Walking into artist and curator Djak’s Maspeth apartment is like entering an alternate dimension.
Suits of armor stand in the corner. Tapestries depicting robots and aliens adorn the walls. A dragon the size of an iguana sits on the table. Each item is handmade.
Whatever subcultures intersect in this space—sci-fi, Gothic, fantasy—it is clearly a creation all its own, the work of an inquisitive mind, an active imagination and busy hands.
“We came from a family that always made things,” said Djak, short for Denise Jaklitsch, who grew up the second of three sisters in Elmhurst. Influenced by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, she began making dolls in 1996 out of a fascination with medieval heraldry and a desire “to feel part of a Middle Earth-type environment.”
She will be exhibiting her dolls and tapestries, along with six other women artists, at the Alliance of Queens Artists (AQA) Gallery in Forest Hills as part of the Fiber Arts Fest! throughout the month of May.
The fantastic “Robot’s Dream” tapestry she will be including in the exhibit was inspired by a personal encounter.
“I had an incredible UFO experience with my husband, right here in Queens in ’83, which made us understand that this phenomenon does exist. It’s not explained. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s real. We saw a flying saucer for about 10 minutes on Grand Avenue,” she said.
Long before shows like the “X Files,” sightings were a taboo subject for discussion. Djak found books on the topic had little to offer, so she turned to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov for both answers and inspiration.
In collaboration with her brother-in-law, Frank Pawlowski, who draws the intricate robots that are then sewn into the tapestries, Djak creates storytelling works that investigate what she might have seen that night.
The result is original work that doesn’t fit into pre-established categories. Although Djak is a well-known local artist, there are still not many places in the city for her to show her kind of work. So she designed the Fiber Arts Fest! as a way to show off the innovative things going on in the often-overlooked “granny arts” of sewing, weaving, knitting and quilting.
Among the others in the show, Geraldine Hazel, a master quilter living in Cambria Heights, specializes in preserving the visual method of communication used by fugitive slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
The brightly colored quilts were hung in plain view, encoded with symbols that carried life-or-death meaning for the runaways. A log cabin meant the location was a safe place to stay. A shoofly meant danger. A bow tie meant the fugitive should bring a set of Sunday clothes in order to blend into Northern society.
Scholars have traced the origins of these symbols back to Africa, but in the generations since the Civil War their meaning has almost been lost. “It was a guarded secret, and you had to risk your life to know about it, so they would just keep it in the family,” she said.
Through her non-profit quilting and teaching organization, Stitches From The Heart, Hazel shares this secret in schools and churches. She considers the quilts a testament to the strength of her ancestors. “I tell audiences how they took nothing and made it into something,” she said.
Dr. Luberta Mays also sees her work in traditional African textiles as a way to get in touch with her heritage. The Jamaica resident fell in love with weaving at a continuing education course in 1973, and retired from her professorial position at Medgar Evers College in 1992 to devote herself to the craft.
Several years ago, she focused her craft on Kente, the “cloth of kings,” and apprenticed herself for two weeks to a master weaver in a village in Ghana. Originally made of silk, Kente cloth is now made of wide strips of very fine rayon.
Recently, Mays has been branching out into other kinds of African art, patterning new pieces after the geometric patterns that the women of the Ndebele tribe in South Africa paint on the sides of their huts.
“South Africa is a beautiful place, but these villages are not beautiful. They are the shanty towns that the blacks were relegated to during apartheid. But as you drive down the road, you see a thing of beauty in an otherwise dismal environment,” she said.
She offers the example of the Kente weaving symbol of a sankosa bird, shown with its beak turned toward its tail, to explain her dedication to African art forms. “The meaning is that as we move forward, we have to look back at the past. That’s what I want to say as I present my weaving.”
Another participating artist, Robyn Love, of Sunnyside, takes a traditional craft to some nontraditional places. Her conceptual knitted works appear on the street, wrapped around street lamps, parking meters and public statues.
For the 20th anniversary of the Manhattan alternative art space Art in General, she crocheted square coverings for the lamp posts on Canal Street. “A lot of people pretended they weren’t seeing what they were seeing,” she said.
In another piece, she covered the World War I memorial statue in DoughBoy Park in Woodside in a fuzzy gray knit cape. “It did feel like a very female response to an environment created by men,” she said. “But as much as it is softening the edges, it is an act of assertion, saying ‘I’m here.’”
Patricia Morris, of Flushing, has always been fascinated by puppets and taught herself how to make them out of papier mache and cloth. “They are weird characters, neither human nor animal. You might be able to tell that one was a girl, but she would have no ethnicity, for example,” she said.
After graduating from Pratt Institute in 1999, she became an art teacher at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School on Long Island. The after-shool fashion club she started there will contribute their individually designed scarves to the exhibit. Morris hopes someday to be able to use her puppets for education and therapy for children.
Annie Hickman, a Manhattan costume designer and performance artist who Djak calls “a genius,” does just that. For her one-woman show, “The Art of the Bug Lady,” Hickman creates detailed basketry costumes of beetles, praying mantises, centipedes and other creatures and brings them to life through music and dance.
She will perform at a reception at the AQA Gallery on May 10th at 3:30 p.m., along with Middle Village resident Anouch, also a costume designer and dancer.
Anouch will also exhibit her elaborately beaded Central Asian and Middle Eastern folk dance costumes in the exhibition. Video installations of many of the artists’ work will also be shown.
Fiber Arts Fest! is taking place at the AQA Gallery, located at 99-10 Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills. Performances and gallery talks with the artists take place every Saturday at 3 p.m., May 3-24. For more information, visit www.arts4u.org or call 718-520-9842.