Ones to Watch
This Woman’s Work
Chicago-based artist-designer Dee Clements makes humble materials say so much
As talented as Dee Clements is at making beautiful objects—and she certainly is—this Chicago-based artist-designer also excels at making things happen. She has throughout her two-decade-long practice continuously pushed herself to grow, expand her repertoire, and refine her voice, fueled by an outspoken commitment to progressive values.
The hard-won approach has paid off recently in a stream of gallery shows, media accolades, and opportunities to highlight a cause close to her heart: elevating the value of what has been traditionally thought of as women’s work.
From the beginning, Clements has been self-directed. Looking back on her early years in upstate New York, she recalls, “I didn’t grow up around art, but I always knew that’s what I wanted to do.” After high school, she put herself through college at Chicago’s Art Institute, where she explored painting, sculpture, and fiber arts. Like so many Chicago transplants, she fell in love with the city and stayed on to pursue a career in costuming for theater, film, and TV.
After a few years though, Clements grew increasingly perturbed by the environmental harms wrought by the textile industry and decided to change course. In 2011, she launched Studio Herron, a design and weaving studio specialized in sustainably crafted, vividly hued rugs, blankets, and more, catering to interior designers, private clients, and, eventually, national brands like CB2 and Land of Nod. Along the way, she traveled whenever she could to keep expanding her horizons, like a pilgrimage to Peru to see the human-made Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, handwoven by the Uros people using totora reeds.
Never complacent, Clements found herself reevaluating the direction of her thriving practice again around five years ago. She had come to view the US’s darkening political climate as a mandate to amplify her values, and, with her 40th birthday looming nearer, she wanted to explore new ways of expressing herself through her work. She decided to make time to dig deeper into materials, their meanings, and the patriarchal constructs that have devalued handcraft and women more broadly.
“After a certain age,” she says, “I started to feel like I want to explode—to be loud and take up space. Running my own business as a woman in a male-dominated field hasn’t been easy, and I got tired of trying to fit expectations. I wanted to push the artistic side of my work. I wanted to invest in myself.”
Clements made this investment by enrolling in Cranbrook Academy’s rigorous 3D Design program. The road to earning her MFA required countless four-and-a-half hour drives between the Michigan art and design school and her Chicago studio, which she continued to run with indispensable help from her studio manager, textile artist Aubrey Pittman-Heglund. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” Clements admits.
Clements worked across a variety of media and forms during her time at Cranbrook, but one line of research in particular would occupy an increasingly central role in her practice: basketry. While writing her thesis on paleolithic weaving traditions examined through the lenses of feminism, Marxism, and ethnography, she embarked on a still-growing body of work, sculptural vessels woven with reeds and dyed with natural pigments.
“The woven vessel pieces I started exploring at Cranbrook and continue to make post grad,” Clements would later share with her sizable IG following, “are part of a larger scope of work that visually examine women’s roles in craft and their unseen labor. The vessels are metaphors for what women hold, and how their roles in society relegate them to certain crafts that have historically been done in tandem with child rearing. Bright color palettes highlighting matronly curves… Time and skills are money, but not all are valued the same.”
Clements’ graduation from Cranbrook coincided with the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, which precluded an in-person graduation show, but the profile of her new work began to spike that fall after she participated in Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival and a small but wave-making group show in Detroit called Never Normal. Every year since for Clements has been busier than the last.
While tackling major commissions from interior designers, like the epic set of tapestries she made for Signal House in DC in 2021, Clements continued to evolve her reed weaving, experimenting with form, construction, dyes, and painterly surface treatments. She soon recognized that this labor-intensive, narrative-driven body of work needed gallery representation to find the right audience—a collectible design audience.
With a recommendation from Lora Appleton of the Female Design Council, Clements emailed her portfolio to Laura Young of The Future Perfect in NYC and LA. Within a matter of months, Clements had her first show at Casa Perfect, followed a few months later with a presentation in The Future Perfect’s booth at Design Miami/ 2022.
“I have a major love of basketry and color,” Young says when asked what initially drew her to Clements’ work. “When we first met, I encouraged her to feel freer, to be sculptural, and work larger. We had one great zoom call, and we were in it for life.”
Young adds, “The story her work tells about basketry being a craft that goes back to the earliest part of every culture worldwide—as a woman's craft—lends a female energy that I think is important. And I just love the airiness and color choices she makes.”
Three months into 2023, Clements is looking down the barrel of a jam-packed year, anticipating that she will have to work “eight days a week” to keep up. Beyond earning a coveted spot on SightUnseen’s annual American Hot List for a second time, she currently has two shows installed in two cities: In the Presence of: Ellen Siebers, Dee Clements, and Kathranne Knight at SEPTEMBER in Kinderhook and Dee Clements: Chthulucene at 65GRAND in Chicago. In June, she’ll be running a weeklong workshop at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen as well as opening yet another show, her debut at Nina Johnson’s gallery in Miami.
“It’s incredible,” Johnson recounts, “but Dee actually sent her work to me via email; we had never met before! I was incredibly taken with the ambitious scale of the works and how expressive her weaving is.”
Kristen Dodge of SEPTEMBER shares a similar appreciation for the way Clements can say so much with such humble materials. “Dee's forms are full of humanity—breaking open, leaning, resting, reaching all at once,” she says. “Her receptivity to material, allowing it to lead rather than fighting it into shape, is an apt metaphor for life and results in surprising and joyful works.”
When asked how she manages to stay grounded with so much on her plate, Clements cites her love of audiobooks, reading about hegemony, her newfound appreciation for Taylor Swift, and her adorable friend, Frieda, recently adopted through, as she amusingly puts it, “dog tinder, aka Petfinder.”
Staying grounded though, for Clements, is less important than forward momentum, continuously growing and improving. She’s already setting her sights on what she could make happen next—envisioning “wild” works that “intervene on architecture,” projects that “come off the wall and into the space” and integrate all of her favorite forms of expression at once: weaving, sculpting, painting, and drawing. Maybe even a museum show someday.
“I have more ideas than time and space,” Clements sighs. In the meantime, she concludes,“All I know to do is just make the work.” ◆