Sheila Hicks is a leading avant-garde, experimental 20th century textile artist, who helped turn weaving into a sculptural act. She pushed the medium into three dimensions to entice viewers to touch her work. She uses fabrics and fibers as well as various methods of weaving, knitting, knotting, and braiding. Her fiber forms – with their bright colors – whether shaped into vertical cords, disks, or horizontal tubes, present a sensual visual experience.
Hicks learned how to sew from her grandmother at an early age. She studied under Josef and Anni Albers at Yale where she received her B.F.A. in 1957 and her M.F.A. in 1959. Like Anni Albers, Hicks developed an artistic connection with Mexico as seen in her orange textile, “Learning To Weave in Taco, Mexico.” Both the Albers encouraged her to travel to Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia to study and to investigate their fabrics and their way of weaving. While at Yale, Hicks was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study and produce art in Chile. She photographed Peruvian and Bolivian archaeological sites and studied pre-Columbian textile techniques.
Hicks also traveled to Morocco and India to study weaving techniques. This resulted in her unique way of weaving which was very different from the techniques used by contemporary artists: the minimalists who used rigid industrial techniques and the abstract painters who used hard edges. Hicks was more aligned with Eva Hesse, her fellow student and fellow innovator of sculpture, who made sculptural work from soft materials.
Hicks has lived in Paris since 1964, and from this time on the scale of her work increased. She began to experiment with industrial textile techniques. She used a special electric gun that allowed her to embroider sculptural wall hangings with heavily tufted sections in high relief. One example was her 1964 “Red Prayer Rug.”
In 1966, she created a new kind of heavy woven fabric by using indigenous plain weave techniques. This fabric had embedded cotton inside the weaving which added sculptural mass and density. By the late 1960s, her mastery of wrapping could be seen in the long cords in her suspended work “Principal Wife.” In the early 1970s, she produced a striking group of rugs, based on her stay in Morocco. The colors of the rugs as well as the imagery refer to Islamic architecture. A site-specific work “Seance,” consisting of bundles of colored fabrics, was made for Design Miami/Basil in 2014.
For more than two decades Hicks has taught and lectured at various universities: Chile’s University of Santiago; University of Mexico; England’s Bath Academy of Art; Chile’s Taller-Huaquen Studio; The Hague; Vermont’s Middlebury College; and Fontainebleau, France. In the early 1980s, she directed the art program at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and served as Chief editor for New York’s “American Fabrics and Fashion” magazine.
While Hicks is known for her large-scale works, she has also made miniature textiles with a handloom, adding different objects such as quills, feathers, steel fibers, and bamboo. “I like to work on a small scale – that of my miniatures, which require neither cumbersome tools nor costly immobilization. They allow me to elaborate a mode of writing which is at once personal and legible.”
Hicks has received numerous awards and honors including a Fulbright Scholarship, Gold and Silver Medals from institutes and academies of architecture, honorary doctorates, and honorary fellowships. She has had dozens of individual exhibitions throughout the world in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
A career survey of Hick’s work in textiles was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Massachusetts in 2012. Her work was shown in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in the 2017 Venice Biennale. Her recent solo exhibition “Thread, Trees, River” was shown at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna. She enlisted her son-in-law, Enrico Martignoni, to assemble her 2013-2014 piece, “Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column,” which will be suspended from the ceiling of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts ; Art Institute of Chicago; the Tate Gallery in London, the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam; Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs, and museums in Germany, among others.