EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the next installment in a series of articles highlighting local artists who create wearable art. These Fashion Friday features will be published each month on First Friday.)
Jackie Thomas, 67, of Williamsport has been a fiber artist for more than 50 years.
She has a master's degree in double weave from Kutztown University. In 2008, as part of the Governor's Art Awards Celebration, she began a series of "Friendship Weavings," inviting children and adults to join her in weaving strands into a piece to represent a sense of community and friendship. That particular weaving hangs in the new tower of Williamsport Regional Medical Center.
Since then, similar weavings have been completed in various schools and community settings.
Thomas has served for 35 years as a member of the PA Art Education Association Board. She is a charter member of the Kennedy Center Partnership Program and has been honored by the Getter Center for Education in the Arts in Los Angeles, the National Art Education Association, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the PA Council on the Arts.
Thomas can be contacted regarding her work by email at jthomas760 @aol.com.
Tara D. McKinney: Jackie, how did you acquire some of the skills and know-how, required for creating fiber art?
Jackie Thomas: When I was 9 years old, I bought tubular knit at 10 cents a yard and began designing and sewing my own clothes beginning with harem pants, which my mother allowed me to wear to school.
I began weaving when I was 21 years old by hanging a dowel draped with string from a picture hook on a wall and manipulating the string. It was an instinctual beginning to weaving.
Later when I had the opportunity for instruction from other weavers, I discovered that I had done it right from the very beginning. My weaving is done on various looms and structures. Most of my weavings are wall hangings and sculptures.
Basket making is a natural companion to weaving. Making baskets opened up alternative techniques for creating my sculptural forms. I use materials for these constructions similar to those used in my weaving. Coiling and twining is my preferred technique. Armatures that help to hold the shape of my basket vessels have included nature objects like tree branches and waxed fibers.
I was introduced to felt making in a workshop sponsored by the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers. The strongest felt is made of long wool fibers or long fibers from other fleece animals like alpaca and angora. The process involves the layering of the wool, securing it to hold its shape or form, adding water and alkaline soap and then friction.
Depending on the shape and size of my pieces, my work areas include shallow baking pans, bathtubs and showers, baby pools and the family washing machine. Felted artifacts I have created include baskets, geodes, masks and hangings. My work generally is more sculptural than flat. Commissions constitute much of the impetus for my work.
TDM: Was anyone in your family involved in textiles or fiber arts?
JT: My mother was a couturier. Working with fabric was a magical entry into a world of fibers and fabrics with wonderful colors and textures. Interestingly, my maternal grandfather worked for the silk mills in Pennsylvania, traveling around the state fixing looms at each site before moving onto the next factory.
TDM: What inspires you most about working and living in the Susquehanna Valley?
JT: Often the subject matter of my pieces reflects the lush countryside. But most of all, I have enjoyed taking advantage of the availability of harvestable materials for my work, like willow and grapevines to build basket-structures, walnuts and plants for natural dying, as well as bark and wood to embellish my weavings.
TDM: Can you describe a piece you have for sale, the amount of time involved to create it and how much it would cost someone to buy?
JT: The past seven months I have focused on my Georgia O'Keeffe series, making coiling and twining basket-sculptures that represent flowers. The first piece took me four and a half months, working three to seven hours a day, for seven days a week. It took extra time to invent and engineer the structure, and it is larger than my usual work in waxed linen. The name of the flower is "Mammillaria Theresae with Radial Spines." This piece was created to be shown in exhibits. The smaller pieces I have created since then take me an average of two weeks to complete and are priced around $100.
Pricing of pieces varies according to the complexity of the structure and the kinds of patterns incorporated into the work.
TDM: Where can people buy your work?
JT: I am a partner in the Eagles Mere Art Gallery where I have a range of works in fibers, including baskets, weavings, dolls, scarves, huipils (traditional garments worn by indigenous women in Mexico and Central America), wall hangings and sculptures. Patinaz Gallery in Williamsport currently has a selection of painted silk scarves. I also work directly with people interested in commissioning a specific work.
