Serendipity played a key role in Jenelle Porter working with Boston-
area art students to bring new life to old works for an upcoming fiber-art exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
“Spring semester, I was invited to lecture about fiber sculpture and this exhibition at
MassArt,” Porter, senior curator at the ICA, says. “We all got to talking about how I wanted to re-create a few pieces for the show, and then it all fell into place.”
That initial conversation transformed “Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present” into more than just the first exhibition in 40 years to examine the evolution of fiber art. It also developed into a learning opportunity for four students from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who helped to re-create specific fiber sculptures for display in museums across the country.
Porter, in collaboration with MassArt faculty, tasked the undergraduates with researching a dozen works by the fiber sculptor Robert Rohm, who died in 2013. Three of those works would be re-created and displayed in the ICA exhibition, which opens on Friday, then travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa next year. The twist Porter added was to have the students help make the selection.
“This was a great lesson in figuring out the relationship between research, the material, and the craft,” Judith Leemann, assistant professor in Fine Arts 3-D Fibers, says.
The one work by Rohm that Porter knew she wanted to replicate for display at the ICA was “Rope Piece,” which will join approximately 50 other works by 34 artists. The hanging-rope grid with a draped upper-right corner added what Porter describes as “a relevant discussion of how manipulation of a material changed fiber sculpture.” When Porter discovered the piece no longer existed, she obtained approval from Rohm’s widow to re-create it.
“Rope Piece” was originally displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in the 1969 exhibition “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials.” Porter says that the rope Rohm used was probably discarded or repurposed, like many on-sight works of that time.
Emma Welty, a fiber and art history major, says that of all the Rohm pieces she and her fellow students researched, “Rope Piece” was “really out of context.”
“It was more dismantled, and the energy of how it took shape was different,” Welty says. “It was once structured, and now it’s more energized by being draped over the rigid grid.”
The students researched more than just the techniques required to bring Rohm’s works back to life. They also made decisions on how he might have approached and sculpted those works today.
With only a few photographs for reference, the students practiced different knots, wire ties, and stains, so that “Rope Piece” would look as close to the original as possible. The students stained the rope at the end of July, giving it a little more than a month to dry before it would be knotted on sight at the ICA.
Janet Kawada, an adjunct professor in Fine Arts 3-D Fibers, says it took about five hours to tie all of the overhand knots and wire fastenings of the 18½-foot hanging grid. The nails that would hold the grid to the wall at the ICA were drilled in before staffers hung the entire piece at once.
Welty says evaluating how the piece would hang from the wall was as much part of the art as the material itself.
“Fiber sculpture is about how the material is energized and how the shadows, the space, and the thought behind the piece work together,” she says. “Everything is brought into the piece.”
Once the piece was mounted, the students and faculty adjusted the knots on the grid, cross-checking its dimensions with their reference photos. Ashley Fuhrmann, who graduated in May, says the true task in re-creating Rohm’s work was evaluating him as an artist, based on his work.
“We ultimately had to get his hand,” she says. “We had create [the piece] how he would make it.”