UI students form fiber arts exhibition

Though the University of Iowa has no formal fiber art program, graduate students helped form an exhibition called ‘We Need Fibers,’ introducing the practice and its importance to the school.


Gabby Drees

Lilah Ward Shepherd’s work is seen in the Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa on Monday, April 18, 2022. The exhibit is open April 18-22.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Sun rays beamed through the Drewelowe Gallery’s front window, shining on the colorful work of fiber media artists in the We Need Fibers exhibition. The room flooded with yarn and thread hanging from the walls and dripping onto the floor.

We Need Fibers went on display in Art Building West on April 17 and will remain open until April 22. There will be a closing reception for the exhibition on April 22.

The University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History is a top 10 public art school in the U.S., though it doesn’t have a formal fiber arts program.

Second-year graduate student Lilah Ward Shepherd said she felt that she and other artists in the school are being kept in a box. After being accepted to the UI in early 2020, Shepherd had to choose a specific medium to focus her studies on as required by the university.

“I think it’s a leftover thing,” Shepherd said. “A bit outdated if you talk to a lot of the students in art right now. We have lots of interests.”

Shepherd currently specializes in ceramics but plans to transfer to printmaking in the fall. She said the stress of the pandemic affected her, and she wanted to shift into something that dealt more with soft, malleable, and tactile aspects. She fell into textile art and learned to quilt during 2020’s quarantine.

The We Need Fibers exhibition was Shepherd’s idea, and initially created to pose the question, “Why doesn’t the UI have a fibers department?”

With the help of fellow graduate student Sean Tyler, Shepherd began an open call to other MFA students, talked to their friends who worked with fibers, and created and hung posters to advertise the show.

The complete exhibit houses art from a group of 20 diverse artists, who each have their own background in other artistic practices like painting, printmaking, bookmaking, and sculpting. The artists have gathered to highlight fiber arts like weaving and sewing to ultimately demonstrate why they believe the UI needs fiber arts.

Shepherd has two miniature quilts on view in the exhibition, titled Pivot Repeat and Double Grid — both of which have to do with the perception of color, and color placement in shapes, that create a pattern.

“I wanted to incorporate negative space into my idea of a quilt which removes the quilt from the purpose of the quilts,” Shepherd said. “If you create a negative space within the quilt, is it still a quilt?”

The quilts are patterned with vibrant shades of orange, pink, blues, and green. Exhibit attendees can find hidden shapes within other shapes, playing at her idea of geometric forms and repetition.

Na’ah Gordon, a first-year graduate student in the painting and drawing program, also works with textiles, and centers her work around her sexuality and religion.

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She had the same idea as Shepherd and thought there needed to be more fiber work at the UI, so she joined the show.

Gordon’s portion of the exhibition began with a painting of an intimate scene of her in her childhood bedroom. From there, she used a sewing machine to attach a thread that dangles across the entire untitled piece.

“The piece is supposed to be centered around intimacy — intimacy with yourself and just being more comfortable with that because that’s one of the things that was a struggle for me,” Gordon said. “Showcasing self-love, in a way.”

Across the room on the floor is a white, pulsing, felted wool and silk cocoon, titled Pupa, created by third-year MFA student in sculpture and intermedia Jules Bunch.

Bunch began making cocoons as a representation of something they could hide in — from there, they made smaller ones that could hold emotions of grief or trauma, and other things they wanted to compartmentalize in a safe way.

“I realized I was dedicating a lot of time to trauma, and why not dedicate some time and care and attention to things that I really appreciate about myself?” Bunch said.

Their work with electronic programming to control mechanical components helped create a small robot, or what they call the “pupa,” to live inside the cocoon. The robot mechanically breathes in a calm, relaxed manner to pull together new aspects of self-care.

Bunch, along with Gordon and Shepherd, all look forward to seeing their peers’ fiber work showing off the importance of the practice.

Working with fibers is a growing theme in UI’s School of Art and Art History, and to We Need Fibers creator Shephard not having a fibers program, feels a little political.

“I think it’s always been this way but maybe the pandemic has propelled a greater desire, out of isolation, to be more interdisciplinary,” Shepherd said.