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American Craft Magazine February/March 2012

High Tech, High Art

Jazz, 2007; cotton, mixed fibers; 6 x 8.7 ft.
Jazz (detail); photo: Courtesy of Synderman-Works Galleries
Jazz, 2007; cotton, mixed fibers; 6 x 8.7 ft.
Photo gallery (6 images)

When it comes to her work, textile artist Cynthia Schira is of two minds: that of a painter and a mathematician.

Inspired by the paintings of her late husband, Richard A. Schira, as well as the transparency of Mark Rothko and the landscapes of Chta Kimura, Schira has folded brilliant hues, patterns, and emotions into her work over the years. Yet it isn’t uncommon to also see geometry, equations, and codes within her later woven abstractions, reflections of her form’s mathematical roots. It’s this rare blend of right-brain/left-brain consideration that sets her work apart. It also has guided Schira, a 2000 American Craft Council Gold Medalist, through the increasingly technological world of jacquard weaving.

The computerized jacquard loom became available to artists in 1983, the year Schira, already internationally established,won her second National Endow-
ment for the Arts fellowship. Rather than resist developments like the new loom or the design software JacqCAD, Schira mastered them through her love of structure, innate curiosity, and determined hours logged on her Macintosh.

“Technology has allowed me to add complexity to my work that I could never have done by hand,” she says. And yet, “one has to be very careful to maintain one’s aesthetic and conceptual concerns so as not to get totally wooed by the abilities of the machines and the software.”

Thoughtfulness and self-awareness come easily to Schira. Before retiring from teaching in 1999, she spent 23 years inspiring students at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where she earned her own MFA in 1967. “Being involved in the classroom with students or other peers kept me more alive than if I were in the studio by myself,” she says.

Recently Schira attended the celebrated Kaunas textile biennial in Kaunas, Lithuania, where she gave a lecture and exhibited the 10-by-30-foot Etymon (2010), a weaving composed of abstractions of digital images of objects from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. She is presently at home in Westport, New York, hard at work creating designs that will be produced, like Etymon, on an electronic jacquard loom at the Oriole Mill in North Carolina. In March 2013 these works, with Etymon, will be displayed at the Spencer as part of a collaborative project with artist and former student Ann Hamilton.

With works in the Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York, the Museum Bellerive in Zurich, and San Francisco’s de Young Fine Arts Museums, to name a few, Schira is known the world over for her ability to coalesce digital information with artistic vision. Asked to give advice to budding artists, the innovator fittingly quotes perhaps the greatest tech enthusiast of our time, Steve Jobs: “Have the courage to follow your heart.” In other words,  she says, “just really, really love what you do.”

Jessica Shaykett is the American Craft Council librarian.

We've added in some additional images of Schira's work (above), and two more treats from the American Craft Council archives (below). Read PDFs of Schira's account (in the Feb./Mar. 1992 issue) of the Jacquard Project, in which she and four other weavers were invited to work at a computerized jacquard weaving mill in Germany. Or dig into her conversation with Garth Fletcher, JacqCAD creator and developer, published in the Aug./Sep. 2001 issue.

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