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Sandra Shamis

I have always been interested in form and line. For many years my sister and I took Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. The zenith was the design courses; looking at antique textiles, and trying to "deconstruct" them. The nadir was my six feet "earth mother" sculpture. My father had to put it in the back seat with the head out one window, and the feet sticking out the other. On the way home, huge chunks of plaster of paris started falling out on the Outer Drive, leaving only a wire skeleton. My family urged me to seek other avenues of expression.

I am a psycho-linguist by training and inclination. My dissertation was on verbal behavior in schizophrenia; in the intervening years I have focused on cross-cultural psychosis, and childhood dysfunction.

I have always been drawn to women's work, and by the 70's I had began collecting textiles, mostly Mezo-American, and Indonesian. When the Vietnam War ended, and the influx of Laotians and Cambodians began, I started working with the women to focus on using their traditional skills to create crafts which would provide a source of income until their more complete integration into American culture. I believe in women working together to create not only traditional textiles, but acculturated items as well. I do not see this endeavor as debasement or defilement of pure cultural items. I served as Vice-President of the Laotian Handicraft Center almost from its inception in 1981 until we left for Australia in 1991.

I also got married. My husband Christopher Court is a specialist in SEAsian languages. He wrote the only grammar of Mien, the section on the Mien for the Lonely Planet guide to Hilltribes of Thailand (ed. David Bradley), and wrote a bilingual dictionary of a Southern Thai dialect of Malay to Thai. He has taught Thai, Lao, Malay/Indonesian, and Khmer. And so it goes.

He has been instrumental in the development of our collection. Although it's me crawling into all those nooks and crannies, looking for the buried piece that caught my eye, it's his skills that have made much of it possible.

I have taken an academic approach to looking at textiles, searching for the latent meaning inherent in the pieces that please me on an aesthetic level as well. This is the result of both a feverish imagination and unbridled intellect.

Early on, I decided to focus our collection on two elements: the depiction of animals real and imagined; and the expression of Buddhistic concepts through the structure and techniques utilized in weaving. Also, except for a number of story cloths and other tribal pieces, our collection encompasses mostly textiles of the Tai world of Mainland SEAsia. Limiting the geographical and thematic boundaries of our textiles has been a useful approach for us.

Editor's note: Sandra Shamis has been a stalwart supporter of and contributor to the tribaltextile.info/community forum since she first discovered it back in mid 2002.

See a selection of textiles in Sandra Shamis' collection and a few photos from her research

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this page last updated 17 July, 2011