In the afternoon when the light is softly beaming in through huge windows, Meghan's live/work loft in Oakland is a dreamscape filled with soft sculptural textiles hanging from beams, piled in cozy corners, hanging from shelves, coating walls and lounging on furniture. The space she shares with her son is a mix of children toys, home necessities, and huge cloud-like shapes of roving-- unspun wool cords that differ from yarn in that they haven't had the final step to twist the fibers together. Long sinews of roving are wound into balls of loosely packed strands that look ethereal, wispy, thick and all together dreamy. Meghan has taken roving to new dimensions, creating surreal weavings with a material that many used to think of as an 'unfinished' or unprocessed material.
Meghan became a friend of mine when, a few years ago, our mutual friend Sherise Lee (The Radder) invited us to participate in a pop up in San Francisco. Over the years, she has been an invaluably wise friend on all fronts, personal, artistic, and business. She has such a sweet, nurturing spirit and at the same time, openly speaks about difficult subjects like death and grieving, relationships, and personal boundaries. Sometimes with friends you dive deep into layers of life's conversations, you never get the basic timeline established or hear their responses to topical queries, so I wanted to talk to Meghan about some subjects we may not have covered like how materials have shaped her work, her life balancing roles as a mom and artist, and how she began as a fiber artist.
"I found could move my entire body....
Having that movement
based practice along with the weaving changed the process
for me from craftsmanship to art"
There has been a resurgence of interest in weaving, especially for younger women, and you were certainly at the forefront of that. You have been teaching weaving for a few years, while making large scale art pieces and smaller home pieces. How did you become interested in weaving and when did it transition into a career for you?
In my very first weaving class, I learned how to make a scarf on a rigid heddle loom. I started making little wallhangings and absolutely loved it. At a conference in Boulder I went to, Maryanne Moodie gave a talk where she described the feeling of first beginning to grasp the techniques and you are just elated to have created something, but then you start to realize 'oh, im just weaving! this is a very traditional thing that people have been doing a long time, not my own invention!' (laughs). So once I got used to the basics of weaving I started doing some very experimental pieces incorporating raw fleece, and bark, and trying all different, random yarns in there. When my ex-husband got a job opportunity in Arizona, I started to learn tapestry technique, Navajo weaving, and floor loom weaving classes.
In 2014, I returned to Bay and focused on tapestry weaving and honing my techniques. That summer I became obsessed with learning circles, so all my designs would incorporate circles as a way to practice. Around that time, I started to play with putting a little with roving in with my tapestry weavings, but roving is so expensive I would only occasionally fit strands in.
Then in the fall, my father got sick and quickly passed away. I had just gotten accepted to show at West Coast Craft but in and I was so immersed in that and being with family in Michigan that I hardly had made anything to show. This was around the time I met you at a pop up Sherise Lee invited us to participate in. I had been playing a little bit more with roving and experimenting making a big all-roving piece with a poor loom I made (laughs). That's when I realized, making big pieces with roving-- feeling every millimeter sliding through my hands-- this soft beautiful material felt so healing as I was losing my father. My dad died in October and my marriage dissolved January. Using this fiber that was soft and warm just felt so comforting during a time of loss.
When working on a tapestry weaving your body is very still as you’re beating down the warp, but using the roving, I found could open my arms and move my entire body and stand up and pull the roving over here, and on this side of the loom, there... It just felt like freedom. Having that movement-based practice along with the weaving changed the process for me from craftsmanship to art. My past work was somewhat artistic but it was more about learning technique and applying it to create the design and I was very influenced by other people or trends or figurative things. Up until then, I was focused on learning a skill like weaving circles, and then once I learned that I started making circular designs like a moon phases weaving, and I would mix the different techniques to create different twists on a design. But then when I started working with roving it became clear that this is my art. And eventually I started experimenting with taking the material off the loom and making sculptural or free hanging pieces that were pushing the boundaries of the material, which feels like it requires me to be even more creative-- especially since its about creating pieces in a new way I had never seen before.
