by Caroline Roux
Sheila Hicks has taken inspiration from decades spent travelling the world for her bright, dramatic artworks. She talks to Caroline Roux. Portraits by Brigitte Lacombe.
In 1977, the US artist Sheila Hicks took part in an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, alongside other major names such as Christo, Antoni Tàpies and Alexander Calder, displaying her fibre-based artworks. That same year, she worked on the set design for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, making hand-woven carpets for the interior of the Overlook Hotel. What might have been an unusual mix of activities for another artist was quite normal for her. In her career, she has crossed so many of the boundaries by which an artist is traditionally defined – sculpture, craft, fine art and commerce – that she’s basically wiped them out.
She has exhibited and travelled all over the world – Chile, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Japan. Her artworks, from small experiments woven on a handheld frame to huge piles of brightly coloured fibre bundles and lavish hanging columns, have been shown and acquired by museums everywhere.
At Machu Picchu in Peru, she slept in the ruins so she could rise early to take people- free photographs (“And that was 1959!”). In Saudi Arabia in 1980, she set up an art programme, wore an abaya and designed palm-tree tapestries, one of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (“I was scared as hell. Then I was too busy to care”). She has created fabrics for US design company Knoll and huge wall works to decorate Manhattan restaurants and Mexican hotels. She speaks English, French and Spanish and can write in Arabic. “You should try it! It’s all about those sinuous curves. It’s a wonderful feeling,” she says in her Paris studio as we chat over Zoom.
Now 87, Hicks is working harder than ever. Everything in her huge and varied life is united by thread. She entered Yale’s undergraduate art department as a painter in 1954, inspired by colour-field artists of the time such as Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler, with their dramatic abstract planes of colour, but almost immediately was introduced to the rich history of pre-Columbian textiles. There was no going back. “It opened up a whole world of human-made things,” she says.
Hicks sees fibre in its multiple forms as an integral part of life in every corner of the world. “Thread is the universal language,” she says. “It could become a hammock, or a fishing net, or a hat, or a home… It’s the first thing you feel in the morning when you wake up in your bed sheets, then you step on a rug, you pick up a towel…” It also responded to her deep desire to work with colour. To apply paint to a canvas is simply to create a coating, but when making compositions with threads, the colour permeates the work. As Hicks says, “Thread is very friendly with colour.”
Sheila Hicks, portrait by Brigitte Lacombe
Partner of Mercurial, 2021
Hicks in her Paris studio
The bas relief being installed
Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 2016-17
Hicks in 1970
Wave Wave Wave, 2021
No Turning Back, 2021
Lianes Ivoires, 2020