TextileStories: Devon Thein
Updated: Apr 10
As I begin wrapping up our coverage of the major lace events of 2018, it was wonderful to be able to interview Devon Thein, the curator of Lace not Lace. As a woman who is deeply passionate about lace and promoting the art her discussion of the process of creating the exhibition and catalogue make for very interesting reading! Enjoy!
First of all, congratulations on curating the ground-breaking exhibition, Lace not Lace which opened recently at the Hunterdon Museum in New Jersey, an exhibition which has been years in the making, could you tell us a little about what inspired you to curate this exhibition and the rationale behind it?
"In 2007 there was an exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York called Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting which caused a lot of excitement and hope in the lace community that art made in lacemaking techniques would be showcased. Instead, pretty much the opposite occurred. Most of the radical lace wasn’t recognizable as lace by the lace community. Instead the pieces seemed to reflect “the aesthetic of lace” a term that you devised, but which I have appropriated because it is so insightful. Pieces that had floral designs cut in metal, white ceramic with holes in it, or a sculpture of white metal shelving resonated as lace to people who didn’t know much about lace. The lace community was quite hopeful that future shows would come closer to the mark, but instead the idea that anything with a tenuous similarity in appearance to lace, say silhouette, was lace, began to take hold. To my way of thinking, all this lace was not lace.
In 2011 the Powerhouse Museum in Australia held the Love Lace competition. The competition chose to describe lace as any “openwork structure whose pattern of spaces is as important as the solid areas” a definition that was intentionally broad so as to attract many participants. Again, there were many entries that I would consider “not lace”.
In 2013, you held the Doily Free Zone, the 1st International Symposium of Young Lace Makers in Pavia, Italy. For this event lace was defined as having to have a textile technique as a basis, not merely the “aesthetic of lace”. Concentrating on youthful practitioners, various techniques were explored including bobbin lace, needle lace, tatting, and macramé.
Each successive show confirmed for me that I would like to see a show demonstrating what could be done artistically with bobbin and needle lace techniques. These are very fluid techniques which developed rapidly to meet the needs of changing fashion and are capable of tremendous variation in appearance. To my mind, bobbin and needle lace are comparable to oil painting for their artistic possibilities. But, very few people are exploring these media. Is it because they are hard to learn? That doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to artists who typically undertake very difficult processes. I thought, perhaps it is because artists have not been introduced to them as contemporary art media.
So, one of my goals was to show these techniques to artists who work in fiber.
Another thought that had crossed my mind while at Doily Free Zone was that there was no school of art criticism for lace art. In 1971 the feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin wrote the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” One of the tenets of this essay was that art that resonated with the life experience of women was unlikely to be appreciated by male critics. So, until there were women within the ranks of curators and critics, feminist art would not be discussed and critiqued. And so, I thought, there will be no great lace artists until we have critical discussions about lace art comparable to the discussions of brush strokes, perspective and chiaroscuro that are the mainstay of critical discussion of painting.
One of my goals in this exhibit was to create room to discuss what was going on in the pieces and how the artist was using various lace effects. For instance, looking at Dagmar Beckel-Machyckova’s work next to that of her mentor Milca Eremiasova illuminates the things they have in common, thread used like a pencil drawing, perspective, as well as the differences, such as theme.
When I was writing the catalog, I tried to analyze what the artists were doing, and which historical lace traditions and techniques they were utilizing in their contemporary work. I took care to read all the articles about the artists written in magazines and art sites. But for the most part, the techniques are so unknown that the only thing that mainstream critics knew about them was that they were lace. At that point the critical commentary would usually invoke a lot of stereotypes about lace, “frilly, romantic, Victorian” and then say the artist’s work was not that. But that was as far as it went.
I was hoping to move the critical discussion of art in lacemaking techniques along into more specifics. In fact, this has happened. As I have been taking lacemakers and others on tours, they have shared their insights with me about what the artists are doing. In many cases they have observations that I had not thought about, and that I often incorporate into later tours."
The title you chose “Lace NOT Lace” is quite loaded both for those within the lace community and those outside it – what does it mean to you?
"I had mentioned that in the show Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting, I considered many of the works to be “not lace”. However, as time went on I began to realize that many things that I consider lace do not look like lace to the general public. One time I showed a photo of my daughter making the famous Springett snake to my daughter’s art teacher. She asked, “Where is the lace?” Another time that this occurred was when I showed a photo of Dorie Millerson’s small needle lace sculptures to the Director of the Hunterdon Art Museum. She said she loved Dorie’s work, but didn’t know how it was made. I told her the pieces were made in needle lace, and she found this very confusing. I began to realize that my conception that lace is anything made in lacemaking techniques was not easily defended to a general public that expected that lace be airy, and white, and transparent.