I love hearing artists talk about that moment when they really step into themselves for the first time. Its so exciting, the first time you make break out of copying, or traditional methods or formal education or DIY tutorials and start to walk into a place that feels very unknown yet very familiar as a part of themselves. That's the shift into when someone is really owning their work.
I love looking at your pieces because to me they are a cloudworld of comfort and shape and color and safety, but I want to know how you see the work that you do.
I see it like that too. I see my work as whimsical, very comforting and safe. One of the thing I love about my work too is that the material absorbs sound. It also feels very quiet, which is an important aspect of my life. But one of the other things I like conveying in my work is the sense of discomfort, because there is an aspect of it as a fine art piece that when its on display you want to touch it so bad but you can’t touch it. It has an element that feels interactive, that creates a sense of longing that is unresolved. I like that my work has a visual aspect to it but its also something you crave to touch, and other art mediums like a photograph, don’t necessarily have that same longing. A lot of my clients are attracted to the work because it brings them comfort. And thats what it was for me in that time of loss, it was a safety net that brought me comfort and grounding. I explored that a little last year at a show I did Glass Rice Gallery. Every piece in that show was interactive and when I wrote or talked about that show I didn’t state my intentions because I wanted people to experience the work without my input. I wanted to ask “how do you feel when you see this? How about when you touch this?”
Fiber is an ethereal, often natural material that doesn't have as much longevity as say metal sculpture which would potentially last forever. But on top of that, the type of fiber you have chosen was traditionally thought of as raw and unfinished. It probably didn't occur to many people to use it in a piece of art because its delicate and organic, so I wanted to know how you see your material and if the constraints of it play a part in your work.
Its something I thought about a lot because its not something that will last forever. It will disenagrate. And how fast will depend on a lot of environmental factors like the sun, humidity, dust, moth infestation, and so on… Compared to, say, if you work in marble or metal where you are good to go. I don’t think I’ll using roving forever, I think this is really representative of this time of my life, and I feel like, when this time will pass, I’ll be ready to move on. Right now the roving feels like an extension of me, it feels so personal that its not something I would show someone else how to do it. There’s a time when I will pass one day and my pieces will too and I feel really okay with that because its the nature of this work.
I think that’s beautiful because there is so much synethic, toxic materials in our culture that is not biodegradable and will be on the planet potentially for ever.
Yeah, I use cotton and wool and thats basically it.
Occasionally there’s some silk…. I do try to keep in mind that if its going disengrate that its eco-friendly.
"Using this fiber that was soft & warm felt so comforting during a time
You have a fine art dimension of your work and you also teach weaving workshops. How do you see those two facets of your career— maintaining the uniqueness of your own work while mentoring other people through the process of weaving?
I’ve been thinking about that balance a lot lately. When my ex and I first split up, I had been weaving for a while before the divorce, but thats when I decided to first try to do this for a living. I was in this position where I didn’t know if I could be a working artist and actually make a living without another job. So when I first started on this path, about three years ago, I basically said yes to everything. I did every single thing I could, if someone asked me to do something I said yes and was going to figure it out. So, I taught tons of classes. I have my son every other weekend, and on the weekends he was with his dad, I would be traveling to teach workshops, so I only had one weekend a month where I wasn’t parenting where I could see my friends, catch up on sleep, and do everything else I needed to do because when I have my son with me. By the end of last year I felt completely disoriented, frazzled, and I wasn’t happy. I had to ask myself what I was doing, saying yes to everything and keeping everyone else happy— and at the end of the day it wasn’t even paying off financially. I realized when I stay home and create work, I actually do better financially, and as a single parent I’m only squeaking by. As a pretty introverted person when I teach, I’m also giving a lot so I would feel so tired for a day or two like I needed a day to lay in bed, which is not great for work. So I had to look at what my body was asking me to do. So I had to make a conscientious decision to step back from teaching and especially the traveling for teaching. While there’s aspects of teaching and traveling I love, I feel like i needed to acknowledge the things that weren’t working for me. Another aspect of the teaching discussion is the question: When I spend so much of my time teaching other people my techniques does it make my own work obsolete? I don’t feel as strongly about that, but it is part of the discussion as well. I have considered new approaches to teaching and mentorship like small group classes at my studio and overseeing students in a longer term mentorship role instead of repeating the same classes over and over. I’ve been wanting to change things up I guess.
