Review of "Digitized Notions" at Ulrich Art Museum. Wichita, KS
October 12, 2003
The Wichita Eagle
"Spinning art with spools of thread Devorah Sperber challenges perceptions of reality by making huge pictures out of spools of colored sewing thread."
by Chris Shull
Devorah Sperber creates wall-sized pictures using spools of thread as points of color. The effect is not unlike standing close to an Impressionist painting, where all you can see are random splotches of bright paint.

Only when you step back a few feet will the picture emerge -- of a garden or water lilies or a haystack.

Sperber adds a couple of twists to this optical puzzle. In the gallery at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, where two of her thread spool pictures are currently installed, viewers cannot step back far enough for the image to appear.

So Sperber mounted tiny convex mirrors on the wall opposite the spool picture "Virtual Environment 1." She's pointed a pair of reversed binoculars at "Reflections on a Lake," installed on another wall.

Look into the mirrors or through the reversed binoculars and the picture becomes smaller and snaps into focus.

"I'm shifting the scale ever so slightly and you are having two distinct realities," Sperber explained during a gallery tour on Thursday.

Her exhibit, "Devorah Sperber's Digitized Notions," is about creating a new perception of reality.

One view is of the spools of pretty thread stacked on plastic tubing. They are "interesting and beautiful to look at in and of themselves," Sperber said. "Viewers are drawn to the color. You can appreciate the material for its innate characteristics and its beauty. It feels complete in and of itself."

Another view is created by looking into the mirror or binoculars and seeing that collection of spools become a picture of a lake or a wall of polished stones.

"Both are reality," Sperber said. "It shows just how limited our visual perception is. There are layers and layers and layers of reality beyond our perception."

Sperber got the idea of using spools of thread to make art in 1999 after seeing paintings by Chuck Close at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Close is famous for large portraits which are created by painting a grid of hundreds of small color-filled squares.

Sperber fed an image of a lake into her computer, then blew it up 1600 percent so that the image became a series of tiny, separate blocks of color, or pixels.

She then matched each of those pixels to a shade of sewing thread made by the Coats & Clark company, ordered 5,760 spools in the various shades, and then strung them on plastic tubing to recreate the original picture.

She discovered the reverse binoculars reduced the scale of the 6-foot by 10-foot curtain of spools when she was trying to determine if she had strung the colors in the right order. Just like the gallery at the Ulrich, her New York studio was confined; she could not get far enough away to let the picture come into focus.

"I couldn't tell if it was working and this was the first piece, so I was getting a little concerned," Sperber said. "Did I now own 5,760 spools of thread that I should now be selling at the flea market? And there was a pair of binoculars in the studio and I picked them up and flipped them around just to see if I could see, and I literally went, 'Wow!'

"It was a whole 'Ah-ha!' moment of how scale can be used to create this dramatic experience."

Sperber now uses a computer to help match the color pixels to the corresponding color thread. She also tweaks the program to create a more vibrant visual experience.

"I actually force it to give me these weird hues," Sperber said. "The computer could actually spit this out as pure earthtones, but I find it much more interesting to have these bizarre, unnatural colors in there that then disappear once you look back into the mirrors."

Sperber sees why people compare the effect of her spool art to that generated when looking at Impressionist paintings.

"But this is kind of the reversal of that," Sperber said. "(Here) you are forced first (to be) too close. With the Impressionists -- or with Chuck Close -- you see it first from a distance and you slowly walk in and the whole thing dissipates in a very gradual way. With this, because the units are so big -- the pixels -- you are forced up close first.

"We are used to perceiving the world around us from a distance and then moving in. Here everything is reversed; nothing can be taken for granted."

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