Meryl Ann Butler’s Visionary Fiber Art:

What it is and how it is created

My fiber artwork is unusual in that it combines a wide variety of fabric techniques with a solid background in traditional realism in art. I believe that art is art because of the beauty and feeling that it portrays, not because of the medium. An artist can “paint” with fabric, just as they can paint with oil paints or watercolors, as long as the specific foundational skills have been developed. And, after all fiber is usually involved in other media: oils and acrylics are usually painted on cotton or linen fabric, and watercolors are used on paper made from cotton or other fibers.

However, the creation of my unique type of fiber art differs considerably from other art forms for a variety of reasons. It is much more labor intensive than any other art form that I have done, and that includes painting in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels and pen & ink. And, importantly, it is much more subject to availability of products.

For instance, if I was painting, and ran out of the shade of paint that I was using, I would simply mix up another batch. And if I ran out of the color of paint that I needed to mix it from, any local art store can provide it.

However, if I run out of a fabric, it can be much more difficult and time consuming to obtain an exact match, and sometimes can be impossible! This is one reason why it is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of time that a project can take.

Most of the major pieces of art that I create take a year or two to complete. Some may take more or less time, depending upon a huge number of factors, including, but not limited to the following: availability of materials required, and time required for support services (such as hand dying of fabrics or photo transfers).

Many of these works have dozens of different fabrics in them, all of which must be harmonious with each other. First I collect all the fabrics that seem like they may work, then, from this larger group, I carefully select the fabrics with the exact colors and values required to create the feeling desired.

My artwork typically contains many, many pieces, in some cases well over 1,000, in order to get a specific effect. I often work with the feeling of gradations of light, and the blended effect is created by many pieces in graduated tones.

A typical chronology of the process of a particular piece of fiber art follows. Keep in mind that many of these steps may overlap, or occur in a slightly different order, for different projects.

Background Research

I research the subject in order to develop the images and symbols that will be best for that project. This can include research done at the library, over the internet, or in museums, as well as gathering intuitive information and obtaining information from my client.

Thumbnail Sketches
Several “thumbnail sketches” (small but detailed drawings) are done to develop the pictorial concept. (These are often done in a type of “shorthand” drawing intelligible only to the drafts person, but give a good representation of the general design, composition and values (lights and darks) of the finished piece, and are an integral step in the process.) Ideas for textures are developed at this stage, also, as the vibratory rates set up by an interplay of textures are as important to the sense of healing and well-being as the colors and images used. Also, at this stage, I may be able to determine whether any new or unfamiliar techniques or products may be required to create the effects required, and begin to research them.

Color Palettes
The color harmony for each piece of art is developed. There are no “bad” colors, just as there are no “bad” musical notes, only harmony (or disharmony) created by the different vibratory rates of the specific combinations of colors. At this point I develop a color palette designed to be most harmonious for the particular project.

Fabric Collecting
Unlike painting, in which the artist can mix any needed color from a small selection of colors, all necessary fabrics must be collected separately. Nearly all of these must be collected before any cutting or sewing can begin. Usually, many more fabrics must be collected than are actually used, since it isn’t possible to know, at the beginning of collecting, what other fabrics may be available through other sources or at later dates. So, I collect a large group, and later cull out the smaller group of fabrics that will be used. A wide variety of sources other than the typical fabric stores are used, including fabric booths at trade shows, major fabric stores (such as “G” Street Fabrics in the Washington DC area, the NY garment district, and Amish fabric shops in Lancaster, PA), fabrics by mail order sources, hand-dyed fabrics from dye artisans, and antique shops (for things like antique laces, kimono fabric, buttons, trims, ribbons.) On occasion, I have even discovered the perfect but hard-to-find item (such as silk brocade from Thailand!) at a garage sale or thrift shop!

Fabric Preparation
Fabrics must be washed, dried and pressed before using, to remove chemical residue from the “sizing”, (which gives fabrics and ready-to-wear items the crisp, new look.) Fabrics are then folded and sorted by color.

Notion Collecting
Notions and embellishments, such as lace, beads and buttons (including handmade and antique items) add interest and texture to fiber art. Other notions used for structural rather than decorative purposes, such as thread in all appropriate colors, interfacing, template plastic, etc., are collected also.

Drafting Patterns and Templates
Before cutting fabrics, full-sized patterns (drawn on paper) and templates (shapes transferred to cardboard or plastic and cut out) must be created. This can involve algebra, geometry and other mathematical calculations.

Cutting and Sewing
Even though the cutting and sewing are very labor intensive, when I finally begin cutting the fabric, I feel like I am almost done! A major portion of the project is completed, and by the time I begin this part, I can really “see” the finished piece. After such a long time of research and collecting, it is exciting to get to this stage. It is like the birth process after the period of gestation, and is the exciting beginning of the physical manifestation of the colors, textures and images.

Other Techniques
Various other techniques involving standard art materials such as oil paint, acrylic paint or colored pencils may be used.

Embellishing and Finishing
Embellishing (adding decorative items such as charms, beads or buttons) and finishing techniques (hand sewing bindings and adding casings for hangings) are the final steps.

(For wearable art, additional time may be required for creating and shipping a “muslin” (a “dummy” garment, created to ascertain the correct size) back and forth until any required tailoring adjustments have been made.)

You might ask why I would want to create a type of art that is so extremely labor intensive and generally misunderstood, and you would be asking a very good question, one I have asked myself! But, this is where my passion is! I love colors and their delicate interplay in creating subtle vibrations with positive effects on people! I love the sensual textures available in fiber art, that offer so much more richness compared to just the surface texture of a canvas painting. I adore the concept of creating art that looks so touchable, engaging the viewer in an almost kinesthetic, and therefore wholistic, experience. And, in my wearable art, I love the idea of creating spiritual vestments for everyday wear for anyone and everyone to feel good in! And I know that this love fills the artwork, and is received by the viewer!

I am dedicated to creating the most healing, joyful and/or peaceful images that I possibly can in my fiber art process, and I am committed to excellence in my work. When I am faced with choices between incorporating a process that might be quicker, easier and cheaper, and another process that might be more time consuming, but have a more healing or beautiful effect, I prefer to choose the path that is the most beneficial to the final look and feel of the artwork. As a result, my commitment to excellence sometimes requires additional time. In this way, I am able to create artwork of heirloom quality with lasting value, and work of which I can be pleased to say that I have done my very best.