Navigating the Currents: A Fiber Arts Insider Reviews 2011 SDA Conference

(All images by Marci McDade except as noted. Caption tags pop up when mouse is rolled over images. -Ed.)

A merging of minds took place at Confluence: 2011 International Surface Design Association Conference held in Minneapolis from June 9 to12. Co-sponsored by Textile Center Minneapolis—St. Paul, this year’s biennial symposium attracted 420 attendees representing Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, India, Israel, the Netherlands, Nevis, Norway, Qatar, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA.

The energizing and comprehensive program of lectures, panel discussions, member meetings, vendor fairs, and textile arts exhibitions were all filled with fresh perspectives from every corner of the fiber field.

The gathering began with tours of the nearly 40 shows on view in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. A gallery guide to featured and related exhibitions can be opened from the conference section of the SDA website here. I’ll be reviewing some of these shows in a future SDA NewsBlog post.

After absorbing so much exceptional art work in one day, acclaimed artist and educator Pat Hickman created a quiet space for contemplation with her keynote address “Confluence: Beyond the Surface”. Citing examples of her earthy and ethereal pieces made from hog-gut and netting, she encouraged audience members to create work filled with personal meaning that reaches beyond a love of materials and techniques.

The concurrent sessions began on Friday with “Democratizing Fabric Design”, a truly inspiring tale of custom fabric production in the digital age by featured speaker Stephen Fraser, cofounder of Starting in 2008 with little more than a shared passion for textiles and some Internet know-how, Spoonflower has grown into a wildly successful print-on-demand textile service that responds to the creative needs of a loyal international community that already includes many SDA members.

Other do-it-yourself crowd-pleasers included home-grown success stories told by the charming and adventurous Australian artist and natural-dye expert India Flint and southern belle fashion designer Natalie Chanin, founder of the Alabama Chanin sustainable-style clothing line. To add industry perspectives to the entrepreneurial mix, a lively and informative panel discussion entitled “The Textile-Driven Life: Creating Products and Careers” included design professionals Dawn Zero Erickson, Laura Foster Nicholson, Mary Jaeger and Janelle Torrence and was moderated by SDA Digital News Editor and fashion industry veteran Leesa Hubbell.

Throughout the wide range of enlightening textile talks, I pondered how valuable it might be to invite more presenters (and attendees) in the future who make and promote exciting forms of fiber art but don’t always self-identify as “fiber” artists. As the former editor of Fiberarts magazine, I’m always fascinated by makers who successfully cross over into acceptance by the broader contemporary art world. Multi-media artist Anne Wilson, avant-garde fashion designer Nick Cave, conceptual quilter Anna Von Mertens, super knitter Mark Newport, and mixed-media beader Jan Huling are just a few practitioners who have repositioned themselves on the other side of this divide. How have these artists promoted their work differently to appeal to a wider audience? How do they network to cultivate new opportunities?

Another desire we all share is to see more young makers at the SDA conferences. Cost is an obvious prohibitive factor among students and recent graduates, but perhaps more merit scholarship opportunities could be created by increasing our contributions. As we attract more Gen Y/Gen Next members, we can invite more meaningful dialog between the generations with targeted panel discussions and group exhibitions. For the field to grow and thrive, we need to become attuned to how these digital natives like to interact with others to build community and identify current trends in the field. To help make this happen, I joined the speakers and exhibitions planning committees for the 2013 conference and encourage other members to do the same or send suggestions to me as an advocate.

Faythe Levine headshot 2013The admirable attempt to connect SDA members with a younger fiber crowd this year seemed to miss the mark through a slight confluence of conflicts. In her lecture “DIY Handmade: Ethos and Aesthetics of Today’s Craft Culture,” Faythe Levine aptly framed the current state of the DIY movement with intriguing examples by emerging artists Erin M. Riley (tapestry) and Monica Canilao (found-object installation). But audience members still out of the DIY loop had to wait until later that night to learn more at the screening of Levine’s DIY documentary Handmade Nation.

