Reflections on Artwear: Melissa Leventon and Jean Cacicedo in Conversation

Group 9, ca. 1991. Left to right, back: Jean Cacicedo, Janet Lipkin, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Gaza Bowen. Front: K. Lee Manuel, Candace Kling, Marian Clayden. Not pictured: Ina Kozel, Marika Contompasis.

Group 9, ca. 1991. Left to right, back: Jean Cacicedo, Janet Lipkin, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Gaza Bowen. Front: K. Lee Manuel, Candace Kling, Marian Clayden. Not pictured: Ina Kozel, Marika Contompasis.

I have known Jean Williams Cacicedo for decades — I don’t really remember how many. When I was Curator of Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s, I started to become acquainted with local artists who were making amazing clothing, often from their own handmade textiles.  Among the rewards of my exploration were wonderful friendships with Jean and her cohort in the East Bay and South Bay, the opportunity to make  some significant additions to the Fine Arts Museums collection, and an exhibition, Artwear: Fashion and Anti-Fashion, which ran at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 2005.

Jean is one of the pioneers of what has come to be called “artwear,” or “wearable art.” She learned to crochet in the late 1960s while studying painting at Pratt Institute in New York and subsequently taught her roommates, Janet Lipkin and Marika Contompasis. They were entranced by the technique’s sculptural possibilities and were encouraged by their professors to use it for their artwork, at least some of which turned into garments. Meanwhile, a parallel movement was emerging in the Bay Area, much of which grew out of the hippie era.  When Marika, Janet, and eventually Jean moved to the Bay, they found a community of like-minded artists. In a way, artwear was just one corner of the larger studio craft movement that arose after World War II; but it was also very much a genre of its own, and the Bay Area was one of its centers.

In 1983, Jean, Janet, and Marika attended the opening of an exhibition at the Richmond Art Center in which their work was included and met six other participating artists:  Candace Kling, Ina Kozel, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, K. Lee Manuel, Gaza Bowen, and Marian Clayden.  Each had a distinct style, techniques, and niche within the genre, but they swiftly coalesced into a support and networking entity called Group 9, a deeply influential artwear cohort that has remained close, despite  the moving of most of them away from garment-making and the deaths of K. Lee in 2003, Gaza in 2005, and Marian in 2015. —ML


 

Melissa Leventon: I want to start off by seeing if we can define what “artwear” (a.k.a. “wearable art” a.k.a. “artisan fashion” a.k.a. “art to wear”) is. What is it to you?

Jean Cacicedo: Because we were all art students, we had no idea we were creating an era; “art to wear,” there wasn’t that term in the ’70s. We came out of art school wanting our art to be seen in the streets, not just in galleries and museums. And that was the premise of a whole counterculture generation: “Let’s do our own thing.” We were artists studying painting and sculpture, wanting to fashion the body. We were not concerned with the fashionability of clothing. Artwear came from a vision and intent to transform the body, physically and metaphorically.

ML: I want to actually take a step even further back from that, though, because I suspect that at least some people who are reading this won’t have a clue about what the stuff actually is. The way that I defined it in Artwear, the catalog for the Legion of Honor show, was that it essentially was handmade clothing made from handmade textiles by people who conceived of themselves as artists rather than fashion designers. Would you agree that that sounds more or less an overarching framework of what this material is?

JC: Yes, and I think most importantly, we were influenced by textiles and garment forms from other cultures [It’s worth noting that the conversation around cultural appropriation has changed radically in recent years; it is very different now from what it was then. —ML]. While some of us traveled abroad and others accessed picture books, we were all influenced by the beautiful colors, patterns, and textures of handmade textiles from all over the world. Studying various craft techniques wherever we could, our curiosity and excitement with these various processes led us to adapt them into our own work and individual styles. And yes, it was all by hand and very, very time-consuming. Without our craft, there would have been no art. We can start with a vision or a concept but the process and our love for crafting sustained us through times when maybe we weren’t sure what we were making.

