Sheila Hicks : ‘Off Grid’ – Exhibition Review

Sheila Hicks in front of Nowhere to Go, 2022 installed at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Joanne Crawford / Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield

A frieze of large, irregular discs, wrapped around and around with multi-coloured yarn, is mounted at the top of the landing at The Hepworth Gallery. These vibrant shapes are a preview of what is to come in ‘Off Grid’, a glorious exhibition covering the career of pioneering American artist Sheila Hicks.

Ropes of yarn that cascade from ceiling to floor are simultaneously fluid and solid; like waterfalls and architectural columns. They connect the space so that you as the viewer flow around them, discovering the breadth of Hicks’ work. Textiles have been her media since her travels through Latin America in the 1950s, and this exhibition shows the diversity of her output, in terms of scale, colours, textures and techniques.

Hicks gathered ideas and influences through working with people across the world, learning and sharing weaving techniques, often working in partnership. Similarly, this exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield is another collaboration, with many works created specifically for the Hepworth’s galleries. One of the most spectacular is Nowhere to Go (2022), where fabric in shades of blue has been massed together in nets to create boulders, forming an avalanche in a corner of one room. The urge to jump into these soft boulders, or plunge your hands into the sculptures are very strong, so the ‘Do not touch’ signs throughout the exhibition are understandable!

Installation of Sheila Hicks: Off Grid at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2022. Art works L-R: Peace Barrier, 2018; Ripe Rip, 2019; Nowhere To Go, 2022. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield

The monumental sculptures are complemented by smaller, pocket-sized ‘minimes’, created throughout Hicks’ career. They share the space easily with the gigantic sculptures, and are spread throughout the galleries.

These miniature woven pieces were often experiments or sketches, made on the move on a small portable loom, but are complete artworks in their own right. For example, Phare de Nuit (1978) is a series inspired by the lighthouses that she watched while on the French island of Ouessant. These are some of the most representational works in the exhibition, echoing the tall shapes of the lighthouse towers.

Footprints is perhaps the ultimate collaboration, consisting of the heavily darned linen socks that Parisian Carmelite nuns wore – and repaired – to cushion their feet in wooden clogs. These were gifted to Hicks when the nuns learned of her interest in ‘thread writing’. They now speak to our contemporary interest in sustainable clothing, and are authentic examples of the craft of visible mending.

Installation of Sheila Hicks: Off Grid at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2022. VARMAYANA (The Place of Shining Light), 2018. Commissioned by Collection Garance Primat. Courtesy the artist and galerie frank elbaz, Paris. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield

Without using text, Hicks combines the act of writing with textiles. In Calligraphy Sauvages (2019), she creates patterns of twisting cords that mimic the flowing shapes of calligraphy, reaching for their own language.

As I moved around this exhibition, I found it difficult to tell which pieces were older and which had been made in recent years, showing how consistently strong Hicks’ work has been. Like the woven threads of her minimes, prayer mats or wall hangings, or the lines of darning in the nun’s socks, there is a pleasing connectivity across the years.

Off Grid evokes other happy connections and resonances, and some of these are close to home. The shaggy surface of Entrance to the Forest (1972) is like a long-coated fleece from a rugged Swaledale herd. The wrapped ‘ponytails’ of linen in Banisteriopsis II (1965-6/2010) are a stack of new broom heads. Familiar sewing box items such as fabric-covered buttons and skeins of embroidery thread have been enlarged a hundred times over in Varmayana (The Place of Shining Light) (2018) and Lianes Nantaises (1973).

6 / 11 Installation of Sheila Hicks: Off Grid at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2022. Art works L-R: Entrance to the Forest, 1972; Lianes Nantaises, 1973; Moroccan Prayer Rug / Nejjai, 1972. Photo: Tom Bird / Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield

Shredded strips of nurses’ uniforms, dyed in shades of pink and orange then heaped on the floor, form the large installation Wow Bush / Turmoil in Full Bloom (1977-87). It’s not much of a leap to think of these as piles of rags awaiting recycling as part of the manufacture of shoddy. This process of making new fabric from reclaimed fibres was an important branch of the textile industries of West Yorkshire, and particularly dominant in Ossett in the Wakefield district.

This installation is found in a section of the exhibition called Material Narratives. This area stands apart from the rest of the show with artworks made from repurposed found materials, including clothing, and other fabrics worn close to the body. Made in the late 1970s, these sculptures were often collaborations with communities and institutions, and deal with issues of healing and care.

While drawing on influences from around the globe, Hicks’ work is so relevant here in Wakefield. Not just for its echoes of the region’s textile industries, but for Yorkshire’s celebration and appreciation of sculpture in all its forms. Off Grid is, in fact, well-connected and ideally placed at the Hepworth.


Off Grid‘ is showing util 25 September 2022, so to see Shiela’s wonderful work in person head to The Hepworth Wakefield. Tickets are £12 for adults and £10 for students/concessions. Click here for full details.