Light and Shadow

Ali Clift’s cloth paintings are on display in the Lehman Art Center.
Ali Clift paints with fabric. She cuts out and layers materials to create dynamic landscapes on her large, colorful canvases.
“I’m using the fabric as if it were paint,” she explained to a 2-D Art class Thursday.
As the Lehman Art Center’s first visiting artist of the year, Clift was on campus all week to show students her artwork, describe her process and help them conceptualize some of their own pieces. Her work is currently on view in the Lehman Art Center; the opening on Friday, September 19, begins at 5:30 p.m. and will feature live music and Brazilian food.
Clift says she has been an artist ever since her mother gave her paper and crayons to play with on the kitchen floor as a child, but she began using fabric in her work only gradually. As a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she took a lot of drawing classes, thinking she would get a career in commercial art. After experimenting with silk-screening and doing a series of works depicting figures in space, however, she was hooked.
“I started playing around with fabric and I really liked it,” she said.
Clift’s work was picked up by the Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston as soon as she graduated from the Museum School, and she has been represented by the gallery for her whole 37-year career.
“What makes her particular story unique is her longevity with a local gallery,” Director of the Lehman Art Center Amy Graham said. “She’s had a real consistency in her work and in her process.”
Graham, who teaches visual art at Brooks, said giving students access to a professional artist is incredibly valuable. After Clift introduced herself and spoke about her work, students donned their smocks and continued their current project of layering cut-out magazine images onto canvas. But while Clift, who was working on her own piece in the art studio alongside the students, meticulously lays each piece of fabric onto her canvas, securing it with a pin (she sews the pieces on), students had been told to layer the images without giving it much thought. They would be tearing off parts of the paper to create texture and to find a landscape in the colors and shapes.
Graham says she’s trying to transcend the 3D/2D divide in the art curriculum, and that Clift’s work provides the perfect example.
“The technique behind her work is fascinating,” Graham said.
In one piece, her subject is a shrine set up in a Mexican home to remember an ancestor. She used flat fabric and depicted an undulating tablecloth by using black strips of fabric to create the illusion of shadows.
The idea of using discarded materials in a piece is central to Clift’s work. She gets a lot of her materials from clothing she finds at thrift shops.
“She makes incredibly beautiful, valuable artwork out of things people have given away,” Graham said.
Clift’s worldliness also informs her paintings. Some of the works on display in the Lehman came from a rafting trip she took down the Grand Canyon; others depict scenes from Mexico and Italy.
It is her technique combined with unique, mysterious subjects that make Clift’s work exciting. Clift says all her subjects, from Day of the Dead scenes to mud puddles to circus tents, come from something she’s seen or felt, and hopes her work will remind students to pay attention.
“I hope they learn a way of looking at things. An awareness of what’s around them; shape and form, light and shadow.”
The Art of Ali Clift
Sept. 15 through Oct. 13, 2014
Opening Reception: Friday, Sept. 19, 6:15 to 9:30 p.m. in the Lehman Art Center
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