So, the title was meant to acknowledge that fiber art being made in lacemaking techniques might not correspond to the general understanding of what lace is supposed to be. I have to say that I am entirely sympathetic to people who look at a tiny three-dimensional yellow taxi cab and don’t call it “lace”.
Practically speaking, the concept that many of the pieces made in lacemaking techniques didn’t look like lace proved to be a problem in terms of choosing images for the invitations and publicity. We tried to choose objects that looked enough like lace to signal lace, because otherwise, people would be very confused."
One of the extraordinary pieces on display, and certainly one of the most fascinating is Lieve Jerger’s Carriage of Lost Love, over four decades of work on display for the first time. From what I have heard so far it really is the star of the show – could you please tell us a little about this unique piece?
"Lieve has been working on the Carriage of Lost Love since 1977 and it is still not finished. I have been following its progress for about that long because Lieve used to be the editor of the Lace Magazine International, the publication of the now defunct Belgian Lace School in California. She would occasionally illustrate the magazine with photos and drawings of the carriage. I have been entranced with it for virtually all the time that she has been working on it. Although I have been following it for most of my adult life, I realized that I didn’t understand all the aspects of the work, and I asked her to write it down for the catalog. I think it is one of the most interesting parts of the catalog.
However, to summarize, the Carriage had its origins in the suicide of her brother. After this, Lieve’s mother, who lived in Antwerp learned lacemaking as a form of solace, and Lieve learned it from her. By then, Lieve was living in California and had been impressed with the beauty of copper wire. She made the first panel, the Traveler, a line drawing of a woman’s profile, her hair blowing in the wind, looking at a planet in space. After making this panel she decided that the Traveler should have a beautiful carriage to ride in like carriages she had seen at the National Coach museum in Portugal. So, taking this rather large panel as a window, she scaled it up to a full-size carriage that would ultimately have eight pictorial windows set in it.
The Carriage has been a companion and an emotional support for Lieve throughout her life, but the progress has not been steady. It is so large that she requires studio space to assemble it. So, she accomplished a great deal of work on it in the 1980s when she had studio space in Angel’s Gate Cultural Center in Los Angeles. In 2014 she was given a residency jjin a restored adobe in Casas Grandes, Mexico. It was there that she made all four wheels.
I only saw it in person once before, many years ago when she put part of it up at an International Organization of Lace convention. It was staggeringly beautiful. I have to say that when she assembled it at the Hunterdon Art Museum, I became so emotional that I almost cried. I had been afraid that I might never see it again. Instead I had been instrumental introducing it to the art world.
Everybody who sees it loves it.
The Carriage is gorgeous, and it has been beautifully lit. Light shines on it from the outside causing it to glitter like gold. Light is also provided from the inside causing the panels to be projected on the wall. In fact, people often find they can admire the workmanship of each panel better by finding its projection on the wall and ceiling than by looking directly at it. When people enter the room they are really overcome with this immersive experience. A bit of a problem is that it is very hard to photograph this, so you really have to experience it in person."
Possibly the best-known piece selected for the exhibition was the gigantic installation of the Lace Urchins by Choi + Shine. An extraordinary work which could sadly only be included for the first couple of weeks of the exhibition, it is different from the other pieces in the exhibition as it is a collaboration between designers and makers whereas all of the others are the product of each individual artist. In some ways this work is closer to what lace was in its prime in the 17th and 18th centuries: a collaboration between designers and highly skilled makers. For you, what was the role of the Urchins in the exhibition?
"I have to say that the Urchins presented a bit of a problem in terms of the premise of the exhibit which was to introduce artists and the public to needle lace and bobbin lace. The Urchins are crocheted, although to historic needle lace patterns. What can I say? Sometimes a piece is just so dramatic and appealing that you have to include it! Lacemakers love the work of Choi + Shine. In fact, numerous members of the International Organization of Lace lent their talents to making these pieces. Although based in Boston, this was the first Choi + Shine work to be exhibited in the US. It was very exciting to have the pieces on the terrace of the museum. They are so interesting that they garnered a lot of press attention and free publicity. On the second weekend of the show, there were 600 people on the terrace of the museum to see the Urchins and the police had to close the street. Many people who were drawn to the Urchins then entered the museum to see the rest of the show.
