Research Spotlight: Claire Zeisler's Chicago

I'm deep into the process of writing my dissertation chapter on Claire Zeisler, so it seems like the perfect time report on the research behind the text. In April I had the opportunity to spend a week in Chicago to visit galleries, museums, libraries, and individuals pertaining to the artist.

A grid of Lausanne Biennial covers from the Friends of Fiber Art International archives.

A grid of Lausanne Biennial covers from the Friends of Fiber Art International archives.

My first stop was the Friends of Fiber Art International outside the city. If you are interested in contemporary fiber art, FoFAI is a fun, kind, knowledgeable group, and they organize trips to major exhibitions like the Lodz Triennial in Poland. An affiliated private collector generously invited me into her home to view her fantastic collection of fiber and decorative arts, including Claire Zeisler's High Rise Stick. Though it is a study for the Milwaukee Art Museum's High Rise (1983-4), this spectacular piece hardly deserves to be called a "maquette." Its technical perfection truly communicates the sense of order and rigor that Zeisler demanded from herself and her assistants. I really admire her work ethic and am trying to channel it while writing my draft.

Color coordinating with Claire Zeisler's  High Rise Stick .

Color coordinating with Claire Zeisler's High Rise Stick.

From the suburbs, I took a train into the city and was very impressed by my accommodations at the Freehand Hotel. At the risk of competing with you all for a room next time the College Art Association Conference is in Chi-town, I'll let you in on a little secret: my dormitory-style bunk was only $35 per night! There is a restaurant and coffeeshop downstairs with all the trending hipster foods: burrata, kale, cucumber water served in mason jars, etc. Plus, I think it was a good omen for my dissertation that there was fiber art in the lobby, rooms, and even the bathroom stalls. THE BATHROOM STALLS!

You may think I spotted this gem alongside Zeisler's work in a museum, right? Nope, it was totally hanging above a toilet in my hostel. Fiber art is everywhere these days!

You may think I spotted this gem alongside Zeisler's work in a museum, right? Nope, it was totally hanging above a toilet in my hostel. Fiber art is everywhere these days!

At any rate, the Freehand was the perfect home base for trips to other institutions and archives, such as the Field Museum. Their wonderful staff and I collaborated on a Facebook post about my visit, which should be accessible via this link: https://www.facebook.com/fieldmuseum/posts/10153590110847273. As I write in the post: "At first, the Anthropology collections of The Field Museum may seem like an unusual place for a scholar of contemporary American abstract fiber sculpture to visit. However, fiber artists of the 1960s and ’70s such as Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, Ed Rossbach, and Claire Zeisler drew inspiration from diverse global sources, including sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. On my visit to the Field Museum, I sought to explore these connections by viewing several furs and textiles that belonged to fiber artist Claire Zeisler. How did these objects impact Zeisler’s own artwork? Upon viewing the textiles firsthand, I realized that the works’ powerful materiality corresponds to similar qualities in Zeisler’s own knotted sculptures. Three African karosses – garments quilted from different animal pelts – juxtapose a variety of distinct textures, much like Zeisler’s art of the period."

Kaross, or cloak, from South Africa, donated by Claire Zeisler in 1967. Catalog number 221257. © The Field Museum. Photograph by Sarah Parrish.

Kaross, or cloak, from South Africa, donated by Claire Zeisler in 1967. Catalog number 221257. © The Field Museum. Photograph by Sarah Parrish.

I saw too many fascinating things and met too many amazing people to mention them all here, and I also wish to protect their privacy. Suffice it to say that everyone I encountered went above and beyond to assist me with my research, and I would not be able to write this chapter without their generosity and support. If you are reading, you know who you are - Thank you!

Sarah