Natives know and newbies soon learn that Pittsburgh's thriving art scene far surpasses those of other cities its size.
That is in part due to the presence of several unique, world-class institutions, including the Carnegie International, The Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory and Maxo Vanka murals.
Another, Fiberart International, opens Friday at the Society for Contemporary Craft and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
They are host venues for an exhibition that has been nurtured into a globally watched showcase for contemporary fiber expression by the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The Guild received 1,685 submissions from more than 700 artists living in 30 countries on six continents. Those were whittled to 81 artists and 85 artworks by three jurors -- two artist/academics and a curator.
"It's the first time we've received submissions from Africa," said Desha Jaramaz, Fiberart International 2010 director. "We also had two artists submit from South America, and one got in, and she's coming to the Forum. We're very excited about that."
Ms. Jaramaz said the Guild is trying to encourage people from more countries to enter and is doing what it can to make that easier. An awareness of the difficulty of coming up with entry and shipping fees for artists living in less wealthy nations is one example of the concerns they're addressing. Others may be as complex as helping with visa applications, as it did for Chilean artist Abril Montealegre Barros, who will exhibit a multi-component untitled work that addresses issues of domesticity.
Sometimes things don't work no matter how diligent the efforts. Ray Hau of Hong Kong planned to deliver his three-dimensional molded wool piece, "Backward," in person, but his visa request was denied and he had to ship it. Early in the week organizers held out hope that it would arrive in time for the opening.
At other times, no amount of goodwill would help. Artists will, for example, at times make multiple submissions, as when a student applies to several colleges. A collaborative work from China was among those juried into the show, but the artists didn't send it, and organizers speculate that it went to another exhibition. That disappointed Ms. Jaramaz, who said she was looking forward to seeing the work. But at least it was pulled from the exhibition catalog before the printing deadline.
And inevitably life gets in the way, as was the case with an English artist who encountered family problems and couldn't tend to mailing her accepted piece.
Such eventualities, along with the large numbers of submissions to process, catalog creation and venue planning, point out the hours of work involved in pulling off such an exhibition. That it's done by volunteers, and done so well, continues to be a feather in the cap of the Pittsburgh Guild.
Ms. Jaramaz said a record number of volunteers -- more than 100 -- contributed to this 20th International. The time required has necessitated moving it from a biennial to a triennial schedule. That also allows breathing time to tend to traveling the exhibition, another commendable and professional achievement.
This show will go to the Memorial Art Gallery of Rochester, N.Y., and the San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design, giving it exposure to the large coastal audiences.
Artists exhibiting are from the United States, Australia, Canada, Chile, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Wales, United Kingdom.
Forty-five artists from seven countries will be in Pittsburgh for this weekend's reception and forum.
Six of the 81 artists are members of the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, which speaks well of regional talent holding its own in global competition.
They are Michelle Browne and Leslie Golomb, exhibiting "Betsy in the Forest" (constructed by Louise Silk), and Jan Myers-Newbury showing "Wildfire," both further recognized with awards. Also Amanda Gross, "Potholder: Domesticated #2"; Penny Mateer, "Damn Good Whacking #5 Protest Series"; and Melissa Vertosick, "From Small Things: Reaching."
Technique, material and subject matter reflect the open-mindedness of 21st-century art/craft expression, which often references tradition but frequently bypasses functional applications.
These artists employ quilting, hand stitching, embroidery, batik, Arashi shibori, piecing, Yuzen dyeing, applique, weaving, coiling, hooking and felting. But they also incorporate digital prints, paint and video.
Materials include cotton, silk, linen, nylon, wool, chiffon -- but also pine needles, tea bags, horsehair, U.S. currency, beads, X-rays, leather boots, plastic feed sacks, white gold, mulberry paper, buttons, Hawaiian kapa cloth, and a crushed plastic lid.
They're inspired by the environment, politics, violence, genetic engineering of food, war, domestic abuse and gender roles; and by beauty, sensuality, color, art history and tactility.
The outstanding range of work reflects the stated exhibition goal "to include innovative work rooted in traditional fiber materials, structure, processes and history, as well as art that explores unexpected relationships between fiber and other creative disciplines."
The show is slightly smaller than the last, held in 2007. Numbers were reduced because the previous exhibition seemed a bit crowded -- and artworks continue to increase in size. Still, Ms. Jaramaz said wistfully that she wished there had been a way to accommodate all the good work that had to be turned away.
That sentiment was reflected by the jurors, who each commented in her juror statement on how difficult it was to reject sound works.
Artworks are judged from digital images, an increasingly common occurrence for exhibitions. But the Guild distinguishes itself by providing for one of the jurors to be present when the actual works arrive, to ensure they meet exhibition standards.
Jurors weigh in
The jurors were Vibeke Riisberg, a textile designer and associate professor at the Designskolen Kolding, one of Denmark's leading design institutions; Mary Ruth Smith, professor of art at Baylor University in Waco, Texas; and Rebecca A.T. Stevens, consulting curator for contemporary textiles at The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., and author of "The Kimono Inspiration: Art and Art-to-Wear in America," with Yoshiko I. Wada, and "Ed Rossbach: 40 Years of Innovation and Exploration in Fiber Art," with Ann P. Rowe. She will give Saturday's keynote address.
Ms. Riisberg noted in her juror statement that even in a period of globalization, cultural differences arose among the jurors when determining what was new or interesting; but there was nonetheless predominant consensus about which pieces should absolutely be included.
Among the differences from the Danish fiberart scene, Ms. Riisberg wrote, were "the number of exquisite embroidery works" and the "several fine quilted pieces ... [that] showed a wide range of artistic possibilities in this medium." She also praised strong figurative images that tell stories and the high standard of craftsmanship, while being surprised by "the few knitted submissions ... almost entire absence of 3-D works in a bigger scale ... and few functional textiles."
Dr. Smith enumerated selection criteria including initial impression, content and/or context, excellent composition, presentation, and mastery of technique and process.
Ms. Stevens wrote of the trends that emerged as the jurors looked at the hundreds of images.
"Most noticeable is a return to the work of the hand. Embroidery and hand-manipulation of materials take prominence in this exhibition with less emphasis on digital technology. Artists in large numbers are once again expressing themselves with intimate methods like the simple, threaded needle.
"Technology can be a catalyst but it can also be a facile gimmick. Where artists continue to utilize cyber-age techniques, they use these technologies in less obvious, more nuanced ways.
"Perhaps the impact of the economic crisis and environmental concerns have motivated artists to rethink their priorities, resulting in a resurgence of approaches in which the artist is free of the power grid and relies only on him/herself to construct their works."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.