The blank wall that spurred Shaylee Southerland’s first foray into the realm of fiber art in 2018 did not, at the time, seem like a life-changing opportunity. Rather, its presence in her Dallas home’s dining room proved confounding. “I didn’t have anything to fill it with and wanted something not typically seen,” she recalls. In search of a solution, she gravitated toward woven tapestries. “I loved how they have characteristics of a painting but are artworks you can touch,” she says. “I’ve always been creative and enjoy working with my hands, so I thought, ‘What if I tried to weave something myself?’ ”
Beginning with a small loom handmade with help from her father, Southerland went on to master basic weaving techniques, employing them to create one-of-a-kind works. Her now-signature approach prioritizes texture and dimension over planning—although her technique requires a significant amount of precision. Instead of closely following a preordained design, she typically takes inspiration from the fibers themselves—wool roving, cotton cord and rope, core-spun alpaca yarn, chiffon, sari silk and linen, all in varying weights, thicknesses and colors. She stretches, knots, plaits or twists them to create lavish textures. Then, working with a double-warped loom—which provides the necessary structure for her flowing forms—she extemporaneously weaves the fibers over and under the vertical warp threads. Tamping some down tightly, she allows others to stand out in billowy bits or plush tangles and tufts. “I want that texture to provide enough visual interest so that a viewer can walk up to a piece at least 20 times and always see something new,” the artist explains.
The colorful forms defining many of her large-scale statement pieces now take shape on another handmade loom that can accommodate 6-by-8-foot tapestries. Oftentimes, they are abstractions of landscapes captured by Southerland’s father, a photographer, and by commissioning clients from across the country ranging from homeowners to interior designers and art consultants. When designing for herself, though, she is driven by a spirit of innovation. “I love the challenge of creating appealing works with a neutral palette,” the artist says, “and I’d like to experiment with mixed media, organically shaped frames, and with spinning and dyeing my own fibers.”
However, Southerland is in no rush. “This journey I’m on has been as organic as the pieces I make,” she says. “In art and in life, things have just happened as they’ve happened—and in the end, it all comes together.”