Ellen Adams, textile artist (1941 – 2001)

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In the last phase of a varied career and adventurous life, Ellen left a 20-year oeuvre of fibre art, building on the traditions and techniques of quilt-making, silk painting, fabric printing, and stitchery, combined with her ideas, enthusiasms, and methodical approaches.

Looking at her assembled work, I think what characterizes it in relation to other quilted and appliquéd compositions, is the visual depth of her fabric choices: richness of colour, contrasts in lustre, in solids versus patterned, woven, or printed; combined in compositions of architectural or logical elegance.  The years of Ellen’s studio work in fabric printing immediately preceded the arrival of computer-based designing and heat-transfer media, which revolutionized artists’ abilities to put the images they wanted on fabric.

I think both of us worked to find illustrations in our art for more non-visual ideas: storytelling, juxtapositions, optical illusions, satire.  We tried neither to capture the spontaneous visceral pleasure of painting from nature, nor to deliver pared-down, unreadable abstractions.  We worked as artists within specific craft traditions, enlarging and reflecting upon popular expectations about beauty and meaning, not superceding them.

She had more experience and facility with handling patterned compositions.  For lack of visual imagination, I have always relied on recognizable pictorial compositions, without necessarily finding it easy to create them.  She may have been encouraged by my basic strategies for building-up a composition – rather than boldly drawing on a blank page – to do her own projects with pictorial settings.

Her first, landmark interest was in Art-Deco-style elevator door friezes, transposed to only-nominally bed quilts.  It was, as she told it, a logical adoption from her urban upbringing and admiration for the Art Deco architecture she came across in places like New York and Los Angeles, where she travelled on film jobs.  She was long-familiar with frustrations of collecting casual photographs in dimly-lit lobbies.

When she worked out the principles of her “Illumination” series, based on interleaved facets of many repeats of the motif in her source fabric, it provided endless opportunities to explore the interaction of the underlying design and the arrangement of the fragments she made of it.

[excerpt from a memoir and compilation of Ellen’s artwork and biographical material by Peter Harris, available on CD-ROM, “An Ellen Adams Scrapbook”]

In an article Ellen contributed to Threads magazine in the late 1990’s, she described a characteristically methodical procedure to divide up and shuffle together several repeats of a printed-fabric design, in order to obtain an easily manipulated, and sometimes surprisingly different, larger version.  It was a discovery she experimented with in 10 or 12 of her own works, and shared freely in workshops and other teaching opportunities.  Other quilters took it up, resulting in another magazine article, teaching in the public school system, and yet another inquiry about publishing a book.

Connie Mantini’s book springs from her own quilted works and enthusiasm, and has been 6 years in the making.  Now that I see the result, I don’t mind the repeated requests for better photographs, more details, and comments about Ellen’s works.  Ellen’s inspiration is acknowledged up front, and her major “shattered image” works are all showcased, in a book that is otherwise the author’s own lively and expansive instructional guide.   I want to wish her every success with it, and thank her for the opportunity to put this part of Ellen’s legacy before an audience of her old friends and new admirers.  For more information about the book, visit www.shatterandsew.com.


2 Responses to “Ellen Adams, textile artist (1941 – 2001)”

  1. Hello Peter

    Just borrowed Tree, A Life Story from the Owen Sound Library by Suzuki & Grady. Much to our delight the book is dedicated to Ellen and acknowledges her support of the Suzuki Foundation.
    We wanted you to know that the ripples are still spreading.

    take care Dyan & Randy

    • What you might not know is that Ellen and David Suzuki were colleagues at UBC in the 60s. He was a witness to her marriage to Richard Hammerschlag in 1964 held in Richard’s parents apartment in the Upper West Side. (I was the other witness.)

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