Vadis Turner: Painting with Ribbon and Fabric

Storm Systems, an exhibition of new work by MFTA artist-in-residence Vadis Turner opens on Thursday, September 12 from 6 - 9 pm in the Materials for the Arts Gallery. The show will be on view until December 20.

Storm Systems, an exhibition of new work by MFTA artist-in-residence Vadis Turner opens on Thursday, September 12 from 6 – 9 pm in the Materials for the Arts Gallery. The show will be on view until December 20, and the exhibition is sponsored by the Rauschenberg Foundation as part of the 2013 Marfa Dialogues on art and climate change.

Vadis Turner feels like she won the golden ticket as an artist. After a summer-long artist’s residency at Materials for the Arts, she has created an entirely new body of abstract work that reflects a decade’s worth of mixed media experimentation.  MFTA’s newest artist-in-residence ‘paints’ with ribbon and fabric donated by NYC’s fashion industries to the MFTA warehouse.  She uses ribbons as lines, marks, and brushstrokes, large wads of fabric as stains of color, and smaller pieces as drips of hues. Her work with textile reuse will be part of series of featured events sponsored by the 2013 MARFA Dialogues on art and climate change.


It’s a week before her exhibition opening in the MFTA gallery, and Vadis is preparing her work for display. The studio walls are hung with large fabric paintings, tables covered with beads and sequins, and a floor full of ribbons from a season’s worth of non-stop creating. There are mannequins too, dressed in sumptuous skirts inspired by storms.

In the warehouse’s studio space, Vadis looks back on the residency and her journey as an artist.

Transforming Textiles:


“Everyday, I woke up and felt like; I can’t believe I get to go there. Materials for the Arts was the best thing that happened to my career. It was a game changer.”

On ‘shopping days’, members saw Vadis gliding through the 35,000 square-foot warehouse in one of the storm skirts, plucking inspiring discoveries from the shelves.  She even found a stereo to play music mixes from favorite CDs while she worked.

“This place is magic,” she gushes.  “What’s available in the warehouse freed me up in a lot of ways and steered my creativity, because I responded to what colors and textures were out there and figured out compositions based on what’s been donated.”

When she first arrived, the first body of work she created was with ribbon pieces sewed onto canvas. Then, Vadis began building her own canvases by weaving long strips of fabric and ribbons together.

“I thought, why should I wait for canvas to roll around when I can make my own? This residency has changed the way that I work and it will be forever changed because of this. Before this, I used recycled materials as much as I could and only bought things if I had to. Now, I’m having my first body of work made from 100% upcycled materials. It changes my relationship with the work.”


Her new canvases are made from torn fabric and textile fillers that she transformed into long ropes very similar to giant friendship bracelets. She wove the ropes together with a technique she learned in summer camp and ended up with a large flexible pad as her working canvas.

Textiles are some of the most toxic and often wasted materials and they take up a large portion of every landfill.  In New York City, fashion and textile companies can divert materials away from the landfill by donating it to Materials for the Arts. Companies like M&J Trimming, Tinsel Trading Company, Marc Jacobs, Victoria’s Secret, Kenneth Cole, Eileen Fisher, Philips Van Heusen, Burberry, Coach, among others, donate their unused fabric, trim, and notions, to the MFTA warehouse, for use in thousands of creative and educational activities across the five boroughs.

By seeing the flexibility and transformational possibilities of textiles, Vadis’ work highlights the value of reuse and investigates how repurposing discarded materials can reduce environmental damage to our urban environment.

Discovering her mixed media palette:

Before Vadis began working with textiles, she was an abstract painter. She studied painting at Boston University and after graduating with her BFA and MFA, she took a break from brushes and paints and started dabbling in mixed media. Many of the materials she engaged with were found in her mother’s kitchen. She made delicate gowns and lingerie from wax paper.