You make an interesting observation about the project and its historical antecedents. In fact, the revolutionary aspect of contemporary lace art is that the maker is the designer, which runs counter to virtually the entire history of the craft. I suppose you could say that the project is closer to the 17th and 18th century collaboration between designers and highly skilled makers. But in some sense, it isn’t, because the makers of the Urchins were not paid. They were doing it for the fun of being part of a large public art work. So, is that more comparable to participating in a project such as the AIDs quilt? Going back to the 19th century, I find a correlation with the making of Queen Victoria’s wedding lace. The craftsmen were paid, but the lacemakers found being involved in such an important commission was a distinction that they bragged about for the rest of their lives."
Lace not Lace features 41 works of lace art by 28 artists, so it would be impossible to discuss each of the episodes without making a really long episode – and I strongly encourage everyone who can to see the exhibition or buy the catalogue – so, just to close today could you discuss two of the works which most surprised or moved you as the show’s curator?
"This is a really hard question to answer because I love each and every piece.
I am very proud to have Penny Nickels’ work the Jersey Devil in the show. I have a weakness for the Jersey Devil a product of New Jersey folklore. In fact, the Jersey Devil is quite possibly New Jersey’s only folklore figure. As legend has it, this demon was born in 1735 in the Pine Barrens, a dark and mysterious pine forest on the Jersey shore.
Penny taught herself needle lace from the materials on the University of Arizona site. I was first attracted to a piece called The Endurance, that she had made about the Shackleton expedition. I was very impressed with what I later realized was a print maker’s perspective in needle lace. She uses different stitches the way print makers use different cross-hatching and other patterns to achieve different tones and effects in the work. I was delighted to find out that she was working on a piece about the Jersey Devil for a show called Monsters in America. As it turned out, the piece took 1500 hours to complete and was not made in time for its intended show. While Penny may have been unhappy about this, I was elated. This meant that the Jersey Devil could have its premiere in the very state he haunts.
A bit of serendipity occurred when I was looking for an example of lace that was part of the 20th century Czech Contemporary Lace movement. Dagmar Beckel-Machyckova, with whom I had studied Czech contemporary lace, offered the loan of four lace “sketches” by Milča Eremiášová, a Czech artist of international fame who had exhibited at Expo 58 and Expo 67. Dagmar who had been a student of Milča’s bought these pieces from her with the critical eye that only another Czech lacemaker would have. Meanwhile, Dagmar had been progressing in her own artmaking and was able to make a new piece for the show to hang beside Milča’s work. It is very interesting to see these pieces juxtaposed. Milča’s influence is clear in Dagmar’s work, but Dagmar is approaching different themes than Milca did. Dagmar’s work Habitats of Hypocrisy relates to concentrated animal feeding operations. I find it very exciting to show the work of a major Czech artist who attained international acclaim as early as the 1950s next to that of her student who is rising in the same field in 2018. In fact, Milča had been the student of Emilie Paličková, a titan of Czech Contemporary Lace whose work had been enthusiastically hailed in 1925 at an exhibition in Paris. Thus, Dagmar represents the third in an impressive lineage of contemporary Czech lacemakers that goes back almost a hundred years.
Mani Lace Wall, by Manca Ahlin, was a surprise. Although a product of the 112-year-old lace school in Žiri, Slovenia, Manca now lives in New York. She has made a number of large lace walls, one in the Stix Bar and Grill at the Indigo hotel, one in the Etsy headquarters and one in a Starbucks. I asked her to make something for the show. Since it was not a permanent installation, she conceived the idea of making several free-standing pieces that fit together, but that she might someday sell separately. Beyond that, I had no idea what she was going to do. As it turned out, Manca made a leap into a three-dimensional wall with pieces that are concave, convex and multi-layered, having been designed with the aid of architectural software. Her inspiration for this piece came while she was hiking in Nepal. She noticed walls that were composed of mani stones. These stones vary in size and color, but they all have the prayer Om Mani Padme Hum inscribed on them. They are then arranged in walls, called Mani Walls. She was inspired by them to create Mani Lace Wall, which is a breathtaking assemblage of pieces in different shapes designs, and rope materials."
Below are some more images from the opening of the exhibition, it is certainly worth visiting if you get the chance and will be on at the Hunterdon Museum in New Jersey until January 6
You can find more information here: https://hunterdonartmuseum.org/portfolio-items/lace-not-lace-contemporary-fiber-art-from-lacemaking-techniques/