Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Messages on silk: the art of Deb Gelet

Local artist blossoms in her fifth year at the Sun Valley Arts & Crafts Festival

Gelet?s triptych, ?Nine Moons? (15" x 45" per panel) is acrylic, ink and foil on hand-dyed silk. Photos by Mark Johnstone.

By Betsy Andrews

For the Express

Ten years ago, Deb Gelet began hand-dyeing and hand-printing fabrics so that she could offer one-of-a-kind textiles in her Ketchum fabric store, The Yardstick.

But for Gelet, who has created textile art in "one form or another" since she was a little girl, the process quickly became about more than producing 150 yards of unique silk or linen for curtains or duvet covers. Her work grew more spiritual and personal, as she began transferring sacred scripture or personal letters—for example, from a client's grandmother—and collaging or enlarging them in ink or gold foil on shimmering silks.

This marks the fifth year that this emerging artist has been tapped to exhibit her wall hangings, shawls and other textiles in the Sun Valley Arts & Crafts Festival. But this year, the Hailey resident's work is different.

"In the last two years, I've gone in the direction of incorporating what I'm pondering, things I'm no longer afraid to say," explained Gelet. "I used to let it be somebody else's grief, somebody else's joy, somebody else's words. Now I think, 'What do I have to say?'"

Gelet uses methods similar to the shibori methods of ancient Japan: tying silk, dyeing it, and repeating the process up to seven times before adding imagery in ink, gold foil, or paint, using hand-cut stencils, brushes, a palette knife, or her bare hands. The same length of cloth passes over her worktable nearly twenty times before a piece is completed. Mark Johnstone, arts curator and public arts consultant for the city of Ketchum, calls Gelet's new work, "more layered, in a wider variety of ways."

Graphically, the work is much more emboldened than in the past. In a triptych titled "Nine moons," spheres of gold foil could be moons, or portals. Singed edges refer to life's trials by fire, and the alchemy of creating a precious object out of something mundane. Feathers adorn some work, and sealing wax.

A chatoyant triptych in blues and greens bears gold foil blocks in which she's placed X or O, symbols for kisses and hugs, from old typesetter blocks she found at a Hailey antique fair. Themes of truth, steadfastness and the nature of reality weave among each other. Motifs from nature shift, ghostlike, across the silk: birds, nests and leaves.

Embedding bold, universal images in silk changes them somehow. They don't shout as much as murmur, a voice from a distance carried on wind. They rustle with the tactile qualities of instinct, ceremony and comfort. This is important stuff and calls to mind the highly lauded blanket sculptures of Marie Watt, whose nationally acclaimed work appears at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts this month.

Gelet claims that if her grandmother had been accredited for teaching her granddaughter creative needlework at the age of 4 or 5, Gelet would have a formal education in the visual arts. As it is, her formal schooling encompassed literary arts. She received a degree in journalism and still works in publishing. She laughs as she agrees that necessity is the mother of invention. "It's a really effective way of learning. Mostly uncomfortable, but really effective." She brings both skills to the fore as director of The Woods Gallery in Ketchum.

Much of Gelet's work has been commissioned for Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and memorials. "Textiles are ceremonial in so many ways," Gelet explained. "When the message of a piece becomes embedded in the silk—watching someone respond to's totally rewarding. It's a very earthy, primal response, and it almost always surprises me."

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