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March/April 2004

Sculptural Shifu

Untitled (Turandot/David Hockney), 2002; cotton thread (warp), paper thread (weft), dyed and painted handmade kozo paper (lining); handwoven (plain weave), hand stitched; 26 by 47 by 2 inches. Photo: Michael J. Walter

(See the web-exclusive photo gallery for additional images not included with the published article.)

Keeping an ancient art form alive is only part of Illinois-based fiber artist Linelle Dickinson’s complex motivation for her work. Through her chosen medium, shifu—the fine weaving of thread manipulated from what was once a combination of handmade and fabricated paper sheets—Dickinson creates intriguing wall reliefs and sculptural artwork that subtly address social issues. Though the process is meticulous and laborious, Dickinson’s commitment to shifu springs from its rich history and her own upbringing.

Originally developed during the 16th century by Japanese peasants needing an alternative to hemp clothing, shifu was later adopted by the Samurai and refined to create fine apparel and other commodities. Unfortunately, interest in shifu severely declined during the 19th century. Today, only a handful of artisans worldwide continue its practice.

After working 20 years in interior design, Dickinson enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to add fine-arts discipline to her professional career. There she was introduced to shifu by instructor Helen O’Rourke; she has remained committed to the art form ever since.

Dickinson’s grandparents were missionaries in China, settling a few hundred miles outside of Peking, where they lived from 1920 to 1941. They brought back with them a collection of artifacts and a profound respect for Asian culture that fascinated and inspired Dickinson as a child and continues to subtly influence her aesthetic development.

Though Dickinson’s treatment of shifu is not wearable, her intuitive awareness of its potential for sculptural design has garnered well-received solo exhibitions at Touching Stone Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and many group exhibitions across the country. (She has also lectured at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and her work has been featured at the University Club of Chicago.) Her past creations range from pieces inspired by Peruvian burial bundles to more familiar tunic and kimono-style garments.

Each piece begins with a sketch to capture her initial inspiration, followed by meticulous planning. Throughout the process of dyeing, cutting, and rolling the paper into thread and weaving it upon the loom, intuition intercedes, guiding Dickinson toward what the piece truly wants to be.

Her most recent exhibition at Touching Stone, entitled “Color Corps,” was a study in the human response to color, a departure from the traditional indigo and natural-parchment colors she typically uses. By limiting the forms to three distinct shapes—an overcoat, a vest and apron, and a chest plate—she explored the compositions’ color by juxtaposing two hues within each piece.

“I admire artists who can capture beauty, simplicity, and quiet aesthetics with intellectual depth and passion,” says Linelle Dickinson. She fully expresses that ideal in her work.

—Chris Hart
Chris Hart is a freelance writer out of Chicago.

This profile first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2004

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