Spotlight: Fiber Painter Emma Balder


Photo by Paul Miller

“Art is everywhere,” says Denver fiber artist Emma Balder. “It’s in everything we see. It’s right before our eyes.”

Balder’s journey to fiber painting started with “pinglets,” the term she uses to describe the small, baby paintings she was inspired to create during a year-long residency in Vermont. Although the work was cathartic for her, she felt something was missing, so she took a pair of scissors to one of her unfinished abstract works and rearranged the cut-up pieces to form nine smaller paintings. “The idea was that this mother painting birthed these smaller little ones,” she says.

During that residency, she also began noticing that the international artists who visited monthly to create and show their work left behind a lot of unused scraps, including one artist from India who gave her five big bags stuffed with scraps from an Indian tailor (Balder’s still working through them). Whether it was full sheets of watercolor paper, old paintings or pieces of paintings, textiles or small fibers, she felt a pull to create something out of these forgotten materials.

She began by fashioning small fiber paintings—“almost as studies,” she says—and liked the work so much she decided to shift her focus to the use of discarded and recycled materials. But Balder still considers herself a painter—and refers to her work as paintings—because of the process she uses to construct her work.

After arranging her materials on a table into a composition where the colors and textures of the fibers ebb and flow in harmony, Balder transfers the threads to a canvas and the painting begins. Using a paintbrush dipped in a matte medium gel liquid and tweezers, she pushes, pulls, and tears the threads apart to establish structure and detail.

“Dealing with fibers is a finicky process,” says the Boston native, who moved to Denver a little over two years ago and recently finished an artist-in-residency program at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia. “They have a mind of their own and they do as they want. It’s a balance of control.” Sometimes, she surrenders to the threads and allows them to form shapes on their own. Other times, the fibers let her take charge. She also incorporates graphite and acrylic paint into her work, responding to the fibers with pencil and then using paint to accentuate the colors.

But she never starts a work with the intention of making something specific. Rather, the imagery communicates its message only after the piece is completed. Sometimes it’s abstract; other times, little distinct creatures appear. Balder enjoys listening to the interpretations other people extract from her fiber creations.

“There is certainly this theme of transformation—and transformation through human internal experiences, whether that be balance of control or attachment,” Balder says. “With fiber art and textiles—historically and traditionally—it’s heavily focused on the process and the history of the material.”

Balder sources her materials from designers, seamstresses, residencies, and other artists at Globeville Riverfront Art Center, where her studio is. Last April while in Paris, she collected loads of scraps from textile industry workshops near the Sacré-Coeur. “People are usually pretty willing to give you their trash,” she says. Whatever the source of her materials, she’s lately been working more sculpturally with textiles, experimenting with techniques like quilting, scrunching, wrapping, and ruching to create three-dimensional forms.

“We can see beauty in everything,” Balder says. “We just have to choose to see it that way.”

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