Speaking in Textiles
Photography Kirsten Shultz
The striking beauty of Deb Gelet’s fabric draws you in at once. A first glimpse from the studio door immediately reveals beautiful one-of-a-kind textiles, painstakingly dyed and painted. Then, upon closer examination, the sumptuous work reveals what is missed from afar—words whispering, like a secret, from within the designs.
Gelet’s talents include printmaking, Japanese shibori dyeing methods, silk-screening, and painting. On silks that beg to be touched and draped, she uses hand-dyeing techniques to transform the fabric into a tactile light show. The hues move across each piece with fluidity, seamlessly progressing from dawn’s softness to midday’s brilliance to the heaviness of sunset. Once dyed, the fabrics become canvases for Gelet’s paintbrush. Grapevines twine across one piece; birds flutter on another. Hand-painted fish seem to swim in colorful depths, aspen leaves appear to rustle in a breeze, and acorns and twigs practically snap with the crispness of fall.
I can’t imagine seeing Deb Gelet’s fabric without wanting to touch it—a natural reaction, she assures me: “That’s the thing about textiles. You really have to touch them. We wrap our babies in them. We wear them ceremonially when we promise to love someone forever. We decorate our homes with them. Textiles are a part of life and its rituals. To fully experience a textile, you can’t just look at it; you absolutely have to touch it.”
Gelet finds inspiration everywhere. A quick glance at the ground beneath her hiking boot provided images for a nature-filled piece called Twigs. Moss-covered stones from faraway lands, sitting among seashells in a tray on her desk, have found their way onto fiber. Recent travels in Italy resulted in raw silk visually transformed into the timeworn walls of Tuscany. These images can be recognized from the studio door, but there is more to be discovered: the text in these textiles. Deb Gelet has written since she was a child, and under her hand, words flow onto these fabrics as easily as paints and dyes.
Fascinated by conversations floating past her in everyday life, Gelet also pays close attention to her thoughts. Literature has shaped her, and she frequently quotes from favorite books or sacred texts of world religions. She uses words as a transforming power, turning these beautiful fabrics into one-of-a-kind pieces of personal history, rich with soul and connection. Spellbinding messages murmur, an undertone to the more direct statement of the brilliant colors.
Most of Gelet’s pieces are commissioned, and have an intensely personal nature. Through the studio door come people and their stories: a mother and daughter looking for ways to commemorate the daughter’s upcoming marriage, a grief-stricken woman yearning for a remembrance of a lifelong friend who had recently died. Gelet sits with each person, offering gentle encouragement, asking questions, listening closely. In her mind, the conversation begins a transformation into visions of fabric and paint.
A joyful wedding suggests several possibilities. For one bride, Gelet created an exquisite, unique silk fabric from which to fashion a gown. The white-on-white design painted across the textile actually contains words from love letters exchanged between the bride and groom. The intimate messages are visible only to those who know what they are: as Gelet says, “I put their love letters in her wedding gown in such a way that people couldn’t read the mail.”
For another bride Gelet crafted a chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy that billows in the breeze over the heads of the bride and groom during the ceremony. The couple eventually used the fabric for pillows, a transformation of her work that greatly pleased the artist.
The grieving friend’s piece, an altar cloth for an entry table, is intentionally small and intimate. As the woman passes by, she finds consolation simply in running her hand across the rich, deep velvet. A silent string of words offers tribute to the richness of lifelong friendship.
Another piece, Stream of Consciousness, is an excellent example of the artist’s uncanny ability to meld words and images. The concept began to form while Gelet was lying on a beach: half awake, half asleep, she was overhearing bits of conversations as people walked by. She remembers thinking, “They say things that I would never in a million years say out loud. Never. What happens to all that stuff?”
Stream of Consciousness became Gelet’s vehicle for exploring thoughts we never speak and words that may be uttered without definition or aforethought. As she explains, “It occurred to me that the words we speak end up in the air, in the water—returned to nature, where, thank God, nature polishes, corrects, and softens them. Our pettiness and small-mindedness are taken out, truth is put back in, and our words return to us through our contact with nature.” Fish swim through pale, iridescent blues in this piece. The addition of scriptures from various world religions turns the fabric fluid. As the sheen of the silk satin amplifies and reflects the light, truth seems to rise from the deep.
