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Friday, April 6, 2012

Interview with Amy Orr, Executive Director of FiberPhiladelphia

Q&A with Amy Orr, Executive Director of FiberPhiladelphia

By Felicia D'Ambrosio (Photos by Neal Santos)

Amy FiberPhiladelphia

Can a basket be made of glass? Can an artist weave with shadow and light? FiberPhiladelphia, a biennial of “fiber arts” running through April, explores the outer reaches of material and technique in dozens of shows citywide. Amy Orr, an exhibiting artist and faculty member at the women’s-only Moore College of Art, has stepped into the role of Executive Director of what she calls “this fledgling organization.”

The Crane Arts Building in Kensington will serve as the hub of the expansive collection of shows, featuring four distinct exhibits from noon-6pm, Wednesday through Sunday. A complete listing of exhibits can be found at, and you can see Amy Orr’s own House of Cards – a two-year assemblage of plastic credit, gift, insurance, and novelty cards – in the group show, "A Sense of Place," at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, curated by FiberPhiladelphia founder Bruce Hoffman.

“It’s a very evocative field, from the fine artists to the quilt of a grandmother,” Orr adds. “We all have some connections.” We caught up with the artist to talk about granny techniques reclaimed by craft activists, transcending materials, and the strangest thing she’s ever made.

Why is Philadelphia known for fiber art and artists?

Philadelphia has always been a center for fiber; it really dates back to industry. Philadelphia had a rich textile industry, and there are still interesting textile manufacturers in Philadelphia…that overlaps with us for reason of commerce. As for the educational aspect, Philadelphia Textile is now Philadelphia University, focusing on fashion, and textiles as a fine art…which what everyone really wants to do. There’s also University of the Arts, and Drexel, with their amazing fashion program that links to business. Then you’ve got educators, students, people who own businesses… we have lots of talent. The Fabric Workshop is here…with all these individuals, institutions and endowments just in the region, we have always had in interest in fibers.

Many people think of fiber arts as quilts, or traditional handicrafts like knitting or embroidery What new materials and techniques are represented in this year’s show?

In fibers, we almost always start with repurposed materials, dating back to quilts. They were repurposing any scraps they could and any paper they could, to create and line the quilts. This is the tradition, so we are still working traditionally, but with new materials.

All of the work can be looked at as fine art. Some of the interesting materials we’re seeing this year are sausage casing and gut – not so unusual any more – food rinds like grapefruit and orange peels, X-rays, and repurposed plastics like newspaper bags. There’s so much crocheting going on with plastic.

They’re so many discarded plastic bags, it seems like an inexhaustible material.

That’s right! I actually try to steer my students away from it, because we see so much of it now. In addition, materials have form, function and also political implications. ‘Craftivism’ [craft + activism]and politics linked to the kind of materials artists are using has become so big, there’s a name for it.

In the “Plastics” series of your own work, you create mosaics out of credit cards, sewn onto cloth backing. Do you consider this fiber art?

That’s one reason I’m a really interesting leader for FiberPhiladelphia., When you look at my work, you question what is going on in it… and that’s really the whole field. My roots are in tradition; in my work, you can see a tumbling block pattern in credit cards. It makes reference to Amish quilts and Italian textile… traditional patterns from different cultures. It strengthens our mission a little bit, on how people will view the field. It’s not just knitted handicrafts. There is a huge field of work that uses ‘fiber’ conceptually, not as materials.

FiberPhiladelphia has been doing an “official” biennal since 2008. How has the project evolved?

The regional biennial really started taking place in 1998. At that time Bruce Hoffman started doing a group fiber show at Synderman-Works Gallery, with the support of the Snydermans. It was internationally received; no one had done a contemporary fibers show in Philadelphia for many years.

There were also other things to see – something at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fabric Workshop. Two years later, it happened again, with more venues taking interest in a pretty haphazard way. It always had a life of its own.

I got involved in the early 2000s to organize it. I’m an exhibiting artist myself and that is my interest. It’s always had this interesting force behind it, and been very easy to pull things together. Bruce as an independent contractor and I were faced with organizing it for this year, and we really decided to take it on. It’s an exciting process…I knew I wouldn’t get paid, but the moment I decided two years ago, I decided to do my best.

Both of us have this huge network of talented friends…so much pro bono work has gone into this. That’s my dream, to pay these talented people, take this and grow it. It needs to grow in every way.

You described yourself in an email as a “new Executive Director of a fledgling organization.” Is this sort of administrative job a new role for you?

Yes, this is a new role for me – this kind of administration job is new. I’ve been an educator and chairperson of an art department, and this is something for years I’ve been trying to avoid. I really took it on two years ago, my partner Bruce Hoffman and I, and a group of five volunteers. I don’t know when you become an it when you buy a website that says .org? We really founded FiberPhiladelphia when we asked InLiquid Gallery to be our conduit two years ago.

Joan Dreyer (Associate Curator, Development of FiberPhiladelphia), Amy Orr (Director), Bruce Hoffman (Curator, Development)

So InLiquid is a key partner for FiberPhiladelphia?

They are the fiscal conduit. We are exploring how far we can go, without becoming our own nonprofit. We’re really studying; I haven’t been an administrator in this capacity, but a scholar observing it. Partnering a nonprofit with a business like InLiquid...we’re just learning, and trying to see what’s next.

Why are you drawn to fiber?

I think it’s definitely related to my family – my mother and her sisters. I was brought up with textiles and fabrics and thrift shop clothing as just a part of our family tradition: all the things to do with both making and exchanging clothing among many women.

My aunt Lottie was a weaver; she was very inspirational to me. I never actually saw her weaving...but she became an occupational therapist and provided supplies and stories.

Do you knit or crochet at home?

Yes, I do crochet…at the moment I am crocheting a big plastic structure, like a fence, out of trash bags. I also embroider. These things come in and out of my work, as well.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve made from crochet, or textiles in general?

Hmmm...In the last few years...that’s not really strange…Oh! I know! A quilt made out of chicken bones. That’s a good one.

If someone only had time to go see one exhibit, which would you suggest, and why?

Opening next week in Wayne, PA is Art Quilt Elements, which is an international quilt exhibition. It’s stunning, people love the show, and it’s very evocative, amazing artwork.

Finally, why do you think there has been a renaissance of this kind of art?

I think it relates to the hand crafts resurgence and the makers…people are doing crafts in their home. It’s like a back to nature or green movement…they relate on putting the pieces together. These are art and craft forms that you can handle, you can take it places, it’s portable, and a lot of it is very good for people who need to dual-task all the time.

Another reason why it’s popular, is it’s about getting together with people, knitting or crocheting. That extends into the network of fine artists. It’s a community, the fiber community. I don’t think you’d say there was a ‘painting community’ in the same way.

When: Through Sunday, May 13
Where: Art galleries around the Philadelphia area
More info: FiberPhiladelphia

Photos by Neal Santos

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