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In living color

Artist Judith Content is inspired by her surroundings

There is nothing drab about Judith Content's world.

The renowned textile artist works from her Barron Park home -- a home she's enveloped in color, from the brightly hued exterior (think purple and tangerine) to her multicolored kitchen.

Her purple shirt and flats fit right in.

Her studio walls are lined with type trays filled with a rainbow of colors -- except for one huge white fabric wall, which she uses as a design board for her mainly kimono-shaped wall pieces. Over the past 30 years, many of those pieces have been acquired by private collectors or museums (two hang at San Francisco's de Young Museum).

Just last week, she heard that two of her pieces were purchased through the State of New Mexico's New Mexico Arts: Art in Public Places Initiative, including "Arroyo" for the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and "Cenote Turquesa" for the Eastern New Mexico University.

While studying art at San Francisco State University, she didn't hit upon textiles until her senior year -- but "it was a magical moment," she said. She was exhibiting her original works before age 20.

Content doesn't create her art quilts from purchased fabric. Rather, she begins with black silk cloth from Thailand.

"It has a very papery quality, crisp," she said.

She cuts the fabric into panels and then uses a hot iron and a plant mister to fold and plait the cloth into a bundle, wrapped around a pole. Next comes bleaching, or discharging, the fabric, working with a product that doesn't harm the silk. The discharge leaches color out of the outer layers of the fabric, leaving variations down to the pole, which remains mostly black.

"There are lots of elements of surprise when you unwrap the pole," she added.

The process is tedious and time-consuming, but she likes to do this outside, reading a novel in one hand while dipping the cloth into the discharge liquid with the other.

To add color to the mix, she pours special Japanese dyes over the wrapped (bleached) bundle.

"It's absolutely limitless as to the effects you get," Content said.

Content will spend two to three weeks just dying a mass of fabric. When dry, she'll throw it on her studio floor, then select panels to pin on her design wall ("looking for dynamic combinations"). That becomes her design jumping-off place.

Eventually, after observing her design on the wall, she'll step away, then return to observe again. "I can spot when something is wrong," she said, noting that she never finishes a piece without solving the problems.

After the dying -- "It's very calming to do dying. You trust there'll be magic in there." -- comes one to two weeks of composition, another couple weeks of quilting, plus one or two days for finishing.

But quilting isn't all Content does in her studio.

Recently, she participated in the "Color the Creek" project at the Palo Alto Art Center, where she gathered old broken crockery, smashed it further with a hammer and then tumbled it into mulch-sized chips that were spread outside the center as ground cover.

"It's very colorful, soft," she said, ruing its attraction for small children who like to take a piece home.

But, she acknowledges, that's what makes it a continuous work in progress, as she just tumbles some more ceramic chunks.

Content is never "content" to stay idle.

She has created artistic accessories, including a line of button-based jewelry where she spray-paints buttons through a sushi mat, adding up to 30 layers of auto paint. She also designs silk scarves.

One newer project is gift bags, made from digital photographs printed on textured paper, paired with wallpaper samples acquired from FabMo, a nonprofit that gives away designer materials. She's participated in FabMo's Textile Arts Boutique in October, where at least 30 percent of the items sold had to be made from its materials.

Even the handles are creative: She makes them by twisting colorful cord using the bread attachment on a portable mixer, twisted exactly 81 times. She uses the finished cord both for the gift bags and for stringing the button jewelry.

Two years ago Content was asked to be a judge for Quilt National '13, where she reviewed thousands of images, and along with two other judges, whittled that down to 80 entrants in the quilt show. She did the first run in one day, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and finishing at 9 p.m. When she started to glaze over, she'd step away from the computer for a brief respite. "Then some amazing image would appear," she said, and she'd be back on track.

Right now she's busily borrowing back quilts from collectors to include in the "Intuitive Symmetry: Works on Silk by Judith Content" show, which will be held at the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange, Texas, from July through September.

And she's "formulating ideas" for the 15th International Triennial of Tapestry at the Central Museum of Textiles, to be held in Lodz, Poland, next May. Only five American artists are selected every three years for this exhibition, she said.

Most of Content's work is seen far beyond the bounds of Palo Alto, but one can catch a glimpse in the lobby of Channing House. Her most recent commission, inspired by Pinnacles National Park in spring, now hangs in the Sunnyvale campus of Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF). Another (12 feet by 5 feet) hangs on the third floor of PAMF's Mountain View clinic.

Her accessories can be found at gift shops at the Palo Alto Art Center and the San Jose Quilt Museum.

Although Content is a very social being -- "I love interacting with people," she said -- she also enjoys the silence and the solitude of working in her studio. Over the years, she's learned to work in small parcels of time, often working on two pieces simultaneously. She also said she values her time spent in critique groups, where she exchanges ideas with fellow artists.

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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