Syracuse artist’s monumental rugs on display at Schweinfurth

Fiber artist Ann Clarke of Syracuse creates monumental rugs that are inspired by caring for her 100-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Clarke is her sole source of support.

“Betty remains physically robust, but her mind is ravaged by dementia,” Clarke said. “For her, shifting shards of her life stick and unstick, fold and reform resulting in reconstructed narratives that both affirm and challenge my understandings.”

Her current work is “History Lessons,” a series of large-scale rugs that she knits in sections that are sew together by hand and then processed in her washing machine. Pieces from that series as well as her “Portal” and “Forms” series will be on display beginning Oct. 15 at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn. The exhibit, “Lessons of Empathy in Wonderland,” will run through Jan. 10, 2021.

Clarke began making the huge pieces 2½ years ago as a challenge to see how large she could make rugs in her home studio, using a standard home washing machine. The answer is enormous, with one rug measuring 13 feet long, and time-consuming. Some pieces easily take eight weeks of a full 40-hour workweek.

“By working bigger, I had to slow down to make different choices and plan ahead,” she said. “They take a lot of time and if I rush, I make mistakes. Which is hard for me, to slow down.”

Mother and Child

The pieces incorporate images and text in layers that sometimes overlap each other. Clarke’s work reflects how she processes her mother’s disease “because it’s hard and complicated. I have one piece called ‘Mother and Child’ where I am both the mother and the child, and she is both the mother and the child.”

Why rugs? “The rugs are functional,” she said. “They are what I stand on.” It’s a way for Clarke to stay grounded when her mother believes that family members who have died are still alive. 

“In my caring for her, I had to let go of what I thought her insistence on what right was or my own insistence on what right was and to just go with it,” Clarke said. “So if she believes that her mother is still alive, insisting that her mother is not still alive is not a productive trajectory to take, because she would be upset.”

Clarke likes the physicality and functionality of her pieces. She doesn’t mind if people who purchase her rugs hang them on the wall as art or put them on the floor to use as rugs. “In this series about my mother, there’s a component of work: how the piece works, how I work, and how I’m working with her,” she said.

“Lessons of Empathy in Wonderland” also includes pieces from Clarke’s “Portal” series. Each one is a large tufted close-up of someone’s eye, which seem to stare at the viewer as the pieces hang on the wall. Each brightly colored eye evokes a different age: Some look young while others use different colors to resemble wrinkles. All of them extend outward from the wall like round pillows, giving depth to the artwork.

“Eye portals are a reflective look at the past and how it informs us of the present,” Clarke said. “The exaggerated scale of these eye portals, which dome and protrude from the wall, are like eyes in the past breaking through the wall, or one’s past peering into the present as thoughts made manifest.”

These pieces also come from Clarke’s experiences of caring for her mother.

“Talking to her, she will believe that her brother has just come in or other people have come back to life,” she said. “So for me, it started to feel almost like a portal in a weird submarine where the lens of a window amplifies something. It feels like these people sort of peeping into my life and my mother’s life.”

Clarke’s “Forms” installation consists of several tufted pieces of different shapes arranged on the floor in the center of the Schweinfurth’s Davis Family Gallery. Some look like moss-covered rocks while others look like slugs moving on the floor. Scattered amid them are some smaller eye portals.

“They are playful, touchable, and still idea-based,” she said. “So much of this work is about the relativity of time and experience while still being grounded in lived experiences.”

The deeply personal exhibition complements “Quilts=Art=Quilts 2020,” a juried exhibit of art quilts also on display from Oct. 15, 2020, through Jan. 10, 2021. Many of the quilts in that juried show draw on deeply personal experiences, including one that incorporates drawings from a sister-in-law who suffers from mental challenges after a group of teens hung her from a swing set as a 3-year-old.

The Schweinfurth Art Center will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, with the first hour on Sundays reserved for members who make reservations in advance. For more information about the exhibits, link to our website at

The Schweinfurth Art Center’s programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

If you go …
What: “Lessons of Empathy in Wonderland” exhibition
Who: Fiber artist Ann Clarke of Syracuse
When: Oct. 15, 2020, to Jan. 10, 2021
Where: Schweinfurth Art Center, 205 Genesee St. Auburn, NY
Details: Solo exhibition of large knitted rugs, eye portals, and tufted forms that complements concurrent exhibit “Quilts=Arts=Quilts”
Admission: $10 per person; free for members, exhibiting artists, and children 12 and under