THE PIVOTAL RUE DE SEINE. Sheila Hicks is a Nebraska born artist who studied at Yale School of Art with Josef Albers in the 1950s. She fell in love with Chile and Mexico and lived there for several years before moving to Paris in 1964. Known for her innovative and experimental weavings and sculptural textile art, Sheila’s work incorporates distinctive colours, natural materials, and personal narratives.
Sheila Hicks, your studio is in La Cour de Rohan, a secluded 16th Century Paris courtyard that has housed famous artists including Balthus and André Derain. The Giacometti Foundation is also here. Is this because Giacometti was a friend of Balthus and Derain?
No. Annette, the widow of Giacometti, was advised by her lawyer to invest in this courtyard because it was quiet. She did, and she had her assistant Mrs. Palmer installed in the oversized building in the courtyard. All the neighbours were upset because it was becoming a place people wanted to be, ringing the doorbell and visiting. But there’s nothing there except art historians, sitting quietly in a three-storey building, working with the Giacometti archives on their computers.
How did you come here?
When I came to Paris I moved to 57 Rue de Seine with somebody who I cared about. To walk to the post office I would explore different ways to cut through the streets in this neighbourhood. The nicest route I found was through this courtyard, where I would sit and read my mail on a bench. I didn’t know any of the history, I only had the aesthetic sense that I liked the environment. One day a man said to me, “Mademoiselle, you spend a lot of time in our courtyard. Why don’t you move here, because I see you really like it.” I said, “That’s a big joke. I don’t have any money to buy and live in a place like this.” “Well, we’ll talk about it,” he said, and it turned out that he was the president of the property owners’ association here, and little by little we became friends. That’s how I came into the courtyard.
Were other artists still here?
No, none of them, but a nice old lady told me that she used to watch Picasso from her window when he walked over here from his studio and they’d lay out his tapestries on the cobblestones and hose them down to get the dust out after they wove them. Where we’re sitting today is the courtyard where they were weaving those tapestries and then taking them out to wash them. Imagine that!
“The life of the room is a work of art.”
Sheila Hicks, Cour De Rohan Autumn, 2018
Linen, cotton, tree twigs
19 x 27 cm (7 1/2 x 10 5/8 in.)
photo: Andrea Rossetti
Sheila Hicks, how long has your studio been here?
Maybe 40 years.
In that case perhaps it really wouldn’t be correct to call you an American artist?
No. My friend says quit saying you’re an American artist. You’ve been 60 years living in Paris and you’re an artist, full stop.
Are you pleased to have chosen Paris?
I kidnapped my daughter out of Mexico and it was the most anonymous place I could move. I didn’t have permission to travel with her without her father’s permission.
Do you have other children?
Yes, I have a son, but he was born here in Paris. His father is the fault that I came to Paris, and now I’m a very devoted mother and grandmother.
Textiles and weaving has been your fil rouge in life. Did you study them when at Yale?
No, not at all, I studied painting at Yale with Josef Albers and his whole entourage. Albers pushed me to travel to Chile on a Fulbright grant, and I had to look at the map to find where I was going. I had the assignment to teach his class to architecture students at the Catholic University in Santiago. I was to repeat the two and three dimensional design, colour, and space conception I had been learning from him, so that was easy. It was fresh in my mind and I had just done this for three years with him. The hard part was I had to teach it in Spanish.
Did you speak Spanish well?
No, but space and design and colour is a language once you begin gesturing. Albers didn’t speak English very well either, but he communicated what he had to say. The best part was the whole class were young men in first and second year at architecture school, and I was a young woman, so the class was hilarious. We all had a lot of fun. I’m explaining everything in a kind of way in Spanish. They get it, they understand, and I’m showing them exercises and they’re asking questions and there’s a translator there trying to build the bridge for communication. I stayed a year and Albers wrote to me – because he had reports of what I was doing – “If you come back to Yale again now, after this, you can do your Masters. We will count this as fieldwork.” My father said, “Amazing, he’s giving you free tuition for this at Yale,” so I said, “Sure.” I owed it to my father, who had been paying my education.
When you were born in 1934 it was Depression time in America. Did your father have to travel around to find work when you were young?
Yes, but then he found a good job, and was doing very well in the field of ball and roller bearings. He became a very important stockbroker of these, internationally, after the Second World War. He became accomplished.
