May and Mik Gaspay working on 'Fiber Structure.' (Courtesy of the artist)
When you see an imposing, immobile thing—say, a Beaux-Arts city building devoted to official happenings—is your first impulse to make that very solid object soft, squishy and accessible?
If you were Jeanne-Claude and Christo, you might wrap the building in acres of colorful fabric. If you were Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, you might select elements of the architecture to recreate as foam-filled canvas sculptures drooping in space.
And if you’re San Francisco-based artist Mik Gaspay, you might turn the building into a quilt.
Let me rephrase that. If you’re Mik Gaspay, you might want to turn the building into thick pieces of cut felt, modeled after columns, archways and ceiling ornaments. But when you ask your mother, an accomplished and prolific quilter, if it’s possible to stitch designs into the felt shapes for an added level of detail, she will tell you, “No, that’s too thick, you should just make quilts.”
(Only a quilter would use the modifier “just” to describe the labor-intensive process of sourcing fabric, piecing irregular shapes, basting and quilt stitching.)
Mik's initial desire—to turn the foreboding, masculine, heavy solidity of the War Memorial Veterans Building on its head—ultimately became a five-part textile work called Fiber Structure. But the practicals of actually creating the piece, currently installed in the entryway of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, is a result of a collaboration between Mik and two quilters—his mother, May Gaspay, and family friend Lleva Abenes.
In this, the third iteration of the SFAC Gallery’s ENTER126 series, we see the softer side of the War Memorial buildings (which include the twin structures of the Opera House and the Veterans Building). Aspects of their impressive architecture—including two ceiling-hung columns slowly rotating on disco-ball motors—are rendered in cotton, polyester, organdy and thread, embedding the buildings’ uses, the people they serve and the history of California in fabric choices and delicately stitched patterns.
What does California look like in novelty fabrics?
“Fruits and nuts!” May says as she trims wayward threads during install. When the columns turn, strips of strawberries, avocadoes, grapes and cherries appear, an homage to the state’s agricultural output. On the columns’ versos, pieces of tourist T-shirts sourced from Chinatown and the Mission become vertical stripes. These were difficult to work with, May says: too stretchy.
“That was my fault,” says Mik.
“He was just all concept,” May says, teasing.
But her son admits it’s true: “I did not know how to construct a quilt before this.”
May taught herself to quilt when she, her husband and four children immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1984. Mik was nine at the time.
“When I came here to America, I realized it’s cold,” May says. “We don’t have quilts in the Philippines.” Quilting started out as a functional necessity to keep her family warm. She bought scrap fabrics from garage sales and pieced them together by hand until, years later, she could afford a sewing machine.
Lleva, who helped with the project every step of the way, claims May conned her into quilting. “Cause I told her, ‘I’ll make a quilt for you,’” May says. “And then I cut the pieces and I said, ‘Here, you sew it together.’”
Today, May makes quilts for other people. With the right materials on hand, she can turn out a whole quilt in five days. But Fiber Structure was a new kind of project, a major departure from half-squares and quarter-squares, the building-blocks of quilting, into a free-form illustrative style.
“I welcomed it,” May says, “it was good to get out of my comfort zone.”
In the largest section, which hangs behind the SFAC Gallery’s front desk, one of the building’s archways and light figures is replicated in gauzy, shimmery fabric, the layers creating the appearance of panes of glass. Thread rising up either side of the arch sketch out tule reeds, a reference to the site’s marshland past. And at the bottom center, a dark camouflage pattern, traced delicately in corresponding stitches, is an homage to both the veterans who meet in the building, and the trickle of Hayes Creek that flows below.
“I just love how you can tell stories through the stitching,” Mik says. “You can layer stories in quilts.”
Once seen, those stories, in turn, transfer back to the original architecture. Leaving the SFAC Gallery and passing through the Veterans Building lobby, the giant granite blocks look a little less intimidating, the lanterns a little warmer.
'Fiber Structure' is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery Jan. 25–Dec. 14, 2019. Details here.
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