Piece by Piece

Eichler owner Joan Schulze—50 years of superb storytelling in the art of fiber and collage
Joan Schulze's work can be autobiographical and can deal with dark subjects. Here, the artist is in her San Francisco studio with 'Meditation Sur la Mort,' from her 2019 'Brain Tangles' series, which dealt with her husband's dementia and death.

Many fiber artists get their start with fabric in art school, one of a smorgasbord of options open to creatives. There you'll also find clay, metal, stone, acrylics, oil—all equally valid in today's art world, where heterogeneity reigns.

But that wasn't the way it was in the mid-20th century, when folks who worked in fabric or clay were craftsmen, not artists. And women? With the rare exception, they weren't 'artists' at all. If women did art, it was a pastime.

For decades, that's how it played out for Joan Schulze, who began haunting an art museum as a child and became a 'maker' at the same age, crafting clothes for herself and family out of rags, "because we couldn't afford to buy clothes too much," she says.

Schulze came to fabric not in search of an art material, but as part of her life, something she worked with and came to love, day in and day out.

'Objects of Desire II' quilt, from 1997.

Yet it took Schulze, a woman who does not lack self-esteem, until 1970, her 34th year, to declare herself an artist. She believes that living in a home built by Joe Eichler, in an Eichler tract in Sunnyvale, had something to do with that declaration.

Today Joan Schulze is a phenomenon. In the world of fiber artists Schulze "is an icon, really," says Deborah Corsini, a curator and weaver. In 2010, Corsini organized 'Poetic License,' a large-scale retrospective exhibit of Schulze's work at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. She also wrote one of the curatorial essays for the accompanying catalog.

Schulze is best known for complex quilts that incorporate elements of collage, but she does other work too, including collage on paper.
"She's just ahead of the curve," Corsini says.

Schulze does some design work in her Eichler but creates her quilts and other works in a two-floor, modern live-work space on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, where she effortlessly scampers from one level to the next on stairs that are more like a ladder.

The loggia in Schulze's Eichler is an ideal setting as a gallery for her art and features modern furnishings.

She has shown in galleries for more than 50 years, has works in corporate collections and in several museums.

Among awards, she brags of receiving the Distinguished Woman Artist award from the Fresno Art Museum in 2017, "which is huge, because the people that I follow are some of the major women in California. Major," she says.

"There's enough variety in her work that we could fill two galleries, and there were no two pieces that were alike, and they all are masterful," says Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum's director and chief curator. "I know a lot of artists who embroider, but I only know two who are true fabric artists."

One of them is Schulze, whose work, Pracy says, "is authentic, and it's personal. She isn't just a facile manipulator of fabric. She makes things that tell us something."

'Tanka H,' from 2004.

"So many of the pieces are personal to her, whether she is working with organza, heavy duck, or other materials," Pracy says. "She takes her own photos and uses them in the work. Things she wants to hold in her memory."

Morris Jackson, a book designer who has designed many of Schulze's art and poetry books, has spent time in her studio, traveled with Schulze to Italy, and owns some of her work.

"She has a fascination with time, shoes, movement," he says. "Sometimes her stuff looks like music made solid. How things move across the silk. You can feel a high note here or a low note there. The color she uses sometimes isn't what you'd expect. Sometimes they grate instead of blend."

Keep in touch with the Eichler Network. SUBSCRIBE to our free e-newsletter