Wednesday, April 15, 2009

May Artist: In the Loop

For Heather Macali, a beautiful textile isn’t necessarily a finished product. In her hands, it takes on a new life as she hand draws, digitally distorts and then weaves the new colorful patterns.

The UW–Madison design studies grad student has created eighty of these complex weavings for her thesis show, Warped, which runs May 6–17 at the Design Gallery at the UW School of Human Ecology. Macali will cover five walls with sixteen weavings apiece, creating a vibrant, pattern-filled enclosure.

A few weeks before the show opening, Macali emailed me responses to some questions I had about her inspirations, process, details of her thesis and more.

How did you become an artist?

I have always been involved in the arts, especially fiber arts (coiling, sewing, etc.) and ceramics. I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t doing something creative, whether it was taking extra art courses over the summer, doing crafts with my mom and sister, dancing, playing the piano or just taking the initiative and creating work on my own (this came later on in life, probably in high school). As I grew as an artist and designer in undergrad, I discovered the textile department my sophomore year and realized my true calling was in the textile arts. I usually work with the technique of weaving but also enjoy other textile techniques like various dyeing and felting techniques. 

My undergraduate academic experience prepared me with the necessary skills to continue producing work and to take my work to a more sophisticated level during my graduate studies at UW–Madison. I also grew as an artist while I attended the Lisio Foundation in Florence, Italy, this past summer. I received a scholarship to study weaving there for seven weeks.

Where does your interest in textiles stem from?

My mother is a retired consumer science teacher and since I can remember my mother has always had fabrics around. As a child I frequently accompanied my mother on trips to the fabric store. My sister and I loved playing with the thread displays.

Tell me about the work you do.

Memory plays an important role in my design process. My use of color and pattern rises out of childhood experiences steeped in the popular material culture of the Midwest in the 1980s and early 1990s, with a contemporary twist. Making use of digital manipulations in the design process, I produce hand-woven fabric with three-dimensional optical effects on a two-dimensional plane.

I begin each work designing by hand-drawing patterns. Then, using Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator, hand-dyed yarn and a TC-1 (thread-controlled) loom, a very specific step-by-step process takes place. The strict methodology that I have created is intense, laborious, repetitious and utterly consuming—and I lose myself in it! I value this process; it is an important aspect of the work for me. When I finally begin the weaving process, the repetitious back and forth of the shuttle keeps me physically involved in the creation of my compositions, even as it allows my mind to wonder freely. It is so satisfying to watch as my digital compositions come to life with the particular color and tactile qualities of hand-woven fabric built with threads I have dyed myself.

Ultimately I am attempting to create fabric that carries ideas of color and pattern that I have had in my imagination for as long as I can remember, that are part of the visual world I was surrounded with as I grew up. I am putting these visions into a concrete form for both myself and for others to enjoy.

What sorts of patterns and colors appeal to you—and why do you think that is? And what is the concept behind Warped?

I am most attracted to optical patterns, patterns that really mess with the viewer’s eye/mind. I enjoy all the colors of the rainbow but at a very saturated and a high intensity. I usually pair colors with their complement or I work with colors in triad color harmonies. Both of these color combinations give enough of a difference between the colors to have an accent color/colors.

Again, I think that growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s affected my visual palette, with the use of vibrant colors and crazy patterns in fashion (especially having my mother who sewed all the time, she had fabrics laying all over our house and would take my sister and I to the fabric stores frequently)—and also the cartoons that were popular at the time.

I watched a lot of Rainbow Bright, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony. All of these cartoons had various characters that were the colors of the rainbow. For example, Rainbow Bright had helpers named Canary Yellow, Patty O’ Green and Shy Violet. The Care Bears had all different colors for their characters as well: Lucky Bear was a grass-green color, Love-A-Lot was pink. Besides the use of color in these cartoons all of them had a certain flavor that was associated with them. They all had lessons of helping others and happiness was always something that was achieved in the end of each episode. I believe that I associate bright colors with this certain mood that they portrayed and that is the mood that I want people to feel while viewing my work.

I wanted to create an environment that was filled with pattern and vibrant color with the use of texture and gradation to enhance the visual atmosphere. I decided to create an environment that was loosely based on a kaleidoscope. My main goal for this exhibition was to create an atmosphere that I have imagined since I was a child. I wanted to put it into a concrete form. I am taking what I surround myself with usually and pushing it to an extreme level with a sophisticated and mature eye.

What do you hope people get from seeing your work?

I obviously want people to enjoy the work and view the beauty and elegance that will be created. However, I know that not everyone would want to be in an environment like the one I have created, so my main interest is to get a strong reaction from the viewer whether it’s positive or negative. I do think that children would enjoy this exhibition because it consists of bright colors and some sparkly yarns.

What’s next for you?

I have been privileged to be a teaching assistant these past three years at UW–Madison and I have found my second passion in life, teaching. Ultimately I would like to continue producing my artwork and to continue to educate, whether it’s at the college level or volunteering at a daycare. I just want to keep promoting art to the youths of the world. I am also interested in possibly working as a textile designer producing patterns and maybe one day having my own textile company.

Warped runs May 6–17 at the Design Gallery at the UW School of Human Ecology, 1300 Linden Dr. Hours are 10a–5:30 p.m. Wednesday–Friday and 12–5 p.m. Saturday–Sunday. An opening reception will be held May 8, 6–9 p.m. For more information, call 262-8815 or visit

Images courtesy of Heather Macali.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The May issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• A look at the Valley Ridge Art Studio in southwestern Wisconsin.
• A preview of a prestigious dance conference coming to Madison in May.
• An interview with the owners of the new—and historic—Majestic Theatre.
• A poem by Wendy Vardaman.
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts and exhibits taking place in May.

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