Artist connects with late father through fiber art series

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 6, 2018

  Artist Jeanne Bieri — at her home in Grosse Pointe Farms — points out some of  the elements she incorporated into one  of her fiber artworks, “The Road In.”

Artist Jeanne Bieri — at her home in Grosse Pointe Farms — points out some of the elements she incorporated into one of her fiber artworks, “The Road In.”

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 This detail shot of portions of Jeanne Bieri's "Right Coast Left" shows some of the elements Bieri incorporated into the piece, including pieces of quilts.

This detail shot of portions of Jeanne Bieri's "Right Coast Left" shows some of the elements Bieri incorporated into the piece, including pieces of quilts.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — In artist Jeanne Bieri’s skilled hands, tattered blankets that might have been tossed in the trash build a connection to the past.

Bieri, of Grosse Pointe Farms, received a prestigious visual arts fellowship from Kresge Arts in Detroit for 2017-18 for her fiber artworks — battle-scarred army blankets that she lovingly repairs and re-envisions with bits of old quilts, her own felted wool and elaborate hand-stitching that serves a meditative purpose for the artist. In the process, she said she has made a deeper connection with her late father, a World War II veteran who became a dentist after the war.

“Without knowing why I was doing it, I had been collecting these blankets and mending them,” Bieri said. “I felt very compelled to mend them.”

The second-oldest in a family of three girls and one boy, Bieri, 68, grew up on a farm in the small Michigan town of Hastings, and became a third-grade teacher working at a two-room schoolhouse in Hopkins, Michigan. When she got married in 1972, she moved to the Detroit area, and she has lived in the Pointes for the last 46 years, including stints in Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe City.

As a child, Bieri never envisioned herself as an artist.

“I remember taking my first drawing class when I was 30,” she said. “I knew nothing about art. I grew up in a small town.”

But Bieri — who also worked as a bank teller — fell instantly in love with art.

“It was so empowering,” she recalled. “I just felt it was a gift.”

After earning a master of fine arts degree in painting from Wayne State University in 1993, Bieri taught classes in painting, drawing and design at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, WSU and Henry Ford Community College.

Bieri learned to sew from her mother; she said the family made their own clothes. Her stitches today are so perfectly rendered and uniform, some viewers assume they were made by a sewing machine.

“My sewing is a meditation,” she said. “It’s about the spaces (in) between.”

Bieri began making her army blanket fiber artworks over five years ago. She said she remembers taking these blankets on family camping trips.

“They were itchy, but I loved the color,” Bieri said. The older blankets, such as the WWII-era versions, were made of solid wool, but they got holes in them over time. While working on fiber art for an anti-war show, she said she began researching WWII experiences.

“I think I was trying to connect with my dad,” Bieri said.

Her father — who died about 12 years ago — had been a pilot aboard a B-26 in WW II. She said he rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but he and his co-pilot had befriended 18 orphans in France who were living in a basement. On the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, Bieri said her father returned to France and reunited with the orphans he had known as children.

She said she now recognizes the struggles her father faced returning home after experiencing the horrors of war.

“I really got in touch with my dad through this work,” said Bieri. “And my mom too. … I learned about my father as this tremendously disciplined person (who was) committed to this country.”

The Grosse Pointe Artists Association, of which Bieri has long been a member, honored her during a program last October at Services for Older Citizens in Grosse Pointe Farms.

During that program, Christina deRoos, director of Kresge Arts in Detroit, said Bieri was one of an estimated 550 to 600 artists who applied for a visual arts fellowship last year.

“In addition to the humanity that is there, there’s a space of joy,” deRoos said of Bieri’s fiber art. “I believe that these are some incredibly challenging times that we are living in. … To find joy, to find our (place) — these are radical acts (today).”

Bieri’s friends include some of metro Detroit’s leading artists. Linda Allen, of Grosse Pointe City, has known Bieri since both of their husbands were students at the Detroit College of Law in the 1970s. Today, both women have studios in the Pioneer Building in Detroit. Allen’s studio is directly above Bieri’s, and Allen said with a smile that she often drops notes or pieces of candy to her friend through a hole in the floor. She recalls when Bieri returned to school in the 1980s to study art.

“I was always blown away by how quickly she mastered any technique she tried,” Allen said.

Bieri’s art reflects its creator.

“She’s a deep thinker,” Allen said. “She asks questions of herself, which also makes us ask questions.”

Artist and GPAA Board member David Mikesell, of Grosse Pointe City, who called Bieri “a fantastic artist,” said Bieri helped him get a studio in the Pioneer Building 12 years ago. His studio is across the hall from Bieri’s.

“She’s a great pal,” Mikesell said. “She trades artwork with me, and I always get the best part of the deal.”

Nobuko Yamasaki, of Grosse Pointe Shores, an art educator and member of the GPAA, said she’s long been impressed by Bieri’s work as well.

“It’s beautiful,” Yamasaki said. “I love it.”

Bieri has earned a number of awards for her art, including several gold medals from the Scarab Club in Detroit. While the Kresge honor is for her series of fiber works, she’s also a painter and a mixed media artist.

“Jeanne has always (had) a really unique way of working,” said Pamela DeLaura, of Grosse Pointe Farms, an associate professor of printmaking at Wayne State University. “She is just growing and continues to have unique ways of creating her work.”

Royal Oak painter Claudia Shepard, who has known Bieri since the late 1970s, said she’s especially amazed by “the intricacies and the thoughtfulness and the dedication and the determination and the daily discipline” that mark Bieri’s work.

Bloomfield Hills artist Marcia Freedman, who has known Bieri since the late 1980s, agreed with Shepard.

“Everything has always been conceptually meaningful,” Friedman said of Bieri’s art.

She added that Bieri has a great work ethic, but she balances that well with her relationships.

“She works incessantly,” Friedman said. “She works wherever she’s at. And she’s a great friend. She’s a great mother. She’s a great grandmother.”

Bieri has her own concepts behind each piece, but she doesn’t impose those on viewers.

“I never want to be obvious about things,” she said. “I want people to respond with their own ideas.”

Bieri’s works can be seen in the exhibition, “Chasing the Running Stitch,” on view through March 3 at the Charlevoix Circle of the Arts in Charlevoix. At press time, she was slated to be featured in a one-woman show this spring at the Scarab Club, located behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. For more information, visit www.jeannebieri.com.