State Dept Spent $185,000 for One Piece of ‘Fiber’ Artwork

Embassy in Pakistan decorated with 98 balls of thread

'Lares and Penates' (detail) by Sheila Hicks / Altoon Sultan
August 3, 2016

The State Department doled out six figures for one piece of art made out of balls of thread, to be displayed in an embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Government spending on lavish art has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after a report revealed the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $20 million on artwork while veterans died waiting to see doctors.

The VA is not alone in purchasing pricey art on the taxpayers’ dime. The State Department spent $185,000 for "Lares and Penates," a 9.5 foot by 9.5 foot fiber installation by Sheila Hicks, according to a government contract signed in April.

The piece is made up of 98 balls of thread.

"Rather than a sense of constriction, the various sized pieces are like precious small gifts, hiding happy mysteries," writes the art blog "Studio and Garden." "Lares and Penates are Roman deities who protected the household. We might see these small pieces as votive objects, made with a kind of prayerful attention in the repetitive motions of wrapping."

The piece was purchased for the New Embassy Compound in Islamabad, which was completed last summer. The $699 million embassy was built using "green construction techniques," uses low-flow faucets, and is "fully compliant" with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Another Sheila Hicks yarn installation / John Lord
Another Sheila Hicks yarn installation / John Lord

"The entire building was designed to maximize natural light and minimize the use of electricity throughout the day," said Ambassador David Hale during the dedication ceremony for the building.

The embassy’s interest in artwork is not new. Paintings by local Pakistani artist Raja Changez were displayed during its dedication.

Hicks is a contemporary fiber artist from Hastings, Nebraska. She now splits time between Paris and New York. Hicks has work displayed in museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Seoul Art Center in Korea.

"Pioneering fiber artist Sheila Hicks blurs the boundary between painting and sculpture with her vibrant woven and textile works, which she creates in many shapes and sizes, from wall mountings that mimic the format of painting to suspended pieces that hang from ceiling to floor like textured columns," writes Artsy, an online database of contemporary art.

Other works by Hicks include "Prayer Rug," a 1969 piece made of wool and mohair, and a hanging installation made of giant balls of colored thread.