Award-winning fiber sculptor Barbara Riegel Bend aspires to tell a story about relationships and connections between people.
Mid-June I ventured out on a short trip east to meet fiber sculptor Barbara Riegel Bend in her studio. She shares a space filled with floor looms of varying sizes, another fiber artist and a painter all tucked in behind a yarn shop. Barb’s space in the large studio room is a kaleidoscope of fabric color and texture. Bits and bobs, an outrageous supply of silk ties from a neckwear company that liquidated its stock, working tables, welded structures and these wonderful dimensional fiber sculptures.
Color Crossing, the name of the shop/studio space, occupies an old dairy building on the side of the tracks in downtown Roberts, Wisconsin. I’m not sure if there is a ‘wrong’ side in this picturesque Midwestern village, but I do know that if you are looking for weavers, knitters, a fabric sculptor, a painter or a yarn shop you’ve come to the right place. There’s studio space, classes, a huge (I mean huge) floor loom that came from Vermont and an all around good vibe to this community.
With her work, Barbara Riegel Bend aspires to tell a story, capture a moment or portray an idea drawn from personal experience. Her work predominately features women in archetypical roles of mother, wife, sister, and friend. Barbara feels the connection between fabric and the role women have in family structures is direct as women have always been intimately involved with the textiles of the house. The energy harnessed by her work characterizes the strength, movement and struggle of familial roles women and men embrace throughout their lives. Here are two examples with Barb’s narrative of each piece:
‘A Life Unknown’
“Made from men’s wool shirts and jackets, men’s cotton shirting fabric, upholstery fabric, wrapped telephone wire, beads, scrap steel and wire fencing. This fiber sculpture is about remembering the anticipation of waiting for the birth of a child. As a young wife it appeared simple, I would conceive and then have a child. I did not understand the trials of the journey. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to conceive or that when I did the fetus might not survive or worse yet have no ability to survive when and if it were born. This young woman that once was, believed that I would take charge, move forward and could handle what came. As a grandmother I have seen a long stretch of life, I know the pain and can see the potential dangers at every turn, if allowed, my mind ventures into confining thoughts ruled by fear. I am no longer feeling like I can take charge of what comes my way but take comfort in accepting what comes my way. This piece is about hanging on the edge of a new life, a life unknown. It is about our life’s perspective as we hang on that edge of life unknown.”
“My fiber sculptures honor the integrity of traditional cloth in a contemporary setting, placing them in a 3-dimensional element.”
Barbara starts the sculpture by welding a frame, and then tightly wraps the frame in knit T-shirt fabric until the shape emerges. She says she is inspired by the ancient and primal power of wrapping fabric—the act of wrapping is rhythmic and repetitious as it layers a foundation. Fabric has a distinctive way of communicating relationship. The fabrics selected for each piece interact with each other not only through color and texture but within the context of the time and place they hold in history and cultural influences. Barbara does not use new fabric, but uses fabric that holds knowledge from another form which allows viewers wide latitude of interpretation. As she says, “the piece is not bound by my story.” Barbara said her biggest creative challenge is to address ‘that little voice’ and express things that really matter to her about cultural constructs and address them in a creative way.
“The wedding dance”
“Made from welded steel armature wrapped in –shirt, wool, cotton shirting an silk tie remnants, zippers, cotton warp and costume jewelry. I welded two standing figures that were connected at the hips. They were rigid and uninspired. They stood stark and stiff on my work table for many months. The only energy they inspired was to move them out of the way. I added faces, hands and begin to form their shapes, their stiffness prevailed. I began to doubt the welded connection at the hips and pulled a leg out behind the man draping some zipper constructions over the skirt and extended leg. The movement of dance was unlocked, building the tension of pulling away, swinging around yet staying connected at the hip.”
“I aspire to tell a story, capture a moment, or portray an idea drawn from personal experience. My fiber sculptures are predominantly women, characterizing strength, movement and struggle, or whimsy. I depend on the uniqueness of the fabrics, shape and repetitive qualities of found objects and wrapping techniques to facilitate this mixed media expression.
I am inspired by the ancient and primal power of wrapping, moved by its simplicity. Wrapping is rhythmic and repetitious. I use this primitive technique to encase the welded scrap metal armatures of the fiber sculpture to form and shape the bodies of the figures. The language of the materials used to wrap add depth and dimension to this technique. Fabrics interact with each other, not only through color and texture but within the context of the time and place they hold in history and cultural influences.
The integrity and beauty of broken or discarded objects can be easily overlooked; its essence lost. It is an inspirational thrill for me when I can successfully incorporate some used-up forgotten items in my mixed media sculptures. I like to give a discarded object a new voice and identity in a piece. I know I have succeded when a viewer spends time appreciating a completed fiber sculpture and then spontaneously laughs after identifying the misplaced object, enjoying the essence of the discarded.”
Working from her Roberts, Wisconsin studio at Color Crossing, Barbara participates in local and regional exhibits, shows and accepts commission work. Looking toward the future, she would like to work on large scale pieces suitable for installation. Her contact information is here.