Continuing our tribute to Men in the Fiber Arts... the innovative use of our threads shown in the amazing, beautiful fine artwork of
by Rita Vainius
What prompted Robert Forman to journey to the remote Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico to seek out the Huichol Indians? He was looking for the only people he knew of who made pictures the way he did: yarn painting.
Robert began experimenting with art in high school making collages combining paper and found objects. On one fateful day, which would determine the direction his art would take for years to come, he experimented with yarn on board and ended up covering the whole composition with it. Attending Cooper Union a prestigious N.Y.City College, Robert kept his particular artistic medium to himself, thinking it was not suitable to be considered "serious" art. Fortunately, an enlightened professor saw his work and declared it not only legitimate, but exceptional. It was all the validation Robert needed to pursue his creative passion in this very unique way.
Robert's earliest pieces depict scenes from his own home and neighborhood in Hoboken, N.J. and abstract works using threads to describe concepts of time, motion and music. (Shown top left: "Hoboken Station", 1988) As if in direct contradiction to the feminine overtones that using yarn conveys, his art displays themes with more traditional male imagery: a policeman shining a light on a motorist, apartment buildings huddled against an ominous night sky, a lonely subway platform and still lifes with angular and architectural lines. (Shown below:"Police", 1989)
Up until the late 80's Robert actually thought that he had invented the yarn painting technique and concept. He had already been using fibers on board for 20 years, when a chance find of a Huichol yarn painting at a Greenwich Village flea market, clued him into the fact that there were others, albeit not close at hand. His curiosity piqued, he began researching the culture of these Indians. Fortuitously, a friend encouraged him to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study with these Mexican artists firsthand. He got it. Embarking on a pilgrimage to this foreign mecca with several of his paintings and a Spanish-American dictionary in hand, Robert set out to find these kindred spirits and artistic counterparts.
The Huichol, though naturally suspicious of outsiders, were nevertheless intrigued with this foreigner and the unusual parallel development of this art in such divergent cultures. Robert's own reaction was: "Suddenly I felt a part of a group as if I had been inexplicably linked to this living tradition without knowing it". During his interlude in the Huichol village of Santa Catarina, he participated in the daily life of the community, while exploring the origins of their yarn paintings. True folk art, they are extensions of traditional prayer objects. The designs show native animal and plant life and encompass many aspects of day-to-day rituals, both secular and religious. Robert watched the artists at work (who are men whose wives often contribute to the work, without receiving credit for it), and was allowed to try his hand at the works in progress. (Shown below "Journey", 1996.)
Aside from subject matter, their technique differed from his in only 2 ways. The Indians use beeswax to adhere the yarn to the background, while Robert employs carpenters glue. And in a somewhat incongruous reversal, the Huichol art is composed of acrylic yarns while he works primarily with natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk).
Upon his return to the U.S. Robert began a large painting which would be a homage to the Huichol and their homeland, and would reflect his varied experiences there. It was a much more ambitious piece than any previous work and would measure 5 feet in diameter when completed, with intensely complex imagery and executed in an astounding myriad of colors. The central image in the painting is the sun surrounded by a Santa Catarina landscape, encircled by a border of Huichol people, intertwined with images from their art. The name "Nierica" is derived from a word meaning "to see" and symbolizes a visionary ability, facilitated by a small round mirror, hence the circular format. (Unfortunately the image was too large to reproduce it with any justice here.)
(Shown above "Lace", 1995.)
Robert was able to return to the Mexico on another grant 2 years later to continue his apprenticeship with them. When a twist of fate offered him the opportunity to visit the Ixil Indians of Guatemala to learn about their Mayan weaving, he jumped at it. Some time before, Robert had encountered an itinerant Guatemalan weaver, at the Brooklyn Museum, who had invited Robert to his country to learn about their craft. While serving as a translator for a Dentist from N.J. who was treating these same Indians, Robert investigated their culture and traditional weaving styles, later incorporating some of these design elements into his own work.
In 1996 Robert's paintings were part of an exhibition that featured Huichol art entitled "Converging Cultures: European Influence on a New World". As a guest lecturer, he recounted that through his experiences with them, he has learned to view his own art as a passport into other cultures. He elaborates: "Such international relationships can make use of art to open communication and create mutual respect between disparate cultures".
Amazingly, it was directly due to the Huichol that Robert was to discover the Caron Collection of fibers. (Shown right "Anna y Maria", 1997.) Earlier this year, he was invited to display his work alongside the art of the Huichol at a Symposium on Corn, which as both plant and symbol, is sacred to the Indians. While acting as a guide and translator for the visiting artists at Radford University in Virginia, the Huichol who were making their paintings on site, ran out of yarn. What to do, but head for the local needlework shop to replenish their supply! It was there that Robert came across the Caron threads and changed a long held belief that variegated yarns did not mesh with his work. He had actually tried using commercial variegated yarns as far back as the 60's, but had eliminated them from his repertoire because the colors were too harsh and the gradations in tone too severe and artificial looking. Thereafter, he preferred employing solid colors and making the tonal changes himself to better control the end result. The Wildflowers fibers, that caught his eye, were a particularly welcome find as the subtle variations of color adapt themselves to the effect Robert strives to achieve in his paintings. Because of the inherent 3 dimensional quality of the fibers that Robert employs, he can create images by pattern alone, using color for other effects or vice versa. As with all traditional arts, in the hands of a master, what might appear to be limiting becomes liberating. (Shown left "Chair", 1992.)
Robert constructs his paintings on clay board (masonite with an archival coating). He does pencil outlines for the smaller and simpler pieces, but will make full size color cartoons for the larger, more complex works. A piece such as "Nierica" can take as long as a year to complete. Another imposing painting, "Journey", shows barefoot Huicholes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for a prayer ceremony. There is a suspension bridge outside their village in Mexico erected with the help of the Brooklyn Bridge Authority. The Indians were in New York to celebrate this connection. At the top of the painting they are shown crossing their bridge at home. Robert Forman has also crossed both bridges and neither one was a one way trip. When you cross over, you become part of anothers' culture and it, in turn, becomes part of yours. His paintings dynamically portray both this real and symbolic odyssey.
If you are interested in more information about Robert Forman's work, he can be reached on e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org