Her work filled whole rooms, skeins of carefully chosen materials: gauze, goathair, old newspapers, woven together to create complex structures that helped Gayle Wimmer earn an international reputation as a fiber artist.
Grounded in the centuries-old textile arts, the fiber art movement grew at lightning speed in the 1960s and 1970s, and she was one of its gifted practitioners -- plaiting, weaving, knotting and lacing together conceptual art works that examined the cultural and political issues of the day.
Ms. Wimmer, a longtime resident of Tucson, Ariz., died in Squirrel Hill Sunday after a long illness. She was 69.
"Gayle was absolutely devoted to her art. She had tremendous focus," said her former assistant, Jackie Davidson, who worked with her in New York during the 1970s, where she taught classes at the New School for Social Research and Hunter College.
One of Ms. Wimmer's students was Nancy Koenigsberg, a Manhattan fiber artist, who described her as an inspiring teacher.
"She had a beautiful studio, all white, and after our classes Thursday night, we'd all go out to eat, and we really bonded, becoming not only her adoring students but good friends," Ms. Koenigsberg said.
So when Ms. Wimmer took a tenure-track position at the University of Arizona in 1976, her students were distraught -- so, almost offhandedly, she told them to keep meeting as an informal group after she was gone.
Today, that small group has grown into the New York Textile Studio, a nonprofit organization with more than 200 members dedicated to fiber art.
During her youth, growing up in Squirrel Hill, Ms. Wimmer never expressed much of an interest in art, said her sister, Lynne Wimmer of Salt Lake City.
She left Pittsburgh to go to Michigan State to pursue a degree in social work, but when a history professor told her he was having trouble coming up with the right design for a new desk, "Gayle said, 'Let me do that. I can do that.' I think that's the first time she ever designed anything," said her sister.
Later, when she was in New York City, she did macrame commuting to her job as an assistant to an architect. "She discovered her talent for handiwork on the subway," Lynne Wimmer said.
While she would spend the next 30 years teaching in Arizona before retiring as a professor emeritus, Ms. Wimmer traveled constantly, living and working in the Middle East, South Africa and Europe. She won two Fulbright scholarships and spent a great deal of time in Poland, which was at the forefront of the contemporary fiber artist movement.
She was there during the rise of the Solidarity movement in the late 1970s, and studied with Magdalena Abakanowicz, one of fiber art's most celebrated sculptors.
In 1996, Ms. Wimmer was awarded the Juror's Prize at the International Biennial of Tapestry in Beauvais, France, and in 1999, she was invited to return to Poland to evaluate the effects of political change on the work of that country's artists.
One of her installations, at the University of Arizona, took three years to complete, constructed around a family dictionary from 1921 that she found disintegrating in her family's garage. According to the University of Arizona's website, "Reconstructing Memory: Lo Stenditoio/The Drying Room," explores "the transparency and fragility of the written word," an artwork made of pages from that dictionary, preserved in gauze and beeswax, hung on clothespins from white rope. It was inspired by the old print-drying room at Fratelli Alinari Studios in Florence, Italy.
"Textiles are tactile, people can touch them, which is why they make such beautiful art," Ms. Koenigsberg said. "We had so much respect for her. She opened new worlds for us."
Besides her sister Lynne, Ms. Wimmer is survived by another sister, Susan Nathan, of Squirrel Hill.
Services will be held at noon today at Ralph Schugar Chapel Inc., 5509 Centre Ave., Shadyside. Visitation is one hour before the service at 11 a.m.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.