Sheila Hicks: We meet at last, and I see her newest work
April 17, 2010

This post is a followup to a January post about Sheila Hicks’s artwork at a NYC restaurant,  SD26.  (My earlier post is here if you want to catch up.)  In an interview for that post,  Sheila said that she was working on another piece for the Main Dining Room,  and at the beginning of March,  she posted this comment on my blog:

I’m trying to finish a large work for the restaurant SD26 and hope to have it ready in March.  It keeps changing and evolving but there is one constant — it is made of bright orange,  Greek wool with a coir core.

At the end of March,  I e-mailed to ask how the new work was coming along,  and Sheila’s reply was an unexpected invitation to meet her at Restaurant SD26,  since she was stopping in New York for a day or two on her way back to Paris.  So I had a quick manicure and was on my way.

Spoiler alert:  Fangirl gushing follows.

I had read about SD26 and seen many images of it,  but the reality was both more inviting and less imposing than I expected a two-level, 14,000-sq-ft restaurant to be.  In an excellent interview in Food Arts magazine (read it here),  Massimo Vignelli, the well-known designer of SD26’s interior, said that practically everything was designed by him to create an atmosphere that’s “serene, comfortable, simple.” I was there on a sunny weekday afternoon, between lunch and dinner, and the vibe was pleasantly serene.

When I arrived at the restaurant,  Sheila was already settled in a booth with two friends,  Cristina Grajales,  owner of the eponymous Soho  gallery that shows Sheila’s work,  and Claudia Steinberg, correspondent for the German design magazines Architektur & Wohnen and Country.  Over coffee,  conversation wandered from art world news, to  travel plans,  to mutual friends,  but as we chatted,  I noticed that the new artwork was already installed on a wall across the dining room.  After Sheila suggested that I might take pictures from the balcony,  I felt comfortable enough to roam around and take more.  Here they are,  as a slideshow:

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Some of the restaurant views will be familiar to readers of my earlier post,  but here also are several pictures of the artist (two with Ms.  Grajales and Ms.  Steinberg,  and one with Mr.  May);  her new piece,  Minerva’s Hideaway; and some less familiar views of the restaurant.

I had wondered how a “bright orange” piece would look with the restaurant’s red interior,  but SD26’s banquettes are a deep — almost brick — red,  and the orange yarn is,  as Cristina remarked,  the color of cinnamon,  making  Minerva’s Hideaway a harmonious addition.  In an e-mail,  Sheila described the structure of the piece this way:

“Minerva’s Hideaway” is made of coconut fiber (coir) and loosely spun wool [that is] wrapped with fine embroidery cotton,  husky linen,  and synthetic raffia.

Her e-mail also described the origins of the work:

Massimo (Vignelli) and I wanted to re-create an early sculptural work I had made for the dining room of his apartment in New York.  He gave that immense wool wig-shaped piece to his daughter, but he and his wife lamented the loss.  But when I delivered the orange cords and wrapped elements,  and Enrico Martignoni installed it,  we deliberated and modified its shape on the wall to become a soft,  solid square bas-relief.  For me,  it is the goddess Minerva’s hideaway.

After a while,  Cristina and Claudia left,  and Sheila and I moved into the sunny lounge to continue our chat.  Tony May,  co-owner of SD26,  stopped to say hello,  and sit for a bit,  but aside from that, we just sat and talked.

Until that day,  Sheila and I had a cordial e-mail relationship,  and I knew what she looked like,  but I had no idea what it would be like to meet her.  After we’d talked for a while,  I realized that my reaction to Sheila was similar to my reaction to SD26:  She was much warmer and far less imposing than I expected her to be.

She speaks softly,  but directly and with self-confidence.  From her e-mail messages,  I know that she is a good writer,  and hearing her thoughtful comments confirmed that she is an unusually articulate speaker.  She converses easily and answered my questions openly and interestingly which,  I guess,  is not surprising for someone as used to being interviewed (and photographed) as Sheila must be.

The close-up of Sheila is my favorite SD26 picture.  When I photographed her,  I began by focusing on the layers of colors she was wearing,  but looking at that picture now,  what I focus on is the beautiful face of a woman who is very much at  home in the world.

I was pleased to learn that Sheila Hicks will have many shining hours in the coming months.  The Addison Gallery of American Art,  in Andover,  Massachusetts  (link here), is organizing a traveling retrospective exhibition of her oeuvre,  Unbiased Weaves:  Sheila Hicks,  Fifty Years, that will open in the fall.  Other well-deserved honors and interesting projects are in the works,  and I’ll be writing about them when I have more information.

Before starting for home,  I left the lounge briefly (and discovered that the women’s restroom provides individual cloth handtowels),  and when I returned,  Sheila was sitting on a bench,  under her artwork,  writing in a book.  The book was Speaking of Art 1958-2008,  a collection of interviews with artists (including Ms. Hicks),  from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art,  and she graciously offered me the beautifully inscribed copy as a memento of our visit.

Meeting Sheila Hicks — and her friends — in the context of the restaurant that she is so close to was a delight,  and I thank her most sincerely for the invitation and for her company.  Oddly enough,  considering how curious I was about the food at SD26,  I’m glad that we didn’t meet for lunch,  because under the circumstances,  I wouldn’t have known what I was eating anyway.

I wished her a safe trip home,  read my new book on the subway,  and smiled all the way back to Brooklyn.