Janet Lipkin, Crochet Coat, 1973

Janet Lipkin, Crochet Coat, 1973

ML: I think your comment about process is key. I looked again at the catalog just recently, and I was reminded that, you, Jean, were an instigator in that you were the person who learned how to crochet and then you taught Janet Lipkin and Marika Contompasis when you were roommates at Pratt.

JC: And then there were Sharron Hedges and Dina Knapp, who at the time was Dina Schwartz.

ML: In fact, Dilys Blum, from the Philadelphia Art Museum calls you the Pratt 5.  And the realization that you could use crochet for art came out of the practice of the technique.

JC: Yes, all craft disciplines can do just that.

ML: I remember Janet said to me, “We went nuts.” She described to me crocheting on the subway, crocheting when she was off babysitting. You could take it anywhere — I’m sure she crocheted in class.

JC: Crochet starts with a point. It’s a point in space. Loops and stitches make lines, lines make shapes, and shapes make forms. As art students at Pratt, we took every assignment that we were given and transformed it into a crocheted interpretation. My teachers would say things like, “Don’t use the word ‘yarn.’” They were very encouraging, but they suggested that we describe it as “linear material.” And we all just ran with it.

ML: Crochet is essentially like drawing with wool, with fiber.

JC: Drawing, painting, and sculpting. I went into spinning the wool; many of us did natural dyeing. But we all had a connection to wanting to work with a body, and that’s what’s interesting to me. Some of us could have branched out and done sculptural things, or kind of Eva Hesse things — we were influenced very much by women artists in New York. And again, we were not aware that we were going to create a movement.

ML: No, of course not. Nobody is when you’re in the middle of it.

JC: And I’m not sure who coined “art to wear”? I never liked the phrase “wearable art,” and when I taught I’d say, “You know, there’s not ‘throwable clay’ or ‘blowable glass.’” “Art to wear” I think is the best.

ML: I was not able to find where the first published evidence of the term “wearable art” came from. But it does seem to have come into general use around 1975 and Julie Schafler Dale, who published Art to Wear in 1986, said she too doesn’t like the term “wearable art.” A lot of people don’t like it — which is one reason why I called my project Artwear. Julie said that she thought “art to wear” sounded more dignified; so I think that may have come from her.

JC: But even the word “art” — we don’t need to define what art is. We were very proud to make handmade clothing, and whether you called it women’s work or handiwork, we were very much involved in the craft of our work. We were part of the American studio craft movement, but I think the textiles didn’t go out in the world like a lot of the male-dominated arts like glass and ceramics, and I don’t know if that’s because it was women’s work. I don’t know, but Julie Schafler Dale certainly did an enormous justice in exposing us, as did Sandra Sakata.

Obiko's original storefront on Sacramento St. in San Francisco, mid-1970s. The model, Merle Bulatao, is wearing a piece by Kaisik Wong.

Obiko’s original storefront on Sacramento St. in San Francisco, mid-1970s. The model, Merle Bulatao, is wearing a piece by Kaisik Wong.

ML: Well one of the interesting things is Julie very much conceived of her role as an art dealer and her artists as artists: she was running a gallery. That’s why she chose to open on Madison Avenue. The location was going to be appropriate for the clientele she was hoping to attract. Whereas Sandra Sakata at Obiko in Union Square, I think had a different —

JC: Oh, Sandra was a muse!

ML: She had a different conception. Obiko was much more a high-end fashion boutique than it was gallery.

JC: Obiko wasn’t just a shop, but a retail environment extraordinaire. She combined jewelry and cloth into such inventive contemporary fashions for all types of women. Sandra exposed me and many of us local designers to different types of fabrics, encouraging us to create work for her themed shows. Although I was still making one-of-a-kind coats, it was Sandra who encouraged me to consider designing a limited collection of dresses, jackets, and shawls. For me, that meant producing in small numbers — just a few styles in repetition, maybe ten of a kind. It never really went beyond those numbers.

