By Bella Erakko
Of our five senses, touch is perhaps the most forgotten or ignored, yet it offers powerful ways of insight.
Some years back, medical science discovered a way to reverse a form of blindness, and a patient (blind from birth) received the gift of sight. His friends eagerly took him to see—for the first time—a lathe but he could not “see” without touching it because his brain never developed the interpretive skill of visual sight. He saw the world though highly developed “tactile sight.”
Fiber artists, though gifted with sight, have an extraordinary attraction to touch. Ann Miller Titus, the Alliance Art Gallery’s spotlighted member for January, encountered her “tactile sight” at the young age of six . Her thread-loving, hand-sewing, quilt-making, wardrobe-creating grandmothers began to place thread and fabric in her tiny hands. She cross stitched kits. She used a spool with nails to produce woven coils of yarn stitched into potholders.
In her grandmothers’ age, stitchery formed an essential and practical part of life: homemade clothing was more affordable than store bought; quilts provided warmth; decorative stitching adorned walls, pillows, and chairs. They had no time to explore the artistic potential of fiber and thread.
Titus, perhaps inheriting her love of touch from her grandmothers, always retained her attraction to fiber. For the past 25 years, she has experimented with wide varieties of design techniques to alter textiles, still honoring her quilt-making roots. While some quilt designers work in patterns, she prefers to work in the abstract.
She starts with an attraction to a piece of fabric. She doesn’t have a plan or intention, just a pile of fabrics that seem to have a story. Using a large felt board attached to a wall at the end of a hallway, she finds herself “just playing with color and form and line.” She tries to create a composition “that is pleasing and meaningful, that has a sense of balance.” She waits, sometimes for a long time, to feel the “That’s RIGHT!” moment.
Then, and only then, is she ready to stitch. She explains, “It is very easy to get caught up in the surface of the piece—not to consider that last step which is quilting and the importance of that design element. Quilting can add to the emphasis of a particular piece of fabric in the composition, something the fabric cannot do by itself.”
“That,” she admits, “is the scariest part of all. There are really critical composition and scale elements that are as important as the layering of different fabrics. And I do not want to rip out!”
Anyone closely examining her work will be amazed at the complex yet highly satisfying stitchery that transforms each piece into a durable and beautiful piece.
Her latest series of art quilts, “The Things That We Carry”, started with video and photo documentation of performance artist, Cherie Sampson who used mask and costume to show a woman collecting and becoming slowly weighed down by refuse and items discarded by others. It raised questions for Ann: what do we carry; how do we hold things? She began to see women filling their aprons, bent over from holding this weight.
Drawn to this image by her own memories, she explains how one quilt from this series, “Joy and her Sister Sorrow”, was conceived. “It began there. I realized that we carry joy and sorrow together. There is no way of having one without the other. It is the yin and yang; it is that balance. I would not recognize joy without sorrow. It just goes hand in hand.” Having successfully faced a bout with ovarian cancer, and raising a child with developmental difficulties, joy and sorrow are as real to her as day and night.
The serious nature of this content is countered by a color palette and bits of vintage fabrics that keep the quilts lighter and often times, whimsical. As she explained in the Winter 2017/2018 issue of All the Art, Visual Arts Quarterly of St. Louis, “Visually I want my pieces to be hopeful.”
Quilts connect us to our past; we remember grandmothers quilting; we’ve inherited worn guilts used by our ancestors. Ann’s pieces invite us into our past; they are comforting. Whether she takes us into her garden, or a place of healing, or just an expression of beauty, the fiber, design, and yes—stitching—create a home for each of us, a place to go, a comfort, a memory, an opening.
All because her grandmothers placed thread and fiber into her young hands, inviting her to feel her way into “tactile sight.”
An opening reception will be held on Saturday, January 13 from 5 until 8:00, with a free drawing for a piece of Titus’s work at 6:00.
More of Titus’s work can be seen at her website www.annmillertitus.com.