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Judé Silva: Fiber is good for your art

Article by Clint Driscoll

Local Artist – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO OBSERVE A WORK by Judé Silva is to get lost in the intricacies of the piece and in the reveries it invokes. A stole made of intricately twined red willow and aspen hangs from a horizontal pole — inviting comparison to a Japanese silk kimono. A natural fiber, hand-knotted net gently supports a spray of red willow. Does the artist hope to preserve natural things or to elicit the gentle remembrance of a moment in time?

The design of a molded fiber bowl made of dyed pulp, Kozo bark, yucca and cattails draws the eye from the rough, untamed outer rim through a five-square cross to a central X. Is this the still, small point of the universe, the center of all being? Any conclusion is up to the viewer.

The quiet, zen-like fiber art of Judé Silva is the culmination of a long, evolutionary path that began when her mother taught her to sew at the age of twelve. “We were pretty poor, but my mother loved beautiful clothes. The only way we could get them was to make them ourselves.” The basic training involved in transforming a pattern into a garment has stayed with Silva over the years but has taken her in directions far from the cutting table and sewing machine.

[Judé Silva]
[Judé Silva]

She grew up in Santa Clara County, California, and in San Jose when it was known for its orchards, ranches and almond groves rather than silicon chips and software millionaires. After high school she pursued art studies at California College of Arts and Crafts but tuition costs where much too dear. She transferred to San Jose State where, as she puts it, “I promptly flunked out, married and had four kids.”

Even as a busy mother Silva always maintained her interest in art, attending shows and noting what cutting-edge artists such as Ed Rossbach (fiber art), Magdalina Abakanowicz (weaving), and Andy Golds worthy (environmental art) were accomplishing. She returned to San Jose State and graduated with a BFA in Painting in 1981. But painting is difficult to do with young children in the house. The set-up, space limitations and materials can become very inconvenient. So when Silva saw a show by Anna Ballarian, a well known artist who specializes in fiber collage and the use of fabrics, she was inspired.

“I immediately went home and put away my paints. I began to concentrate on handwork because it is much easier to control the work space and materials, but it still allowed for full, artistic creation through strong design and fabric and fiber combinations.”

Silva also studied under the English embroidery master, Constance Howard, learning design concepts and perfecting her craft. The essential element she learned from Howard was, no matter how long a project takes, if it’s not good, it’s not good.

SOON AFTER her fourth child was born, Silva took a basketry class. The tactile nature of the work — as well as the limitless possibilities presented by varying shapes and materials — caused her to put down her fabric work. While concentrating on the various weaving and braiding techniques, she decided to pursue a graduate degree.

At the university, Silva became interested in the concepts of space itself. Not the universe, but how a defined space within the environment can evoke a response in the viewer. She experimented with combinations of all the media she had used in the past to create three-dimensional installations whose design articulated an emotion or state of being. Silva graduated from San Jose State in 1993 with an MFA in Spatial Arts, and her Master’s project consisted of a series of installations on the grounds of the Grant Ranch in Santa Clara County.

“The ranch was one of the last open places in the county. I knew the old times were gone; San Jose and that area would never be the same,” Silva says. “I tried to evoke that feeling in my pieces.”

Most of those installations used netting to delineate particular aspects of unspoiled places or human-caused changes to the land, and the project was a success.

[Molded Fiber Bowl No. 120 Kozo, yucca, cattails, dyed pulp. 16"x6"]
[Molded Fiber Bowl No. 120 Kozo, yucca, cattails, dyed pulp. 16″x6″]

But well before she was awarded her degree, Silva had already gained a reputation as a serious artist. She had won numerous awards and participated in a number of group and one-woman shows on the West Coast. Since settling with her husband, Jim, in Buena Vista in 1995, Silva has also been gaining a reputation in the Interior West.

HER FOCUS in the past few years has been experimentation with the use of native fiber materials from Central Colorado. She has incorporated yucca, red willow, aspen and cottonwood into a variety of forms and media. Silva admits she is “obsessed” with twining, wrapping, braiding and knotting. Many of her works include netting made of a variety of continuous fibers, and she has also produced sculptural works using red willow — braided or woven — either by itself or in combination with natural and man-made materials.

Silva describes many of these works, some of which are quite large, as three-dimensional line drawings which change as natural light and shadow vary during the day or as different light sources are used at night. She is pleased if her work surprises the viewer, whether the response is to the image, her use of materials, the dichotomy of materials, or the idea behind the piece.

Her æsthetic is rooted in form and detail, as it has been since she learned to sew. “I have been nearsighted since childhood so I love works that carry well as form yet contain detail as (the viewer) moves closer.”

However, for Silva much of the joy of creation is in the production itself. “I care about the process of handwork and spending time over a piece. The labor process gives me time to think through the development of both the idea and the form.”

[Red Willow Stole No. 124. Twined Red Willow and Aspen. 4'x5']
[Red Willow Stole No. 124. Twined Red Willow and Aspen. 4’x5′]

THAT LOVE of production has led her to a new skill — paper-making. Silva combines native fibers such as yucca and cattails with Japanese Kozo bark and, when she can get it, Chinese Mulberry to create marvelous sheets of visually complex paper. When finished the paper can be used in combination with other materials in sculpture and collage, or as a ground for painting, or it can be molded into bowls. The results are fascinating, multi-colored, tactile objects which range from smooth, highly refined surfaces to chunky, rough-hewn shapes.

Judé Silva’s curiosity and desire to work with a variety of media has led her to fabric collage, installation, paper-making, painting, weaving and sculpture. Her work invites the viewer to spend hours watching the changes in light and shadow or to look closely for the surprising intricacies which make up the whole form. At present Silva is working on an installation commission for the atrium of the Colorado Springs airport. Her work has been shown regionally in Taos, Durango, Truchas, and Colorado Springs, and she shows locally at cultureclash in Salida.

Clint Driscoll is the new director of the Chaffee County Council on the Arts.