He was able to pay for your studies?
Yes, and now Albers was offering me free tuition and a Masters in nine months in painting, and I went back to Yale where the European faculty lunched together because they have more to talk about together than they do with some of the American teachers. They were looking for a candidate to give a grant for France, and Albers recommended me to this Frenchman called Henri Peyre, so he invited me for lunch. He said, “Until you know La France, you will never be a cultivated woman Mademoiselle.” I didn’t care. I wasn’t looking to come to France. I loved South America because it was so easy and so friendly and so open and so spontaneous. France to me represented a hierarchy of culture, and you couldn’t help but be intimidated if you’re a young American. He said, “Well, make an effort, because it’s the first time we’re giving this grant to a woman. It’s always to boys. But don’t get married and become a baby factory and disappear.” I still remember the phrase, because he told me this at lunch and I thought, this is a typical Frenchman, what does he think he is? He thinks he’s being generous in offering me a scholarship to his country, but it gives me already a feeling of hesitation – and I would say angry even.
What did you do?
I finished the Masters that year, in ’59, and I went to Mexico, because I had already become connected to Mexico and had an entourage and friends there, and I liked it and it felt good.
“I am trying to make something that is not like anything else you’ve ever seen, so that I’m not going to have competition or comparison with anything else.”
Sheila Hicks, since then not only Yale in 2019 but also the Ēcole nationale supérieure des Beaux Arts de Paris and the Rhode Island School of Design awarded you Honorary Degrees?
Right, but that’s ridiculous. Think about it. That shows very broad minded people, because I’m working with thread and fabric, and it’s sensed by everyone as a kind of agreeable domestic pastime. Who gives an honorary degree for innocent pastime work with thread?
Did you not transform that into art?
That’s what they thought; and people keep telling me I should pretend to agree. But I am playing. I’m having the time of my life. I’m doing what is entertaining to me. I love it, and I’m trying all the time new things that don’t always work. Half of them are mistakes and are terrible, but I’m continuing and try again.
What kind of work is yours?
This material is really wonderful, because you can do one thing on top of the other. You can keep wrapping and changing and wrapping and changing, so one thing I may start on Monday may go through six, seven, eight transitions before Friday. That way I can keep looking and seeing how things are happening. The mystical transformation of colour with texture and material. I’m not telling narrative stories.
You became very successful and are in many private collections and museums, and also in companies, such as the Fiat HQ in Paris and the Ford Foundation. How come?
It’s not my fault. If I get a sense of someone who I can learn from, where there’s a dialogue that engages me, it’s making me think and re-examine and put into question myself and what I’m doing, that is what turns me on, and I say to myself, “Uh huh, that would be good. They want me to make a wall. They want me to make a stairway. They want me to make a thing in the garden. Oh, my God. That’s going to be really complicated and difficult with climate change.”
The famous French poet Baudelaire wrote: “Au fond de la connue chercher le nouveau.” (“Let’s go deep into the unknown to find something new.”). Is that what you do?
I listen. I am trying to make something that is not like anything else you’ve ever seen, so that I’m not going to have competition or comparison with anything else.
Are you attracted by art?
Attracted and repulsed.
What kind of artist are you?
A fake artist. In every profession, there are fakes, right?
Some artists, like Morandi for instance, repeat their subjects. Are you that kind of artist?
No, I’m much more adventurous. I’m trying tubes and medallions and towers and letting things move into space and around the corner and come out the windows.
What has guided your life?
If you were so attracted by South America, why did you decide to come to Paris, a place where you find the people intimidating?
I wasn’t looking for a place to live or a place to go. I met someone who provoked me and he lived in Paris and intimidated me and inspired me to broaden my conception of culture and the world and the things I was interested in. He said I couldn’t stay in Mexico my whole life, that this is great for a while but eventually you have got to move on. When I ask to move on to where, he says, “57 Rue de Seine in Paris. So when you’re ready to leave, you take a taxi and you take a plane and you take a taxi and say, “Cinquante-Sept rue de Seine.” He gave me a place to land.
Was love very important in your life?
I would say yes.
Does it help you in your work?
I usually say no, but actually yes, it’s the driving force. You have to love. You don’t have to be in love all the time, because it’s all romantic illusion, but you have to love. To be in love is very egocentric, but to love is generosity. I make an effort to love. I don’t take things for granted. I’m the most serious person you ever knew. You will have a hard time meeting a person more serious than me.
