There’s a dress in Celeste Malvar-Stewart’s new collection that she calls “Runway.” Made of hand-felted alpaca wool layered over silk gauze, bound in a process called nuno felting, the bodice of the dress features diagonal paths cut into the fabric, suggesting airstrips. When it’s finished, the designer says, it will include embroidered stitches along those tracks, suggesting landing lights.
For Malvar-Stewart, the tracks are a compelling image but also a metaphor. She landed in the United States for the first time at the age of 3 from her native Philippines and spent hundreds of hours gazing at the Ohio landscape from the cockpit of a four-seat Piper with her husband in charge. “It’s really difficult, if you’re not a pilot, to recognize a small airport with a small runway,” she said. “It made me think how hard it is for us to recognize our own places in our lives where we need to land, where we feel grounded. Or where we want to take off from, sometimes, right?”
Her new collection of dresses and textile art, on display at the McConnell Arts Center from May 19 to July 7, is titled Artificial horizon. It is the name of an instrument on an aircraft’s control panel that informs the pilot of the aircraft’s relationship to the earth. This self-calibration is a concept that Malvar-Stewart finds compelling.
“It inspired me to create these pieces that question our personal horizons,” she says. “To what extent is a particular horizon real or artificial for us?
The exhibit coincides with the premiere of a Malvar-Stewart documentary, “Every Fiber,” by Thomas Sawyer, who first visited Malvar-Stewart’s studio while making a video about Ohio alpacas. . To complete the new film, which follows the designer through the process of creating a couture collection for a runway show, the documentarian has moved to Columbus from Cleveland. “It was a powerful and profound process,” says Sawyer. There will be a screening at the MAC on May 20 and the film will then be available online.
The works in Artificial horizonas much art as it is fashion, will include a textile depiction of Central Ohioan Jerrie Mock’s flight plan, the first woman to fly solo around the world, as well as recorded interviews with Malvar-Stewart’s husband and cousin, also pilot, on the flights depicted in the work.
And, of course, dresses. Vaporous, earthy, ethereal and long-lasting dresses.
Sustainability, locality and connection are themes in everything this artist/designer does. Malvar-Stewart knows (and often speaks affectionately) the names of the individual animals whose fleece she spins and felts into clothes. She constructs tapestries from deconstructed jeans, unraveling and felting fabric and even gold thread. Everything is biodegradable – no snaps, plastic buttons or zippers. His Livingston Avenue studio is stuffed with sacks of wool, bowls of silkworm cocoons, donated jeans and dye ingredients, from coreopsis and Hopi black-dyed sunflowers to turmeric and black walnut.
Returning to horizons, Malvar-Stewart thinks of his own. “I kind of see the earth as my values, and then this idea of the artificial horizon instrument telling me where I am in relation to my values,” she says. “As I get older, … I really watch my personal instrument more closely.”
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Monthly Columbus.