Textures of life represented in art
By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser
This spring, Hawai'i will be losing a treasure. Pat Hickman, professor and chairwoman of the fiber program at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, is retiring and leaving the Islands.
For 16 years, Hickman has nurtured the growth of that program. She sparked our senses with exquisite fiber-related exhibits at the UH art gallery. Through her involvement as chair of the Intersection Visiting Artists/Scholar Program for the art and art history department, she arranged for national and international artists to work as artists-in-residence at the university. The free lectures provided by these artists connected the community to a more global, less insular art scene.
Known for her sculptural use of gut, Hickman has exhibited from Australia to Switzerland and is the recipient of numerous awards, grants, fellowships and honors.
She recently was elected a fellow of the American Craft Council. Her artwork is in several major collections at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Hawai'i State Art Museum as well as the Oakland Museum and the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
At the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, she is leaving behind her most monumental work, "The Nets of Makali'i — Nets of the Pleiades," a set of magnificent gates reminiscent of fishing nets. A realization of a commission and collaboration with sculptor David Hamilton, the gates were cast from 2 1/2 tons of aluminum in Tasmania.
Q. You found your passion for working with fiber in an unexpected place. Will you tell us how it happened?
A. I went to teach English in a Turkish girls' school in 1962, and that's where I became very interested in textiles. I decided to shift from English and studied weaving in a fine-arts academy and lived there for seven years, intermittently. My thesis research was on the edging on Turkish women's headscarves. The edging communicates a lot in terms of women's emotions and feelings.
Q. What is a fiber artist?
A. The field is so broad, and it seems a lot of people think of art in the fiber medium as just weaving, or primarily weaving. That's one very important part but there are so many other directions such as surface design, wearable art, papermaking and fiber sculpture and history. A curriculum like the one I've tried to build at UH needs to have all those components to be really solid.
Q. You have taught textile and fiber art programs in Northern California. Have you enjoyed teaching in Hawai'i? Will you teach again?
A. One of the pleasures of teaching here has been that when I teach beginning students fisherman's netting, they go home and discover that their uncle or someone in their family has netting shuttles or knows how to mend nets. It's a connection with their family history. It seems to me that it happens more here than any place I have taught. For me that's important. Hawai'i has a great deal to offer.
I like the idea that both the traditional ways are being taught and artists are thinking how to have that be related to this time and place, and going on in their own direction. I really want to focus on my own work for the next 25 years; I'm ready. But I love teaching and can't imagine not doing short-term workshops ... to pass on what I've learned and help people find their own way.
Q. Are you concerned that there is a possibility that your position will not be filled immediately?
A. Yes, I want the program to continue. I have had a lot of letters from people locally who care about the fiber history here in Hawai'i and the importance of maintaining the connection to what we all know is so much a part of Hawaiian history and working with fibers. There are wonderful textiles here that the immigrant community brought with them.
Geographically, Hawai'i is linked to so many parts of world history and world textiles. I have been given some really rare out-of-print books for the textile library as well as the study collection of textiles because people knew I was here. It feels as if someone must come to carry it on.
Q. Some people see fiber, especially with Hawai'i's intrusive bugs and humidity, as an impermanent art form. Does that ever bother you?
A. Part of what I like about fiber is that it does respond to its environment. Fiber has lasted for many years — in ancient Peruvian burials in the desert or in frozen tombs in Siberia. As a statement of time and change, fiber is a very appropriate material. A piece, even when it changes, is responding to life. It's still doing its own natural thing and that seems part of the process. (At this time) things seem vulnerable, and none of us have control over what is happening in our world. Fiber addresses that.