For Chairwoman of Art Barbara Bushey, a daily outfit can be a work of art.
“The fall of 2017 was a bad semester, and I wasn’t able to get much art done,” she said. “The only creative thing I could do was get dressed in the morning.”
So she decided to take pictures of her outfits and turn them into quilts. Decked out in festive combinations of colorful cardigans, skirts, dresses, tights, and patterned scarves, Bushey staged a series of buoyant poses, combined the photographs into her “Key” collage, and composed a quilt corresponding to each outfit. The outfit quilts are currently displayed in the Fine Arts Building exhibition room along with several of her other textile creations, and will be on display until March 27.
As one who always enjoyed working with a needle and thread, Bushey said her familiarity with textiles was the reason she chose it as her primary art medium. She enjoys taking a piece of cloth through the physical process of stitching, tying, dying, untying, and re-stitching into particular patterns. One of her mantras is that art doesn’t come from waiting for inspiration; it comes from jumping in and getting your fingers moving.
“I always think work begets work,” she said. “Only amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. It either works or it won’t; either fix it or start over.”
One of Bushey’s longer-term projects, entitled “We are mostly water but we cannot swim,” is meant to communicate the unexplored depths of the human soul. She created the project after the Jordan River Arts Center in East Jordan, Michigan, invited her to join a show called “Uncharted Spaces.”
“I had to answer the question, ‘What’s the most uncharted space?’ And I thought, it’s our own selves. You’ve got to know yourself. And this quilt is about how the unexamined life is not worth living,” Bushey said.
She began by dying commercial fabric for a background and then arranging rocks she had collected from the Great Lakes, sewing over them with a sheer silk layer of organza. Displayed next to the work is the poem of a friend, David A. Walker, whose wandering lines encapsulate the nature of the drifting rock heap stitched at the bottom of Bushey’s quilted lake:
“We are mostly water
but we cannot swim
Nevertheless we drift
to the bottom
back to the shore
over and over again
the ways of water
we are mostly water
but we cannot swim,” Walker’s poem reads.
Bushey captured another local scene in her series, “Off Jonesville Road.” She said she loved the particular arrangement of the road-side vines and wanted to re-create it in her artwork. To the right of a large, wintry roadside landscape hang several smaller color variations of the project, Bushey’s own process of free-spirited and imaginative experimentation.
“She plays with color just for the sake of it,” said Patrick Lucas ’18, who currently teaches art at Will Carleton Academy. “It might not be a super intellectual sort of project, but the way she plays with color makes you aware of it. It’s casual, and she’s just experimenting.”
Lucas added that his favorite variation is the composition directly adjacent to the original snowy quilt — a warm, earthy combination of reds, oranges, and browns.
One of the most technically extraordinary pieces in the show, “Robin’s Yard, August,” employs complex stitching patterns that create texture in the fence and lawn, and also uses shade variation and lighter threading to portray shadow and distance in the background trees.
Senior Dylan Strehle said he appreciated the way the piece exhibits the multi-layered capabilities of textile art.
“Every time you put the needle in, you add texture, you add a layer, whereas when you paint a new layer, you paint over the previous one,” he said. “It makes a very cool 3D canvas that pops off the wall.”
Sophomore Caroline Hennekes said Bushey’s use of rhythm, composition, and color in her pieces gave her a greater appreciation for abstract art than ever before. As an art major, Hennekes said she enjoys the way Bushey communicates artistic ideas in class in a way that’s both captivating and applicable.
“She can appreciate very majestic, large things in art but also treasure the little things that make you laugh,” Hennekes said.
Hennekes also noted that it’s easy to put textiles in a box, limiting them to upholstery, quilts, or fashion.
“When you use them the way she did, as a canvas, you put them in a different frame than something that could be felt or worn,” she said.
And for Bushey, while textile art sometimes does come in the form of a polka-dot scarf or a bright green cardigan, it can also operate as a tool of more fundamental artistic communication.
“I just pay attention to the world around me and respond to it,” Bushey said. “The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, ‘What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it?’”