Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tapestry Diary 2017 complete! (almost)

It being the end of the year there's been a flurry of interest lately in the tapestry diaries some of us are keeping.  When I posted my completed December weaving online last week a few folks asked for more information about the year's work.

Molly Elkind, December, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary

I've also had some queries about how to get started on a diary.  (Shameless self-promotion:  If you want a look at many artists' diaries and a guided tour of how to get started, consider signing up for my class at Convergence in July:  Plan Your Tapestry Diary.  The class is filling up but there are still several spots left.) 

When I started the 2017 diary these were my self-imposed rules or guidelines:
  • weave each month's piece to finish 5" high x 7" wide; 
  • weave an indeterminate amount each day, responding both to the day and to what has been woven before;
  • when away from the loom, do not weave; 
  • choose a palette of colors for each month but be open to adjusting the palette as necessary. 

In addition, I decided on a sett of 8 epi on a 12/6 gray seine twine warp.  I used my copper pipe loom and had to warp it twice over the course of the year.  You can see that overall these rules are pretty loose; the most specific guideline is the overall size of each month's piece.  My plan was to join each month's panel together to make an accordion book. 

For the first few months, January to April, I did respond to what I saw on my morning walks, the colors of the sky, of blooming plants, the street itself, and so on. 

Molly Elkind, January in progress, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary

In February I marked off each day's weaving with a half-pass of red.    

Molly Elkind, February in progress, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary

In April I decided to take a big risk and included a found object in the weaving, a red mailbox flag I picked up off the street.  This was a learning experience!  I should have used half-hitches all around the flag to stabilize the warps as they were stretched around the thickness of the object. . .but I didn't.  Live and learn. 

detail, April-May-June, Molly Elkind, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary.

In May, our schedule called for us to be away from home every weekend, so I devised a complicated system of colored squares and slits or interlock joins to indicate sequences of days spent at home or in another place.  I tried to weave each day as a perfect square . . . but (another learning experience) noticed halfway through the month that my third woven week was developing a wavy top edge.  One of my unspoken rules for the diary is not to un-weave if I can help it.  So, I inserted a corrective strip of weaving in gray.  Hey, I'm the artist, I get to make the rules, and re-make them, right?!

At this point it was becoming clear to me that the diary was evolving into a kind of tapestry sketchbook, in which I was trying out new ideas and techniques without much worry about whether they would make a cohesive whole or even always succeed technically.  And that was fine.  For me the important thing was to have a place to play and experiment.  

At the beginning of June I had just returned from a wonderful retreat with Tapestry Weavers South, at which Connie Lippert had generously shared the basics of wedge weave.  I set myself the challenge of weaving wedge weave, and changed the orientation so I'd weave that month from the side.  

Molly Elkind, June in progress,Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary
In addition I decided to use only yarns from my scrap bag.  This actually turned out to be one of my most successful months of the whole year, I think.

When I started the July diary the Fourth was looming and our national political situation was on my mind, so I decided to weave a heart composed of hatched lines of red and blue on a gray background.  

Molly Elkind, July, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary
In August I returned to the idea of incorporating objects I found in the street on morning walks.  This time I chose thinner objects, and arranged them in a composition of sorts.  The tweedy background was meant to mimic the texture of the street.  I think now I've got found object weaving out of my system!

Molly Elkind, August, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary
In September I chose to use only scrap yarns again, and only horizontal lines.  Partway through the month, though, I saw a discarded sunflower in the street on my morning walk and decided to incorporate it too.

Molly Elkind, September, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary

In October I adapted an old watercolor sketch, changing up the values and colors and again using scrap yarn.  Only darks were left in the scrap bag, so that's what I used.  I was happy with how this one turned out too.  

Molly Elkind, September, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary
In November I decided to do a study of textures, seeing how many different techniques I could use to create texture.  I also limited myself to a light palette this time.  Techniques included twill, twining, double and triple setts, countered soumak, slits, rya knots, eccentric weaving, twining, and plain weave with lazy lines. 

Molly Elkind, November, Book of Half-Hours, 2017 tapestry diary

In December, I happened on a diagram of regular hachure and hatching in Kathe Todd-Hooker's book Line in Tapestry (available here.  While you're there check out Kathe's blog as well).  

(c) Kathe Todd-Hooker, Line in Tapestry, p. 26.  Reproduced with permission.  

Upside down, it looked like a Christmas tree so I decided to practice this technique, using green Churro singles for the tree and fine tapestry wool for the background.  In a nod to my 2016 diary which tracked the colors of the liturgical calendar, the background moved from purple to white over the course of the Advent season.  You can see this image at the top of this post. 

I still have to do the finishing work on these last several months and join them to the January-July segments to make a complete book.  

Meanwhile, I've warped up my Mirrix to be ready to start the 2018 diary in a couple days.  Like the new year, an empty warp is pure potential, don't you think? 

