At Age 81, Carole Harris Is Embracing Imperfection

DETROIT — Art historians often hail White men as the progenitors of modern abstraction, from Piet Mondrian to Jackson Pollock. But there is an alternative lineage of non-figurative composition, one built by women, people of color, and fiber artists: quilt-making. As archives like the Quilt Index demonstrate, for every functional and straightforward quilt, there are a dozen that experiment boldly with abstract form, color, motif, and material, sometimes out of necessity and scarcity of material, but sometimes out of joy, self-expression, and artistic experimentation.

Detroit-based fiber artist Carole Harris, now 81 years old, cannot remember exactly when she learned to sew.

“It’s always been there. I grew up in Detroit and learned it through the public school system, in elementary school,” Harris said during an interview in her cozily cluttered studio, which adjoins the apartment she shares with her husband in Detroit’s historic Park Shelton building. “I always start my art lectures with the first quilt that I made, which was a wedding quilt for me and Bill, when we got married.” (She and the writer Bill Harris are coming up on their 60th anniversary.) “It was basically just the pinwheel pattern,” she added, “but even before that, I made clothes.”

Like many trained sewists, Harris applied her talents first to functional objects, including clothing and quilts, before eventually parlaying her interest in form, fabric, and color into a career in interior design. Throughout that time, however, she always maintained an interest in fiber art as an expressive modality that could be more free-form, ephemeral, and much less simple to define.

These compositions are narrative without being literal, resembling crumbling maps in their layered texture. Harris’s constructions are evocative, but unspecified, leaving the viewer to way-find through the visual field led by pathways of elaborate machine-stitching and landmark hand-sewn elements.

Bodies of work and individual titles refer to some of Harris’s perennial themes: memory, time, and jazz. Rhythm, Repetition, and Vocab, a 2018 exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, paired her work with that of painter Allie McGhee, drawing a connective line between artists whose signature visual aesthetics recall jazz. Just as the frenetic nature of jazz music belies the years of training that enable musicians to improvise and intuit harmonious outcomes from chaotic beginnings, its influence on Harris’s fiber works manifests as a working rhythm that is paradoxically grounded in strict attention to form.

“Craft is still important to me, even though what I’m doing now is all about imperfections and embracing imperfection,” said Harris. “But you have to work to make it look like that.”

This veneration of the working process is one of many tells that Harris is a Detroiter at core. In a town built on industrialized labor, there is an appreciation for hard work, whether it takes place in a factory setting or an artist’s studio.

“I’m trying to do really big work now,” said Harris. “And then the more I try, the smaller I get; I get really into the detail and into the work of it.”

No matter her ambitions, new pieces rarely start big. They are more likely to grow up around a minute study built from tiny scraps small enough to fit in the artist’s hand, much like a log cabin quilting block. This ability to generate inspiration from the tiniest components is a double-edged sword — it leaves Harris’s studio bulging with a fiber hoard, no scrap small enough to be discarded. Even her scrap thread is accumulated and pressed onto water-soluble backing that fuses it into vibrant, mossy patches to be rolled into future works.

“I’ve started making little balls with my thread scraps,” Harris confessed, retrieving a bag of colorful fairy-sized yarn balls. “I just pile them up over here until they until I get enough, or until I have time to make them into marbles, or whatever they are. Talk about hoarding — I can’t throw anything out.”

Harris makes a good case for her practice of retention: The richness of detail reflects her engagement with memory, including its gaps. In some places, her compositions are crisp and tacked down, like a well-rehearsed story that exists fully realized in the mind’s eye. But just like memory, these places are beset with meandering threads, burned-out holes, rusty spots, and bright flashes that draw the attention.

Though Harris has experimented with cooler palettes, her signature works tend to lean heavily into magenta, oranges, and golds.

“I guess magenta goes back to my time in junior college,” said Harris, who graduated from Wayne State University. “I had this art instructor who was a phenomenal woman. Her life was art-filled, and if you ever went to her house, it was just magical. She wore her hair pulled back in a bun, and she always wrapped it in yarn in colors of magenta and purples. And I guess I’ve loved those colors ever since.”

Harris’s work and the lovely Wunderkammer-like environment of her studio and home — itself a monument to memory, ephemera, collecting (not hoarding!), and aesthetics — invites us to sink into the details and follow them through to a place of imagination. Her creations have a beautiful kind of economy, where even rusty old machine parts might become transformed into a gilded patina on one of her sensuous memory maps. In work and in life, Harris wants to hold onto it all.

“Nothing is wasted,” she said, rolling one of her thread marbles between her fingers. “It’s all a part of your growth process.”

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