"My grandmother was a tailor," recalls Sonya Clark. "She was wonderfully strong, a little woman with a soprano voice and a shock of white hair. As long as I would sit and stitch with her, she would tell me stories about her life growing up in Jamaica." And later, she says with a laugh, "Being a black woman growing up in the '70s, doing your hair is just something you do."
Those are personal takes on how Clark got interested in using textiles — and hair — for her own method of storytelling, assemblage art. There's also a subsequent, more professional explanation: She was inspired by college courses and teachers when she attended Amherst College and the
The interweaving of stories is Clark's forte. The 19 pieces in her exhibition "Sonya Clark: Material Reflex" (through Sept. 8) at the Craft and Folk Art Museum deploy techniques of embroidery, weaving and braiding with materials that include cotton thread and human hair, and objects related to apparel and grooming.
"There's a real reflection on material in her work," says Karen Derksen, curator of the show and director of the Winthrop University Galleries in South Carolina. "She really looks to the function and the symbolic aspect of material, and manipulates it in a way that transcends any traditional notions we have — like the C.J. Walker portrait where she's created something so unexpected."
That unexpected portrait is 11 feet tall and hangs in the museum lobby. While it appears pixelated, "Madam C J Walker" consists of more than 3,000 black pocket combs, then carefully linked by small wire rings. Teeth have been strategically removed to create lighter areas. An African American born in 1867 to former slaves, Walker created a hair and beauty products business that made her the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.
Not only did Clark find a product identified with hair care but, as usual, also something with multiple and layered associations. "These combs are made here in the U.S.," says Clark, speaking from
Another portrait was created using the $5 bill. Using black cotton thread, Clark stitched