Marianne Fairbanks took a look around the UW-Madison studio where she teaches weaving — a classroom filled with large, wooden floor looms that some might describe as “quaint” — and came up with another idea.

She bought a used floor loom herself, then commissioned an artist to paint it in a “futuristic” style.

“So that it’s not so grounded in the past,” she explained.

“I’m so interested in getting my students to think into the future, and what new technology’s available. I’m excited to sort of switch that up and think of (the loom) as a totally different tool.”

Moving textiles into the future is a constant theme in Fairbanks’ work — from explorations in color theory to creating cloth with the potential to harvest energy from the sun. Many of her evolving ideas will be on display in “Marianne Fairbanks: Impractical Weaving Suggestions,” an exhibition opening Friday at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery.

Fairbanks’ work will join that of Kevin Ponto, a fellow assistant professor of design studies, in side-by-side shows at the gallery through Feb. 21. Ponto, who is designing an exhibition billed as stretching “between the boundaries of the digital and physical worlds,” titled his interactive installation “Protean Guise,” but didn’t want to disclose details until the show opens.

Fairbanks is not only preparing for the gallery show. She also is filing for a patent with UW-Madison assistant professor of chemistry Trisha Andrew.

The two women are working to develop ways to weave and coat different fibers to increase their conductivity. The technology, if successful, could lead to solar textiles, in which the printed or woven pattern of the fabric harvests sunlight.

Much implementation today relies on patching solar panels into something else, which “is a very clunky way to go forward, because you lose the flow and the mechanical properties and aesthetics of the fabric that you started out with,” Andrew explained.

By contrast, “What we’re doing is basically using the fabric as the bottom substrate on to which the solar cell is grown,” she said. “We’re effectively putting on a series of nano-scale coatings that enable the fabric to harvest sunlight.”

The two women began working together after Fairbanks arrived at UW-Madison to teach in 2014. More than a decade earlier, Fairbanks had co-founded a company incorporating flexible solar panels into high-end handbags, so users could charge electronics on the go.

That effort ended. But once she arrived on campus for her new job, Fairbanks started searching online for faculty doing interesting research in solar energy. Andrew’s name came up.

The two women hit it off at their first meeting. Andrew already had worked with coating paper with solar cells, but Fairbanks’ textile and art background presented new possibilities. The textile artist introduced the chemist and her research assistant, graduate student Lushuai Zhang, to a wide range of textile fibers to experiment with.

The project “has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Andrew, 30. When Fairbanks cold-called her, “I was in my own kind of personal stagnation. Paper solar cells as far as I was concerned was something cutesy, to show proof of concept. …But honestly, it’s not very useful. So I was kind of at an impasse at how to make this a really useful and transformative technology. When she proposed the idea of fabric, this light went off in my head.”

Their research is in the early stages and widespread application would take at least a decade, Andrew said.

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But because fabrics can be rapidly mass-produced, once solar textiles are a reality, “that would revolutionize the industry,” she said.

“What about an umbrella? What about a tent?,” said Fairbanks. “An umbrella could shade you, and passively be collecting the sun, and then you plug in your device, or you charge your generator — something like this.”

“In my design and art imagination, I like to think about the end outcome,” she said. “But I’m excited for people if we can get this to work to embed it into their products that they already manufacture. I can’t help but think of refugee tents, which are made of something portable and pliable. They have to be deployed easily, and textiles are always at the core of these portable, nomadic shelters. Something like that would be amazing.”

Born in Holland, Michigan, Fairbanks studied art as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. After studying in Kyoto, Japan, and traveling in southern Africa, she earned her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was invited to teach there for the next 13 years.

In Chicago, she was a member of the two-person art group JAM and helped run an experimental cultural center called Mess Hall. Today, she lives on Madison’s Near West Side with her husband Anthony Burton, a software trainer at Epic Systems Corp., and their two young daughters.

Fairbanks, 40, likes to experiment both with hand looms and digital looms, sometimes using high-tech fibers such as reflective safety tape or neon-colored flagging tape she finds in a hardware store.

She’s also fascinated by the relationship between weaving and math — one of the concepts she’ll explore in her upcoming show at the Design Gallery.

The notation used in weaving, called “drafting,” is much like the computer programming language based in zeros and ones, she points out.

“When you’re drafting a pattern, you use black and white squares to indicate whether the warp is up or down,” she said. “It’s a very zeros- and ones-based binary system of coding.”

The title of her upcoming show, “Impractical Weaving Suggestions,” came from turning another concept from the past on its head.

In her first days at UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology, Fairbanks stumbled upon a series of periodicals from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s titled “Practical Weaving Suggestions.” They were filled with instructions for homemakers interested in weaving placemats, curtains and other items for the home.

Fairbanks tried a few of the patterns, but immediately became bored because the instructions “were so prescribed,” she said. Still, the exercise made her think about the roots of weaving and how far the art form has come.

“For me — I’m trained as a fine artist, so while I know the history of fibers and textiles, this idea of weaving as a domestic craft is something that I’ve always recognized. And (I’ve) liked that history,” she said.

“But I look at these things that are called ‘practical’ and think, ‘Who could ever sit home and weave placemats for their family? Who could ever weave curtains?’ It’s coming out of such a different moment.”


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