Philadelphia fiber arts festival covers needlepoint to hammocks

    A festival of fiber arts officially launches Friday. The city-wide showcase of rope sculpture, woven art, and textile objects has a new non-profit status and has stepped up its level of organization.

    Fiber art is getting serious.

    Many people buy needlepoint kits to stitch a image out of colored yarn, and sometimes never finish it. Strange as it may sound, many of those unfinished stitching projects are for sale.

    Mary Smull buys them.

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    In her home studio in Fishtown, Smull has a half-finished portrait of a poodle she bought from a woman on eBay.

    “Her father had began this needlepoint, and carefully matched the colors of the yarn to make this poodle portrait to their beloved pet poodle’s fur,” said Smull. “But he died before he could finish it.”

    Smull is the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Unfinished Needlepoint (SPUN). It’s kind of a joke. But kind of not.  She fills in the unfished part with white yarn, so the original stitches made by the previous owner are presented on a pristine, blank field, similar to the way paintings are hung on the gallery walls.

    Her pieces, now on view at Philadelphia International Airport, evoke domesticity, craft, handwork — and the divide between those ideas and the world of fine art.

    “Painting is a professional pursuit in the public eye, whereas an embroiderer doing this in the domestic sphere — they’re perceived completely differently,” said Smull, an instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. “One has a lot of respect and regard, the other is really just seen as a hobby.”

    Those issues are front and central at this year’s Fiber Philadelphia Biennial. In the city-wide celebration, the word “fiber” is used quite liberally: there is patchwork leather made from fruit rinds, quilts fashioned from human hair, and a full-sized bodysuit in the style of a sockmonkey. A hammock made from old Vietnam War nurse’s uniforms. A series of bone x-rays stitched into a human silhouette.

    “When you look at a work put together with X-rays, and you see that it’s a buttonhole stitch holding it together, that makes reference to quilts that grandmothers used to make,” said festival director Amy Orr.

    Starting small in 1998 at the Snyderman-Works gallery, Fiber Philadelphia is now under the non-profit umbrella of InLiquid Art and Design, and for the first time is hosting a competitive show attracting hundreds of objects from around the world.

    “There is a lot of hand and stitch work. A few years ago, artists were all doing conceptual work,” said curator Bruce Hooffman, the co-artistic director. “They were not bothering with process — it’s a negative word. Once critics start saying something negative about it, then artists say, no, maybe it’s not a negative thing and maybe I want to explore that.”

    There is evidence of plenty of exploration: more than 40 venues around Philadelphia – including the hallowed halls of the Art Museum – are exhibiting hundreds of artists.

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