Part of what makes the arts such an integral piece of our culture is our ability to use it as a tool for interpretation and understanding. When something is not quite right with the world, or even when something goes extremely well, the arts are often one of the first places people express and share how they are feeling.

The Nowness of Then: Lilian Tyrrell’s Disaster Blankets and Objections and Connections: Fiber Artists Talk Back, on view at the Sculpture Center in Cleveland, explore the artist’s role in interpreting events or changes in the public realm.

Lilian Tyrrell (1944-2007), whose work is on display in the Main Gallery, was a largely self-taught weaver who lived on a farm with her husband, the sculptor Brinsley Tyrrell, in Freedom Township, Portage County. She made large weavings in response to events she saw unfolding on the news. Her images of war, terrorism, pollution, genocide, racism and religious intolerance have been well documented and widely shown, and while she passed away 10 years ago, this exhibition feels fresh and timely.

“I consciously chose to use tapestry, an art form most commonly associated throughout history with the politically empowered, to express the problems of political and social unrest,” Tyrrell once wrote. “This is my personal way of dealing with the frustrations and feelings of helplessness that can accompany the information one receives with the evening news.”

Walking into the gallery, you are confronted by the size of the works and thus the hours Tyrrell spent weaving them all. The Last Hope / War and Famine was inspired by a picture of a child in Ethiopia who, despite receiving medical attention, died two hours after the photo was taken.

The piece shows the child with an intubated nose, seated underneath a tent canopy; in the background are brown fields with large burning piles of what appears to be the remnants of a battle. The entire central image is framed in pink and green.

It’s hard to look at this work and feel comfortable about what you’re seeing. While the weaving certainly harkens to something familiar by its material, the harshness of the reality of the image is only enhanced by this fact.

Ku Klux Klan is a large burnt-orange piece with an image of burning crosses and KKK members surrounding them. While the piece itself was made in 1988, it unfortunately feels just as timely today as it ever has. Again, the nature of the material used for this image makes it all the more jarring and meaningful. It also gives off a feeling of meditation on the issues confronted in the imagery, and calls into question a society that continues to allow these types of thoughts to pervade every corner of it.

In the Euclid Avenue Gallery, Objections and Connections features the work of William Marcellus Armstrong, Lauren Davies, Trey D. Gehring, Penny Mateer and Kathryn Shinko. The show tackles some of the same ideas that Tyrrell explored, but reaches beyond disasters to subjects like the environment, gay culture and politics.

Gehring’s #gratidao and #shredded are weavings of musclebound men flexing. Both images have been taken from the internet and highlight the way people use selfies to show off their bodies. Much has been written about the exhibitionism and voyeurism in images like this.

Having them translated into weavings makes this reality even more incongruous, because now we have to contend with an interface with technology and a person, and then another visual interpretation of that relationship. It’s not easy to follow, and when you reach deep and try to ponder the work, it’s hard not to feel some type of emotional response.

Tree is what artist Davies calls a deconstructed woven photograph. The weaving depicts a tree lying on its side inside a partially torn-down or burned-out brick building. On the floor in front of the main part of the work are brick shapes that have had woven bricks wrapped around them.

This work is hung on a brick wall in the gallery and it’s almost as if we are looking through a broken brick window onto a different part of the city, and what we have before us is the remnants of its history. While not a shocking image, it is powerful and calls to mind questions about our community, its values and what is happening in it over time.

Both shows are thoughtfully displayed and curated, offering ways to interpret or re-interpret issues we are confronted with each day. It’s well worth the drive to Cleveland to see exciting and quality work done by Northeast Ohio artists.

Contact Anderson Turner at haturner3@gmail.com.