TDM: How do you feel about Williamsport as a home to artists?
JT: I moved to Williamsport to work as a supervisor of art for the school district. I made a commitment to stay five years and have been here more than 25 years.
I stayed because the community is so positively supportive of the arts.
TDM: Which artists, local or not, do you admire?
JT: That would be a very long list of local artists. I am blessed to meet and work with many local artists, and there is not one whom I do not admire.
As a teacher, I found the historical records and the images of Leonardo DaVinci and Georgia O'Keeffe stimulating, and I have created series of works inspired by each of these artists.
TDM: What is your advice to fledgling artists trying to break into the market?
JT: Artists work for various purposes. I have wrestled with the issues of "shall I only make things for my personal satisfaction, or shall I make things that I know will sell?"
If the artist is lucky, those two issues will blend. My advice is to seek your comfort zone. Don't make yourself miserable making things you don't like. I believe that if you love what you make and do, then others will love it too.
TDM: I read that you incorporate found objects into your work. How do you decide what to include and what should be thrown in the recycling bin?
JT: My husband claims I don't throw much away, which probably is true. Most of what I see and collect, I can "see" incorporated into a sculpture, either as a structural element or as an embellishment.
I enjoy tying together odd collections into "pulls" (long strands that are tied to a display pole). I have used such things as CDs that come in the mail as advertisements, the tiny plastic eyedroppers from my eyewash, cardboard tubes and spools.
My attic has bags and boxes of various collections that are either too incomplete to use or so many I can't use all of the pieces. I guess it's like house cleaning; every once in a while I toss things that have been sitting too many years just collecting dust - then I often regret discarding them when I am finally inspired to use them.
TDM: Can you describe some of your fetishes and dolls? Who typically purchases those items?
JT: Men tend to reach for my waxed linen baskets - I think because their complex engineering, patterns and craftsmanship can be meticulously analyzed. I think my dolls spark more emotional responses and are generally more relative to women's interests.
I bought my first four fetishes from an African artist at the American Craft Council Baltimore Winter Market more than 40 years ago.
I bought a fetish from her each year until she went back to Africa. Those purchases marked my start to wearing a fetish each day.
I mourned the opportunity to expand my collection, and fashioned a "gingerbread boy-girl" pattern to begin making my own fetishes.
All of my dolls and fetishes are stitched by hand. My fetishes have evolved from primitive faces to more realistic drawing or stitching. I have used polymer clay heads and masks instead of sewn features. I sometimes bead my fetishes or sew clothing for them. They are whimsical and magical. They make me smile.
My fetishes protect me; they don't do anything to anyone else. Each morning as I pin a fetish from my extensive collection onto my shirt, I reflect on the kind of day I would like to have and the good things I want to feel and to accomplish. Although I began making fetishes for myself, I also make fetishes for other people to display and-or wear.
Often I am asked to make a bride fetish as an engagement or wedding gift. My fetishes are stored in wire racks on my dressing room wall. Each has a few dry beans or a few grains of dry rice "to eat" during the year.
Around the first of each year, I discard the old food and give each fetish new rice or beans that will remain with that fetish over the upcoming year.
"A fetish is an object of magical powers. It is a guardian chosen by you. Once you have chosen your fetish you must promise to faithfully care for it. You must keep it in a warm, dry place and feed it one grain of corn or rice or bean each year. In return, it [the fetish] will insure you good health, clear sight, protection against injury, success in hunting and trading and abundant love," as described by my African friend or sister, another fetish maker.
"Feed My Sister's Fetish" is a sculptural tableau about the yearly ceremony of feeding my fetishes - those that still belong to me and those that reside with my sisters and other fetish enthusiasts.
McKinney may be reached at life@sun gazette.com.
To submit an artist for consideration, email email@example.com or call 326-1551, ext. 3108.