Sandra Sakata modeling Jean Cacicedo's Chevron Jacket, 1997.

Sandra Sakata modeling Jean Cacicedo’s Chevron Jacket, 1997.

ML: When did you start doing the limited production work?

JC: I moved to Berkeley in 1980 and met Sandra soon after. The artwear I was making a decade before in the ’70s was one-of-a-kind pieces that were expensive and I could only make a limited number. But with Sandra’s help, and as sales grew in the ’80s and ’90s, it was clear that there was enough interest to support my creating limited editions. The milder climate of the Bay Area also enabled me to try making garments using lighter-weight materials. The Bay Area was a happening place artistically. The style of dress here matched our style of living and connected us as designers to the cultural identity of San Francisco. Obiko was a great place to sell our work, and we had Julie: Artisans’ Gallery as our East Coast representative. And of course, Julie’s publishing Art to Wear, which was the first major book on the subject, really helped publicize the movement nationally.

ML: Since you worked on both coasts, how do you see the divide between them in terms of the way the work you all produced looked?

JC: There was no divide regarding our passion and intention in making art that could be worn. But of course our art was informed by our surroundings and our lifestyles. Those factors naturally influenced our product fabrication, color, and styling.

ML: One of the things I’ve noticed is the work coming out of the East Coast in the late ’60s and early ’70s when you and Janet and Marika and Dina and Sharron were all at Pratt — and the couple of years immediately thereafter while you were still figuring out who you were as artists — it was heavy, it was textural, it was sculptural. The colors tended to be rich and oftentimes a little on the dark side.

JC: Yes, brighter colors and lighter fabrications of cloth from the West Coast, heavier and more saturated colors and outerwear from the East Coast.

Jean Cacicedo, Transformations, 1977

Jean Cacicedo, Transformations, 1977

ML: Were you at all sensitive to the idea that by not getting formal training in fashion design or pattern-making or anything like that, it helped you to maintain the position of an artist rather than a fashion designer? Did any of you think about that?

JC: Well you know, we were very articulate about how we constructed our garments. This was not shoddy stuff. If we didn’t know how to do something, we asked for help or hired someone who knew how. For instance, when I was in Wyoming living very rurally, I took a pattern-making class at the University of Wyoming. This was good to learn, but I still hired patternmakers, especially for grading the sizes.

We really didn’t care about being fashionable; we had more of a theme and a concept of transforming the body with our visions — we all told stories in our work. I think we did influence the fashion world. They might not want to admit that. And I think we also influenced the art world. We weren’t competing with stereotypical male art at the time, in the ’70s. We just wanted to do our thing.

ML: To what degree were you aware of people like Mimi Smith and Miriam Schapiro?

JC: Well you know, Janet, Marika, Sharron, and me going to Pratt, we had a candy shop of museums within reach. They were a very big influence to us.

ML: So you were aware of other people in the art world who were exploring garment forms conceptually.

JC: Well, we weren’t the first. Maybe we were the first in America, but look at Sonia Delaunay; I’ve always looked back at her work and she was doing really far-out stuff in the ’20s.

ML: And she felt very strongly that there was no difference between her art and her fashion design. If you look at her design sketches, they look exactly like her paintings.

JC: No — it’s not even a conversation.

ML: Right. The issue about defending whether it’s art or not tends to come when you step outside the actual making into the museum and gallery world and are trying to hew a place for yourselves, or when a curator — me — is trying to persuade a major arts institution to pay attention to the work. And that’s part of what has always informed my viewpoint of this material: I had to justify it to people who think art hangs on a wall. And I think that’s also part of the duality of artwear, where for many people, having something that could display effectively on a wall was important.

Jean Cacicedo, Coat of Arms, 1994.

Jean Cacicedo, Coat of Arms, 1994.

JC: It’s surface and structure, combined. So that means 2D and 3D.

ML: How cohesive was your group at Pratt? Did you all scatter after graduation?