Gelet has also taken the time to translate her own stories into fabric for safekeeping. Two of her personal creations, while very different in nature, share an extraordinary strength. The first honors past generations of family, while the second reveals her heartache as a grief-stricken mother seeking solace after September 11.
Portraits, the family piece, hangs as a curtain in the guest bedroom of an Iowa farmhouse where a group of women—members of Gelet’s family, lifelong friends—gather each summer. A switch from silk to the simpler look of linen provided an understated backdrop for a sixty-year span of photographs, transferred by Gelet onto the fabric. Soft green scrollwork bends like waves of grain blowing in a Midwestern field, tying together the friends and their shared landscape.
Within the scrolls lie secrets, documents of importance preserved in a collage of words. Included are entries from high school autograph books, fragments from the train ticket used by the only woman who ever left the county, and another’s ledger records noting the daily price of eggs. Gelet has guarded the women’s privacy with the subtlety of her paint: only the friends see these details, while other guests never notice them.
The creation that emerged from Gelet’s emotional torment after the September 11th tragedy, perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of her works, still lingers in my mind weeks after I have seen it. Like many artists, Gelet dreaded picking up her paintbrush at that time, afraid to imagine the ugly ways her anger and fear might be revealed. She worried that everything could come out black or on fire—mean, dark, and awful.
The depth of her gift took over, though, and out of her grief rose Nest Feathers and Love Letters. From a core of rich, true, coppery sunset reds, colors fade outward into a soft wash: a burst of deep pain melting into a soothing, healing stillness. Soft gray feathers, fluttering silently throughout, contain phrases Deb might say as she “feathers the nest” for her children each morning. Pale paint transcribes tender expressions of everyday love between mother and child: “Did you remember your lunch?” “Am I supposed to pick up the volleyball kids?” “I love you.” “Did I remember to tell you how beautiful you look today?”
The messages are startling in the context of sudden and violent tragedy; and once I had taken them in, even from across the studio, Nest Feathers and Love Letters whispered to me of grief, love, hope, and healing. I kept turning to stare. Days later I awoke with a jolt, recognizing in those powerful reds and poignant words the visceral grief in all of us.
Every stage of Gelet’s work requires artistic risk. Mistakes can’t be erased or hidden, and the addition of a bit more paint or a few more words can destroy a masterful work. All of these perils, however, are surpassed by the final step. After weeks of meticulous work, when dye and paint are finally right and words perfectly placed, Gelet does the unthinkable: she burns the edges. “I know,” she admits, “I must be crazy to go through all this and then light it on fire!”—but, for this textile artist, the purity and alchemy of a burnt edge provides the only suitable finish.
As if the inherent risks in the media were not sufficiently daunting, Gelet has also had to make peace with her own fears. She sewed creatively and loved color as a child, but never received encouragement to develop as an artist. In her blue-collar background, artists were viewed as irresponsible, privileged, unable to make a living in a credible way. She still remembers the admonishment: “How are they going to pay the rent?”
Thankfully, Gelet also recalls defining moments that encouraged her journey. She smiles, remembering years later how a friend’s gift became a milestone in the development of her unique style. She vividly describes the woman hauling a heavy bolt of silk out of her car and dropping it at Gelet’s feet, saying, “Here, make something wonderful out of this.”
Some time later a customer came into the fabric shop Gelet owned, and leaned over to peer closely at the piece on which she was working. Looking at Gelet with wide eyes, the customer said, “You really are an artist!” On that day, Gelet realized that she could be an artist and “would be crazy not to do this!”
Through the years Gelet has grown in acceptance and worked through her personal doubts. For the most part, she can simply trust the artistic process—while marveling at the mystery and magic. Pieces that start as an idea in her mind often take on a life of their own, showing Gelet where they are going. It’s a thrill, she says, to see where each day takes her: “Artists say this a lot, but it’s the truth that when you find your stride, it’s really not at all about who you are but about what kind of channel you are. It’s not just about your training, your own personal gift. It’s about how open you are to allow things to come through you.”
Deb Gelet’s work exemplifies this truth. Extraordinary gifts of astonishing, meaningful beauty pour outward onto fabric from the depths of her being. After seeing Gelet’s textiles, you needn’t look further for visible proof of artistic mystery and magic. An inexplicable something makes you pause at the studio door, then calls from across the room, drawing you closer—and goes home to reside with you long after you’ve said good-bye