Installation of Sheila Hicks: Off Grid at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2022 Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield
Sheila Hicks, Derviches Divins, 2022
Linen, Cotton, Wool
185 x 150 cm (72 7/8 x 59 in.)
Photo: Claire Dorn
Sheila Hicks, North South East West, 2018
Linen, wood, aluminum
250 x 250 cm (98 3/8 x 98 3/8 in.)
Photo: Claire Dorn
Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013-14. Acrylic, linen, cotton, bamboo, and silk, 204 x 48 x 48 in. (518.2 x 121.9 x 121.9 cm)
Installation view, Whitney Biennale, 2014, New York, USA
Scalata al di la dei terreni cromatici / Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 2016-2017
mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers, cloth, slate, bamboo, sunbrella, 600 x 1600 x 400 cm
57. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte – La Biennale di Venezia, Viva Arte Viva
57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Viva Arte Viva
Photo: Andrea Avezzù
Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
Sheila Hicks, copyright Cristobal Zanartu
“The mystical transformation of colour with texture and material. I’m not telling narrative stories.”
Sheila Hicks, when did you start to be successful?
It was just the other day. I was walking in the rue de Seine, looking in the windows, and I stopped at the window of a Galerie, which juts out in rue de Seine at a perpendicular angle. It is the most beautiful window on rue de Seine and I stopped and looked at what they chose to exhibit there, and guess what I saw?
A work of yours?
It’s there. In the window. I was really mystified. How did that get there? I looked through the window. There’s two more of mine, on the wall, right in the back. That reinforced that it wasn’t a mistake. I thought, what in the world is going on here? I can die and go to heaven, because now I’m accepted by the French in rue de Seine. It’s so intimidating to be in Paris, and to be a woman, and to be American. Also, standing in front of the window I figured out that everybody else in that gallery was dead. Let’s face facts. It happens to the worst. It happens to the best.
Are you really more excited to be in the gallery window in rue de Seine than at the MoMa in New York, or in Tokyo or in Tel Aviv?
Yes, because also it’s emotional and sentimental.
Is there a work of yours that you are particularly pleased by?
I like very much the feeling of the panel that I did in the early 80s in Mexico City. It’s a big arch, all knotted, that’s hanging in the entrance of an old colonial building. The interior was being renovated by two architects, Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legoretta, and they brought me into the old building so I could see the colonial patio and the arches and the spirit of the place. They said, “There’s your wall. Do something on that wall,” so I said okay. I made it in Mexico and they hung it, and I think that it found its living place, its habitat, and that’s fixed in my mind as good, as right.
How do you handle a big project?
If it’s built or if it exists I go and walk into it, see what it’s like, see how I feel in the place, and then try and see who else is going to live in that place or work in that place or be in that place and imagine what it would be like to be in that place. Then I start thinking, if I was condemned to be there, work there, live there, what would I like to look at? What would I like as cohabitation?
And how do they come about?
Usually what happens is someone says we have a very nice primary space, let’s buy something or make something to hang here so we can look at it. Or they say there’s a very nice corner where you can make something that inhabits the corner and then gives an ambience to the room. Or they say, this is an important wall, it’s very big, long, and then I do these things that change, like start to be one thing and then become another and then become another and then dance and become another. So this is an opportunity this wall, but I am not going to make things that are just hanging on walls because I’ll be in competition when they start adding other things on the walls. If they’re offering me the whole room, I’m going to do the whole room and obviously I’m not going to let them put other art on the walls.
Is the room the work of art?
The life of the room is a work of art.
What do you like to do most?
What I like most of all to do is look forward to what is going to walk in the door here next Wednesday. I’ll answer the door next Wednesday. Something or someone will knock on the door. You never know until you open the door.
Do you see life as an adventure?
I am not looking for adventure, that’s something that’s artificial. It’s a reality. What’s going to work? What is knocking on the door? You open the door and you’re going to find something. If you don’t open the door, you’re not going to find it. So open the door, and see what it is.
You should stay open to anything good, new and unexpected?
You can’t expect. I didn’t expect all those shadows on the wall over there, and I’m just now noticing them. Isn’t it interesting – the shadows?
Do you have a message that you give in your work?
Sheila Hicks, thank you very much.
Portrait of Sheila Hicks copyright Cristobal Zanartu
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