JC: We have maintained a close relationship all these years. I think because we were women, we had supportive, non-competitive friendships. We can talk a little bit about Group 9 too, but for the group of us from Pratt, that was the whole premise: we were all going off in our own directions, but there was a force in us coming together and brainstorming shows — we shared. I think we were extremely cohesive because we had Julie. We were art students who had a place to sell our wearables.

ML: Which is pretty amazing.

JC: It’s really amazing! Yeah.

ML: When did you graduate from Pratt?

JC: 1970.

ML: And you moved to Wyoming pretty soon after graduation, correct?

JC: Oh yeah. I lived in California for less than a year and then moved to Centennial, Wyoming. I was prolific there. That whole rural landscape really informed my work. Janet was in Canada, Marika was in LA doing knitting.

ML: And Dina moved to Florida. Who got to the Bay Area first?

Dina Knapp, Frog Coat, 1974

Dina Knapp, Frog Coat, 1974

JC: Marika really came here first in 1969, and then I followed. Then I went to Wyoming and Janet came to California. So we were sort of playing musical chairs. We’ve never all lived in one place at one time since Pratt.

ML: Tell me about how Group 9 got itself together.

JC: It was largely thanks to JoAnn Stabb, who had a show at the Richmond Art Center in 1983 called Poetry for the Body: Clothing for the Spirit.

[JoAnn Stabb is a designer, author, lecturer, and curator focusing on fashion and wearable art, and also was for many years a professor in the Design faculty at University of California-Davis. —ML]

JC: At JoAnn’s exhibition, Marika, Janet, and I met K. Lee Manuel, Gaza Bowen, Candy [Candace] Kling, Marian Clayden, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, and Ina Kozel — and we immediately gravitated towards one another.

Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Pieced Coat, c. 1980

Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Pieced Coat, ca. 1980

ML: By 1980, a lot of the artwear world in the Bay Area was already quite firmly established. You had Obiko opening in 1973, Yoshiko Wada teaching the first shibori class at Fiberworks in ’75, I think, and Ana Lisa took that first class and embarked on her career in shibori dyeing.

JC: I learned to dye from Carol Beadle through the Yarn Depot —

ML: In San Francisco.

JC: — which was a wonderful establishment. So there were these beacons that we gravitated to, and we were always in search of developing new ideas. That was our common bond: that we could talk about our new directions and how those could be part of a larger picture. And as Candy says, not to minimize the individual accomplishments of each of us, but Group 9 was like a multiplier: we had one show, then someone talked about another show, we were published more, and the opportunities just kept coming through. And we had some grandiose ideas. [Laughter]

ML: Yeah? Like what?

JC: Well, you know, we were going to have shows in Europe and Ina was going to go to Lithuania and we had these places that we would work from. But I think we were artisans who really loved to be alone and work. We weren’t good businesspeople, we just didn’t have the momentum. We had good intentions.

ML: I wrote in Artwear that to be successful, wearable art needed the work, a community, education, somewhere to show it, attention from galleries and museums, and representation. And by the time you get to the middle 1970s, late 1970s, artwear had all of that.

Marika Contompasis, Herbal Dress, 1971

Marika Contompasis, Herbal Dress, 1971

JC: We also exposed contemporary American culture to things like shibori, felting, dyeing, and new ways of knitting.

ML: Well in a lot of ways all of these are very old techniques. Felting goes back thousands of years. Knitting goes back hundreds of years. And dyeing, of course, also goes back you know, to probably before recorded history or the beginning of recorded history. And shibori is a very ancient Japanese technique. So you were taking these old techniques and you were using them in new ways.

JC: Correct, and most of the people making clothing during that period were concerned with fashionability and production.

ML: You’re talking about fashion designers?

JC: Yes, and that’s what separates people who did production versus artwear. And so if there were to be another definition of artwear, it’s handmade clothing from an artisans’ studio, not a factory, not a sweatshop. And it’s not about runway shows.

ML: But when you were doing your production work, were you physically making every single thing yourself? Or did you have help?

