SoHo, New York
I am about to end my conversation with 81 year old Artsicle artist Marilyn Henrion when she decides to drop a bomb. “Something that people often don’t know about me is that I used to perform in Claes Oldenburg’s Happenings in the 50s.” Sitting in the living room of her apartment in SoHo amidst sweeping paintings by her husband and her own wonderfully tactile textile art, she smiles at me beatifically. Certain memories flicker past her eyes: Grandma had a bit of a wild past, it would seem.
I was at Marilyn’s apartment to talk about her work, and the invitation she has received to be part of the International Tapestry Triennial at the Central Textile Museum in Lodz, Poland. She told me that this particular invitation is more meaningful to her than any other professional accomplishment she has made as artists: more than getting her work into the Museum of Art and Design, more than the Smithsonian acquire her work and papers, more than having placed pieces in the hands of numerous collectors and corporations. The chance to attend the Triennial means more than any of these honors, though, because Poland is the land her grandfather left at age 12 by himself. He ran away from home and attached himself to a family travelling to America; to this day, she does not know if his last name was his own or the assumed name of the family.
She cannot, however, afford to travel to Poland on her own, and has turned to Kickstarter to help fund the trip. Below is my interview with here, and we would like you to consider helping send Grandma to Poland!
What led you to textile art?
I went to Cooper Union and started out as a painter. I got married almost immediately after graduation and had four children in very rapid succession. We were very poor, and I had to work full time. For many years, I didn’t have the time, energy, or space to do any work of my own. It wasn’t until about 25 years after my graduation from Cooper, in the 70s, that I started to have time to myself. Even though I was still working full time, the children had grown up, and we were lucky to have a second home where I could have a studio. Before our current apartment, we lived in a railroad flat, which was very small and cramped. My mother used to have to bring care packages to us.
When I started working again, fabric and textiles spoke to me in a way that painting never did. My grandfather was a tailor and he taught my mother to sew, and she taught me to sew. Quilting sort of came naturally to me, particularly the handwork of textile fabrics. For the first ten years or so I made traditional quilts. I didn’t have any professional aspirations for them but saw them as a legacy for the family. Being in a long line of anonymous quilt makers was a satisfying place for me to be at that time. Then I started realizing that I could make quilts as art and express what I was thinking and feeling in them – quilts weren’t just pretty designs but rather expressions. When I started exhibiting, I found that the quilts had meanings for a lot of people as well, and that I had a broader audience. My quilts became art instead of craft objects.
My mother grew up on the Lower East Side in a family of eight children. She had to leave school in 7th grade to go to work in a garment factory. She was paid per piece, so for her the value of sewing was in speed. When she taught me to sew, it was with a factory approach instead of the joy of stitching or the meditative qualities that I enjoy today. I hated to sew as a kid! I had to sew my graduation dress for elementary school and it was the most horrible experience!
What do you prefer about sewing?
It’s a longer, more labor intensive process than painting. The length of time and labor that sewing takes allows your mind to get into a very zen place. Painting is much more of an experience as opposed to an action. It did not satisfy me in the same way.
When you were deciding to go to Cooper Union, what drew you to painting initially?
No one even talked about textile art as an option. At that point, and maybe even still, it was not accepted by the mainstream fine art world. Traditionally, quilting has been looked upon as craft only, but I think more and more people have realized that it can be fine art as well.
I recognize that not all quilts are fine art, and I think that creates a problem because the public can get confused. How do you separate the fine art from the hobby work? I think people with a discerning eye, real connoisseurs, however, can see the fine art aspects of quilting. My work is now collected by collectors who have previously only collected paintings. I think fiber arts are where glass used to be in the scheme of things: fiber arts will eventually be completely accepted if it isn’t already, but it takes time for people to do so. It’s funny because in the distant past, tapestries were the most prized forms of art, and then somehow, over time, this hierarchy of painting and sculpture being the only acceptable forms of fine art happened.
When you were transitioning from making quilts for your family, what was the "aha" moment that made you realize you could make fine art?
I think it was probably related to the movement in art at that point – quilt makers started art, but it was at that point that it occurred to me that this was a vehicle for expressing what I wanted to express. Someone said I should exhibit my work so I entered two pieces in a show at the YMCA uptown, and I won first and second prize, which was very encouraging. I realized that my work had a value beyond my family and I should try to make more of this art.
Quilts at the time were thought of as an American tradition though largely as utilitarian objects. The first instance of the art world looking at quilts seriously was probably the exhibition in the 1970s of Amish quilts at the Whitney. Those quilts are the ultimate example of where fine arts and quilting intersect. Even though it wasn’t the intent of those Amish quilt makers to create fine art, they were doing so without any formal training. The quilts came out of a wonderful ability to express a universal beauty. A lot of people tell me, you’re doing such beautiful things because you’ve trained as an artist, but I can point to the Amish works and say that’s not necessary.
What was your next step after you entered that YMCA contest?
I continued to create things but my work really took hold when I retired from my day job in 1989. I had been an associate professor at FIT as a career counselor. The job became a creative outlet in the sense that I was creating my own curriculum, but what I created but it wasn’t visual art. At the time I was ready to retire in ‘89, I wanted to devote myself completely to making my art.
