Wearable art: a functional craft growing in interest and popularity

It's called wearable art, and it is made by artists who express themselves in weaving, felting, pleating, knitting, crocheting, hand painting, dyeing, quilting, beading, printing, drawing, and other creative processes.

There is an increasing demand for this kind of functional art that you display on your back, and also hang on your wall between wearings. Some of the pieces would require not only some assured stage presence, but also a little derring-do, to pull off with just the right degree of elan and authority. Over the last two decades, not only has wearable art been developed in a multitude of ways by American craftsmen, but the courage to invest in it and wear it has grown as well.

Increasing numbers of shops and boutiques feature such art, and more department stores are becoming adventurous enough to include it. In addition, more wearable-art artists are seeking entry into major craft fairs around the country to find a larger audience.

Colleges and universities, say the experts, have added courses in wearable art to their art curricula and regularly sponsor workshops on various techniques used to create this walking art.

Although wearable art has had some museum recognition, the American Craft Museum II, 77 West 45th Street in New York, is now spotlighting the field with a handsome exhibition that will run through Oct. 14. This important show, which features the work of 25 artists, will no doubt encourage more artists to desert traditional art forms to strive for new effects in fiber and textiles.

Kathleen Nugent, curator of the show, comments, ''I tried to select clothes for this exhibition from the standpoint of their wearability and usability, and not just 'occasion' or costume pieces.

''This interest in personalized clothing goes back to the 1950s and has been slowly growing ever since,'' she continues. ''Now we see a burst of activity, with more and more artists directing their energies into designs to be worn. Some have been painters or sculptors, but they like this new challenge of constructing a garment by hand that can be worn, yet stand on its own as a piece of art.''

Sandra Rubel, who paints, draws, and beads on fabric, says, ''My work has evolved because of the interest of the public. People's sensitivity to wonderful things is increasing, and they are willing to commission us to make these things.'' One of her hand-painted tunics could cost from $350 to $500, she notes , depending on her hand drawing work. ''It takes three or four days to complete such an ensemble,'' she says, ''so you would never get rich in this business. You have to love it to do it.''

Jim Harding of St. Paul, Minn., has been influenced by the Japanese in his jackets, which are modeled after Japanese field-worker jackets. He studied painting at Cameron University in St. Paul, then went to work as a cutter for a garment factory. He began to experiment with dyeing and cutting and fraying fabric. His garments, made after his regular work hours, are now sold in museum shops and galleries.

He says he could never count the hours or the labor that goes into making each garment. ''You have to be devoted to this sort of thing,'' he admits. ''With the work that goes into these garments, they far transcend a particular season or time period. They are far more art than fashion.''

Julia Hill of New York, who paints on silk, has been working at her craft for 18 years. ''The more I do the more involved I get, the more books I read, and the more I break with traditions and find newer, freer ways of doing things,'' she says. ''Years ago people thought they couldn't handle this kind of artistic approach to clothing. They didn't know what to do with it. That has all changed in the last five years. Now people know how to appreciate and to wear this kind of art.''

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