From three continents, and with hand stitching from over a century ago and recently, all of the components of Janie Cohen’s “To Wrap Our Love” are fabric that in some way wraps and protects the wearer.
The multi-colored vertical strip on the left with bands of reds, lavender and neutrals is an antique Japanese obi, a sash for a kimono — this one woven from shredded and wrapped scrap material. Next to it, a watery blue panel of Japanese mosquito netting provided protection from insect-borne disease. A strip of century-old American quilt, its worn and frayed blocks with intriguing patchwork, once offered warmth in bed. The assemblage’s broad right-hand panel from the Republic of the Congo was a woman’s traditional wrap skirt, made of kuba cloth, a textile hand woven by men and embroidered by women.
Folding but never cutting historic pieces, sparsely stitching patterns from one to another, and responding to the cloth, Cohen creates powerful and moving assemblages. The components of “To Wrap Our Love” have individual compelling histories, but, brought together by Cohen, with themes sparsely carried from one to another with her own hand stitching, the piece evokes a deep sense of tenderness and humanity.
“To Wrap Our Love” is among the textile assemblages by artist, curator and museum director Janie Cohen featured in her solo exhibition “Rogue Cloth Work” at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery in Montpelier. The show includes over a dozen large-scale and smaller pieces, new work and pieces created by Cohen over many years. A public opening reception will be held 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
Cohen, whose fascination with cloth goes back to childhood, has long been collecting antique textiles and hand-worked fabric, and sewing them together in new contexts. Director of the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, Cohen is a Picasso scholar who has published extensively about the artist.
Cohen’s artwork, she said, “brings together my interest in collecting and curating and creating. I feel what I do walks the line between those three. It’s all about my love of cloth in all its various forms, from nearby and far away.”
“Cloth carries associations of comfort, security, warmth, not just for me, but historically. For centuries, cloth was central in the lives of women: spinning, weaving, sewing, darning, mending, quilting, swaddling, shrouding. I am drawn to its histories and humanity, its evocative traces of age and use,” Cohen explains in her artist’s statement.
Cohen mixes up the old with the new. Most of her fabrics come from the United States, Japan and Africa. She is particularly drawn to worn pieces, rich in traces of their history.
Japanese restaurant aprons, 19th-century upholstery fabric, sake filtering bags, blocks and strips from a disassembled quilt she bought in a Shelburne antique shop 25 years ago, hand-stitched and marked samplers, are among Cohen’s media. While these provide materials, Cohen’s curatorial side prevents her from damaging them. She never cuts old cloth, instead folding and stitching it to the shape and dimension.
Cohen also turns to new materials — shibori hand-dyed fabric, a friend’s paint-marked khaki, beautifully knotted French tassels and more.
“Most of what I do is suggested by the cloth itself, although some are more composed, more classic collage-like, with something aesthetically driving it,” Cohen said.
“Part of what drives my artwork and my art history research is pattern recognition. I’m always seeing connection in things, visual, always visual,” she said.
Cohen’s perception and sensitivity in bringing out patterns to the viewer is exquisite and compelling. In “To Wrap Our Love,” Cohen carried the right angle “L” shape embroidered on the kuba cloth to the mosquito netting, bringing the same detailed thread wrapping technique to the new form. She also brought the tiny American prints of the quilt to a few of the kuba cloth shapes. In “Natural History,” a botanical motif in an antique piece recurs in a separate contemporary fabric.
“Quell,” which Cohen calls a “collaboration with mice,” had a Bread and Puppet Theater print as its starting point. In the red and black image, a figure on a ladder pours water on a burning house. Cohen had stored the piece for several years, and when she pulled it out, discovered that the upper left corner had been nibbled. Looking at it, she saw how the new pattern created by the nibbling and reshaping of the fabric extended the print’s flames. From there, Cohen meticulously stitched the shredded material to a backing extending and amplifying the composition.