Monday, October 3, 2011

Interview with "Fiber Focus 2011" artist Bette Levy

by Janna Añonuevo Langholz

Art Saint Louis Fall 2011 volunteer Janna Añonuevo Langholz has been interviewing some of the artists featured in our current “Fiber Focus 2011” exhibition.

Janna’s first interview is with Bette Levy, a fiber artist based in Louisville, Kentucky, who practices what she calls “fine art embroidery”. Bette earned a BA in Experimental Psychology and MA in Art Therapy, and later earned a second MA in Fiber Arts. Her vividly colored hand-stitching on black noil is recognized for its meticulous and intricate detail. Levy has taken part in many exhibitions throughout the country, including three prior “Fiber Focus” exhibitions at Art Saint Louis.


Janna: How did you transition from your background in experimental psychology to fiber art? 
Bette: It was a circuitous journey that included stints in market research at an advertising agency in New York, living in a commune in San Francisco in the 60's, working in fund raising and event production for non-profit organizations, and achieving two master's degrees (in art therapy and fiber arts). Nonetheless, I believe that all knowledge and experience is accumulative. Each piece of work I do today is informed by some experience in my past, and each piece is enhanced by the piece before it. I can only do what I can do today because of every step I took yesterday.

Janna: What was the first thing you ever embroidered? 
Bette: I've always done handwork (see below). I don't know that I can identify the first piece of embroidery I did, although I must have been very young at the time.

Janna: Why were you drawn to hand-embroidery as the medium for your work?  
Bette: Fine arts and needlecrafts have permeated the lives of women in my family for generations. At the turn of the century, my great-grandmother started a beaded handbag company in New York City,  and my grandmother, her daughter was the designer. I can remember as a child, sitting on the floor in a company workroom, playing with thousands of seed beads, strewn all over the floor.

My mother also was a creative woman, a clothing and interior designer, as well as an exhibiting painter and sculptor,  As a child, I learned about creative art and needlework from these women. They were always creating with their hands, and I grew up surrounded by exotic fabrics and clothing, as well as sparkly trims, beads and sequins - magical stimuli that delighted my senses and spurred my imagination.

Bette Levy. Dawson Hill: Three Aspects of Black Locust. 2009. Hand Embroidery. Triptych: 13”x11”; 17”x13”; 13”x11”.

Janna: Can you tell me more about the specific piece you have on display in the "Fiber Focus 2011" exhibition?
Bette: I am primarily a hand embroiderer, using vividly-colored silk thread on black grounds. This approach intensifies thread colors and sets up strongly contrasting figure-ground relationships. Over the years, I have developed a personal language of stitches that enables me to "paint" or "draw" with thread on fabric.

My subject matter is often based on my photographic studies that I abstract and manipulate to emphasize seemingly inconsequential structures. I am interested in textures and how to give form to structures through the layering of stitches and use of color. Additionally, I am intrigued by the micro/macro shift - the change in perception of scale that occurs when looking at a surface. This piece was inspired by a series of photographs I took of a black locust tree at a friend's home in Kentucky.

Janna: Many of the titles of your pieces reference a place. How does the concept of place factor into your work?
Bette: I'm not sure that it does actually other than to identify where I took a particular photograph. What I find intriguing is not so much that an image comes from a specific place but that the image, the texture, the shape, generalize - they could be anywhere, on any scale, and still be familiar.

Bette Levy. Abiquiu, NM A Portrait in Orange. Embroidery.

Janna: I read that you have done textile research throughout the world. How have your travels influenced your work?
Bette: My travels have exposed me to many other cultures and to other people who work with textiles. I don't know that I can identify how this has influenced my work other than to say that it's broadened me as an individual and as insofar as my work reflects who I am, my work must have been influenced by my travels. Perhaps more importantly, my travels have exposed me to many people who are engaged in the textile field which I find invigorating. Despite the differences in language, culture, and nationality, we all are engaged in the same field, part of the same community or tribe, and we communicate across our differences.

Janna: Who are some artists that have inspired you?
Bette: Obviously, the women In my family have inspired me. Certain textile artists like Dorothy Caldwell, Alice Kettle, Ilze Avics, and Karin Birch have been hugely inspirational. The early featherwork artists from Peru inspired me to use silk thread as a way to mirror the luminosity of feathers.  The Mexican muralists, Mark Rothko, Lionel Feininger, pen and ink artists like Ben Hirschfield, Ben Shahn, Turner, Georgia O'Keefe, on and on and on!

Janna: How do you feel about machine embroidery? 
Bette: I'm starting to do some machine embroidery work on discharged fabric. In the past, I've felt I didn't want anything to mediate between me and my work. I felt the intrusion of a "machine" was a confounding factor. I'm far too enraptured by the visceral feel of the fabric and threads. But, I'm giving it a try. As I've gotten older, I've found it harder to sit for the length of time it takes to create a piece of hand stitched work and have been looking for ways to speed my execution - machine work is a good alternative. However, I am finding it a definite challenge - I don't know the rules yet, and learning is far more difficult than knowing.

Janna: Do you listen to anything while you embroider? 
Bette: I work in silence. My work is meditational and I can only get lost in it with silence surrounding me. Sound of any sort tends to distract me and distance me form my work.

Janna: If you could give advice to an aspiring fibers artist in one sentence, what would it be?
Bette: Follow your instincts, ignore rules, keep your senses attuned to what's around you and keep your fingers moving.

"Fiber Focus 2011" remains on view at Art Saint Louis through October 13, 2011. Art Saint Louis is located at 555 Washington Avenue, #150, St. Louis, MO 63101 (downtown on Washington between 6th & Broadway). Gallery is free & open to the public Monday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Janna Añonuevo Langholz is a Fall 2011 volunteer at Art Saint Louis helping with the “Fiber Focus 2011” exhibition. A St. Louis native, she recently moved back to the city after graduating with a BFA in Fibers at Truman State University this year. After taking some time off to travel and work on her portfolio, Janna plans on attending graduate school and continue her studies in fibers and mixed media.

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