The many tugs of fabric
Karen French has had her eye on the work of painter Sedrick Huckaby since he was a 19-year-old art student at Boston University.
"He is still a very young artist - he's 33 years old," said French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham. "But he's just had this meteoric rise. He's had a couple of museum shows. He really is and will be a very important painter."
Every inch of Huckaby's mammoth impasto oil-painting installation, "A Love Supreme," on display at the Danforth through March 1, seems to confirm French's words. On four canvases, each approaching the size of a tractor-trailer, Huckaby depicts walls of loosely draped quilts so realistically that a viewer might be tempted to reach out and tug on a loose thread.
Each painting expresses the mood of one season: A riot of richly hued quilts exudes the warmth of summer, while the underside of quilts in cool blues and whites conjures winter.
And like the work's namesake, John Coltrane's tune "A Love Supreme," each element pulses with jazz-like improvisational energy. Thumbs of paint seem to dance on the canvas. Unexpected designs erupt in the quilts. It is Huckaby's tribute to the organic artistry of his grandmothers' - and all African-American - quilt-making.
"In European tradition, quilt-making is more piecework and there are patterns and a lot of repetition," said French. "In African-American quilt-making, and a lot of Early American quilt-making, there's a sense of appliqué or patching. It's very improvisational in the same way music is."
Huckaby's works, and his artist talk at 3 p.m. Feb. 15, are reasons enough to visit the Danforth. But his is just one of a tapestry of related exhibitions, all but one running through this month, at the increasingly notable downtown museum.
"The fact that all of these shows feed off each other and that their ideas are bouncing off of each other is really exciting," said French.
The group of shows starts with the romantic bronze sculptures of maverick sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller. A student of Rodin in 1899, Fuller became one of the first women in the United States to make a living as an artist. She was also the first African-American artist to realistically portray African-American subjects.
"She was a good friend of W.E.B. Du Bois, a member of the Harlem Renaissance, and she had a very strong sense of being African-American," said French. "She knew who she was, and that became part of her work."
Fuller, who moved to Framingham in 1910, built herself a replica of Rodin's Paris studio as her workplace, and in 2005 her heirs gave its entire contents to the Danforth.
Select pieces from the trove of sculptures, maquettes, tools, and ephemera are on exhibit in "Sculptures from the Studio," running through May 17 at the Danforth. Fuller's swirling surfaces reflect Rodin's influence, but the somber solidity in the forms of the men and women she so boldly captured is an expression all her own.
"I Googled Fuller and up popped Faith Ringgold's incredible work 'Le Café des Artistes' because Fuller is one of the artists depicted in it," said French. "Ringgold saw Fuller as a mentor."
French spent two years trying to convince the story quilt's owner to lend it to the Danforth; the 6.5-by-7-foot painted work depicts Ringgold surrounded by artists and writers she admires, and until its display at the Danforth had not been seen in public for 10 years. Flanking it are more of the story quilts that catapulted Ringgold to fame in the 1970s.
"She has a long personal connection to quilting," said French. "One of her ancestors was a slave who made quilts. Her mother was a fashion and textile designer who taught her about quilts. She herself could have painted on canvas. But it was very important for her to create that connection to the tradition of African-American quilt-making and the tradition of women working with needlework and fiber craft. She really wanted to make the statement that this is art, this is not simply craft or something you do. This is a long, long tradition, in many different ways, of being creative."
Ringgold will be at the Danforth on Feb. 17 for a 3 p.m. book-signing in conjunction with her concurrent show, "Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky," in the museum's Children's Gallery, and is to deliver a talk that evening at 7 in the Dwight Performing Arts Center at Framingham State College.
The next patch in this quilt of exhibitions was guest-curated by one of fiber art's important current innovators. "Jeanne Williamson may live in Natick, just a few miles from the museum, but we would have sought her out even if she were in California," said French. "She's someone who is really important, and she really knows what's happening in this medium today."
The 13-artist "Mixed Media Fiber Arts" show offers a quick immersion in the possibilities of a medium that has broken out of its traditional bounds.
"There's a whole art-quilt movement and it's very wide, but I wanted to focus on the cutting edge," said Williamson, who will be on hand Saturday at 4 p.m. for a gallery talk and artist reception.
The artists featured are mainly national figures, and while they make full use of the sculpting, textures, and contrasts that can be created with fabric and thread, they also incorporate printing, painting, and found objects in their work.
"That's why I didn't call this a quilt show. I prefer mixed-media fiber art," said Williamson. "I just feel like the lines are blurring in all media and not just fiber, and it's really exciting."
As those lines stretch and fade, doors are opening. "Even five or 10 years ago, it just wasn't acceptable for a fiber artist to be in a museum or gallery unless it was a fiber museum or gallery," said Williamson. "But it's grown a lot quite recently. Things are really opening up. The art world is loosening up."
The Danforth is at the vanguard of that wave.
"Someone commented to me that it was a surprise that I would host fiber shows because my interest is painting," said French. "Well, I'm not just interested in painting, I'm interested in art as an expressive medium, and what the fiber art show does is really give that medium a voice. Historically, there's no difference between fine art and fine craft. People that have something to communicate visually communicate it."
The Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Ave., Framingham, is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults $10; students, seniors $8. 508-620-0050, www.danforthmuseum.org.
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