Friday, April 10, 2015

Designing for tapestry

A word of warning:  Not much eye candy in today's post until the very bottom.

Weavers know that working at a loom is a meditative practice.  Throw the shuttle--or, in tapestry, carefully place the wefts--and the slow, rhythmic pace of the work slows your heartbeat and calms your mind (at least when the weaving is going well).  You shift into the creative zone where hours pass like minutes.  Weaving is bliss.

But then there are the times when meditative calm may shade over into obsessive brooding.  So lately I've been wondering, as I contemplate how many hours I spend making tapestry, and how to begin my next project, Why do I do this?  How do I do this? 

Regarding the why, There is the bliss.  We weavers are addicted to the feel of fiber between our fingers.  We are drawn to tapestry in particular because we want to make images that are the cloth, not superimposed on it.  But what sort of images?  And how do those images come to be there?  

In the past 24 hours I've come across two articles about historical tapestries that highlight for me the ongoing discussion among tapestry weavers about what sort of art form it actually is, or should be, for the contemporary artist-weaver.   Rebecca Mezoff wrote yesterday about her chance to observe the conservation work being done on a historical tapestry at the Denver Art Museum.  She points out that 500 years ago, tapestries were designed by painters and the weavers' job was to translate the painting--usually a scene from history, myth, or scripture--into woven thread. Rebecca writes:

"All this discussion of medieval tapestries brought me back to the conversation I had recently with Archie Brennan as I was writing my article for the Spring 2015 issue of Fiber Art Now.** Archie talked both to me and in many talks and articles you can find if you dig a little about how tapestry became a reproductive medium in the middle ages. That means that weavers were trained to copy a painting in thread. This brought tapestry weaving away from the lovely improvisational work we see in the Coptic tapestry fragments to something that was stiffer and less creative from the weaver's perspective. Of course those weavers were and are incredibly skilled. But somewhere in that practice of copying paintings, tapestry lost its ability to be an art medium in its own right. It is my opinion that we need to regain the standing of the work of the artist/weaver as an art form before tapestry can even hope to become recognized as more than a 'decorative art' or craft."


Historic tapestries done in this "reproductive" mode are the subject of today's New York Times review of a show at the Frick Collection that features Coypel's Don Quixote Tapestries.  The show features three wall-sized narrative works commissioned by the king of France as gifts for other monarchs and two large Flemish tapestries also inspired by Coypel's paintings and engravings of the Spanish novel Don Quixote.  The artist Coypel designed the image, and the mostly anonymous artisan-weavers crafted it, with great skill, in woven threads.  These tapestries are meaningful on several levels.  In their day, the French tapestries were in-your-face status symbols, emblems of the king's immense wealth and of French craftsmanship.  They brought to vivid life stories that people would only have known from texts.  Today, we notice that these pieces are not just translations of the artist Coypel's work, they are translations of translations--woven versions of paintings that illustrate a work of fiction.  Very meta, we might say.  And as Rebecca indicates in her discussion, today there is a sizeable contingent of tapestry artists who do not want to weave woven versions of paintings, even their own paintings.  These artists mostly skip the design stage of preparing a painting or cartoon that will guide the weaving, and simply sit down and start weaving improvisationally.   


Of course if like Archie Brennan or the late Silvia Heyden, you have been weaving for decades, it is probably not too daunting to simply sit down and weave.  The rest of us, especially relative newbies like me, tend to make multiple sketches, collages, and samples, to plan and prepare obsessively, because mistakes can be extremely time-consuming to repair.  This is the way tapestry is conventionally taught.  In my own practice so far I have discovered the truth of the late James Koehler's words, that you should make your cartoon as detailed and specific as possible before you start weaving.  


And yet.  I have found in all my fiber work, including tapestry, that some of the work that draws the most positive comments, are my samples--the pieces intended as trial runs, the ones I didn't overthink or stop to repair mistakes on, the ones I initially did for my eyes only.  They have a freshness, a looseness, even awkwardness, that seems to appeal to folks.  

Here's one early piece in the Mary series:
The central woven image, only about 4" square, was intended to be a sample for figuring out how to weave Mary's face on the for-real, "final," piece.  This sample is neither flat nor square.  . .  but it somehow works.  

And the piece below I also did as an experiment.  I took the same simple design and made an embroidered version and a woven version, to see which I liked better.  This is the woven one: 

 Again, it has flaws--now I might handle those slits differently--but on the whole I like it.


Of course every individual weaver and artist is entitled to their own way of working, and for most of us that process will evolve as we develop skill, confidence and new approaches to our art form.  Ultimately the way the image came to be woven, whether from following a cartoon or weaving improvisationally or something in between, is less important than the power of the image itself.  While I am impressed at the scale and workmanship of historical tapestries, I am most moved by the work of my contemporaries who design and weave from their hearts.




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