“I wanted to transform this mundane, domestic material into something higher, something precious…into contemporary artwork. Wax paper opened up mixed media to me. I was turning trash into something valuable and beautiful and seeing it as a vehicle for new ideas,” she says.


Close up of beads, sequins, and jewelry for an “ice storm” skirt.

She looked for materials that were connected to traditional and conceptual forms of women’s work, presentation, and behavior, like quilts, stockings, kitchenware, bobby pins, and other materials that could connect to and be a voice for gender roles and women’s roles. She made chocolates and cupcakes out of pantyhose, turning beauty wares into functionless art objects.

“There’s a boys club associated with abstract expressionism, and I love turning feminine materials into something more ‘macho’. All of these materials have a story and the gender-bending takes place in the piece,” says Vadis.

Over the last 12 years, Vadis broadened and deepened her palette of mixed media materials that connected to women’s work, gender roles, and rites of passage. In 2011, she began exploring ceremonial forms of adornment, like fabric, flowers, and ribbon.

“I thought about how we adorn ourselves and our spaces to make someone or something innocent, sacred, and beautiful for a rite of passage. I partnered decorative elements with really destructive agents to create large abstract paintings out of textiles.”

Photo by Vadis

Photo by Vadis Turner.

Reconnecting her pallet with her painter’s mindset, she created her first series of fabric paintings, a synthesis of her artistic practice combining thought and process.

“It was a breakthrough for me when I started working this way. There’s this amazing, cathartic moment of painting with ribbon and painting with fabric. Fabric translates into paint, and it felt like painting,” she says. “Plus, I don’t get as dirty as I should.”

For Vadis, she knew this was the work she was always meant to be putting out to the world. Yet, her show in 2011put a severe financial strain on her career.

“I wasn’t prepared to afford to make this work on the scale, level, and complexity that I wanted. There was a price tag attached to it,” Vadis says. “As a mixed media artist, I couldn’t afford to fall in love with things.”

A downpour of opportunity:

Then, in 2013, Vadis was selected for the Friends of Materials for the Arts artist-in-residency, which provides workspace in the warehouse, as well as the opportunity to create and exhibit new work inspired by the ever-changing warehouse inventory and other found materials. She was also offered a solo show at Jack Geary Contemporary’s new gallery space.


Vadis says, “This residency helped me make this work at a level I couldn’t make otherwise, in terms of both experimentation and risk-taking. As an artist, I needed to bring these things into the world. I love the idea of transforming materials in general. That’s a big picture thing for me, to transform materials so they’re no longer associated with their original function. Fabric into paint, fabric into icing, fabric into thunder or water.”

The thunder and water she refers to is a series of storm skirts made from hoop skirts in collaboration with Honeymoon Heart Revival, a partnership between Anna Niedermeyer and Jillian McManemin, where they write, design, produce, and perform plays.

Anna was Vadis’ student at Pratt and later assisted Vadis with a bridal bed installation housed permanently in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  Both Anna and Vadis are both from Nashville, Tennessee and grew up on the same street.  The two are longtime friends and artistic partners.

Anna works on the "spring storm" skirt.

Anna works on the “spring storm” skirt.

“Along the line of storm skirts, I like exploring hyper-reality and magical realism,” Anna says. “Materials for the Arts is so inspiring because it has this multitude of raw potential.”


Together, Anna and Vadis created four elaborate storm skirts inspired by spring rains, sunsets, the sea, and ice. Each skirt has its own narrative, which will be told through dance. The performance will be in a video directed by their third partner, Jillian. Dancers will also be performing their storm stories at Materials for the Arts’ annual Masked Marvelous Cocktail Party on Tuesday, October 22.

Save the dates for upcoming events with artist Vadis Turner:

Events are sponsored by the Rauschenberg Foundation as part of the 2013 Marfa Dialogues. 

Vadis Turner’s work will also be displayed at Jack Geary Contemporary’s new gallery space (182 Varick Street) from September 26 – October 27. There will be an evening exhibition opening on Thursday, September 26.