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March 12, 2017 marks the one-hundredth birthdate of Kentucky’s late Grande Dame of fiber art, Alma Lesch. For half of the twentieth-century Alma Wallace Lesch (1917-1999) produced a unique body of fiber work based on traditional textile methods once considered “women’s work”. Her invention of the “fabric portrait”, emerging from her early fabric collages, became her signature style of art cloth and introduced the viewer to her private world while often using the commonwealth and community as her subject in each fabric collage. Vintage clothing and fabrics impacted her design approach.
Being born in Kevil, Kentucky on a McCracken County farm afforded Alma Lee Wallace the skills to absorb basic textile techniques as passed down from generations within family. Piecing her first quilt top alongside of her grandmother at age five, then quilting it later at age twelve, made fabric a practical material in recycling the matter we call “life on the farm”. Farm motifs would return in her 1960s stitchery work and early applique pieces. Natural fibers threaded through the eye of her needle was, as she called it, “drudgery” as this detailed labor never matched the joy in manipulating the next creation. The detail in her completed needle work is the standard. Alma loved to quote architect Mies Van der Rohe who stated, “God is in the details”.
Leaving Paducah after graduating from Heath High School in 1934 opened the academic world to this young artist heading to college at Murray State College in 1941 and eventually, in 1962, a Master’s Degree in Education at the University of Louisville satisfied her mature quest exploring natural fiber and vegetable dyeing. Bullitt County itself became her local harvest of nature’s palette. Lesch’s graduate thesis became the 1970 book Vegetable Dyeing: 151 Color Recipes for Dyeing Yarns and Fabrics with Natural Materials, a Watson-Guptill publication. Craftspeople called it the Natural Dye Bible and it listed in the unique cult publication called The Whole Earth Catalog: A list of tools. Textile studies swept the nation from California to New York colleges as fiber and quilts became fine art. Using linoleum block print Alma Lesch designed curtain fabric for Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest visitor center in nearby Clermont. Her husband Ted fished with the director of the foundation and became the subject of several early mixed media compositions. Glass mosaics and oil painting on panel board were mid-1950 explorations in art making just before the blossoming began in her textile renaissance.
Invited to show at New York’s America House after her first solo show in Atlanta at Signature Shop, Craft Horizons placed Lesch’s early fabric collage “Uncle Bob” (one of six variations on this theme) on its cover. The year 1963 was the beginning of over 50 solo exhibits, international and group shows and juried competitions for the next four decades. Mixed media became her tool kit in constructing work.
Alma Lesch’s teaching impact on fiber artists, first through students who sought her expertise at the Anchorage campus of the Louisville School of Art and later at the University of Louisville, remains with us today throughout the nation. She demanded an educated eye from her students. Her impact on the American Craft Movement grew by the summer of 1966 by teaching at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Maine and was felt for a decade in the 1970s at Arrowmont School of Crafts in Tennessee. Soft Sculpture evolved into art cloth as design trends emerged across America.
The J. B. Speed Art Museum presented The Cloth, Textiles on Biblical Themes in 1969, Alma Lesch’s first museum exhibition in Louisville. Thirty tapestries, weavings and some of the largest stitched and appliqued collages were presented. Words appeared in some pieces and ideas from various scriptures and books within the bible were selected as titles and began a lifelong interest in using puns. A long friendship with museum director Franklin Page began which complimented her husband Ted’s circle of friends. Married in 1946 to Isadore “Ted” Lesch who with six brothers emigrated from Russia to America in the early twentieth century.
Ted, as town pharmacist, moved from Louisville to become the owner of the Shepherdsville Drug Store, in 1948, until retiring in 1991. Ted, who often accompanied Alma on her summer teaching workshops was a prolific weaver of rugs and made use of her vegetable dyed yarns in his colorful efforts using his four- harness looms. Alma insisted she was not a weaver. Ted completed a weaving course at Arrowmont while Alma taught natural dyeing workshops. They shared the basement studio after buying the home in 1949 in which they both lived until Ted’s passing in 1994.
Mounting her final retrospective at Kentucky Museum of Art and Design in 1997 presented a comprehensive survey of the variety in technique and design motifs in her fiber forms. Among the concise collection celebrating the artist’s centennial year is “Sallie”, from the KMAC retrospective and from the collection of Dennis Shaffner who curated this singular exhibit at the Arts Council of Southern Indiana in Pat Harrison Gallery. e called it, “drudgery” as this detailed labor never matched the joy in manipulating the next creation. The detail in her completed needle work is the standard. Alma loved to quote architect Mies Van der Rohe who stated, “God is in the details”.
The J. B. Speed Art Museum presented The Cloth, Textiles on Biblical Themes in 1969, Alma Lesch’s first museum exhibition in Louisville. Thirty tapestries, weavings and some of the largest stitched and appliqued collages were presented. Words appeared in some pieces and ideas from various scriptures and books within the bible were selected as titles and began a lifelong interest in using puns. A long friendship with museum director Franklin Page began which complimented her husband Ted’s circle of friends. Married in 1946 to