As became a successful textile artist, word got around and I got asked to teach and lecture. I started doing that, even though when I retired I hadn’t anticipated another career. I stopped doing all of that when I joined a NoHo gallery in 1999 and had to focus full time on my work in the studio. Every two years, I would have a solo exhibition and I needed to have a new body of work to show. Since 2000 when I had my first solo show, I’ve been working on this full time.
What was a breakthrough in your work?
One of my breakthroughs happened when I abandoned the grid. Quilting has traditionally been based on a grid form, and so in the beginning I used a grid even though I was creating my own designs. In the early 90s, though, I decided to abandon it. This paid off: the Museum of Art and Design bought two pieces that didn’t use a grid from my first solo show in 2000. That was a big encouragement.
When you were constructing those pieces, what was different?
I didn’t have the safety of the grid. I used different shapes and curves, and went outside the rectangle of the work which was a challenge. When I make a quilt, I have to make a template for each piece. I create a master drawing, which is a full size cartoon. From that cartoon I create a template for each piece, iron that template on to a piece of fabric, audition that on the wall along with whatever else is up at that time, change things I want, iron it on to a different piece of fabric if I don’t like that . . . it goes on. The process is very labor intensive start to finish. For each template I draw along the seam lines, the go through the process of both hand stitching and hand quilting. The stitching of the segments together and then the quilting is done once a segment is pieced together. Then the backing, the top (which is the design), and the interior stuffing are put together. The quilting is usually either a counterpoint to the design of the image or the quilting echoes and informs the image. So the quilting can serve as its own design. The back of each quilt is always beautiful – people have said I should hang them so the backs are visible as well.
Do you think of quilting as engineering?
Yes, the whole process is engineering. The quilting is subtle on the front but you would never know from the top. From the back, you get the whole picture. You would never know.
It’s a double sided piece of art, very geometric
Yes. My whole mission is to explore all of the traditional textile arts and needlework techniques. I love them all! I’ve done, for example, hooked work in which strips of fabric are hooked on to a mesh canvas, with intensive handwork. I’ve done needle punch, a traditional Russian technique in which the thread is individually punched into the fabric. I’ve done knitted work.
I primarily use silk, as I love its saturated colors, and cotton. I sometimes get the colors on my quilts by using modern technologies combined w needlework techniques. I took digital photographs in the Soft City series, which is all in this neighborhood of near and dear SoHo. I then manipulated the photographs on the computer and printed them on fabric and then hand quilted them. So I’m using a combination of new technology – digital manipulation and inkjet printing – with the ancient needlework techniques.
Did you learn these techniques as you progressed?
Yes, I’m completely self-taught.
What does the term fiber arts mean and how do your quilts fit in?
I don’t really call my work quilts anymore because they’ve grown from that, and the term fiber arts encompasses a lot of things, from work like mine to work made with wires and string; anything that has the ability to not be woven but manipulated in such a way that textiles are. It’s hard to define because it’s such a broad category now. Some people use machines, some people don’t even sew. A very fine artist in New York named Nancy Koenigsberg only manipulates wire. The category is very broad now.
Where do you get inspiration?
My inspiration comes from literature a lot. A lot of my works are related to poetry, and I specify what the poetry is. Science is another source of inspiration – new things in cosmology, scientific theories, new discoveries. New visual stimulation from travel always brings on new works for me, which is another reason the trip to Poland would be so valuable. I’m so excited about the possibility to go to Poland. I think people don’t realize they can contribute as little as a dollar – so please, just a dollar!
Why is the Tapestry Triennial so meaningful to you?
It’s meaningful because my grandfather was from that part of the world and I never knew anything about his history there so it’s kind of a mystery to me. That particular city and area the triennial is in is the center of textile work and needle work, so it has a long tradition way beyond my or his generation.
I didn’t enter my work into the Triennial, but was rather selected by an organization called Friends of Fiber Arts International, which is run by Camille Cook in Chicago. The organization is devoted to developing collectorship of fiber arts. She’s a collector herself, with very good taste.
Why does the Triennial take place in Lodz?
Because there were a lot of textile factories there at one time. I don’t think that’s still the case because the museum is in fact a repurposed factory, so the history of the place is very important. I’ve never been to Poland and I love where past and present intersect, and that’s certainly an opportunity for that to happen.
Your grandfather came over when he was twelve?
Yes, back in the late 1800s. His father was a rabbi, and that’s all I know. He was a rebel from the beginning: he ran away from home and got himself on a ship and attached himself to some family on the ship because I don’t think they would have let him into Ellis Island on his own. I don’t even know if his name was his real name or if he assumed the name of this family. It’s a history I’ll never find out probably, because when we’re young we never think to interview our grandparents, which is a shame. There are so many questions I have, even for my parents. My mother died at 100, not that long ago in 2001.
Did she get to see your solo show then?
She got to see one or two. She had her own life: she was a professional ballroom dancer so she was not into other people’s accomplishments so much. I don’t think she understood what I was doing.
Do you see any of her influence in the sewing aspect?
Nope, it was negative influence in the beginning – it was about speed, not a happy way of looking at stitching. Machine sewing meant nothing to me. The presence of human hand in quilting, and in art in a broader sense, is very important to me – it’s what I love, it’s my legacy. My presence is in each stitch. I think every artist is reaching towards immortality, and this is just my little way of trying to achieve the impossible.