Is there any theme or idea or colorway that you are exploring or preoccupied you while you’re working right now?
I feel there are two color ways I have been exploring a bit in the last year, one is this creamsicle color, the other came about because when The Assembly in San Francisco asked me to make pieces for them, the color inspiration was surprising, I thought “these aren’t colors I usually work with” and I wasn’t sure how they would come together, but when I got the colors all together and started working, I totally fell in love with them and how they interacted together. The direction I want to go now is in playing with more colors that I wouldn’t normally have been drawn to. Pushing myself outside grey or black or white— which are colors that I usually work with. As far as ideas, when I first split up with my ex-husband, I was feeling very open and vulnerable and I posted a lot of my thoughts on the internet, which was great, but in the last year I stopped doing that— not for any particular reason but mainly because I was no longer drawn to that outlet. And in stepping back from that I realized his past year I need to be quiet, I need to listen. This is a time in the world when I need to just listen. And this awareness surfaced through the political and social events that have happened in the last year and a half. After I split with my husband I really needed people to hold space for me because I was going through a lot and need to work through these deep emotions, but in this last year, I feel like I need to be doing that for other people and also because I needed to learn from listening to other people talk about their stories. I benefit from white priveldge and in understanding that, I had a desire to learn about other people’s experiences and I realized I had a lot of ignorance I need to overcome. I needed to be quiet and learn from other people’s experiences. I will share more about myself, my life, and my thoughts, but right now Im in a really happy, stable place that allows me to hold space for others. My day to day struggles feel miniscule right now considering whats going on in the world and specifically our country.
And that's a really important point about social media. Artists in the past only expressed political feelings or emotions through the work but now that everyone has a platform to speak, we are trying to navigate that new dimension of our work and our voice. There is certainly the beginnings of a turn toward a more intentional and empowering way to use social media to uplift and celebrate people who are ignored by mainstream culture. I think social media highlights whatever flow of energy you put into it— with every post you can choose to draw in other people’s energy on you, or you can use it like a window to learn about disenfranchised and ignored communities, or you can use it to direct an energy flow toward others by sharing other people's stories, and so on.
How do you see your place in this medium that can historically was very domestic and feminine?
I wonder, is this a fiber resurgence that is going to stand the test of time or will it be a trend that fades like when the last peak in the 60s-70s dropped off? I believe that aspects of textile and fiber art will always continue because even after the trends faded, artists like Sheila Hicks have made work through the decades. I think the important part for fiber artists is to push ourselves to keep evolving and not getting stuck in the same repetitive practice. I think fiber is getting more visibility in the fine art realm and more people are beginning to see and understand it. I think it will be cool to see how some of the stuff we are making will stand the test of time. I also think about people who are pushing boundaries in fiber like Alise Anderson and Erin M. Riley who are portraying things that are very socially or politically relevant— And I think that’s a big part of what fiber is: an expression of part of women’s lives.
" I think that’s a big part of what fiber is: an expression of part of women’s lives. "
Oakland, California-based, fiber artist Meghan Shimek creates large scale woven wall hangings and sculptures. Her weaving style allows the fibers to fall into an indeterminate pattern that reveals the beauty and vulnerability of her materials.
She developed her own signature weaving style over several years as she explored how art can be used to express grief and heal after personal loss. Today, Shimek exhibits her work, creates commissions, and teaches weaving workshops across the world.
Learn more about Meghan's work through:
Her website: https://www.meghanshimek.com
& Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/meghanshimek/