The Transformative Textile Walls by Carol LeBaron
Society shapes, and is shaped by, the environment we inhabit. Walls form the barrier between inside and out, modes of being, sense of community, role, and expectation. “Inside” implies shelter, safe-harbor and continuity, a sense of shared purpose. While we might not always be conscious of this fact, the walls we occupy truly shape our experience.
Across decades, Carol LeBaron’s large-scale textile walls have leaned into rich color and texture, gestural dye-work, stitching and weaving. Memory and translation often play a part in producing unique, expressionistic panels that occupy homes, offices, hotels and healthcare settings, anywhere we seek a sense of comfort and visual exploration. The artist pours thousands of hours into textile specifics in order to transport viewers to a place where the eye gets lost in exquisite detail. Textiles such as this offer a unique sense of physicality that evokes comfort and weaves together disparate parts, suggesting mending, tending, and care.
Art is shaped by life, and in ‘72 when Carol graduated high school, she went to live on a sustainable farm where she learned to weave and made bags for craft fairs. Her first piece was a mandala woven on an old wagon wheel. In the late 70’s she began as an undergrad at RISD, but transferred to Smith college, minoring in religion and eastern art, while majoring in printmaking (since the program had no textiles). Along the way, she had three children.
LeBaron returned to RISD in ‘97 for graduate school, where she worked with painting and textiles, inspired by abstract expressionists and field painters like Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler, fiber artists and sculptors like Sheila Hicks and Eva Hesse. These artists represented both natural and industrial subjects, working with abstraction, scale, texture, and at times more visceral materials to communicate a sense of aliveness. Wool at this time became LeBaron’s primary fabric for its ability to absorb light and to reflect back deep color. Wool is both an everyday material that gives viewers a sense of relationship to it, but it is also a product of nature, connecting us back to the familiar, the intimate and personal, and senses felt, rather than intellectualized.
Wishing to emulate the abstract expressionists’ bold use of color and the impact of scale, LeBaron started to focus on the Japanese ancient dye-resist process Itajime, which uses bound, clamped boards to create unique layers and shapes. Boards may be reused, creating the possibility of repetition and variation, enhanced by the variability of the natural dye process. Dye seeks to infiltrate ANY space left in a fold, crease, or wood vein. One can bind a shape, and yet dye water will find its way into cracks and crevices, leaving an impression that suggests the spirit of the wood as well as the water and the nature of the fabric, colors juxtaposed within and outside of the phantom block.
For a time, LeBaron created large-scale pieces from a single cloth, a process that involved heavy lifting and large cumbersome dye baths, leaving the artist with a back injury and unable to continue her process just at the point where she was meant to create her thesis. A successful artist will use any obstacle as a creative one, and LeBaron evolved instead to make work from smaller pieces, stitching and weaving parts together into a complex, overall gestalt. This process continues and evolves today.
In her free-standing retrospective installation “Life Source”, LeBaron presented 40 large pieces across two rooms. One “living” room showcased color and growth, while the other “black and white” room featured digital jacquard work, warm and tactile, yet clean and mechanically-crafted representations of original resists. While the technology of digital weaving is a clear mark of progress, perhaps accepted as black and white, the alternative “living” room contests or re-wilds that philosophy, vibrating with color and textiles that reach off-the-wall, as if evolution encouraged them to grow that way. Textiles absorb sound, and the rooms are quiet, producing no echos, holding space for the viewer to contemplate these fields. The auditory dampening effect of hanging textiles creates space for peace of mind, for an energetic settling to occur.
As a maker, Carol LeBaron is committed to green processes. Her work is primarily made from natural fibers cotton and wool, with materials sourced regionally from New England, Rhode Island, and North Carolina. LeBaron manufactures her resist-dyed wool pieces in her studio in East Tennessee. In her dye process, she exhausts baths completely in order to reuse the water, neutralizing the PH afterward, and returning it for use in the garden or in clean-up. All wood, metal, and paper used in the process are recycled. Even former textile pieces, along with the shreds and cut-offs that would be discarded in today’s fast-fashion industry, will be recycled and reused, giving them new life. In fact, alongside a new series and larger installation, LeBaron will be creating an upcoming series of wearables, shaped and knit wool pieces, slow fashion for modern people. Click here to learn more about her sustainable practice and perspective.
Some of LeBaron’s most recent interests are in large textures and natural features, preservation themes, and metaphors like erosion that show how elements, or by extension people, press-on and shape one another. The artist’s work gives access to nature by proxy with a bow and a nod to its fine detail, and the mood or memory of a place, felt through the artist’s hand. In a recent home installation, in a piece 15 x 9 feet tall, she depicts a client’s family’s quarry. As a personal place, it was filled with memory and nostalgia, a true spiritual meaning for the client and family, the deep blues waters were a core of rejuvenation. Drawing inspiration from the site of install, myriad photographs, and architectural drawings, getting a sense of the sculpture the piece was meant to complement, LeBaron created a rich substitute, imbued with vitality. As an artist, Carol LeBaron conveys an emotional connection to nature and place, transforming walls into portals, drawing our gaze into the beauty of natural and hand-made forms.