Shelley Spector Celebrates the Fabrics of Her Life


Spector's newest exhibit, which includes many works using found textiles, is accompanied by a soundtrack.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Shelley Spector: Keep the Home Fires Burning,” is not actually on display. The show, which marks the Philadelphia artist’s solo show debut at the museum, is accompanied by its own soundtrack.

Spector says that curating a sonic component — kept at a subdued volume, of course — adds another layer to the experience of walking through her works, many of them ensconced in or embellished with found textiles. They are on display at the Joan Spain Gallery, located in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building of the museum across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the main building. “We shaped an hourlong soundtrack that is half-on and half-off” split between songs and silence.

Spector is quick to say that she is a much better artist than DJ. “I know how to talk about art, but I don’t know how to talk about music, so I worked with an ethnomusicologist” — Dan Singer — “who had a sense of what I wanted.” He provided her with the musical choices like Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love,” Thievery Corporation’s “Saudade” and Sho Z-Pod Duba’s “DakhaBrakha,” that reflect the American, Jewish, Indian and Pennsylvania German approaches to love, family and life that influenced her work.

The last influence was the most pivotal for the artist, as it was a Pennsylvania German-inspired “show towel” — a decorative woven large cloth that is reminiscent of a tapestry — on which she has based her show.

After receiving an invitation to use the museum’s archives to do the research for her show, Spector, 54, who sculpts her works out of materials like reclaimed furniture, dolls and clothing, spent months exploring the museum’s extensive collection of textiles — virtually.

“You have to make a list of what you want to see in the archives before you go there in person,” she explains as she pauses to study at the embroidered fabric that is the touchstone of her exhibition.

”There are thousands of pieces in storage, and the museum is very protective of them,” she says, speaking on a Monday, when the  museum is closed to the public, and the only distractions are the clacking footfalls of the staff walking the halls.

The piece that she kept coming back to was designed by Frances Lichten, who worked as an art historian for the museum, and sewn by her mother, Cecelia, in 1943. It was donated to the museum by the writer and artist Katherine Milhous, who was Lichten’s longtime companion, after Lichten’s death in 1951.

The 7-plus by 3-plus-feet cloth, on display for the first time at the museum, features traditional motifs like tulips, trees, oxen and depictions of important local events like the arrival of German colonists in 1683.

One catalyst for her show — both creatively and logistically — can be found at the bottom of the piece, where the embroidery points out that it was stitched by her mother at age 82.

Spector says that when she first saw the towel, her own mother, Anita, who still lives in the Northeast, where Spector was raised, was also 82. “When I saw that my mother was the same age” as Lichten’s mother, “I thought, wouldn’t that be nice, to work together?”

Her mother became a willing participant in the process of putting the show’s 16 works together, including washing and deconstructing all of the clothing that Spector found on her trips through Craigslist, thrift stores and garage sales, as well as the occasional curb alert. “She isn’t an artist, but she is extremely handy,” Spector notes.

“I would come home from school and she would be reupholstering the couch or hanging wallpaper. I knew she would be able to do whatever I asked and be interested in it.” One bonus in addition to having a co-worker she could trust implicitly: The two got to spend six hours together every week for over a year, attaching deconstructed fabric to deconstructed papasan chairs, creating yarn from T-shirts and then weaving and crocheting that yarn onto discarded shoeshine boxes that have since been turned into whimsically watchful Lions of Judah, one clad in herringbone, the other sensibly striped. In one of the show’s most arresting pieces, “From Seeds to Seeds,” a giant bouquet of downturned flowers radiate their undulating colors like evanescent spotlights.

Other works tend to reinforce the themes of life, love and creation, including a tiny, evocative piece called “Frances Loves Katherine,” in honor of Lichten and Milhous; a sparely adorned woodwork called “The Tree of Life”; and “The Egg Tree,” a nod to Milhous’ Caldecott-winning children’s book of the same name that harbors fragility in its single branches, unity in its bunches of wood and hope in the wooden eggs nestled within.

“There is a focus on regeneration,” Spector says. The towel “is Pennsylvania German, and I’m Jewish. I saw a lot of symbols in it that resonated with my culture, and I tried to pare down those symbols in a way in a way I could relate to it. Most of the show has to do with hope and protection, love and belief — the things that I hope in my heart everyone has inside them.”


“Shelley Spector: Keep the Home Fires Burning”
Now through Sept. 27
Joan Spain Gallery, Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway;


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here