Sheila Hicks is a curious combination of artist and anthropologist. She doggedly records her impressions of the places and people she sees and meets, doing so using an unconventional medium: textiles. The 82-year-old, Paris-based American carries a notepad wherever she goes but prefers to capture her observations using a small, makeshift loom. “It’s a rack with nails on it,” she explains. “I don’t need luggage when I travel. I can get away with my wristwatch, a carry-on of clothes, a pencil, and my little loom.”
Hicks’s woven sketches, which she calls minimes (French for minimal, not a contraction of Mini Me), are currently on display as part of Material Voices, a retrospective of her work at Toronto’s Textile Museum – her first ever show in Canada. Each small tapestry tells a story. Hastings Grand features dried corn husks caught in an earth-toned weave of wool, silk linen and cotton. It’s a send-up to Hastings, Neb., where she was born, that captures the beauty of the quiet, easy-to-overlook place.
From Hangzhou to Shanghai intersperses white, punched paper (torn out from a sketchbook) with white linen. “I went to China for an international textile symposium,” she explains. “Between [Hangzhou] and the airport, I passed a new, modern city that was not yet inhabited. A phantom city being built.” The grid of the empty windows reminded her of the rhythmic hole punches of bound paper, which she wove into her piece. “The empty spaces are like pigeon houses” – repetitive, functional – “waiting for the pigeons,” she says.
She admits to being a scavenger who likes being open to using unconventional materials (bits of magazines, outdoor upholstery threads from Sunbrella). “I don’t like being prejudiced,” she says, preferring to play with new fibres to unlock whatever potential they have. But she also says she has a “severe and selective eye,” and spends a lot of time sorting through what she collects to focus on the most aesthetically interesting items. “I throw away a lot of things,” she says. “I spend about 30 percent of my time eliminating the irrelevant.”