If I were to succinctly describe the exhibition at the WAG this month, I would have to say “an abundance of riches.” On first seeing the fabric collages, I was struck by the profusion of colour. Next I was drawn to the evocative and varied subjects, which are often presented in a playful way. Then, taking a closer look, I became aware of the richness of detail and texture. Every piece in the show entitled Fabrications merits a period of concentrated looking, longer for the large panels, but equally focussed for the smaller framed pieces.
Pamela Allen began her artistic practice in 1982 as a painter and then moved on to collage and assemblage before considering fabric art, which involved a new skill: sewing. She has been working in this medium since 2002, has garnered numerous awards, been included in four books about quilting, and shown in Europe, Japan and the United States. Early on in her career she also taught Painting and Drawing in Queen’s Fine Art Department, and then in the late 90s in the North, as part of the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP).
“Quilting” is a word that Pamela defines loosely, given that her finished work, as well as the process she uses to make it, demonstrate a painterly approach. She begins with an idea, then covers her entire panel with swathes of three colours in dark, medium and light tones. Next she draws with scissors, that is, she cuts out the shapes of her subjects and layers them intuitively, choosing from a relatively small selection of textiles she has collected from commercial sources and thrift shops. If she doesn’t like the colour of a fabric, she will overdye it, which still allows the patterns to show through. Pamela likes to use what she has on hand, thereby setting herself parameters—and challenges. “I work like an artist, not a quilter,” she said.
There are 10 large panels in this show, illustrating a variety of lived and imagined experiences, from urban life in the Kingston area to outport life in Newfoundland; from the life of modern-day women to that of medieval women and that of women in rural Africa; from the life of farm creatures to that of wild creatures.
Pamela’s favourite panel, made in 2018, is Ellys in Malawi, an image of two elephants facing one another in a whimsical landscape. “The elephants’ front legs are backwards,” Pamela explained with a laugh. In 2017 she had spent four weeks in Malawi teaching drawing as part of a project for the rural poor. One of the boys in her class had drawn the backwards legs on his rendition of an elephant. As an homage to the young artist Pamela used distortion in her own piece. In order to determine where machine stitching has been done on quilted fabric, one has only to look on the reverse side of the panel (which visitors should not, of course, do). In Ellys, there is no machine stitching. The myriad patterns of lines and textures have been created by hand.
An earlier panel, a kind of transition piece reminiscent of assemblage, makes extensive use of embellishments—items that have been sewn onto the fabric. In The Snake Charmer, coloured safety pins, beads, bells, clothespins, fish lures and a painted cast of lips embellish the female figure. Two further items point to the idea behind the work: a row of old-fashioned metal curlers and a vacuum cleaner head, which protrudes from a quilted fabric snake-like hose. This is a statement about women’s work. To emphasize, Pamela stated, “I hate housework!”
Cinderella Making Her Getaway, a scene in a Gothic setting inspired by illuminated manuscripts, presents the well known fairy-tale figure on horseback, exiting stage right, leaving her ordinary-looking—old, even—prince, apparently not in a romantic frame of mind. “Did they live happily ever after? No, probably not,” said Pamela.
One of my favourite pieces is a vibrant panel entitled 11 Birds. I found myself trying to count all 11, some of which are large, intricately stitched farm birds, others unidentifiable ones in trees and on the ground. This piece was inspired by the art of “outsiders” whom Pamela saw during a trip to Florida. These self-taught artists create far from the art market and from formal artistic traditions, traits that appeal to Pamela, who prefers to follow her own rules.
In the case of the 22 smaller works in the exhibition, Pamela determined that the repetition of a formal element would act as a point of departure. She developed every image from a square of fabric printed with art taken from the public domain or from her own designs. If a viewer looks closely, her or she can find the square and see how cleverly Pamela has incorporated the subject to create a new composition, whether a still life, a portrait, or a whimsical scene such as Little Girl Walking Her Chicken.
Fabrications continues until May 26.