Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Adela Akers + Lewis Knauss: Veils and Screens

Material Legacy showcases a diverse range of media, including fiber, glass, and clay, from artists who are well established and highly esteemed in the Philadelphia area. In this post, we consider the relationship between two of these artists, Adela Akers and Lewis Knauss, by focusing on a handful of works currently on view at the Art Alliance. Adela Akers’ The Grid (2008) and Gold Inside (2008) resonate with four pieces from Lewis Knauss’ series, Sitting with Deborah, including Bayview (2012), Calm (2012), Glisten Clear (2013), and Still Fog (2014). These works ask us to slow down, look closely, and listen attentively. The horsehair in Akers’ weavings whispers to viewers, while the dense thickets of knotted fiber in Knauss’ work absorb sound, drawing the viewer into an interior landscape. The mysteries of memory and vision, the transience of place and time–these are some of the themes explored in the work of these two artists.

Adela Akers, The Grid (2008)

Adela Akers, The Grid (2008)

Adela Akers, Gold Inside (2008)

Adela Akers, Gold Inside (2008)

I focus on a series of pieces by Akers and Knauss that take the familiar if abstracted geometrical form of the window, drawing a veil or a screen over it with horsehair and bamboo. Akers’ 2008 works, The Grid and Gold Inside, share a similar palette of warm reds, standing out among the other pieces on the gallery walls. Looking more closely, we see that these two weavings are reversed mirror images of one another. The Grid uses a rhythmic pattern of gold foil wrappers to create a frame around an empty central square, while Gold Inside places these metallic foil fragments within the central square. The distinction between interior and exterior space, between subject and frame, is blurred, and the viewer is not sure if she is inside looking out, or outside looking in. In a 2008 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian, Akers spoke about this quality of mystery, saying “there is something intriguing to me and mysterious about an opening, not because of what’s around it but what’s inside that I don’t see, that I don’t know; it’s the unknown.” The Grid and Gold Inside confront viewers with the unknown, drawing them into the mystery through a fine veil of horsehair and linen.

Lewis Knauss, Bayview (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Bayview (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Calm (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Calm (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Glisten Clear (2013)

Lewis Knauss, Glisten Clear (2013)

Lewis Knauss, Still Fog (2014)

Lewis Knauss, Still Fog (2014)

Upstairs on the second floor, situated like a gentle punctuation between the dynamic forms of Warren Seelig’s sculpture and the colorful drama of Judith Schaechter’s stained glass, is the work of Lewis Knauss. Four pieces from the series Sitting with Deborah stand out for their horizontal composition and relatively shallow projection from the wall. Instead of the dense thickets of fiber that surround them, Bayview (2012), Calm (2012), Glisten Clear (2013), and Still Fog (2014) appear like screens drawn between the viewer and an imaginary landscape on the other side, tantalizingly out of view. Like Akers’ pair of warm-hued weavings, these four pieces by Knauss form two pairs whose composition and coloring echo one another. Bayview and Glisten Clear are painted with metallic colors that subtly reflect light, while the bamboo weft of Calm and Still Fog look almost like window shades with their dense horizontal slats. In his artist statement for Snyderman-Works Galleries, Knauss has stated that he uses textile as a “medium to explore [his] memories of place,” while his meticulous artistic process evokes the patient looking required to truly be present in the landscape. Knauss offers this meditative experience of place to his viewers, drawing us in the textured surfaces that seem to suggest a landscape visible only in the mind’s eye.

Given the subtle visual resonance among these pieces, it comes as no surprise that the artists themselves have worked together. Lewis Knauss was among Adela Akers’ first students at the Tyler School of Art, where she taught from 1972 until 1995. Knauss received his MFA from Tyler in 1973, and taught at Moore College from 1982 until 2010. Both artists have strong ties to the Philadelphia area and have left a lasting legacy as teachers and active participants in the craft community. The exhibition at the Art Alliance represents a unique opportunity to see the work of these masters of fiber in dialogue, and in a larger artistic conversation that spans diverse media.

Text by Flora Ward, Intern

Interview with Caroline Lathan-Stiefel

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel on her artistic upbringing and education, her career and outlook as an artist, and how Philadelphia inspired her exhibition “Greenhouse Mix.” (Excerpts from an interview with I On the Arts)

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel: Greenhouse Mix is on view at the Philadelphia Art Alliance March 20 – April 27.

Artistic Upbringing and Education:

CLS: I grew up in Atlanta, GA (born in 1967). My mother was a docent at the High Museum when I was little and so we visited there often. I remember seeing a visiting Calder show when I was probably around 6 or 7 that included his circus and that made a big impact on me. I went home and tried to make my own circus figures.

