Realism in Fabric

Perhaps the oldest artistic medium of man-made material is fabric, yet, it is only recently that fabric figures have been produced with a high degree of realism. This leap has been made possible by the modern technological marvel of nylon, an extremely moldable fabric which can be stretched to 8 or 9 times its sitting length, while still returning to its original size when released.

The first time I saw the fabric used for anything other than clothing was during a presentation at the Philadelphia College of Art given by Judy Jampell. She worked like many 3-dimensional illustrators do today -- by creating a facade that could be manipulated from behind. This makes sense since the photograph is the final product for publication. I was intrigued by the idea of wrapping the nylon completely around to create a free-standing sculpture and did that for the graduating competition. When I subsequently won an Ely award, I thought I had a powerful idea -- but since I had committed to a career in animation, I set it aside.

At Disney, working with nylon again came to mind while I was developing figures with moveable internal skeletons, control boxes and other kinetic mechanisms. Nylon was perfect as a simple surface that could stretch and move as the figure was positioned. It wasn’t long, however, before the properties of nylon began to present other options. For example, nylon is semi translucent, so several layers of differently colored nylon can produce very subtle and realistic skin tones. Also “needlemodelling” produces wrinkles, soft indentations, and delicate facial features. I felt compelled to explore these potentials, so I left Disney.

The Avalon Restaurant” and the “Krazy Horse Saloon” were two large installations created in a style that seems to be half way between animation and the kind of more realistic sculpture I developed later. The figures were positioned in dynamic, interactive relationships with each other. Their faces, although not fully realistic, seemed to capture the essence of the people. This sharpened my focus on character and led me to make individual figures that were posed to relate with the viewer in a more intimate way.

Working with fabric has been a liberating experience because it is intimate, responsive, and informing, and it allows me to pursue my primary interest, which is the nature of personality and character, and the study of the face as a medium of primary communication. In this, nylon is the most delicately nuanced material I’ve yet discovered; and it has a special gift for creating the illusion of living flesh.

Today I create the illusion of flesh by mimicking nature -- basically using materials that feel and behave like what they represent. “Bones” are made with wire shaped by heavy felt, “muscles,” simulated by batting, are attached to the bones in the correct anatomical way, and this all makes a perfect frame for the fiberfill and nylon that beautifully simulates skin. This inside-out construction allows for refinement over time -- the more I understand, the more I can incorporate. For instance, about 7 years ago, an improved pelvis design revolutionized my ability to do nudes.

Curiously, although my work has evolved over the years, my earlier styles of working have never been out of favor with me, and I love the early figures as much as ever. I still cherish my first soft sculpture, and it reminds me of the time I showed her to a college professor. He proclaimed it the “worst piece of junk” he had ever critiqued, and chastised me at length for having the gall to present it. I also remember how hurt he was that his words didn’t bother me. How could he have known that all his harsh castigation could possibly achieve was the cementing of a permanent relationship between a new artist and her work? In any case, I can’t say I explored my medium as much as followed where it took me. It has been such an enlightening, enriching, and forgiving journey that I always feel excited in the morning when I go into my studio.

I would not trade the life I have had for anything.

IMAGE INFORMATION: Top Right: Woman as Egg, 1992 | Top Left: The Krazy Horse Saloon, 1983
Left: The Avalon Restaurant, 1984 | Center: The Masai Warrior in progress, 2000
Above Left: The First Soft Sculpture, 1979 | Right: Aunty T

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