Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Alice Schlein - Art and Technology

Alice Schlein - Photography by Bruce Schlein

I have been blessed over the years to meet many artists and become friends and Alice and her husband Bruce, physician and photographer, became part of that group many years ago. As a young woman with a small child, I found it difficult to work in my studio with paints and chemicals but read about a class in back-strap weaving being taught at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, SC and I decided to take the course. Alice was the instructor. We became friends and our friendship has continued.

Alice was one of the first people I knew who had a MacIntosh computer and used it for something other than keeping their check book balanced. She always has had an interest in complex weaving and has authored one book entitled Network Drafting: An Introduction, co-authored The Woven Pixel: Designing for Jacquard & Dobby Looms Using Photoshop with Bahakti Ziek, and is a former contributor to Weavers Magazine. As the technology developed and became available to individuals, Alice began using the computer to assist with her weaving and she worked her way up to having a jacquard loom which is attached to her Mac.

Alice is a productive artist and teacher and continues to pursue her studio work.

Gamma I - Photography by Alice Schlein

Interview June 2009

Question: What was the origin of your interest in textiles?

Alice: I grew up in a family with a strong interest in the needle arts. My mother, grandmother, and maternal aunts were avid knitters, my grandmother was an accomplished seamstress, and my mother still knits and sews. I sewed clothes for my dolls before I learned to read. On the paternal side, my father and two of his brothers were artists, one of them professionally , and that side of my development was always nurtured. In elementary school, my sixth grade teacher introduced all her students to weaving overshot on a table loom. That was a pivotal experience for me! I am so grateful to her.

Question: You work with a highly sophisticated and technical process. How does your process influence your work?

Alice: I've always been fascinated by the technical side of weaving. I enjoy reading about looms, weaving gadgetry and weave structure. I do love fiber and the hands-on experience with fiber and yarn, but it's the science and history of interlacements that especially intrigues me. My first loom had four shafts, and I eventually moved on to multi-shaft dobby looms, and now jacquard. I'm a self-taught weaver, and my work on shaft looms and dobby looms was a good foundation for jacquard design; without a basic knowledge of weave structure, a jacquard designer is at a great disadvantage. I think the knowledge of weave structure I've amassed over the years is my greatest strength. The other influence on the way I work is the computer. Weaving software enables me to explore multiple design options without committing the time to actually weave all of them, and computer-assisted looms are much kinder to this weaver's body! Using Photoshop to design for jacquard enables me to go very quickly from design concept to weave assignment to actual weaving. Sometimes as little as half an hour elapses between the moment of design inspiration to actually throwing the shuttle. This fluid working method enhances the creative process for me. I feel very lucky that my life as a weaver has coincided with this particular moment in technology history. I have no idea what my weaving would be like without computers, only that it would be very different.

Question: How do you feel weaving fits in the scheme of contemporary art?

Alice: Honestly, this is a question I don't often think about; I define myself as a weaver, and that's that. Writing an Artist's Statement for an exhibition is an activity I find very vexing. To quote my favorite bumper sticker, " I'd rather be weaving."

Gamma II - Photography by Alice Schlein

Question: Your current work is loosely pictorial whereas much of your earlier work was pattern oriented. Tell us about this transition.

Alice: When I worked with shaft looms, my work was necessarily of a blocky nature, because that is what these looms do best. I used lots of interesting weave structures, but I could never seem to break away from the block. Then I came across a mathematical concept (network drafting) which I adopted and further developed ( and eventually wrote a book about) that enabled me to weave curvier designs on the dobby loom. That led to a strong shift in the look of my weaving. I had always wanted to weave more graphic designs, and did actually make some attempts at interpreting photographs and drawings through the use of pickup sticks and other hand processes on the loom. But I was not temperamentally suited for this slo-o-ow work and didn't pursue it. Around 1998 I saw a new jacquard-type loom (the TC-1), which placed the technology of computer-assisted jacquard weaving within reach of the studio handweaver. I acquired a TC-1 in 2000 and nothing has been the same since! At the suggestion of Vibeke Vestby, the loom's inventor, I began using Photoshop as a means of designing for the loom and preparing loom-ready files. Fortune smiled on me again when I met Bhakti Ziek, a talented weaver and wonderful teacher. Together Bhakti and I wrote The Woven Pixel, capitalizing on her jacquard and design skills and my experience with weave structure and Photoshop. During the 2-year process of writing the book, I learned so much from Bhakti about jacquard design. It was like going for a 2-year degree without leaving home. Once I had the jacquard information under my belt, I was able to free up my designs and work from a base of photography, one of my concurrent interests. My designs are not literal interpretations of photographs, but incorporate digital photos and other pictorial elements (drawings, scans, digital text, etc.) along with distortion, layering, transparency, and other effects so abundant in Photoshop. So you might say that my current work is a combination of a solid background in traditional weave structure and more recently acquired skills in preparing loom-ready computer files.

Liquify II - Photography by Alice Schlein

Question: Do you keep a sketchbook or journal?

Alice: I have tried so many times to keep a journal and sketchbook, but have never had the follow-through to keep it going, until the advent of blogging. I started my own blog, Weaverly, as a lark a couple of years ago, and found that my blog actually serves as my journal. I use it to record ideas, work in progress, and random bits of information that impact my work. Knowing that I have committed to publishing a daily entry is a powerful stimulus to keeping on track with my weaving. It focuses me and forces me to move forward every day, even if that means only another inch of weaving or one more iteration of a design file. The bonus of blogging is that it connects me to the world outside my studio, and the interaction with other fiber artists adds greatly to the creative process.

Question: What are you trying to convey to your audience through your art?

Alice: I would like other people to experience the double pleasure I feel in viewing a beautiful textile: I love the way that looks", as well as " How interesting, I wounder how they did that?" My teaching and my writing are just as important to me as my weaving, as components of a creative life. I am a compulsive explainer. If I can enhance someone else's knowledge of and appreciation of interesting textiles, I feel I have done a good day's work.

Question: How do you organize your day?

Alice: That depends. Just now I am writing another book, and I get my best work done in the morning. So I start each day with two or three hours of writing. Around midday I swim laps at the Y. After lunch I weave (or design, or wind warps, or prepare bobbins, or hem wall hangings) for a couple of hours. In the evening my husband and I listen to music (or watch Law and Order) while I knit socks. I finish each day by writing the next morning's blog entry. In between all this I fit in household tasks, bill-paying, and the like. But the writing and the weaving get locked into the schedule first.

You can see Alice's work at the SC Botanical Gardens, Fran Hanson Discovery Center, Clemson University until July 31st.

Piedmont Craftsmen, Winston-Salem, NC - July 1-31, 2009 - Artist of the Month with Joanna Gollberg, jeweler.

August 10-13, 2009 Alice is offering a Jacquard Class for 4 students in her studio.

To see more of Alice's work visit:

A big Thank You to Alice for sharing her beautiful work and some insight into her studio.

My next interview will be with quilt artist Carol Taylor.

1 comment:

  1. Alice, you are so organized. I enjoyed reading about how you got into art and how you and Terry met. The work has a very clean feel to it. I especially like the one Terry posted on her blog.
    A very enjoyable interview. Look forward to more.