From Colombia to Cranbrook, artist Olga de Amaral's work blurs boundaries

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Trying to sum up Colombian artist Olga de Amaral's work into one neat category is like calling Italian great Leonardo da Vinci simply a painter. It's impossible.

De Amaral is a renowned fiber artist, but also a sculptor, painter and architect. Her large art pieces combine a range of materials — from horsehair to linen painted with gold leaf — and they're often inspired by the Colombian countryside and have a sculptural component.

On Saturday, the Cranbrook Art Museum will unveil the first major museum retrospective in the United States of de Amaral's work, "Olga de Amaral: To Weave a Rock." It includes roughly 40 pieces — some small, some large — gathered from not just Colombia but other museum collections across the country.

Column in Pastels, (c),Wool and horsehair.

Cranbrook is an appropriate place for the exhibition given that de Amaral, now 90 and still creating art to this day, spent two years there doing post-graduate work in the mid-1950s. And it was at Cranbrook that she learned to weave. 

"Weaving was unknown to me and Cranbrook led me into this new world of thread and looms," said de Amaral, who lives in Bogotá, in an email. "Imagine the wonderful surprise of being introduced to the loom and starting on this long path."

Laura Mott, senior curator of contemporary art and design at the Cranbrook Art Museum, calls de Amaral's time at Cranbrook "transformational." Today, she's almost like a "cult" figure in the craft world and Latin America, said Mott, though she's not known as well as she should be in the United States.

But that's changing with shows like the one at Cranbrook. The same "To Weave a Rock" exhibition opened earlier this year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which co-organized the retrospective. And a major show of her work also will open at New York's Lisson Gallery next week.

"She's definitely an artist that's been underrepresented" in the United States, said Mott. "People may have seen one individual work of hers in a group show or collection show but nothing to this in-depth scale that shows the variety of her work over decades. It hasn't been done until this moment."

The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 13, is loosely divided by decade, starting with the '60s. Sculptural art pieces in earth tones woven together open the exhibition, which then moves on with works made from woven linen painted in gold, plastic pieces, even linen string. 

Estela (Installation), Linen, gesso, and gold

Gold really made its way into de Amaral's work in the 1980s. She sometimes applies gold leaf to different structural fiber works or handmade paper. One striking installation in the exhibition, "Estela," features a grouping of weavings that combine linen, gesso and gold leaf.

De Amaral said the way color informs her work is difficult to articulate, but it's about "the colors I see during the day after day of living with my eyes absorbing, experiencing, and inhabiting them."

"Color becomes life and life becomes color," said de Amaral.

Another unique installation, "White Light" or "Luz Blanca" in Spanish is made of plastic, part of an entire series she created.

White Light, Plastic material.

"When you think about a fiber show, typically you're just going to see weavings but this is so much more," said Mott.

De Amaral discovered Cranbrook after an architecture friend in Bogotá told her about it. She said studying there was stimulating in a way she'd never experienced in Colombia.

"It was a surprise at the beginning, this new environment of learning and being surrounded by other students and professors," said de Amaral, who also met her husband at Cranbrook. "Cranbrook's was a magical system that brought one into knowing and activating the special part of one's creative mind."

Mott said the new exhibition really frames de Amaral's work in the larger discourse of contemporary art. 

"We show the range and scale" of her work, said Mott. "In the beginning her amazing sculptural weavings are these colors from the earth. Then her most recent work from the last decade is really bright and vibrant. And so you kind of get a walk through her life and the decades of her work in the exhibition."

Olga de Amaral is a renowned artist in Colombia known for her fiber, paint and sculptural works of art. She did her post-graduate studies at Cranbrook in the mid-1950s.

And for de Amaral, it closes "a cycle," she said.

"It brings my work back to a place that ignited the beginning of a long path," she said. "It makes me happy that more people and art students will be able to understand and experience my work."

'Olga de Amaral: To Weave a Rock'

Saturday through Feb. 13 at the Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills.

Curator Laura Mott will give a lecture on Olga de Amaral's work at 1 p.m. Saturday.

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