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Mary Zicafoose brings power of cloth to Oxford

Self-taught weaver Mary Zicafoose gives museum guests a tour of her collection Fault Lines during her lecture at the University of Mississippi Museum in Oxford, Miss. on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. (Chi Kalu, Oxford Eagle)

Master weaver Mary Zicafoose spoke at the University Museum last night, marking the last days of Pop Up Oxford and the beginning of the eighth-annual Fiber Arts Festival.

Zicafoose, who is based out of Omaha, Neb. began weaving over 25 years ago and is best known for her large-scale Ikat-patterned tapestries. In last night’s lecture, she highlighted the importance of textiles throughout her life, beginning as a Catholic schoolgirl helping organize liturgical garments before daily mass and continuing through her adult life.

“As a weaver and a dyer and a maker of cloth, my relationship with fiber defines me,” she said. “It is my personal and unique thumbprint and singular voice. On this planet, us textile folks are a small but mighty force, and we’ve got some big shoes to fill, because we are the present tense of a mundane but very sacred practice of making and adoring cloth.”

Zicafoose turned her passion for textile and emotions the medium inspires into a career. She has pieces on display throughout Nebraska and the United States, and currently has a collection, “Fault Lines,” at the University of Mississippi Museum through Feb. 10.

All of Zicafoose’s pieces are hand-dyed, a process she says came naturally when she began weaving.

“The week I started dyeing was the week I started weaving,” she said. “I’d have the wool dye on the stovetop, stirring it next to a pot of spaghetti. It’s become a huge part of my practice.”

She says her favorite colors to work with are in the blue and yellow color families, specifically navy blue and chartreuse. Pieces can take as many as six months to complete, and she has a team of three people working at her studio.

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, who recently retired from the Ole Miss biology department, began weaving five years ago, and took one of Zicafoose’s classes. When introducing her at last night’s lecture, he described her as an artist, not a craftsman.

“[She] taught the humanity of the subject,” Threlkeld said. “That it’s not just a craft, but an art. You go out and learn from people, and everyone brings their ideas to the table.”

Weaving and other fiber arts have historically been discounted as crafts rather than an art form, but museum director Robert Saarnio says artists like Zicafoose are actively changing perceptions.

“Textiles and fiber arts have their own dedicated following, just like people who are into horticulture or poetry. It’s a large niche,” Saarnio said. “She’s really a visual artist who almost paints with textiles. She’s really elevated it from craft, to an art.”

In addition to last night’s lecture, Zicafoose will lead a weaving demonstration, titled “Art of Ikat,” on Friday morning at 9 a.m. at the Powerhouse as part of the Fiber Arts Festival. The Fiber Arts Festival begins today at 3 p.m. at the Powerhouse, and ends Sunday at 4 p.m. For more information or to sign up for a class, visit https://oxfordarts.com/events/fiberfest.

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