I could have dropped acid and still not achieved the trip had by hanging out sober with the ultra-cool Libby Chaney. She exudes a sort of subdued groovy energy, almost causing the walls to pulse and colors to blend together. We imbibed coffee around the table in her dining area/study, enveloped by books, and talked about her life and work.
Chaney is an artist who works primarily in fabric. She's a Cleveland native with strong roots in her medium: Her great-grandmother and her great-great grandmother were seamstresses and had a business here. Chaney has made her residence in both California and Ohio, where she received her BFA from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1966.
In 2008, the artist and her husband, Paul, were driving on an eastward cross-country trip away from their home and the memories of their son, Alec, who had died three years earlier. Paul suggested that they stop in Cleveland. "Why?" Libby asked. "You are always so happy there," he replied. So they got a condo and she a studio in Lakewood. "The healing waters of Lake Erie soothed my soul. I started researching genealogy, people who had been born and had died, very much like the lake waves. I put down names and went from there," she says.
Her solo show, I Travel Eye at Tregoning & Company in 2011 was an accumulation of this research. Of these intensely strong pieces she wrote, "My art is an invitation to tour a flexible destiny. I want harmony or a sense of play in my compositions. Structures I make and paths that connect are only suggestions. Stitches are textures, or steps on the journey, tiny trails of color. I love color. I bring together time, place and sensibility with the cloth from my collection. Here is unity and new life from diversity. These works are not meant to be another problem you need to solve! Neither are they purely decoration. They are meant as a meditation for the eye, to which you can bring your heart and your mind."
In 2015, the couple purchased an old clinical office on West 85th Street and Lake Avenue. Built in 1956, this mid-century modern building — one that would make HGTV flippers drool — had a sign in all caps that read MEDICAL HEALTH CENTER. They painted out all the letters except the ones that would read "ALEC."
Making our way down the hall from the study, there is a definite change of mood. Chaney is in the midst of creating a piece and the studio reflects as much. Myriad mountains of colored fabric in the studio go mano a mano with the brilliant throngs of songbirds in the yard. There is so much material that it must be stored in bins for the sake of wall space. I asked about the bin labeled Friends of Yellow, which appears to be the beginning throes of a studio overhaul. "All the cloth used to be folded on shelves. Highly organized. Now it seems my closet is out of control." She adds, "When my studio gets too messy I can't think. I need clarity of space."
Chaney creates one piece at a time as opposed to working a series. Her art is monumental in scale. "Seasons," first commissioned and installed at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, was over 9-feet tall and 22-feet wide. As stated above, hers is a journey, a conversation with cloth. "Fabric has personalities; I like interacting with their patterns and colors. Scissors are ancient hand tools; I like cutting out shapes — fitting and scrunching them into my evolving composition ... I like to use power hand tools. Engines are powerful, expanding our capabilities in time: I like sewing machines and drive them like sports cars. One piece at a time is a form of single-taskizing; I like slowing down and composing in this way. Cloth is supple and alive; I like seeing the edges of the pieces soften during my process. My work begins and ends as cloth and thread — flexible, soft and still alive."
The artist has always been politically concerned. Since the election, she has been vocal about the current administration on many platforms. "Trump really freaks me out," she says, and her studio work in progress reflects just that.
Hanging on the vast wall is a meticulously crafted, abstract fabric assemblage slated for exhibition at the Artist Archives of the Western Reserve in September 2017. It is so enormous that Chaney employs a laser pointer to discuss its variations. The story begins on the left with reds and roses that she had taken from a previous art piece. "The plan was to move to turquoise then to yellow, the subtle personage in the middle wasn't so subtle when the work began, but now it is going to black. It keeps going black. I am stuck with what to do." Chaney adds that, "It speaks of the intentions and actuality when working ... I'm facing myself in this piece. I keep thinking about how our democracy is in jeopardy."
We look forward to watching the evolution of this piece, now tentatively entitled "Friends of Yellow," and, of course, to attending the subsequent exhibition at the Artists Archives in September.
To check out Libby Chaney's work from I Travel Eye, visit tregoningandco.com.