Nellie Mae Rowe. "At Night Things Come To Me" 1980

Nellie Mae Rowe. “At Night Things Come To Me” 1980

My mother began collecting southern folk art in the 70’s and 80’s, including several pieces by the artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Her work remains very important to me. In high school, I was very much influenced by the art environments of outsider artists like Howard Finster. I visited his Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA several times. On one visit, when I was a senior in high school, I knocked on his door and he let me into his studio. He was working on one of his paintings wearing a vest covered in pennies. He told me I could make a drawing on one of his ceiling tiles and so I stood on a chair and added my drawing to all of the other ones that covered his ceiling.

After high school, I was a Visual Arts major at Brown University. There, I studied painting, with professor Wendy Edwards. I always used a lot of collage elements in my work and my paintings in my senior year were more like large assemblages or sculptural paintings. I incorporated fabric into the work too. After college, I began to make bas-relief paintings with paper mache and paint. The work was figurative with abstraction creeping in.

Eventually I got married to musician and composer Van Stiefel, and we moved to Princeton, NJ so he could get his PhD. While we were there I began a low-residency MFA at the Maine College of Art, which I completed in 2001. During the first year of grad school, I worked with artist Mira Schor. Mira visited my studio in Princeton several times to give me crits and we visited many galleries and museums in NY together to look at art. Her strong, honest critiques were integral to the development of my work at this point. She advised me to break away from figuration and to delve deeper into the world of abstraction and to let the materials be what they are.

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Untitled” 2010 Collage on paper

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Untitled” 2010 Collage on paper

During the second year of my MFA program, the artist Jeanne Silverthorne was my advisor. I had started to make a series of marker drawings on notebook paper that were like doodles of systems and was also experimenting with sculptural pieces with fabric. Jeanne suggested that I transform my drawings into three-dimensional sculptures. I then made a small model that combined several of the drawings and proceeded to make a monumental version of the model with fabric, yarn, and pipe cleaners in my Princeton studio. I had also seen an amazing photo of Gaudi’s model for the Sagrada Familia. Because his cathedral was so organic in form, Gaudi created an upside-down stress model that was suspended from the ceiling with strings and weighted with little pouches of buckshot. This image gave me the idea to hang my work from the ceiling with yarn and string and weight it to the floor with fishing weights and to think about lightness and gravity in my work.


Other Early Influences and Formative Experiences:

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel "Glint" 2014

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel “Bracken Ablaze” 2014

CLS: My father took our family on many hikes throughout Georgia and the mountains of North Carolina when I was a kid. I loved the feeling of being surrounded by woods. Sometimes he found hikes in outdated books, and we had to literally bushwack our way through the trail. This was a bit scary, but I also secretly liked it. My interest in plants and botany has definitely become stronger as I have gotten older. Living near Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square is a plus and I have also gained insight into plants and gardening from my mother-in-law, artist Rosemary Stiefel and from my fellow Upland art teacher and artist, Terry Anderson, both of whom have exceedingly green thumbs. I have gone from killing plants within a week to actually being able to keep them alive for a year and have started seasonal gardening with my husband and kids. In terms of using real plants and leaves in my work, I remember seeing artists do this when I was at Brown when the Harrisons, pioneers of the eco-art movement, visited the department. My friend, curator, Sue Spaid curated a show and wrote a book called Green Acres, which has been influential to me.

In general, I am interested in using materials from my daily life in my work. I began to use the pipe cleaners because I was using them in my role as an art teacher and I save my shopping bags so I can incorporate them into the sculptures. Plants are now part of my daily life as well.


Career and Outlook as an Artist:

Carolin Lathan-Stiefel, "Holdfast" 2012

Carolin Lathan-Stiefel, “Holdfast” 2012

…being an artist is…an ongoing process with many challenges and the striving to meet those challenges. I find that the moment I finally finish putting up a show, I might feel good about it for a moment, or even a few weeks, but then I am already on to the next project and facing new challenges. I really enjoy labor-intensive work and have to work everyday, even if it is only for a couple of hours after a day of teaching. I suppose being able to work everyday on my art, while also being a teacher and a mom to two children, makes me feel a sense of pride, but I know most people do the same kind of balancing act these days… I would like viewers to not only have a visual experience, but also an immersive one—one in which they would feel physically affected by the work because of the way it surrounds them. I also encourage viewers to look through different sections of the work to see new and unexpected views of the different layers. I hope they will be surprised by what they see.