2018 tapestry diary warp:  12/6 seine twine, 10 epi, 5" wide
If you are thinking of starting your own tapestry diary, it's a good idea to give a little thought to your starting guidelines.  To quote a previous post
Settling on these initial guidelines is an important and subtle part of the game.  You want to have rules, as it were, to govern the game and to make the artistic choices you face each day limited enough to be manageable.  On the other hand, you want those rules to be spacious and generous enough to allow for spontaneous creative responses to circumstances and inspirations. . . and for those inevitable days when you just can't get to your practice.  You don't want to set such strict rules that you get bored or frustrated. 
For further information about tapestry diary practices, check out these links:

An expanded version of this review will appear in the next edition of the American Tapestry Alliance's member newsletter, Tapestry Topics.  If you're an ATA member, you'll see it.  If you're not, and you're a tapestry weaver, consider joining ATA!

Let me know if you plan to start a diary (it doesn't have to start on January 1 or even run a whole year!).  And share some pictures, below in the comments or on find me on Facebook or  Instagram.  I'd love to see what folks are doing!

Thursday, December 21, 2017


The suburbs get a bad rap.  For decades now, it's been conventional wisdom that the suburbs are bland, boring, cookie-cutter places full of middle-brow people living cookie-cutter lives.  This view is so common that it is itself a cliche.

I'm here to tell you that if you look closely, you can see mysteries and wonders even on the streets of a cookie-cutter subdivision, such as the one I live in.  On my morning walks I've been taking photos of some of the sights that make me tilt my head and mutter, "Whaaaaat?"  In this season of wonder I thought I'd share them with you.

Garbage day always brings out an interesting assortment of stuff.

Harry is trying to figure out what manner of creature this is. 

Love the juxtaposition of the toy racing car and the "active lumbar" chair!

The neighborhood is full of kids playing their mysterious games.  Who knows what "let's pretend"  called for this assortment of things in the front yard?

Poised on the edge of city and country, the suburbs will of course contain wonders of nature.  I am appreciative of those neighbors whose gardening talents far outstrip mine and whose gardens bless us all.

On very rare occasions I spot wildlife (other than squirrels).  Deer are common in some suburbs, but I've only seen them twice in 15 years in my neighborhood.

At this time of year decorative deer make an appearance, along with puddles of deflated plastic that must be wonderful to someone!

A foggy morning the other day transformed the usual scene into a place of mystery.

On my recent total art immersion weekend in New York City, I was struck by the notion that great art strikes us with wonder at seeing something we haven't seen before or presents something familiar in a new, wonder-ful way.

May this season and the new year treat you to many such experiences of wonder.  Thank you for your kind attention to these musings! 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Artists looking at art, part 2

Last week I mentioned a recent trip to New York in which my friend Linda DeMars and I crammed as much art-viewing and museum-going as possible.  At the Met we saw the exhibit of David Hockney's work.  It was especially fun to see his earlier work, before the swimming pool paintings he became famous for.

Many of us artists cite Nature as our chief inspiration, overlooking sometimes the perhaps subconscious ways in which all the art we've seen also influences how we see and what we do.  I enjoy encountering artists whose work frankly acknowledges the art they've seen.  One of my own goals as an artist is simply to make my own small contribution to the wider conversation, over time and space, that artists are having with each other.  It's enlightening to eavesdrop on other artists' conversations too.

David Hockney, California Art Collector, 1964, acrylic on canvas
I love the interplay in this painting between the two sculptured forms and the collector, still as a statue herself.  Hockney was at this time hugely influenced by Picasso's cubist approach to depicting space from multiple points at once.  And this may be a stretch, but the chair's upholstery calls to my mind Matisse's penchant for including patterned fabrics in his paintings. It's clear from the skewed and multiple perspectives, not to mention the cartoonish rainbow, that strict realism is not Hockney's goal here. There's a delightfully (to me, anyway) confusing interplay between inside and outside here that keeps me looking.

The open-air portico space in the foreground, with the oasis/swimming pool in the background, recalls to my eye the kind of structure in which Mary received a visit from the angel Gabriel in Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation.  (I was afraid this was just my own Mary obsession showing up again, and then I read in an article that Hockney was influenced as a young artist by Fra Angelico's Annunciation.  The catalog of the Met's show cites Piero della Francesca's Nativity as the source for the space in California Art Collector.)

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, fresco, 1437-46
Piero della Francesca, Nativity, 1470-75. 
Either way, with Hockney's work, one is apt to detour back into art history with some regularity.  Here's another painting in which Hockney is explicitly playing with art-historical ideas and references, and with the ever-present problem of how we perceive reality.

David Hockney, Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge, 1975, oil on canvas
The wall text for this piece informs us that Hockney regularly researched other artists' techniques.  He discovered a book on perspective by painter Joshua Kirby, written in the mid-18th century, that included a satirical engraving by Hogarth which showed the results of ignoring the laws of perspective.  Hockney here presents his own version of an illogical pictorial space in which such laws are ignored, and yet in the flatness of the picture plane it also makes a kind of visual sense that the woman leaning out of the window can light the pipe of the man on the distant hilltop.  To my eyes this also looks like Hockney's contribution to a conversation with 20th century Surrealists such as Dali and de Chirico.

