Since picking up a crochet hook in the 1980s, Harlem-based fiber artist and cultural activist Xenobia Bailey has created sculptural marvels in the unexpected medium of yarn, moving from works of wearable art to large-scale installations celebrating the uniquely African-American aesthetic of funk.
Now her first public-art commission, Funktional Vibrations, is on permanent view at the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s newest station, 34th Street-Hudson Yards on the 7 line, the system’s first new station in 26 years. The magnificent glass-mosaic rendering of her artwork, among the largest in the system, was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design to enhance the transit experience.
As riders descend by escalator into the station used by the No. 7 train, they are greeted by an explosion of vibrant color, “mandalas representing shooting stars and sun rays,” evoking the mystery of the cosmos, Bailey tells The Root. “It warms up all that concrete. Funktional Vibrations is an activator; it’s not only to be pretty but to inspire.”
It is fitting that an artist known for funky crowns would produce this milestone work, a recessed-ceiling dome crowning the station in celestial jubilation. The work was selected from among designs by more than 100 artists. "Xenobia’s genuine enthusiasm and down-to-earth qualities resonated with the panel, who loved her proposal,” said Lester Burg, senior manager for MTA Arts & Design.
Bailey praises the Miotto Mosaic Art Studios for faithfully fabricating her original crocheted pieces into enduring mosaic, capturing the textural quality of the looped yarns, no easy feat in cut glass. She is grateful that “they so fully expressed my vision.” Speaking from a studio in New Orleans, where she is artist-in-residence at the Joan Mitchell Center, she reflects on it all, buoyed by the magnitude and permanence of the project. She is moved by the positive response to the work, particularly that of a young boy last week at the station’s opening ceremony; he was taken with the installation. “His excitement excited me,” she says, beaming.
Raised in the Northwest by parents of modest means, Bailey embraced her mother’s impeccable aesthetic. It is the genesis of her body of work, a continuing homage to her mother and other unsung African-American homemakers. The care her mother took in transforming their humbly furnished home with second-hand textiles informs her art.
“She created a beautiful ambience with nothing,” Bailey remembers. “She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.”
This sense of beauty and uplift permeates Bailey’s work, rooted she says, in a decidedly African-American aesthetic. From the stench “of a legacy of trauma, came that funk,” she contends, “but we can make a joyful noise in that funk, too. From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”
Native American and Chinese communities present in her native Seattle influence her as well. Native American mandalas and Asian motifs surface in her work. “That's what’s so rich about the aesthetic of funk; you carry the visual legacy of the community that you come from,” she says.
With help from the Seattle Links, she attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., majoring first in sculpture—“I liked working in 3-D”—then in industrial design. “It was the 1970s, and I was so excited about being in New York. I had never been around that many black people before. I just got caught in the blackness of it all.”
Although she intended to design wooden furniture and toys after leaving Pratt, she found a more financially and logistically practical medium in crochet. “A brilliant needle artist, Bernadette Sonona, taught me how to do everything I now know how to do in one lesson. Once I learned, I switched from wood because yarn was accessible and affordable. All I needed was a crochet hook.” Applying her design training to working yarn, she became known for her remarkable, dimensional headpieces, garnering press in Elle, Essence and Interview magazines.
“Crochet works well for practicing my craft and developing the aesthetic. It is labor-intensive, but it becomes a meditation, like counting prayer beads,” Bailey says. Moving from crafting wearable adornments to creating cosmic installations, she was “able to start experimenting with cultural equity since skeins of yarn were inexpensive. It was easy to accumulate enough yarn to crochet a tent.” She conjured her own creation myth and muse in the mystical being of wizard/shaman Sistah Paradise.
She has been exploring ways to exalt the funk aesthetic, delving into various mediums, including printmaking; repurposing materials such as corrugated board, newspapers and plastic bottles to produce viable furnishings for the home; and creating synergistic teas and teacups for ceremonies of cultural ascension and healing for the community.
“There is a mysticism that surrounds our aesthetic,” she says. “It’s important for African Americans especially to have a place of being and sense of presence.” That rootedness can heal the body and the psyche, she asserts.