JC: Some and some. I had employees, yeah.

ML: I know that Marian Clayden, with whom I spent a lot of time before she died, was very proud of the fact that she developed Clayden Inc. with the help of her husband, Roger, and provided good stable employment for a small community; she had a couple dozen people working for her, from the women helping her dye to the women helping produce the garments she was selling. Of the nine of you, she went furthest into production and was closest to the fashion industry, in my opinion.

Marian Clayden, Ensemble with Toaster-Print Coat, ca. 1986

Marian Clayden, Ensemble with Toaster-Print Coat, ca. 1986

JC: Absolutely. She also had good backing in terms of her husband providing a really good, stable infrastructure for her, which a lot of us didn’t have.

ML: And she also is interesting because I think alone among the nine of you, she started as a fiber artist; her work in clothing grew out of a well-established career as a textile maker. So you hired people to help when you needed them, but you weren’t actually running a small workshop.

JC: I remember developing a pocket with a felting technique using reverse appliqué, the “Cacicedo pocket.” When I had phoned Marian up to say I was having a really hard time designing this pocket, she said, “Well just hire somebody!” And I said, “No, I’m going to find a way to really make a pocket I can understand.” And by constructing it my way, the pocket became an integral part of my design that I used throughout my artwear-making career.

ML: Your way of working sounds in many ways like the folk process for music, where you sit in a room or you go to a concert and somebody sings something and you learn that song, and then you sing it for somebody else and they learn that song. In the course of talking with each other, teaching different classes, you pick up new things on a one-to-one basis.

JC: Much of art making is about mark-making. I discovered with textiles that the repetition of stitches has a rhythm that can be developed personally.

ML: So to what degree did Group 9 exist as a resource for the nine of you?

JC: Oh, just by inspiring each other in how we worked and what we created. Even though we didn’t meet very often — actually only a few times a year — we had great lunches and conversations.

ML: Oh yeah? Who would cook?

JC: We all would cook. It was beautiful, colorful, and delicious. It wasn’t a group for critiquing, but we talked a lot about our processes and ideas.

Group 9 in 1987. In the background is a fiber wall hanging by Marian Clayden from the mid-1970s.

Group 9 in 1987. In the background is a fiber wall hanging by Marian Clayden from the mid-1970s.

ML: Oftentimes you find that individuals will arrive at the same place through different paths. It’s just something in the air at any given time.

JC: You know, Marika and Janet and I thought we were inventing crochet stitches. There’s a certain mechanics to it that evolves but we thought we were inventing the wheel.

ML: That somehow is not a surprise.

Gaza Bowen, Shoes for the Little Woman, 1986

Gaza Bowen, Shoes for the Little Woman, 1986

JC: We all studied art in college and later chose to make works about the body or specifically for the body. Gaza Bowen made shoes that weren’t always wearable, but referenced so many aspects about the body. She did a whole conceptual series called Shoes for the Little Woman that is filled with attitude and humor.

ML: Yes, even Gaza’s things that weren’t wearable were very much about the body. You experience so much of the world through your feet, and what you wear on your feet influences how you present yourself, how you walk, how you stand.

JC: They’re also beautiful objects, shoes. Without the body!

ML: They are. Gaza was a very good teacher — and she’s the only one of you whose work as a teacher I’ve experienced directly. So that was very interesting for me, to have a student-teacher relationship with her as well as a curator-artist relationship. But I imagine she was typical of most of you, because you’ve taught a lot of classes and you’ve inspired a lot of people in the course of your careers. I go to craft fairs and I can see it, in the shibori and the felted work in particular. I think you and Ana Lisa have had outsized influence — and Candy too, to a degree, since she’s taught ribbon work to an awful lot of people. Nobody does it quite like you guys do.

Candace Kling, <em>Red Rainbow</em>, 1981. Photo: John Bagley.

Candace Kling, Red Rainbow, 1981. Photo: John Bagley.