On the plus side, the screening (which included Carolyn Kallenborn‘s documentary Woven Lives) took place at the hotel alongside the Members’ Trunk Show and the Vendors Fair. Unfortunately, these events all ran concurrently with a special inaugural Unraveled DIY Festival that featured local makers. Organized by the Textile Center, this one-night-only local event was presented just a block away at the Rapson Architecture Center.

Overstimulated and underfed – and mindful of their time constraints – most members opted not to hunt for the DIY festival through a construction zone along unfamiliar streets in the rain, choosing instead the fun-filled options closer to hand. In retrospect, it may have worked better to stage the Members’ Trunk Show (also a one-night-only event) on a different day or present Levine’s lecture later in the afternoon, followed by a guided walk with her to the Rapson building to make the most of the opportunity. (Check out festival vendor/participant Sewtropolis blog for more views. -Ed)

I was impressed with Kallenborn’s first-film project Woven Lives, which describes the ancient textile traditions being maintained by a handful of dedicated Zapotec weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico. Giddy with admiration and provenance, I fell in love with a gorgeous green and yellow weaving (hand-dyed and loom-woven) that features an ornate caracol snail pattern similar to the Chinese symbol for yin and yang. Luck smiled on me again at the SDA Silent Auction where I happily won the bidding for a small mixed-media piece by Wendy Huhn. To increase my understanding of her creative process, I attended Huhn’s demo “Acrylics for Textiles” later in the day at the Textile Center.

Saturday morning’s member meeting provided attendees with the chance to connect hard-working board and staff names with faces, plus get the full scoop on features of the redesigned website, the redesigned digital publications and other exciting new member benefits like the SDA facebook page. The concept of changing SDA’s name to something more accurate and user-friendly was also raised. Although this may seem like a radical idea after more than 3 decades, the demise of Fiberarts magazine (which ended its 35 year print run with the Summer 2011 issue) has created an undeniable void in the field. Effective branding and name recognition are both key factors for effective marketing that could capture the imagination and support of new members across generations. With its international membership, superlative quarterly Journal, and newly energized digital presence, SDA is well-positioned to take advantage of this opportunity to fill the demand for textile-arts news and inspiration.

On the final evening of the conference, the ever-popular SDA Members’ Fashion Show took center stage in the Grainbelt Bottlehouse Atrium. Inspired by the theme Bodies of Water, the runway overflowed with stunning ensembles made by over 50 talented designers. Overflowing racks were rolled out  after the show for a hands-on experience of the work. You can now view the full-color pdf catalog of the event via SDA website here.

The impressive and comprehensive array of conference events were quietly concluded by renowned artist and educator Barbara Lee Smith with her talk “Open to Interpretation”. In a long weekend filled with visual overload and an overwhelming influx of new ideas, Smith refrained from neatly summing things up or populating her prose with any additional images. Instead she guided audience members through points of self reflection with only the sound of her voice, extolling the virtues of getting lost—of disconnecting from the distractions of daily life—with the goal of staying open to all the creative possibilities life has to offer.

To add some spice and sizzle to the next biennial conference, SDA will pitch camp in the Southwest. With its rich textile arts traditions, sunny skies, and supportive local venues like the Southwest School of Art, San Antonio is sure to shine as the host city of the 2013 International Surface Design Association Conference. You can bet I’ll be there with bells on to stoke the creative fire in the belly of makers who use fiber media.

Marci Rae McDade is the former editor of FiberArts magazine, in print from 1975-2011. She received an MFA in fiber and material studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007) and a BA in film and video production from Columbia College Chicago. As a practicing fiber artist and independent curator, McDade has exhibited her own work nationally in solo and group exhibitions and curated numerous contemporary art exhibitions over the past decade. You can find her on facebook and follow her on twitter @marciraemcdade.


  • Astrid Bennett says

    August 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    In reading this, I was immediately transported back to the excitement of the event itself. Many thanks to Marci and NewsBlog editor Leesa Hubbell for giving us the opportunity to revisit.

  • Teresa Paschke says

    August 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    I agree with Astrid. The 2011 SDA conference was a blast! Thank you Marci for reminding me how much I enjoyed it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.