This is starting to sound very inside-baseball, isn't it, with all these arcane art historical references, like something only an art history major could love.  And yet there is much in Hockney's work that is directly appealing.  Throughout his career Hockney has been interested in human perception--how  we actually see things, and how we can represent our actual seeing in time and space in a static and defined two-dimensional space such as a painting.  He played with these ideas in photocollages, in which he assembled Polaroids into an overall mosaic-like image.  This was one of my favorites:

David Hockney, Gregory Swimming Los Angeles March 31st 1982
Here 120 photos are arranged to make an overall pattern that captures the swimmer's movement over time and through space.  The wall text says:

"Gregory's figure repeats in square after square.  The collective effect--achieved through the gridded structure created by the Polaroids' white borders and the continuous elements of water, light and the surface of the pool--is one of motion and direction, but not of sequence.  There is no clear start or end to Gregory's progress across the pool; rather, the eye wanders freely, registering the individual prints while cohering them into a whole."  
Of course this is exactly the sort of thing we textile artists respond to, right?  Pattern repeated across a surface. Our eyes keep moving, almost immersed themselves in the moving water of the pool.

Here's one last image.  Apologies for the intrusion of museum goers on the left (a Hockney-esque touch, perhaps!). 

David Hockney, Hollywood Hills House, 1982-82.  Oil paint, charcoal, collage on 3 canvases. 
The bright colors, bold lines and patterns, and playful perspective are immediately appealing.  If you're an art history fan, you might see this as a version of Matisse's Red Studio.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911.  Oil on canvas.
71 1/4" x 7' 2 1/4"

Hockney has juxtaposed, as he so often does, the interior space with the expansive plant life and sky outside.  This is definitely California.  And when you look closer at Hockney's work, you discover that two of the paintings (Laurel and Hardy and the large portrait of a man) on the far wall of the left hand space are actually glued-on photographs.

detail, David Hockney, Hollywood Hills House, 1981-82
Oil paint, charcoal, collage on 3 canvases. 
I have just begun reading the catalog of this show and it's already sparking lots of ideas for me.  In the first chapter writer Chris Stephens comments that art critics and historians have had a hard time categorizing Hockney's work into this or that art-historical style or movement. For me, it's exciting and encouraging to see an artist who has followed his muse and been unafraid to experiment with different styles, taboo subjects, and various media.  There's a lovely video on the Met website, under 2 minutes, of his work.  Treat yourself and go there.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Artists looking at art, part 1

Last weekend my friend and fellow fiber artist, Linda DeMars, and I traveled to New York City on a mission:  to see as much art as possible in four days.  We visited the 9/11 memorial and museum, the Guggenheim, the Cloisters, MoMA, the Met, and we walked the High Line.  Even venues we didn't expect to feature art, like the 9/11 museum and the High Line, had wonderful work.  I think I can speak for Linda too when I say we returned to Atlanta feeling humbled, awed, and inspired.  And energized!

We saw the famous unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, the Met's collection of medieval art.  I could have spent all afternoon marveling at the fine scale of the weaving and studying the details of the foliage, the faces and the animals in these tapestries.  They are justly famous, and the colors still so vivid, considering these were made 500 years ago.  (Who says textiles don't last?) The symbolism of the unicorn and the meaning of the series as a whole are still debated endlessly.  At least for me, that mystery is part of the spell they cast.  We see an enchanted world we don't quite understand.

The Unicorn in Captivity, wool, silk and silver and gilded-silver wrapped thread
South Netherlandish, c. 1495-1505
detail, The Unicorn in Captivity

detail, The Unicorn Purifies Water,
wool, silk and silver and gilded-silver wrapped thread
South Netherlandish, c. 1495-1505

When you look at that much art in a few days, synchronicities are bound to occur.  That evening we went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to see the show of Louise Bourgeois' work. . .  and the centerpiece of the show featured fragments of old tapestries.  In this piece Bourgeois combined her famous spider motif with another motif she explored, the cell.  Like the unicorn tapestries, it's a mysterious object with layers of symbolism and mythic power.

Louise Bourgeois Spider(Cell), 1997

detail, Louise Bourgeois Spider(Cell), 1997 

Bourgeois grew up in a French family that repaired and restored tapestries, and she learned the skills of weaving and stitching from an early age.  While she is best known for her monumental spider sculptures (which are homages to her mother, a weaver like the spider), Bourgeois also worked with fabric near the end of her career.  She transformed her own clothing and household textiles into fabric collages, sculptures, and books.  I found a children's book, Cloth Lullaby:  The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.  I loved this page:

The book's writer and illustrator were inspired by Louise Bourgeois, who was inspired by countless tapestry artists.  And I am inspired by them all.  Next time I'll share my take on the David Hockney show at the Met.  He was another artist inspired by artists.