On Philadelphia’s role in inspiring Greenhouse Mix

photo 4 (6)

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, “Green-house II” 2013

CLS: A few years ago I took a field trip with students from my school to Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia. I had never been there before, but I had heard the name Bartram because my father had taken our family on hikes on the Bartram Trail when I was a child. I didn’t realize then, but the trail was named for William, John Bartram’s son. In addition to the gardens and strange proximity of the idyllic property to large oil storage tanks across the river, I was struck by the architecture–a very unusual-looking stone house and a smaller greenhouse that included a carved relief of plant forms. I enjoyed studying different plant forms and researching Bartram’s role as America’s first botanist.

I would like to thank the staff of the PAA, especially Melissa Caldwell and Mat Tomezsko, for their help with this show, and the Coby Foundation for their aid in funding the show.


To read the full interview by guest blogger Deborah Anne Krieger, click here.

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel: Greenhouse Mix is on view at the Philadelphia Art Alliance March 20 – April 27.

An interview with Sam Cusumano, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed Samuel Cusumano, whose interactive electronic projects will be on view at the PAA from March 20th through April 27th, about his current exhibition, practice, and fascination with sound and systems. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator.

I On the Arts: Can you describe your projects, in general and for the PAA show?

Samuel Cusumano: I am an Engineer for the Arts.

Electricity for Progress is my direct action educational interactive electronics initiative through which I work with media artists, youth organizations, producers, and curators to build interactive electronic installations. I focus on the theme “understand how your tools work.” I believe that through examination and analysis, we can understand the simple and complex electronic devices surrounding us every day. I work with consumer electronics, children’s toys, electronic musical effects, and analog synthesizers, both to repair and to modify the devices in order to produce a wide array of sounds, rhythms, and textures…

At the PAA I will be showing four primary exhibitions:

The first will be Biodata Sonification, where I present two tropical plants fitted with custom electronics, which produce a changing stream of music based on fluctuating galvanic conductance across each plant’s leaf. Along with the plants, a theremin will be featured, which is a musical instrument that is played by moving your hand near an antenna. Without touching the antenna, the theremin functions by radio field interactions and is presented along with the tropical plants that also react to human presence.


The second exhibit will be Modification, where a variety of modified children’s toys and musical instruments will be presented both on display and for interaction. Guests will be invited to play with and explore the devices and will be encouraged to play together and create novel compositions. On display will be Barbie Karaoke machines, the Speak and Spell, Casio SK-1 and SK-5, and an array of custom circuits.


The third exhibit is a presentation of the Apple Interface, where guests are invited to sit at a table, don headphones, and touch two apples, which will produce a series of musical notes in reaction to the user’s grip. This exciting interface is augmented with subwoofer seats from SubPac and beautiful soundscapes from Data Garden.


The fourth exhibit will be Room of Sounds. Samples, performances, demonstrations, explorations, and archives will be played back for listeners and guests…At times beautiful and melodic, and at times harsh and gritty, guests are invited to listen and find their own patterns in the noise.

IOtA: Has sound always been your medium?

SC: I have acted as a sound engineer and recording artist for the past 15 years, providing a modest PA setup to local psychfolk [sic] and traveling artists in cozy bookstores and churches. Musically, I have produced a powerful album Sequence of Prophets with Niagara Falls, which features circuit bent SK5 keyboard as a variety of waves, winds, washes, hot leads, and deep bass. I have performed regionally as Electricity for Progress, where I present and explain different modified devices and perform a, sometimes noisy, demonstration (with commentary). I also work with the media organization Data Garden, where we work with Biodata Sonification systems, presenting artists and biologists with streaming data from plants. Our MIDI Sprout project places electrodes onto the leaves of plants and graphs changes in galvanic conductance across the surface of the leaf as MIDI notes that can be played on a computer or synthesizer.

IOtA: What is the most satisfying part of your practice?

SC: It has been amazing working with plants and presenting my Biodata Sonification systems to the public. Through powerful daytime outdoor exhibitions, we have been able to show, explain, and entertain hundreds of passers-by through sounds and questions.

IOtA: What is the most frustrating part of your practice?

SC: In the Biodata installations, people often walk up to the plants with the desire to touch them. This always frustrates me, as the most amazing aspect of the Biodata installation lies in the way that plants and humans interact without touching. For patient guests who linger and listen as others come and go, some of the subtle dynamics of the sonification process can be heard, and the listener can begin to decode some of the complex information presented.

IOtA: What is your artistic background? What about your musical and scientific background?

SC: When I was a child, I always wanted to understand how machines and systems worked. I would build and dismantle anything that I could take a screwdriver to. I began working with simple electronics and computers, which became a huge asset for repairing and rescuing aging machines. From working with musicians, I began repairing guitar effects and old analog synthesizers. I was introduced to circuit bending and modifying toys and small keyboards, which opened my mind to a whole array of modular synthesizer and DIY electronics organizations.

