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Squamish metal artist wins U.S. Niche Award for second time

Fran Solar weaves copper threads on traditional looms



Squamish artist Fran Solar has created a warm studio, with her two looms near the window and its view of the valley from the Garibaldi Highlands, a view that is obscured by the day's rain and fog.

The space is filled with her work, vessels with tight warps and intricate patterns created on one of the floor looms adapted to the task. The walls are covered in hangings made with wrought metal and found objects. The romantic notes of Spanish classical pianist Enrique Granados play in the background.Solar goes from piece to piece to explain her technique, pointing to a chunkier wall hanging, with clockwork shapes and repurposed metal items.

"I had one of my steampunk pieces sell, one like this. I really like them," she says.

"Somebody found me on the Internet and it went down to Houston, Texas, just before Christmas. I didn't even know it was steampunk!"

The colours and shine of one woven vessel in particular break up the greyness of the day beautifully with its reds, oranges and blues. Molly the cat jumps onto the worktable purring; she rubs herself against it.

The vessel was named last month as the winning entry in the Fabricated or Forged Metal category of the 2015 Niche Awards, which take place each January in Philadelphia.

The Niche Awards "celebrate excellence and innovation in American and Canadian fine craft," according to its website. Each year, around 2,000 artists and artisans from across North America submit to the awards, with five finalists in 35 categories chosen.

What is remarkable is that this is the second year in a row that Solar has won this award for her metal weaving.

"It was a very pleasant surprise," she says.

When it comes to promoting an art form for which she has few if any peers, Solar says it can be hard. Winning the first award in 2014 has led to more interest.

The 77-year-old left cloth weaving behind 20 years ago; she had been a weaver of textiles since the early 1960s, making blankets and sweaters with wool and mohair for decades.

"And the techniques I am using now with wire are identical to what I used then," she says.

She points to a woven rug on the floor.

"I made that. This rug is the same pattern that I'm using with the baskets of wire; exactly the same threadings, the same number of threads per inch. I've just switched the materials."

Recently there were three big commissions for her metal wall hangings coming via the Mountain Galleries (at the Fairmont hotels in Banff and Whistler), which represents her work.

Another purchaser called from Seattle and bought four 24-inch (60 cm) woven vessels for his new home in Idaho, because he liked the idea of the metal against the concrete in the building.

She is constantly revising her many skills to develop new ideas. She was recently given a large dishpan full of copper strips that she has been weaving, basket-like, into pod-like shapes.

"You can do this kind of sculptural process at the base of the vessel and it's a nice contrast," Solar says, fitting two different pieces together.

She speaks rapidly, focusing on the creation.

"See, you get the heavy texture and the vertical and the lines. You get something very organic."

A burgeoning interest in basketry led to a course with the New Mexican artist John Garrett, who also uses metal. Solar never looked back.

She recalls: "I came out west and the sweaters and blankets I made in Ontario didn't sell out here. I was also getting bored with it and I don't know how to knit... So I stopped doing it. There were a few years when I was kind of floundering around trying to find something."

Solar is now preparing ideas for a major show of her work in spring 2016, due to take place at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Altamonte, Ont.

"The curator is really keen on more contemporary textile art," she says. "It takes a while (to plan). I have an idea but to make it work and produce something that is aesthetically pleasing and well designed there can be a lot of time between the planning and the finished product."

Theoretically, it can take a day to weave and finish the sort of vessels that won the Niche Award, says Solar.

"But it has taken a lot longer to develop an idea... it can take years to get to that skill level," she says.

Solar admires the world of the Ghanian-Nigerian artistic genius El Anatsui, whose metal tapestries are on a monumental scale, and she considers making larger pieces for her show.

As she shows another work in progress, Solar says she has no regrets in leaving fabric behind.

"No. This is much more fun. I can improvise with it," she says.


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