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Remaking History

Remaking History

Centuries-old textiles in the amazing collection at the RISD Museum inspire students to create stunning contemporary work in response to specific pieces.

Noelle Webster 16 TX drew inspiration from the elegant black fringe on a Javanese shoulder cloth (slendang) in designing this knitted sweater made of paper yarn.

At this year’s Convocation ceremony, RISD Museum Director John W. Smith urged incoming students to find inspiration in the museum’s collections—to allow the millennia of human making housed within its walls to stimulate new ideas and new work. Designing Traditions Biennial IV, an exhibition on view through January 3, 2016 in the Donghia Costume and Textiles Gallery, offers a tangible example of where such inspiration can lead. Organized by Costume and Textiles curators Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer, the small but potent show juxtaposes centuries-old Asian textiles given to the museum by Lucy Truman Aldrich with pieces made by current Textiles students in response.

Traditional Indian milkmaids (gopis) depicted in a 19th-century cover (rumal) inspire similarly potent female figures in a bold jacquard design by Molly S. Gorlick 16 TX. The watery silver-leaf pattern adorning a Nō theater costume from 18th-century Japan invites responses from Kristen Haines 16 TX, who picks up on the irregularity of the design, and Adele Helmers 16 TX, who is able to evoke an analogous effect in a woolen textile. A Balinese wrapped skirt panel decorated with gold leaf (ca. 1875–1925) inspires a stunning series of dobby-loom textile swatches by Alyssa Spytman 16 TX, who uses iridescent fibers, metallic trims and sequin yarns to create textures reminiscent of the reference piece.

“This is the fourth time we’ve mounted an exhibit like this,” says Brewer, “and the student work has once again blown us away! I think it really reveals what’s going on behind the studio doors around campus.”

Brewer and Irvin turned to Textiles faculty members to “pre-jury” more than 100 pieces submitted by the 40 students involved in the project and then made their own selections for the biennial. “Textiles professors are looking for particular skill sets,” Brewer notes, “but we’re more interested in the back story behind each piece—how the student engaged with the reference works.”

Noelle Webster 16 TX used the elegant black fringe on a Javanese shoulder cloth (slendang) as the point of departure for designing a knitted paper yarn sweater (pictured above). “Kate and I just love the way she reinterpreted the movement of the fringe,” says Brewer. “Her piece captures its energy and spirit, and her interplay of control and release mirrors that of the inspirational piece.”

“I originally attempted to reference the many details of the Javanese batik, including its phoenix motif,” Webster recalls. “But I wasn’t able to capture the right feeling until I stumbled across a knit weaving technique with the black paper yarn. This stiff material allowed me to create a sturdy three-dimensional structure with some characteristically untamed ends.”

Webster appreciates the incredible resources that the museum offers RISD students and says that she frequently visits when she’s feeling “bogged down” by a new assignment. “Even if it’s just taking away a design fragment or something as simple as a color combination,” she notes, “the great pieces on display can really help to generate new ideas.”

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