My devices begin with opportunity and inspiration. Conversation and crazy ideas can sometimes lead to amazing systems. For example, earlier last year I worked with Little Baby’s Ice Cream on a device that allows users to play music while they eat an ice cream cone. Music for Ice Cream presented a duet where friends eating ice cream cones fitted with my interactive “cone-troller” could produce generative music.

IOtA: What do you hope people will take away from your craft?

SC: My goal is to inspire creative questioning. By presenting modified, noisy devices to the public, I create an atmosphere of free play and allow users to explore and interact with the modified devices and with each other. I love discussing my devices and machines with guests, understanding their perceptions, and discussing questions.

“…giving form to the ineffable: ” An Interview with William Daley, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed William Daley, whose ceramics will be on view at the PAA from January 23rd through March 9th, about his career and his take on art, philosophy, and life. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Enjoy excerpts from her interview with Daley below and check out Deborah’s blog for the full piece. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator. 

I On the Arts: For my first question: can you talk about how “14 for 7”, your upcoming show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, came about?

Bill Daley: Well, my children just made a book for me, William Daley: Ceramic Artist, and we presented the book in Chicago at a book signing and so on, but after the book was about to be hatched, we contacted the Art Alliance. I had a show there in ’68 and was in group shows before that, and they offered to show some work at the Art Alliance and have a book signing.  So that was sort of the core for the beginning of it…with seven decades of work, we picked two pots for each decade and came up with “14 for 7”.

IOtA: So, going back a little bit: What is your artistic background and your training? What was that like?

BD: Well, I went to art school as a G.I. after World War II at the Massachusetts School of Art. Now it’s the Massachusetts College of Art. And from there I went to Columbia Teachers’ College and got my Master’s in Art Education. And then from that I began teaching. My first job was in Iowa, in Cedar Falls; my second job was in New Paltz, New York—part of SUNY; and my third job was at the Philadelphia College of Art [PCA], which at that time was called the Museum School of Art. It later became the University of the Arts. Most of my tenure was at the Philadelphia College of Art [for] thirty-something-plus years. I taught one year at the University of New Mexico as a guest professor, and I also taught at …SUNY Fredonia from PCA, and went back to PCA at that time in ’63, and continued there until my retirement in 1990…

IOtA: That’s quite a range of experiences!

BD:  (laughing) Well, I kept always moving.  One time I quit in protest because they thought we were all Communists!  Because [they] thought modern art was subversive… but anyway, the rest of the times I changed because I needed a change, or there was a better opportunity.

IOtA: Where did you quit from, if I may ask?

BD: Well, they didn’t actually accuse us. It was in Ulster County, New York, which is a very conservative county, and they just were not used to having contemporary artists in the art department at New Paltz. So they were really pretty upset by it, and we were a bunch of radicals. They fired—they relieved—two-thirds of the faculty of their positions and two of us resisted and quit. And we didn’t get any support from the college at large so I began my career at the Museum School of Art. I got a job there, and it was really a great boon that I had quit, ’cause the Philadelphia experience has been at the core of my experience since, and that’s been great. And it’s still great, because this is my second show at the Art Alliance.  In ’68 I had the first show by the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen, of which I was a member, and they gave me the first show that they gave an earnest, worthy worker, I guess, to exhibit.  And so I had a show there in ’68…


IOtA:  Let’s see… so, how did you choose your medium?

BD: Well, when I started out I wanted to be a painter. And I was pretty successful as a veteran, a novitiate painter, and I had work in the Institute of Contemporary Art, which had just begun in Boston. Anyway, I took a ceramic class and I [had] liked clay when I was in high school, but I was so taken with this new teacher and I was smitten by the medium, and I just knew that that was it, although I was pretty bad at it. So that’s how I chose it—it chose me!…That’s how I got started with being seduced by mud. It’s a great medium. It’s the most primal, metamorphic material because it changes from rock, to dust, to mud, to something you can form, and then [it] dries out and you bake it or you fire it, and it turns back into stone. So it moves a whole cycle of what material can become. It’s a marvelous material. It’s also very seductive to use—it just feels great and slippery and all of it. It’s great stuff. I recommend it…

IOtA:  How have your relationship with art and your journey as an artist changed over the course of your career?

