referring to the intriguing, colorful, three-dimensional fiber-art pieces and wall hangings currently on display at Avenue 9 Gallery. The exhibit, titled A Sense of Place: Phyllis Cullen and the California Fiber Artists, features fiber-art works by Cullen and other members of the California Fiber Artists collective who incorporate a variety of recycled materials, from scraps of fabric to buttons and mismatched earrings.
Sherry Kleinman’s wall hanging “Welcome to the Human Race—Celebrating Diversity,” which greets you upon entering the gallery, is one of the pieces Cullen is referring to; the machine-appliquéd pieces of multi-colored material cut out to resemble running people “pop” from the background, making one want to reach out and touch them.
Cullen, during a recent interview at Avenue 9 Gallery, extolled the virtues of creating art with what would otherwise be considered leftover materials.
“Fiber artists are much more conscious of their environment and using materials that don’t pollute,” Cullen said. “If I break an earring I don’t throw it away, I sew it into a piece of art.”
Avenue 9 Art Guild member Dolores Mitchell heartily agreed with Cullen.
“Artwork made of stuff we would normally consider garbage brings awareness to its value,” she said.
Fiber art is an art form that traditionally incorporates bits and scraps of various materials discarded by others, sewn together or otherwise attached to make elaborate, artistic, three-dimensional finished products. The often quilt-like pieces typically depict scenes of animals, people and nature that evoke an appreciation of the Earth and its inhabitants. Some consider the finished products more interesting than two-dimensional paintings since they come alive with a variety of colors, surfaces and textures that jump off the surface—like Kleinman’s piece—and stir the senses. Fiber art often incorporates both painting and the traditional crafts of stitching and quilting.
Some of the works featured in the show are Nicki Bair’s gorgeous, shimmering, framed weavings of beetles, made with rayon and metallic sewing thread; Marjan Kluepfel’s “Koi,” a quilted and embroidered wall-hanging fashioned from hand-dyed and commercial cotton, and tulle; and Bernita Dodge’s beautiful “Verdant Vista,” a yellow-and-green-toned silk landscape painting that employs fiber-reactive dyes on China silk. Other captivating works include several woven basket-like pieces, and ones containing delightful oddities such as fluorescent-green zip-ties and see-through lavender CD covers.
Materials used in fiber art range from discarded cotton, silk, buttons and beads, to Mylar, netting and every imaginable type of thread (with the addition of unusual items such as zip-ties and CD covers).
“Fiber art gives us a ‘common thread’ between the artists and the people who view them,” Cullen quipped. Many of the materials are collected by the artists from their daily travels or from sources such as thrift stores and sewing shops, though some are bought new from art-supply stores.
“The bottom line is that art doesn’t need to be made of expensive or space-age materials,” Cullen said. “It’s good enough [for a fiber artist] to just produce pleasing objects.”
Fiber art can be a major inspiration to helping our planet, said Cullen, because it teaches the importance of appreciating and recycling everyday materials to create beautiful new pieces.
“We like the tactile nature of the comforting materials and want to create awareness of the environment and the world,” she said.
Cullen, an avid embroiderer as a teenager, was forced to set aside her passion for embroidery due to the demands of going to medical school. As a physician, Cullen “cares for fragile patients in chronic pain, including those in Third World countries who lack modern medical resources,” offered Mitchell. “In the late 1980s, Cullen’s need for creative expression led her to take a quilt-making class. The medium appealed because of its associations with comforting people.” After attending classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Chico Art Center and the School of Light & Color in Fair Oaks, Cullen “began to incorporate paint, photography, thread painting and beading into her quilts,” Mitchell said.
Cullen has created dozens of elaborate pieces, which she happily showed this reporter on her Apple iPad. While showing them, she told an old joke about quilters using every scrap of material they can find. “Don’t fall asleep around a quilter or you might wake up to find pieces of your shirt missing,” she said, smiling.
One of the more touching pieces in the show is Cullen’s haunting ode to her mother, titled, “My Mother Used to Paint Pretty Flowers.” Made with paint, ink and fabric collage, it depicts bright, colorful flowers partially obscured by dark, thick shapes in the foreground.
“It symbolizes how my mom used to enjoy painting flowers and nature very clearly, but in recent years has fallen into cognitive decline,” Cullen lamented. The accompanying card reads: “Then the neuronal connections in her brain began to slip, and her paintings are now inchoate and dark.”
Though her piece can be considered melancholy, Cullen emphasizes that the vast majority of fiber art is meant to inspire feelings of joy.
“Fiber artists like creating anything that evokes affectionate feelings and decreases aggression,” Cullen said. “It’s a harsh world, and we want to make it softer and warmer.”