Cathy Breslaw's parents owned a chain of fabric stores when she was growing up. As a child, Breslaw spent much of her time in and around the stores, surrounded by the various fabrics. This experience turned out to be instrumental to her artistic development.
"Being around all the different fabrics was my first connection to art," Breslaw said. "It isn't art per se - it's fabrics - but it's art in the sense that it made me aware of color, texture, surface, pattern and even movement."
From wide-eyed daughter of fabric store owners to professional artist, Breslaw has come a long way.
"Illuminations," an exhibition of Breslaw's industrial mesh and mixed-media works, will be on display from May 18 to June 28 at the Gallery at Penn College. An opening reception will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. May 22. Breslaw will give a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m.
Given her family's background in the fabric business, you might assume that Breslaw's work - which employs a sheer, fibrous material - is made using fabric. It may look like fabric, but it's not. It's industrial mesh - a translucent, plastic material that often is used for commercial purposes. Although it's more likely to be found in the produce section of the local supermarket, industrial mesh is Breslaw's primary medium.
"It's similar to what you get your onions in at the supermarket - that stretchy net material - but this is a much finer mesh," Breslaw explained.
Breslaw started using industrial mesh after a trip to Taiwan and China, where she visited factories that produced the material. Industrial mesh was exactly what Breslaw was looking for.
"I wanted to start creating paintings without a surface so that they would just exist in and of themselves, without a support, without a canvas of any kind," Breslaw said. "I started looking for material that would allow me to suspend the paint and I found this particular material when I was in Taiwan. Later, I visited a factory in Shanghai and learned about the material. I saw how they make it, how they package it and so on."
Part of what attracted Breslaw to industrial mesh was its transparency, a quality she'd been experimenting with in her painting for several years.
"I've always enjoyed using watercolors and acrylic paints and things that are somewhat transparent, so when I found this material, I was immediately drawn to it," Breslaw said. "It sort of acts like paint in that you can layer it. I've manipulated the material to create different layers and thicknesses. I use it like a brush and embellish it in various ways."
Material attraction is a guiding principle in Breslaw's artistic process.
"I'd say materials motivate my work," Breslaw said. "I like the idea of using accessible materials that people are somewhat familiar with but haven't seen used in this particular way, or as a piece of art."
Breslaw said she tries to combine materials in exciting and unexpected ways.
"I'm always looking for unusual ways of using materials. At times I work with traditional mediums like markers, thread, embroidery or buttons, but you don't often find all of those together in a piece of art. I'm interested in creating art by using materials that are unexpected either in themselves or in combination with other materials."
Despite her deep interest in materials, Breslaw says materiality is only half of her artistic process.
The other half is conceptual. "I'm thinking about ideas when I make art," Breslaw said. "It's not just the material, it's also the ideas that interest me. Much of my work has to do with the transitory nature of life; the notion that life is fleeting."
Viewers of Breslaw's work can discern a direct link between the impermanence of existence and her floating, ethereal forms. They're like bubbles blown into the air by a child: lovely to behold while they're aloft, but fleeting and temporary.
This seems like an appropriate metaphor because much of Breslaw's art has a kind of airy lightness. Consider the titles she gives to her pieces: "Lightness of Being," "Feeling Light," "Energized," "Dancing Dreams," "A Heavenly Place" and "Blue Breeze." All of these works are part of "Illuminations."
Breslaw said she chose the name "Illuminations" to reflect her work's emphasis on light and space, but added that naming an exhibition always is difficult. "It's hard to take a body of work and figure out what you're going to call it," Breslaw said. "It's like if I asked you to describe yourself using one word. What would it be? It's complicated. You're trying to find a common denominator for all the different pieces while at the same time summarizing what you want people to get out of it. I called it 'Illuminations' because the works have to do with my thoughts on light, color and space."
Light is crucial to many of Breslaw's pieces, which cast shadows on the walls behind which they are hung.
"The wall pieces are hung on an aluminum rod that the viewer can't see," Breslaw said. "The pieces look like they're floating. They're hung about five inches away from the wall. When you put light on these pieces it creates shadows on the walls behind them. So that connects with the idea of light and 'illumination.' The shadows on the wall are as important to the work as the work itself."
Breslaw lives in Southern California, a region of prolonged sunlight and wide-open spaces, both of which have informed the artist's work.
"Light and space are two big parts of living in the West," Breslaw said. "On the East Coast everything is close together; areas are more dense with people and buildings. But out here, everything's very spread out. Even a large city like Los Angeles is sprawling. Living here has given me a sense of light and space that is very present in my art."
For more information about Breslaw and to see examples of her work, visit cathybres law.com.