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Seasons tapestry inspired by Rockefeller Chapel meditates on the passage of time

By Grace Hauck

When I think of Rockefeller Chapel, I think Gothic. I think stone, gargoyles, arches, vaulting, wooden pews, red velvet seats, metal lanterns, and stained glass. I think strength, structure, and command.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I walked into Rockefeller’s east transept bay (the small section of pews off to the right) to behold Libby Chaney’s newest fabric installation, Seasons—a profusion of color, textures, and patterns. Not Gothic, to say the least.

This Cleveland-based fiber artist’s impressionistic compilation of chronological snapshots, broken up into four vertical panels, totals 450 square feet and covers all three walls of the east transept. Not only does this work feature each distinct season, but it also depicts those fleeting and elusive transitional periods between each season—that not-yet-quite-fall-summer, that baiting winter-spring warmth. Seasons is playful and unexpected.

Winter dominates the center of the work, flanked on each adjoining wall by spring and fall, with touches of summer bursting at the very edges of the piece. The leftmost, painterly panel depicting summer exhibits thick, rectangular, overlapping Cezanne-like swatches of blue, yellow, and green. The initially distinct designation of land, tree, and sky becomes less pronounced as summer gives way to fall, and leaves meld each distinct layer into a single mass of autumnal hues.

The leap from fall to winter is much harsher, like a sudden and complete snowfall. A panel of robust sienna, purple, and blue rests aside a startling collage of white and grey. The adjacent panel, the largest and simplest of all the panels, features a white background with delicately placed slivers of brown—twigs surviving amidst ice. This authoritative focus point balances the life and chaos rushing throughout the surrounding panels. It’s a brief repose.

Though the springtime panels are vibrant, they are surprisingly tame. Chaney depicts a season of inescapable growth with her formless medley of flourishing. The specific colors of these textures, layered in this way, bring to mind patterns of moss and lichen while avoiding abrasive colors and stereotypical allusions to springtime tulips. As spring returns to summer, Chaney ramps up the volume and body of her fabrics, creating a flowing, swirling movement reminiscent of Van Gogh.

Despite the aesthetic contrast between these sensual panels and the surrounding solemnity of stone, Chaney’s textile meditation on temporality works well within the physical space and was, in fact, designed specifically with Rockefeller in mind: “The cool gray windows of Rockefeller Chapel are the stoic, elegant colors of winter,” Chaney said in an interview with Rockefeller administrators, “They inspired me to make a series of work based on my feelings for winter, spring, summer and fall.”

Since its installation in mid-January, Seasons has perfectly coincided with many other Rockefeller programs associated with the passage of time, including the major concert Sacred Powers of Water and Rockefeller’s weekly Zen meditation sessions. Reflecting on the role of Seasons within Rockefeller by e-mail, Elizabeth Davenport, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, said:

“From a spiritual perspective, most of the world’s major traditions root their practices in seasonal ritual of one kind or another, and an installation which celebrates the turn of the year is very appropriate. Further, we are all aware of what I would call the seasons of our lives, a theme to which Chaney spoke in a talk which she gave at the Chapel in February: the times when we burrow down, the times of great creativity and blossoming, the more fallow periods.”

Seasons itself seems to be a personal chronicle of the seasons of Libby Chaney’s own life. Each fabric—each and every scrap of silk, flannel, cotton, and canvas—Chaney collected at some point in her travels. In a poem that accompanies the supplementary exhibition of her works in Rockefeller’s downstairs gallery corridor, Chaney writes,

“Standing, I cut a floppy shape from something soft/ that came from somewhere/ a long time ago, or from a skirt I found, a shop/ around the world./ It’s like starting to talk with strangers.”

Chaney spent two entire years interweaving scraps of her existence, birthing a tapestry that encourages viewers to confront their own. In doing so, she not only dialogues with her own past but also incorporates the unknown histories of former fabric owners. Chaney transforms their dresses, curtains, tablecloths, cultures, histories, and more into a universal and timeless exploration of season.

By popular demand, the Seasons installation has been extended and will remain on display until this coming Monday. Rockefeller is free and open to the public 8:30 am to 5 pm.

Published on April 17, 2015 by The Chicago Maroon.