JC: Yes, thank you. Well we’re onto new things to teach — we’re all still very much into continuing our artistic journeys. The art-to-wear movement is kind of quiet now, and I’m not sure there will be a resurgence.

ML: Movements don’t come back in exactly the same way. They morph. To my view, it had an arc from its start roughly in the mid ’60s. K. Lee was one of the first to actually start making garments from the point of view of an artist. And then it arced through the ’70s and ’80s and then went into decline in the ’90s.

JC: Well, Sandra kept it going.

Jean Cacicedo, Tail of Twins, 1990

Jean Cacicedo, Tail of Twins, 1990

ML: Yes, but at that point it was more production-oriented. Because that was essentially what was selling.

JC: There was also the aging of our clientele. I mean, people collected so much of our work, but there wasn’t a new resurgence. People preferred to be less obvious on the streets or, you know, the opera. Looking back now there is — I don’t know if it’s a sadness, but it’s a loss. Really a major cultural generation came out of the ’70s, and I’m so happy to be a part of that. The music, civil rights, sexuality — I mean, all these things really were at their peaks. So I think that’s also part of us looking back, not just at the artwear, but at our cultural identities.

ML: I agree. These things are very cyclical and I think another of the reasons, perhaps, for what you describe as the aging out of your clientele is the fashion point of view. I like to tell my students that it provides the overarching framework within which we all dress. And the framework of fashion in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was a good place for the kind of work you all were doing, “you” meaning the Pratt group, “you” meaning Group 9, “you” meaning all of the others who were also involved in this category. Because the ’60s was a time of hippie styles, which had a very DIY kind of ethos, and a lot of the artwear in California grew from that before you and Janet and Marika all landed here. That aspect was still very much a part of what was going on in fashion in the 1970s, along with the craft revival, and looking out at the world as a result not only of the Vietnam War but also the Peace Corps and the general turn away from the insularity of the 1950s. A whole generation of Americans started to explore other cultures, other art forms, other kinds of textiles.

K. Lee Manuel, Painted Leather, ca. 1980

K. Lee Manuel, Painted Leather, ca. 1980

In the ’80s the silhouette became wedge-shaped. Broad shoulders narrowing down to the hem; it still provided a kind of canvas for people who wanted to make interesting textiles and make great clothes from those interesting textiles, whether it was limited production or one-of-a-kind. And so the canvas aspect of it was still there, and there was a taste for elaborate surfaces, which again fitted very nicely into what all of you in your various ways were doing. Then you get to the ’90s and there were major style changes.

JC: You have to understand, there’s also technology development. Huge. The fabrications totally changed, and thus artwear changed into more of the fabrication concept rather than just imagery.

ML: Yes, I see what you mean; the technological developments, particularly coming out of Japan, made it possible for the industry to produce some of the things that you all had been making by hand.

JC: Correct. And much more efficiently.

ML: One of the things that has always distinguished Issey Miyake as a fashion designer, for example, are his textiles. He had an entire studio devoted to developing interesting, unusual textiles, and pushing the techniques.

JC: And again, it started with the craft.

ML: It did. A lot of the Japanese designers forged their own path, different from what you guys were doing, but providing in many ways parallel experiences for a buying public, one much more oriented towards the fashion industry.

JC: Yes, yet both our disciplines began with our craft. I think a lot of clothing designed today doesn’t reflect the kind of technical understanding necessary to develop new ideas.

Jean Cacicedo jacket from her limited-production Wool Gauze series, 1990s

Jean Cacicedo jacket from her limited-production Wool Gauze series, 1990s

ML: Yeah. When fashion changed in the ’90s, the silhouette got very slender, it got very monochrome. There was also a bit of a recession in the early 1990s, which hit the artwear world pretty hard. It’s when I see a lot of people who had been making artwear perfectly happily through the ’80s started looking for other things to do. Some of the galleries started closing or changing during the early ’90s. Then Sandra died in 1997, which was a huge blow, and Julie moved — I don’t remember exactly when she made her move uptown, but I think it was in the late ’90s.

