On Friday, August 5, 378 Gallery in Candler Park was abuzz with artists and art-lovers as they mingled and chatted with one another. I pulled to the curb just down the street, stepping out into balmy weather following the evening’s brief downpour. Navigating around puddles I made my way through the doors of 378 Gallery. Inside, the Material is the Message art show showcases a variety of works by local fiber artists. I navigated around the space, taking in the details of the quilts, flags, cloth books, stuffed figures, and the large figure reclining in a clawfoot tub in the middle of the space. 

“I really wanted to have a range of ages and styles, all focused on textiles,” explained curator Clare Butler. A fiber artist herself, she had several small works depicting a hand-stitched portrait of Stacey Abrams on display during the exhibition. She has known Tom Zarrilli, the owner of the gallery, for around 45 years and she handles the marketing and PR for the gallery. The Material is the Message represents the fourth show curated by Butler.

Zarrilli said he recently tallied up all of the artists who have shown there since they opened their doors in the summer of 2019. The count exceeded 300. “We have had so many great artists here … it is just amazing to see the quality of work that is submitted to us here,” said Butler.

“I’m an artist, I’ve been around for a while. A friend of mine owns this building and appointed me to run the gallery and event space downstairs,” Zarrilli said. Noting a wide variety of mediums, participating artists are almost exclusively local, many of whom are familiar with Zarrilli from his connections within the art scene.

Debra Baker Steinmann. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Debra Baker Steinmann, one of the show’s participating artists, has been a quilter her whole life. She learned from her grandmother and she says that her body of work is a mix between functional and purely artistic works. “A quilt is a gift, but it’s also a statement of love,” she explained. Indeed, one of Steinman’s most eye-catching pieces is a functional quilt that reads ‘All Y’all,’ sending a message of southern hospitality and welcoming. “I am stretching myself into more artistic pursuits because I’ve got all my family warm,” she said with a chuckle. “Now it’s more just what I want to do. I’m retired and I’m lucky to have an incredible stash of fabrics, so my supplies are at hand.” 

A quilt from Debra Baker Steinmann. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

A resident of Morningside, she works out of a guest room in her home. Calling her studio space “a mess, a rainbow mess,” she is able to pull from an extensive array of fabrics when she begins a new piece. “I’ve made a quilt for the South Fork Conservancy, I’ve done several quilts for Trees Atlanta that they have auctioned. I’m better at making a quilt than planting trees, so that’s kind of my way to contribute to the cause.”

She uses her artwork as a means of communicating not only her love but also her frustrations and disgust directed at political discourse. In one, a figure of a southern belle looks upon the United States Capitol building, on fire. Viewers can expect her pieces to evoke emotions such as anger and frustration, but also hope.

Deborah Lacativa. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Deborah Lacativa, an artist whose textile works are more closely related to contemporary paintings than traditional quilts, has developed a unique style of amorphous and organic forms in her artwork. A published author by day, she devotes herself to furthering her love of fiber arts during her downtime. “I do this in the other hours of the day,” she said. Some of Lacativa’s pieces are exclusively hand-stitched and she enjoys using materials that don’t hold up to utility. Vintage damask, silks, and hand dyeing give her more opportunity to push the limits of her work.

Detail of a piece by Deborah Lacativa. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

“I have a real problem… I always want to escape the grid. Warp and weft is like a jail cell to me, so I’m always looking to get away from the corners and angles and the boxes.” She hopes that viewers will ache to reach out and touch the works, though she doesn’t encourage it. “My grandmother put the hoop and needle in my hands so I would stop bothering her,” she recalled with a knowing smile. “I still have them.” For a time, Lacativa left behind her love of textile arts, but the speed of textile work, the adaptability of the medium, all continued to appeal to her. Back in 2000 when she worked as an overnight technician at AT&T she found that the quiet conference room was the perfect setting for her to begin working on these artistic textile pieces.

Terry Coffey and her plush assault rifles. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Terry Coffey, an enigmatic character in the gallery, has created equally enigmatic pieces on display at 378. As we spoke we were politely interrupted several times by visitors praising Coffey’s pieces, calling them ‘vibrant and fun.’ 

“I love novelty prints, I got into them during the pandemic when I started making masks, and I was drowning in all of these fabrics. I decided to start making small quilted compositions that gradually grew bigger and bigger.” Coffey has been involved in the art scene for the past several decades, but only recently has she felt the pull to exhibit her work publicly. She was a member of the Eyedrum board for several years and continues to be a familiar face at gallery openings. She also offers sewing lessons at her small neighborhood studio. 

Artwork from Terry Coffey. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

“I really like to find the liminal space between things that are provocative versus appealing. I like art that is powerful and has a message, but I have a really funky cartoon aesthetic, so there is kind of a weird crossover between those two worlds.”  

In addition to these sort of hanging textile flags, some of the most provocative pieces on display are Coffey’s plush assault rifles. Arranged next to rosary beads and hanging from the ceiling, these pieces are commentary and therapy for Coffey. After the Uvalde mass shooting event, Coffey found herself lost in grief. She decided to channel that into art, crafting these devastating weapons in fun and silly fabrics, asking the audience to rectify the juxtaposition between the two. 

“I think it creeps up on people when they are looking at those, what they really are about. I think it’s kind of effective as a therapy tool,” she explained. 

Also on display are works by Jessica Caldas, Adeline Barnett, Beth Ensign, Julie Fordham, Leisa Rich, and Elinor Saragoussi. The exhibit will be on display through August 27.

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Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.