Home & Design

Rugged "Paper Houses." Photo: Mark Gulezian

Patterned, surface-dyed "Return." Photo: Mark Gulezian

Shimmering "Phoenix." Photo: Mark Gulezian

"GateKeeper," hand-woven of newspaper and cotton, references freedom of the press. Photo: Mark Gulezian

"Losses," soaring six feet high, emblemizes school gun violence; its cotton cloth enfolds symbolic hooded victims. Photo: Mark Gulezian

Steel, poised at the loom, translates sometimes difficult themes into expansive wall works. Photo: Robert Trippett

Woven Legacy

Creating her abstract art, Hillary Steel blends techniques practiced from Mexico to Malaysia

Pinned to the wall in Hillary Steel’s studio, a massive artwork rises. Intermixing striking colors in bold plaids and jagged stripes, its patterns resemble the flamboyant plumage of a bird in flight. Steel assembled the layers from cloth she had hand-woven and dyed months before, awaiting inspiration. “I love what birds symbolize,” says the artist. “I wanted it to be hopeful and uplifting.”

Standing in the studio at her Silver Spring home, Steel is surrounded by three floor looms, acquired over the 40 years she has been developing her craft and earthy, soaring-in-scale contemporary art. During that time, her richly textured wall pieces have become increasingly three-dimensional, their abstract designs continuing to express ideas arising over a lifetime.

One series came about when Steel’s adult daughters were small. Disgusted by scandals in the news, the artist began cutting up newspapers, interweaving paper strips and cotton thread into squares stitched together to form small, rough-hewn houses. “Newspaper has such a beautiful texture,” Steel comments about the approach she revives periodically. Most of her pieces, woven of cotton, reflect a strong West African influence; others made of silk or rayon glimmer in the light.

Steel views her craft as a basic human activity. “Weaving is in our DNA,” she observes. “But we’ve moved so far away from hand-weaving in our industrial society, people don’t understand how cloth is made anymore.” As she explains, weaving is simply the interlacing of two linear elements on any kind of loom. A vertical thread, called a warp, is held under tension as a horizontal weft thread goes over and under. “It’s a very, very old technology that I have a great fondness for,” the artist says.

Most hand-weavers make cloth on a loom, then use the fabric in functional objects such as blankets, rugs or clothing. Steel takes it further. “I think of weaving as a construction method,” she explains. “I create the structure—the cloth, then I manipulate and change it a lot.”

The artist begins by weaving cloth in a variety of textures, patterns and colors in lengths up to 18 yards. Later, while composing a new piece, fabrics may be interspliced and dyed again. “Eventually I’ll get it into a form that seems right and I’ll sew it together by hand,” she says. A large wall piece—like the eight-by-eight-foot work currently underway—can take nearly five years from start to finish.

To understand the roots of her art, Steel has traveled to West Africa and South America, and worked with craftspeople from Central Asia. Almost every year since 2006, she has visited Tenancingo, Mexico, to study with the late master weaver Evaristo Borboa and, more recently, Ruben Nuñez. For these trips, Steel takes along a backstrap loom. That deceptively simple device—made of sticks, rope and a strap—anchors to a stationary post at one end and wraps around the weaver’s waist at the other.

Using that loom, she has learned to weave highly complex, traditional patterns with very fine cotton thread in resist-dyed patterns. Called ikat in Malaysia and jaspe in Mexico, the technique involves isolating groups of threads that are tightly bound to resist taking on color, while the color in a dye bath permeates the untied threads. The process may involve handling and counting thousands of threads, as bundles are marked off before dyeing, then later lined up on the loom to create a pattern. “It’s a brilliant design system and a complicated, labor-intensive process that requires a lot of time, planning and math,” Steel notes. “You can take it very far.”

The artist’s proficiency offers no hint that she stumbled into the field by chance. While majoring in English at the University of Buffalo, Steel took a poetry class at a nearby college where she discovered the textiles studio. Peering through a window, she first glimpsed floor looms.

“Somehow, I signed up for an intro to textiles class. From there I took a weaving class,” the artist remembers. She taught herself basic chemistry to understand how dyes work, combed textile exhibits and learned from books and workshops. “I experimented a lot,” she notes.

After moving to Pittsburgh with her husband in the 1980s, Steel taught textile art in a high school, continuing to learn along with her students. A Maryland resident since 1994, she now teaches full-time at The Potomac School in McLean and leads adult workshops in the U.S. and Mexico.

Steel remains grateful to her own mentors, especially those in Mexico. “To be able to travel to places where the language and customs are so different, and work with people in the same area of craft, to have an intercambio—an exchange, as it’s called in Spanish—is a gift,” she observes, while recognizing her point in the constellation. “I’m not from that culture. I’m not going to produce what they produce. In my own studio, I try to take what I learn, what makes sense for me, and interpret it through the lens of my own time and place.”

Hillary Steel’s art will be on view from April 1 to May 1 at the Hillyer Gallery at International Arts & Artists in DC. For more information, visit hillarysteel.com.

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