BD: Well, when I first began, I was a little child—I knew I was going to be an artist in kindergarten, which sounds bizarre to say. But my father was a house-painter, and my mother let us paint with spinach juice and beet juice on brown paper bags, my sister and I, and she’d hang them up on the clothesline in the kitchen. And my father would come home and look at ’em and tell us how wonderful we were. So when I got to kindergarten and… all the way through school, art was my total focus. And then when I went in the army, I had a chance to have experiences that convinced me that that was what I should be doing with my life. So anyway, by the time I was at art school, when I went through high school, which had a marvelous art department… we went to the museums, all the museums in New York City, regularly on the school bus. And I did all kinds of airbrush work and painting and block-printing, the whole works, as a high school student. So I was hooked early. And then I went to art school…my interest has been of such long duration that my changes have been mostly going as kind of a spiral. It’s not a circle where you repeat and go around and around, it’s as you graduate…there’s a marvelous educator named Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, [who] talks about education for the left hand, the other way of knowing, the intuitive way.  There’s a great book by a guy named Benedetto Croce called Aesthetics that says that intuition is the highest form of knowledge, not information or conceptual [didacticism]. So I’ve really been prone to be persuaded by people who feel that the unknown is still largely unknown, and we can find it by working material, and my material is clay. 

So I guess that’s some part of the core that keeps me revved up, that I’m always finding the boundary of finding out things…they’re are moving to me, and they’re moving to other people because they’ve sought my work out over time and wanted to have it in their lives. So art’s not complete until it completes a cycle. You have the maker, and the made, the object or thing, the offering, and then you have the audience. You have persons you are communicating with. So the artist is in community—the idea of the romantic artist in the attic…is a romantic misunderstanding. Artists are really [some] of the persons in the community that get some of the signals about what’s important, just as early as the scientists and philosophers and so on.  And I’m not saying artists as in always physical artists; I think poets and singers and instrumentalists…the whole thing is all the same. Different form, but totally about giving form to the ineffable. It sounds pompous as can be, but I find it very compelling.

IOtA: This last question that I’m going to ask is what I always conclude interviews with.  What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

BD: That’s a good question! Well, what I would like them to do is to experience it, and I know that sounds corny, but I would like them to touch it. I would like them to respond to its form by… I’ll call it caressing it or searching it out with their eyes closed. I’d like them to understand that it’s about the inside of the inside of things, and it’s about the outside of the outside of things. In other words, I’d like them to use what they feel and touch and see and sense to imagine things that call up experience in their own being that permit them to tune it on it. So I do a lot of different things with different textures and different roughness, I [do] bumps and holes.   I’m interested about open spaces, I’m interested in intimate, closed spaces, I’m interested in transitions from wonderful—like you were sliding down a hill in a sled or down a canyon or into a whirl, into a helix…I think of it almost as psychic physicality that I would like people to have about it. And as they wonder about it, they can wonder if it’s a palace or a temple…or a monument. I give them all names and that’s a little kind of clue to what they might be about.  Right now, I’m making cisterns. A cistern is a vessel that holds some substance for either ritual or for preserving life. That’s either water, or holy water, or rain, or wine… so I’m making cisterns that are for libations and for…symbolic conservation. You can put them in your yard, or you can fill them with things for a party. And I’m having a great time doing it. But I’ve made hanging planters and baptismal fonts and many different kinds of vessels or containers for evoking feelings about being a human being… and my pots about body parts. I’m not a literal artist…I make objects that are about feelings. And I see feelings as touch, and I see it as touching your mind, and I see it as touching your whole spirit, about experience you’ve had to the present when you come to this object…

CAVECAST 011: Sampling and Cultural Re-appropriation

by Mat Tomezsko

CollegeNight_WebPageOpen Arts Philly presents a College Night CAVECAST. A limited number of free tickets for college students are available on their website.

On Wednesday, November 20 at 9:00pm DJ Apt One will discuss sampling and cultural re-appropriation in dance and electronic music, something he knows a thing or two about. In 2011 he produced a collection of beats for DJs called “T&A Breaks 3: Moombahton Loops and Samples.” One of his breakbeats was used by DJ Baauer for “The Harlem Shake,” which swept youtube and nightclubs earlier this year.

As a producer, DJ Apt One makes mixes by delving into various recordings and isolating parts of the tracks to be used in new and interesting ways. Essentially a sound collage, a new composition is woven using pieces taken from outside sources. Despite being made entirely of existing material, the mix transforms the elements into an original track. Sometimes a recognizable reference, sometimes highly obscure, there are many different ways to sample and appropriate music, achieving many different effects. Come to CAVECAST 011 on November 20th to learn more about this process.

Subscribe on iTunes, stream from SoundCloud, or listen live!

Also, check us out in the November issue of Philadelphia Magazine, in which CAVECAST earned the distinction of being “worth doing after dark”.

Mat Tomezsko is the Programs and Events Coordinator at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. 


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