For fiber artist Pat Kroth, unraveling string, ribbon, veil and caution tape comes with the artistic territory.

But as COVID-19 spread last year, a lot more unraveled than just her fibers.

Kroth had been accepted into 20 juried art fairs last May through December, all of which were canceled. Likewise, many spring 2021 art events Kroth could have looked forward to have also already been canceled.

The long-time Verona resident said the pandemic has provided her a lot of contemplative time to work in her studio. But all of the free time is a “very mixed blessing,” Kroth told the Press

“I miss that personal connection talking to people about my work,” she admitted.

However, she recently had a solo exhibition at the Portage Center for the Arts for three weeks in January, and her work is in the “Remnants” exhibition at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg through late April.

Her works in those exhibits illustrate the diversity of what it means to be a fiber artist.

In works such as “Low Spark” and “Aurora Winds,” Kroth uses hand-dyed and commercial fabrics, creating quilts from collaged fragments composed in an improvisational, abstract way. From afar, they look like scribbles and strokes of paint in a rainbow of saturated colors – not cloth strips machine-stitched together.

Another piece, titled “Uncertain Times,” is also machine-stitched, but instead of fabric, it’s made of plastic caution tape, deer fencing, plastic bags and cording. The piece gets its moniker from one of the most overused phrases in 2020, Kroth said.

“Musing about the social, political and pandemic challenges of 2020 made me think about the borders and boundaries that we have all had to examine this year,” Kroth said of that piece. “Danger and caution tape are physical barriers that can keep us in or out, safe or in peril, part of society or outcast.”

Kroth has started work on several exhibits for 2022 that had been scheduled for 2020 or 2021. Those include a show in March 2022 at the David Strawn Gallery in Jacksonville, Illinois, and another exhibition in Cedarburg in April 2022.

At the few shows that opened during the pandemic, attendance was down, Kroth said. Only 20 or 30 people viewed the show at the Portage gallery over its three-week run, though it was also available to tour virtually.

Emerging into eco-art

Kroth has used nontraditional textile materials for quite a while, but an environmental theme in her works is becoming more apparent, she said.

“Plastique Fantastique,” her contribution to the “Remnants” exhibition in Cedarburg, is composed of machine-stitched layers of colored plastic shopping bags, bubble-wrap, plastic sheeting and threads. The exhibit explores the work of artists who recycle and repurpose materials.

Last March, Kroth had an installation at that museum created by collecting plastic materials and items for a year – such as water bottles, candy wrappers, grape bags and six-pack rings from soda cans. It was built in three dimensions so that people could walk through it.

Most of the materials came to her by chance, Kroth said – she said she doesn’t go looking through garbage cans – but people mail her items, and sometimes she places a bin in her driveway where neighbors donate debris.

Her work is making a “stronger statement about what we’re doing to the environment” and asking “some much broader and deeper questions,” she said.

Gaining recognition

In spring 2019, Kroth realized her dream of having her work hung in a major museum when her 2001 piece “Revisiting Jackson” was accepted into the permanent collection of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska — becoming one of over 80 award-winning quilts that have been acquired for the quilt national collection so far.

For that 9-by-5-foot piece, Kroth used tiny pieces of fabric, clothing, edges of old computer paper, paper clips and candy wrappers, then dumped a whole sewing machine drawer of threads, sequins and buttons onto it.

Working on a big piece like that took a lot of physical activity, energy and movement she said, as it took up the whole floor of her small studio – and it reminded her of how the artist Jackson Pollock worked.

It earned her an award for the “most innovative use of the medium.”

Kroth called fiber the “poor stepchild” of the art world, and said it is not usually seen in “respectable” art venues. She said she’s “jazzed and humbled” to see her work on display in an international museum.

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.