Artist updates the classic stitch
By Alison Rooney
When Orly Cogan began creating artwork on fabric — cast-off sheets, vintage table runners, yard-sale samplers — the words fiber and artist were not often seen together.
Today, there’s a fiber-art movement, and Cogan’s work is very much part of it. Her latest solo show, Summer Lovin’, opens at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill on Sunday, June 10, with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m., and a panel discussion at 2 p.m.
“Embroidery and fabric materials have been dismissed historically as not being a high art,” she says. “I’ve been working in that vein for years and am so happy that feminism, activism and craft as high art are being recognized and celebrated.”
The artist says her use of vintage materials is calculated: she wants to acknowledge the struggles of the women who first used the items.
“With hand-stitching, I update the content of the vintage embroidery to incorporate the unladylike reality and wit of contemporary women; their struggles and the stereotypes which must now be overcome,” she explains. These struggles are likely far different from the women of earlier generations who embroidered the textiles to “feminize” their homes.
Cogan grew up in New York City and trained as a painter at Cooper Union and the Maryland Institute College of Art. In the mid-1990s, her mother signed up for a quilt workshop at the American Folk Art Museum. When she had a conflict and couldn’t attend, she suggested Orly go instead.
“I was there with a small group of elderly ladies,” Cogan recalls. “After I made my quilt piece, I took another and embroidered a small, naked figure, almost hidden between the seams of the piece work.”
The other students loved it. “The figure took the old-fashioned quilt square out of the domestic realm and into something perverse, contemporary and kind of magical,” she says.
Cogan continued to play with materials. When a curator visited her studio to see her more traditional work, “he focused on the experimental pieces,” she recalls. “I started doing fabric pieces and began thinking of putting them into paintings. I didn’t know anyone who was working with craft materials and with personal and pop-culture references.”
Cogan says she enjoys the intimacy of the used fabrics. “I discover them at tag sales, then elevate them to the gallery wall,” she says. When she began working with thread, her figures were small, with thick, dense thread, “frolicking among funky printed and patterned fabrics.”
As her storytelling became more focused, the lines became lighter. “It’s drawing with threads,” she says. “I have an idea and I figure out how to achieve it. I don’t know how to use a sewing machine.”
Four years ago, Cogan, her husband (who runs a photography gallery in New York City) and their young daughter relocated to Putnam Valley. Soon afterward, Cogan chanced upon studio space in Nelsonville. There, in her workroom, sheets and decorative runners are pinned to the walls.
Describing the elements of one painting, “Beware of Childhood,” she says she was “thinking of childhood and what I’m relearning through my daughter: how big our emotions are, how scary. The unsteady ground, the whispering, fairy tales, beware, rumor, but still positive and so forgiving: birds and flowers. The work is left unfinished, as childhood is.”
The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, at 1701 E. Main St., is open Friday to Sunday. See hvcca.org. Summer Lovin’ continues through July 31.