Community Spotlight—Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh
The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer
Fiber Arts exhibition by Turkish and Ukrainian Immigrants to Open October 3
The Pittsburgh region is no stranger to the immigrant story. For nearly two hundred years, the draw of employment in industry steadily brought people from around the world to the city and surrounding townships, forging communities linked by culture. Now, as it was then, after those communities are rooted, they continue to foster recent arrivals to the region in a variety of ways.
With the help of Pittsburgh’s community organizations, the immigrant story continues. Brought about by a partnership between a resettlement organization and a regional arts organization, a showcase of the vibrancy of immigrant culture will soon be on display at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s (CLP) main branch in Oakland.
Funded by the Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant Program and Awesome Pittsburgh, Cultural Mosaic: Textile Work by Turkish & Ukrainian Immigrants to Pittsburgh will feature rug punch textiles, embroidered jewelry, and other fiber arts created by Turkish and Ukrainian support groups. The display will be open to the public at CLP through the end of October, and will then move on to a showing at Studio Forget-Me-Not in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
A Partnership is Forged
In 2018, the Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) Refugee and Immigrant Services team created a Turkish support group and soon discovered that some of the women loved to knit and embroider and that others were very eager to learn. JFCS connected with the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, who began to teach knitting and embroidery and provided materials for embroidered jewelry. The Turkish support group began selling their wares at craft festivals and eventually went on to establish their own Etsy business, Kardelens Fiber Arts.
Susan Swarthout, a long-time member of the Fiberarts Guild, was named head of the guild’s outreach committee around the same time, and she was excited to see the relationship between JFCS, the Turkish support group, and the guild come together. The Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh had just wrapped up two large-scale community projects, Knit the Bridge and Pop des Fleurs, and were looking forward to another initiative that would showcase fiber arts—fine art whose material consists of natural or synthetic fiber and other components, such as fabric or yarn—while bringing together the larger community.
“A group of us got together to decide—what did we want to do?” Swarthout explains. “One of our members had a contact with the JFCS. When they get a lot of newcomers, they will reach out to them and put together a support group that’s headed by someone from their community. And it’s for social and emotional support. What we offered is what we believe that the arts do offer, which is the comfort and companionship and creativity and mental health benefits of working in an art form.”
An Exhibition is Created
Working with the Turkish group was such an enriching experience that the outreach committee jumped at the chance for a similar connection in the fall of 2022 with a newly formed Ukrainian support group. Their first project was supporting the women in making caps and balaclavas for Ukrainian solders.
In 2022, Kirsten Ervin, a Fiberarts Guild member who has spent the last ten years focused on learning, making, and teaching traditional rug-making techniques, gave a tour of the Fiber Art International Exhibit on display at Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh to the Kardelens Fiber Arts Turkish artisans. Members of Kardelens Fiber Arts expressed interest in the hooked rug on display, expressing that rugs held so much importance in their culture. The technique was also of interest to the Ukrainian group as well.
In early 2023, the Fiberarts Guild applied for and received funding that allowed Ervin and fellow guild member Linda Brown to teach the groups the technique of rug punch in a series of workshops. The technique is being used by both groups to further express their old and new cultures through fiber arts. The products from these workshops will be the displays at the Cultural Mosaic show.
“What’s beautiful about this project is how many different partners and people have been involved: Contemporary Craft, The Fiberarts Guild, Rivers of Steel, Awesome Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Lebanon, Kardelens Fiber Arts, the Ukrainian Support Group. Local Pittsburghers who have donated bags of yarn and volunteer hours. It is truly a community effort,” says Ervin. “And this project has ignited creativity and passion in these women, who have big plans for future entrepreneurial work. Kardelens Fiber Arts are busy creating their first punch rug upholstered footstool, which they plan many more of. The Ukrainian makers are investigating selling work at local markets. The project has a future.”
Swarthout notes that the Fiberarts Guild has a longstanding mission of community engagement through the arts. “Outreach has been a whole bunch of different things over the years. It has been as simple as going out and doing a class in a school where we taught students how to sew or weave or knit or any of the fiber arts, or it has been as all-encompassing and huge as Knit the Bridge.”
This particular project spans across cultures and communities, bridging refugees’ home countries and the environment they now call home.
In the words of Kardelens’ group coordinator Serap Uzunoglu, “Through our art projects we became aware that we can have a place in the community and we gained our self-confidence again, like we had in our country. We hope to support other newcomers as we have been supported by the Pittsburgh community.”
The Carnegie Library Show at the Main Branch will begin on October 3and run throughout the month of October. There will be a reception with the artists on the afternoon of Saturday, October 28.
The exhibition at Studio Forget-Me-Not in Carnegie will open on Saturday, November 25, with a reception from 12–5 and will run throughout December; everything will be on sale here including pillows, bags, and fiber jewelry, all created by the women involved in the project.
About the Mini-Grant Program
Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.
Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.
If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read about Grow Pittsburgh’s summer program.