By Lou Fancher
From LGBTQ rainbow flags and ACT UP AIDS T-shirts to 1960s Black Panther berets and hippie culture tie-dye, textiles have a history of radical symbolism in the Bay Area. Cloth has been used in posters, banners, fashion, multimedia installations, fine art, and more to establish an identity for marginalized communities or celebrate countercultural movements. Textiles tell stories. Fabric has altered human behavior, awareness, and understanding.
A workshop on Aug. 26 at BAMPFA, or Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, led by artists Amanda Walters and Paulina Berczynski will acquaint participants with this potent tool for communication and social change. After a short presentation, people will design their own back patches or work with precut pieces using instruction in appliqué sewing technique. Everyone will work together to create a banner inspired by the theme "radical textiles in the Bay Area."
"People will interpret that theme loosely, individually, so they can represent themselves the way they want," said Walters. "We'll bring historical materials to use as reference and marking materials to draw or write on the pieces."
Walters, 34, who lives in Oakland, is an interdisciplinary artist whose work includes soft and hard sculptures, jacquard weavings, ink on paper drawings, papier-mâché, tree bark-dyed textile pieces, and more. Her fascination with fabric gone wild began long before she earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in studio practice, as well as an M.A. in visual and critical studies from California College of the Arts.
"I grew up in the middle of Florida, in nowhere. I was always making my own clothes out of weird recycled things. When I was 12, my mom had kept my old stuffed animals. I took them apart and made a dress out of the animal skins of teddy bears, a frog, a puppy. The pieces were all different colors. I had a lot of stuffed animals, and most of them made it onto that dress."
Textile workshop co-leader Berczynski said her journey into textile art was informed by political activism. "When I was 15, I marched in the 25th anniversary parade for the Stonewall riots in New York. It was my first encounter with the LGBTQ community writ large. It was a lot of homemade banners and T-shirts. The 'wow' was in the celebration of community. The signs of solidarity with values of inclusion: It was so colorful, such a positive event. It was a big influence on the work I do."
Berczynski, 42, lives in Berkeley and is a native of Lodz, Poland. After moving to the United States at age 5 and settling in Philadelphia, she attended Carnegie Mellon University and holds a BFA in graphic design. In 2005 she founded FluffyCo, a clothing and accessory line carried in more than 300 boutiques worldwide and available at the company online Fluffyco.com. Berczynski has an MFA is social practice and textiles from CCA, where she and Walters first met. "At grad school, we connected," Walters recalled. "Not only were we using textiles, we were both interested in its radical histories. We were thinking about activism and art."
BAMPFA's Engagement Associate David Wilson said, "One of the things that's so exciting about working with artists like Amanda and Paulina who think deeply about the materiality of their work is that it creates opportunity for our visitors to directly engage — and hopefully inspires them to leave the museum with a sense of potential for how they can apply new discoveries to their own work and communities."
Berczynski said activism and art in the '60s often disrupted the status quo. "It was people showing their identities or belonging to certain groups through decorated garments," she said. "Even liturgical garments with patchwork have identity. Today, textiles aren't used the same way. Although they enjoy a fashionable 15-minutes of popularity, people coalesce online, in temporary, virtual space."
Which is what the workshop is designed to counter. Instead of liking something on Facebook, Walters said people find community through live, extended, physical interactions. "The actual gathering of people in one place, the embodied experience, makes a difference. It's like Stitch 'n Bitch." The is the name of progressive social knitting groups started during World War II and periodically revived ever since in which women come together to knit, stitch, and talk.
The artists said their feral fabric activism has a 21st-century twist by placing radical textiles made in small circles in the societal conversation to exist as another form of communication.
"In this post-DIY culture, people are interested in problem solving together instead of isolated or alienated," said Berczynski. "Fabric coming out of the living room and into the world, be it a cape, a protest banner, a free flag — we welcome something that's more than just conversation."
Asked about the culture of textiles in the commercial realm, Berczynski said there are two sides, with artisanal fashion and independent designers on one side and fast fashion on the other.
"Fast fashion is predominantly female workers in other countries being exploited, paid poorly so people in other countries can have products," Berczynski said. "Capitalism means we need to have a lot to consume so it plays into that. Consumerism is a nightmare."
On a positive, progressive note, she pointed out that more designers are making conscious, eco/sustainable, and fair-labor decisions. Plus, the internet makes it easier to find brands whose humanitarian practices and ethos consumers can support.
Because education is key to fine art textiles' future, Walters is troubled by program terminations, "Every year I hear about a school getting rid of their looms and it's a great sale because they're closing their programs. That's really scary to me. Is fabric going to be used only for fashion classes? The radical potential for fabrics, for conceptual application, there could be more of that."
In Walter's estimation, framing fabric only in a DIY craftsmanship context that does not travel beyond the classroom or retail applications bores students. What gets people invested in fabrics, instead, is activist application. For Walters and Berczynski, it is not a matter of making textile fine art in a vacuum; it's letting fabrics run feral in the world at large.
Feral Fabric With Amanda Walters and Paulina Berczynski, programmed by Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Sun., Aug 26, noon, BAMPFA, included with admission to the museum, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, www.BAMPFA.org. Visit the artists' new website, FeralFabric.com, a platform for highlighting the history of radical textile production in art, activism, and counter-cultural movements and upcoming events.
Paulina Berczynski will co-lead a workshop at BAMPFA that invites participants to go feral with fabrics. Photo courtesy BAMPFA.