JC: Yeah, she moved next to Armani. [Laughter]

ML: Yes. But Julie moved uptown in part because the work wasn’t selling the way it used to and she needed a less expensive space. So she moved into a smaller space, and she shifted her marketing a bit. And the last time I visited her gallery, before it closed — which I admit, was quite a while ago — it was almost half jewelry.

JC: We all had to survive. That’s why I developed some of the techniques I talked about earlier, that were as interesting, but less time-consuming.

ML: Right. Did you find them equally fulfilling as a maker?

JC: I did for a while, and then I realized it was time to really look at what I was trying to say. And it’s hard to say something when you’re repeating all the time. I guess the word is discovery. So I backed off for a while. Now I’m interested in more mixed media and creating objects for the wall, and masks, too — I’ve retired from the clothing business. Many of us have.

ML: Ana Lisa is making wall pieces and she’s working a lot in paper right now.

JC: Yeah, well that’s still textile. We’re all still really involved in the substrate —

ML: In fibrous things.

JC: Yeah, absolutely.

ML: And Candy is still teaching and —

JC: Right? We’re all teaching. We’ve lost a lot of representational interest, curatorial interest in textiles.

ML: Yes, that’s also true. In the museum world, things have been consolidating. I mean, museums are chasing a new public as well.

JC: Oh, absolutely.

ML: More and more they’re looking at their bottom line. It’s harder to do the kinds of shows that I was doing at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in the ’90s and early 2000s because even though they’re popular, they’re not blockbusters like Monet or Dior. You know, you can’t charge twenty or thirty bucks a ticket for a Kaisik Wong exhibition. On the other hand, artwear is still a viable subject in museums. My show at the Legion was a major retrospective of artwear  and Dilys Blum will be doing another at the Philadelphia Art Museum. It’s opening this November, and I’m really looking forward to it. What I hope is that these will bring renewed interest to the field.

JC: I think the body will remain something of importance — a stepping stone to work. Or a platform.

ML: I want to backtrack to something you said earlier, where you said you thought you as people making artwear had influenced other fine artists; I think you’re right. Looking around, there are a lot of people in fine art who have started dealing with clothing conceptually.

JC: When I taught at the University of Arizona I noticed their sculpture department had a fiber department. Also at California College of the Arts, many departments are cross-pollenating.

ML: I also see though that there is a continuing hunger for making as we get more and more screen-based — we are still tool-using, tool-making creatures. I teach at California College of the Arts, formerly CCAC, and although craft has been edited out of the college’s name, craft is still very much a part of what many of our students like to do. But one of the losses that the category has suffered in the last years is not only the closing of galleries and the moving away of many artists from making clothes, it’s the closing of the college departments, where a lot of those techniques were taught. When Ed Rossbach retired from UC Berkeley, they closed his department and the collection of ethnographic textiles he had used in his teaching went to the Hearst Museum’s collection. A lot of the programs in Southern California aren’t there anymore. Those practitioners are retired or in many cases, gone. And Fiberworks, which also hosted lots and lots and lots of classes, closed in the late ’80s.

JC: It’s much more conceptual.

ML: Yes, it’s much more conceptual.

JC: Do you think there will be a resurgence?

ML: I don’t know. There is a whole host of new tools and techniques that people are now exploring, just as all of you were exploring both time-honored techniques and whatever newer tools appealed to you —airbrushing, color Xeroxing, digital textile printing, knitting machines, and so on.

Jean Cacicedo, Lotus Coat, 2000

Jean Cacicedo, Lotus Coat, 2000

JC: I’m not trying to sound like I’m sentimental, because I think it’s wonderful when things grow and evolve. I think about what’s next.

