Thursday, November 06, 2014

Alma Wallace Lesch 1917-1999: community ARTS support

Alma Wallace Lesch 1917-1999: community ARTS support art is with art

An American Portrait

Stitchery, once called women’s work in America up until the late 1950s, was a family tradition based on the economy. Mending became standard practice in the Post-American Depression home. Every farm child practiced needle working rescuing hard used clothing. The textile work of Alma Lesch is an exemplary case in the evolution of needlework.
In Shepherdsville, Kentucky this no-nonsense woman named Alma Wallace Lesch changed “stitchery” into breakthrough fiber art and crafted tapestries with narrative and social content. She helped launch the craft movement emerging as the Space Race brought science and art together on a global scale. 
Growing up on a farm after World War I in western Kentucky, as Alma Lee Wallace experienced, was a frugal childhood yet rich in home schooling. Grandmothers made simple dresses for children before school age. Alma Lee Wallace, the girl, pieced her first quilt (in KMAC* permanent collection) working beside her grandmother’s chair at the age of five and finished quilting it at age twelve.
As a Louisville, Kentucky school teacher Alma Lesch had an epiphany. After years of stitching surface embellishment onto natural fiber using her vegetable-dyed yarns colored from plant material and manipulating appliqu├ęd fabric textures into fabric collage experiments Mrs. Lesch saw old clothing both as her subject matter and art media.  Quilts were about to be viewed as art. During the rise of American studio craft the abstracted embroidered wall hangings of Mariska Karasz influenced her evolution from traditional imagery to experimental mixtures of fibers such as silk, cotton, wool and hemp with horsehair.
Alma's friend, Kentucky pattern weaver Lou Tate, brought traditional pattern weaving to the public at The Little Loom House on Kenwood Hill.  The culture of the Bluegrass State merged with the Hungarian traditions that  Karasz's bold abstract inventions expressed through her own expressions in fiber. Threads married clothing onto a background (as paint does to canvas) and fabric collage would evolve into Alma Lesch’s signature style of the fabric portrait.
Art in America featured an example of  Lesch’s early fiber work in its 1963 Fiftieth Anniversary edition. Represented in “Craftsmen of the Eastern States” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City curator Paul Smith wrote of these merged influences, ”...instead of American craftsmanship having regional distinction within the national style- craft becomes a style that is rapidly becoming an international one.”

Robert Rauschenberg had literally placed an American quilt into his provocative self-portrait entitled “Bed” in 1955 as art critics claimed that figurative painting had hit a bad decade in California.  Yet, in Kentucky, Alma Lesch embraced figurative work by using clothing in a two-dimensional collage format. Figure existed beneath the cloth from our memory.  Fabric collage as “portraiture” could be made directly from clothing.
It took decades for many colleges to introduce textile programs on the university level. Berea College was the exception.  It remains the Craft Center of the Bluegrass. A wide range of textile students gravitated tp Alma Lesch at Anchorage, Kentucky while teaching at their widely respected Louisville School of Art (now closed) and later as adjunct professor in fiber study at the University of Louisville. Her papers, and fabric collages are archived in the Hite Art Library. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft* in Louisville also has, for its education program,  Lesch's work in its permanent collection.
Grant Wood’s classic iconic “American Gothic”, which hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago, inspired Alma Lesch’s early 1960s series of ‘fabric portraits’. Specifically named after several geographical regions Lesch’s signature piece entitled “Southern Gothic” is on permanent display at the University of Louisville Hite Art Library. Other fabric collage interpretations as “Southeastern Gothic” depict an Appalachian farm couple dressed for mid-nineteenth-century work.
America’s “back to the Garden” tidal wave of fiber art innovation swept the USA from California to Manhattan challenging our very definition of fabric and function. Quilts now hung on walls as art. Form, not function is today's aesthetic in 'art cloth'. 
Alma studied at Murray University, moving to Louisville for a brief elementary school teaching career, and married her pharmacist husband Ted Lesch. They lived a simple life similar to the practical beauty seen in Shaker life.  Not far up the Ohio RIver her contemporary, painter and shanty boat dweller, Harlan Hubbard lived a “green” existence with his wife in Payne Hollow along the Ohio River long before it became a trend. Simple living was best practice. She turned to graduate school at University of Louisville.
Alma Lesch published, from her graduate thesis on plants and natural dye-stuffs at University of Louisville, what she described as a practical recipe book for dyeing fiber from natural plant sources. The Whole Earth Catalog included Alma Lesch’s 1970 recipe book for dyeing fiber from natural plant sources published by Watson-Guptill Publisher. Arrowmont School of Crafts, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts invited Alma Lesch to teach and lecture as well as Memphis Academy and the Philadelphia College of Art and Science. Her husband Ted participated in weaving workshops at Arrowmont while Alma taught her own workshop in vegetable dyeing techniques. Ted was an accomplished weaver of rugs, often using her natural-dyed yarns, when he worked along with Alma in the basement studio space.
Alma looked at everything most of us would typically discard. She deconstructed clothing rather than cut into the cloth. She wove wall hangings re-using empty plastic bread wrappers and used twist tapes, made collages with cut cardboard from empty laundry detergent boxes. Once she wrapped steak bones with linen thread producing a linked chain necklace decades before “large” necklaces were popular fashion accessories. Another time she literally bought the bibbed overalls off the back of the handyman she hired to clean her fence line. The inspiration for another Kentucky portrait knocked at her door.
In 1974 Lesch was recognized as a Master Craftsman by the World Craft Council. Galleries in Atlanta and New York City showed her fabric collages which were entirely stitched by hand, often upon her lap starting from layout planning in the basement studio then on to finishing details at her living room chair.
Precious pearl buttons became the ‘frames’ for her fabric collages which started as pinned and basted arrangements of clothing elements placed upon her preferred Belgian linen background. Look closely at an item of clothing you avoid discarding. Google search images for her textile examples if you care to multitask. “Sallie” a classic Victorian portrait from 1996 appears as if ready for dinner on-board the Titanic is shown in my blog after your internet search. The piece is proof that handmade lace (seen in PBS' Downton Abbey) will never go out of style.
Kentucky writer Wendell Berry received the Governor’s Award for the Arts in literature the same evening as Alma Lesch was honored for her lifetime achievement in the visual arts at the newly restored governor’s mansion. In Frankfort then Governor Martha Layne Collins presented Wendell Berry with a tapestry of a team of mules stitched by Alma Lesch.  Berry’s biography of the artist Harlan Hubbard is a must read to grasp the past century. Three comrades connected to the earth. Alma Lesch passed in the spring of 1999 leaving a fifty-year legacy in textile arts to the people of America. Visionaries share the magic of Kentucky's open stage.

As another footnote in Kentucky history the transcendental monk at nearby Gethsemane, Thomas Merton, had his epiphany (marked by a Kentucky Historical Marker) on the very Louisville Fourth Street corner where Alma Lesch’s “Kentucky Landscape” (her largest commission) was installed in the lobby of Meidinger Tower in 1984. When its corporate headquarters sold decades later Meidinger Tower generously donated the fabric collage to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art and is now hanging in the newly reconstructed WKCenter in Owensboro, Kentucky.