Born during the Great Depression in Hastings, Nebraska, Sheila Hicks spent much of her early life on the road, with her father seeking work where he found it. This “fantastic…migratory existence,” 1 as she has described it, has come to define her six-decade career as an artist. Extensive experiences traveling, living, and working around the world continue to advance her exploration of textiles, the pliable and adaptable medium with which she is most closely associated.
“Textile is a universal language. In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component,” Hicks has said. 2 Captivated by structure, form, and color, she has looked to weaving cultures across the globe to shape her work at varying scales, from small hand-woven works called Minimes and wall hangings; to sculptural fiber piles like The Evolving Tapestry: He/She (1967–68); to monumental corporate commissions, among them Enchantillon: Medallion (1967), a prototype for an installation at New York’s Ford Foundation. More recently, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column (2014) demonstrates Hicks’s intense fascination with experimental materials: a whirling structure of multicolored synthetic fibers cascades from the ceiling, as if breaking through from the sky above.
As a student at Yale University, Hicks studied painting with artist and designer Josef Albers, whose book The Interaction of Color heralded new approaches to the study of color, and left a lasting impact on Hicks’s work. She became fascinated with textiles and weaving while working with George Kubler, an art historian specializing in pre-Columbian art from South America, who encouraged her to travel abroad to expand her understanding of the medium. Upon completing her undergraduate degree in 1957, Hicks received a Fulbright grant to study ancient Andean weaving in Chile, using the funds to travel across the continent and explore its rich artistic traditions.
From 1959 until 1964, Hicks lived and worked in Taxco el Viejo, Mexico, honing her skills as a fiber artist and learning from traditional textile craftspeople. In 1964, she made her way to Paris, where she continues to operate a studio. She has traveled extensively throughout her career: setting up workshops in Mexico, Chile, and South Africa; developing commercially woven fabrics in India and tufted rugs in Morocco; and realizing large-scale commissions in the United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. In each place, she has mined local knowledge to inform work that transcends geographic boundaries.
Her diverse approach to textiles put her at the center of the burgeoning Fiber Art movement of the 1960s and ’70s, in which artists, including Lenore Tawney and Magdalena Abakanowicz, were inventing new possibilities for pliable mediums. They created sculptural and three-dimensional fiber works that upended conventions, establishing a new order in the largely male-dominated arena of two-dimensional tapestry-making.
Hicks continues employing intensely saturated color and the raw materials of textiles—wool, synthetic thread, linen flax—in works that are rigorously constructed by wrapping, piling, and weaving her materials. “I don’t want to go do something I know how to do. I want to go do something I don’t know how to do,” she has said. “I don’t want a legacy. I just want to have fun while I’m here.” 3
Andrew Gardner, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.
Taking a Thread for a Walk
Oct 21, 2019–Jan 10, 2021
Surrounds: 11 Installations
Oct 21, 2019–Jan 4, 2020
Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
Apr 15–Aug 13, 2017
Designing Modern Women 1890–1990
Oct 5, 2013–Oct 19, 2014
Shaping Modernity 1880–1980
Mar 28, 2012–Sep 8, 2013
- Sheila Hicks has online.
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