ML: 3D printing, perhaps? Lasers? Stuff we can’t even imagine. The next generation of people to discover handmade textiles, or the people who are discovering handmade textiles now, are going to use the current generations of tools to make them; you use the tools that are available to you and you update old techniques using the new tools and processes. And you make it your own. The concerns now in 2019 are with sustainability, with upcycling, with recycling, with politics — we’re in a very interesting political moment. Similar in some ways, but different in many ways to the political moment that you all were in when you got your start.

JC: I like to think that if I continue to do what I do — even if it’s an old technique — I’ll discover something new in it for me. I don’t mind using my old toolbox. And I’m not giving away all that wool. Sorry, I know I’ll find a use for it.

ML: Oh yeah, your stockpiles are important.

ML: In closing, perhaps this is a good time to point out that although many of the people and organizations that were so crucial to artwear’s success are gone, several organizations, Obiko and Fiberworks in particular, have been or are being formally documented. You and Ana Lisa put together the Obiko archive which is at the Textile Arts Council of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And I believe there is a move to do the same for Fiberworks, some of whose papers are held at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. I hope this conversation will add to what has already been documented about the movement.

Comments (2)

  • George Schools says:

    This was a fascinating read, but I am perplexed. This is not a facetious question: where are the men? Not necessarily as creators, but as consumers? I don’t mean to be naive (I probably am, actually), but do you feel that the female creators of these works of art never intended to touch a male audience, or never imagined a male audience would be interested or could appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship? I’m sorry, I’m just temporarily dumbfounded after reading the article. I am so impressed with their work, and feel so excluded. Their work is extraordinary.

  • Melissa Leventon says:

    Thank you George; we’re both delighted that you appreciate the artwork. Herewith are our individual responses to your question:

    Jean Cacicedo: The pictures included in this article are but a tiny example of the work created over the years. I personally received private commissions from several men and I know of others who bought through Julie: Artisans Gallery, especially Elton John. However, our audience was generally women. On a humorous and practical note, before I went into a limited production of garments, I basically made my one-of-a-kinds to fit me so in case they didn’t sell, I could wear them.

    Melissa Leventon: I want to clarify that Jean’s and my conversation was intended specifically to focus on two things: her experience as an artist making artwear in and out of the Bay Area, and Group 9. It should not be interpreted as an exhaustive discussion on this topic by any means.

    To the more general point your question raises: There were certainly men who made artwear–in the Bay Area specifically there were Kaisik Wong, whom we mentioned several times and who was one of the pioneers of the category here; the jewelers Alex and Lee; and shoemaker Mickey McGowan, known as Apple Cobbler. As far as I know, all of them wore their own work and Kaisik in particular envisioned a lot of his garments as unisex (though I don’t know how many men beyond him and his immediate circle wore his clothes). There were plenty of other male makers outside the Bay Area–Ben Compton, Randall Darwall, Tim Harding, Mario Rivoli, Carter Smith, and a number of others–who have or had notable careers making artwear and who sold through Julie’s, Obiko, or some of the other galleries elsewhere in the U.S. that did not come up in Jean’s and my conversation. As Jean mentions, there were also men who wore it, especially in its early days when the kinds of handmade, hand-embellished styles favored by the ’60s counterculture were in vogue–to see examples, take a look at Alexandra Jacopetti’s 1974 book Native Funk and Flash (recently reprinted and readily available). But in my opinion, as artwear evolved conceptually away from hippie street style to works of art, its makers were primarily targeting women in the garments that they expected someone to buy to wear. And that relates to the conventions governing mainstream male and female dress in the West, which generally allow men a narrower range of sartorial options (silhouette, materials, colors, textures) than women. The presence of so many women artists in the sector also speaks, I think to several things, among them the challenges women faced establishing successful careers as artists; and the cultural bias that we in the West have long had towards textiles and dress, viewing textiles as “women’s work” and fashion as a feminine preoccupation, which has resulted in second-class status culturally for both. Additionally, this was the era of second-wave feminism, which emboldened many female artists to try to break those walls down. For all these reasons, a significant majority of the artists making this work were women as were the people interested in selling, buying, wearing, and displaying it.

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