Wednesday, June 10, 2020

My big fat Many-Splendored Millefleur . . .

For the past couple years I have been constructing an amazing tapestry . . . in my head.  It would be the biggest and best thing I'd ever woven, a Many-Splendored Millefleurs, in the tradition of the classical millefleurs backgrounds of flora and fauna in European tapestries.

millefleurs detail, The Unicorn in Captivity, The Cloisters, New York

But this would be a southwestern millefleurs, full of the desert wildflowers, cacti, grasses and critters that I love.  It would include all the surprisingly hardy and colorful tiny desert plants that bloom against all odds, as well as the beetle, the raven, the coyote and the scaled quail.  It would convey the joy and exhilaration I feel when walking in the high desert landscape.  To date I have taken 580 reference photos for this tapestry.

And, no surprise, I have found it impossible to put pencil to paper and start designing the darn thing.  Sure, I have woven several small pieces focusing on individual plants or scenes that were more or less successful.  But I had no idea how to design the Many-Splendored Millefleurs with all the plants and animals.  Or rather I knew--one plant at a time, right?--but I just couldn't begin.  I realized I needed professional help, and I reached out to fellow New Mexican and way-talented tapestry artist Elizabeth Buckley, who had recently offered her services as an online mentor.

I wrote to Elizabeth:  I love the dense patterning of the traditional millefleurs backgrounds, and I adore the work of Dom Robert.  But obviously I need to find my own take on the theme.  Part of that is given to me by the subdued colors of our landscape.  I want somehow to convey the idea of resilience, of hardiness and survival in harsh circumstances.  And the vast open expanses here.  Not sure crowding a million motifs together in the classical style is appropriate. . .

Elizabeth posed a few thoughtful questions about size, format, scale and crucially for me, horizon line (would there be one?), and somehow I was able to begin.  Just having a fellow tapestry weaver to talk to about it—someone waiting to see progress—got me moving.  For a couple weeks I fiddled around with dozens of ideas and approaches, looked at old collages, made lots of sketches, printed lots of photos, brainstormed lists of words. . . .and slowly, slowly, the thing began to come into focus.  These are some ideas I tried and discarded, at least for now . . .

Molly Elkind (c) collage 2019
I have an idea of how to weave this relief piece but haven't tried it yet.   

Molly Elkind, collage (c) 2020.  Grass and Sky textures
Molly Elkind, collage (c) 2018.
This old collage seemed surprisingly relevant, with its juxtaposition of abstract and realistic textures.
Two sticky notes on my design wall remind me:

Poetry not Prose

My next email to Elizabeth included this:  As part of refining my idea of what feeling and emotional impact I want the piece to have, I jotted down this list of binaries that seem important:

Vast – tiny
“faraway – nearby”
Colorful – drab
Organic – geometric
Smooth/flattened – rough/textured
Delicate – harsh
Profligate beauty – scarce resources
Limitlessness – limits
Hand-drawn line – photographic deep space

A key insight I’ve had is that my way of working has ALWAYS been to compose/make small individual units and then to combine/assemble them into larger wholes.  So I’ve been thinking of various ways to break it down into panels or parts that look collaged.  It just doesn’t feel right to me somehow to compose a unified pictorial surface; at least it’s not my usual way of working.  I like the fragmented, disjointed collage-y surface.  

And now this piece has become so different from what I thought it would be!  Gone are the critters (sorry, scaled quail!). Gone are the wildflowers--except for patches of bright color here and there. It's all Sky and Grass now, the better to convey the emotions I'm after.  The piece will have two panels, which may even be woven and hung separately, one vertical panel of sky on the right and a horizontal panel on the left representing grass textures.  It is not as disjointed or collage-y as I might have thought, but it will feature two very different surfaces.

Molly Elkind, collage (c) 2020
In the grass section I want to reproduce on a larger scale the relief effects I used in this small study below.  See the dots of yellow?  Similar dots and splotches of color will be the wildflowers in amongst the grasses.

Molly Elkind, Wild Grass (detail), (c) 2020
In the past couple weeks, I've been focusing on the Sky section, and I've rediscovered blind contour drawing.  I love the quality of the lines in these drawings, and how they interact with the colored areas representing cloud and sky.

Molly Elkind, sketch (c) 2020

Molly Elkind, sketch (c) 2020
I've been weaving a sample based on the first sketch above.  I'm using a technique called ressaut that I found in Joanne Soroka's book Tapestry Weaving.  Basically it's a kind of surface embroidery.  It allows me to reproduce the feeling of the drawn blind contour line.  I'm pretty excited about it.

Molly Elkind, sky sample (c) 2020
Obviously I have a ways to go on this piece. . . but it IS underway, and for me that's huge right now.

Have you decided that this is the time to finally tackle that big project you've been dreaming about?  Let me know!

Thursday, May 7, 2020


Despite our fervent wish that the pandemic is ending, it is apparent that the crisis is hardly over, and not waning at all in some parts of our country.  I've been thinking a lot about resilience.

I am reminded of this every day on my walks here in Northern New Mexico.   I am incredibly fortunate to be able to hike on virtually unpopulated trails within a 10-minute drive of my home.  And I know that without those daily walks I would be much less resilient right now.  Being out under the sky, in the vast high desert landscape, helps to put the news in perspective.  Sometimes it's good to feel small.

On these walks I notice the little wildflowers that are starting to bloom this time of year. Talk about resilient!  These tiny plants survive blazing sun, fierce winds, and near-permanent drought conditions.  Their colors pop against the subtle greens, grays and tans of the surrounding earth and grass.  They persist, endure, and show off their beauty whether anyone is there to see them or not.  I am enchanted by them and have taken hundreds of photos of them in the last couple years.  I hope to turn them into a large tapestry someday, when I have the mental bandwidth for that.

Here are some of my favorites from recent walks:

Those of us with more than a couple decades behind us (and let's be honest, that's most of the readers of this blog, right?!), have had other times in our lives when we've had to dig deep for strength and endurance we didn't know we had.  There have been times before this when the script I thought I was writing for my life was snatched from my hands and put through a shredder.  I was forced to acknowledge that I didn't have the final edit on my script at all.  Somehow then I learned to switch from saying the lines I'd memorized, to doing improv, all day, every day, for months and years.

This is another of those times.  We did it before; we can do it again.  Dig deep, stay healthy, and find joy in improvising, my friends.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mounting small tapestries

Lots of us love to weave small these days, and there are some great new looms out there designed for small tapestries.  I can't wait to try my new Mirrix Saffron loom, for example.

Small pieces need some extra care and thought in deciding how to display them effectively. They seldom look their best mounted "naked" on the wall as you would hang a large piece.  However. . . one memorable exception for me is this pulled-warp piece by Mary Colton, as seen at last year's Fiber Crawl invitational exhibit at GalleryFRITZ in Santa Fe.  I think this piece works so well without mounting because its irregular shape allows it to interact with the surrounding wall space in an active way; it doesn't just sit there inertly as a rectangular piece might.

Mary Colton, Bumps in the Road, 17.5" x 5" (widest point) 

Lately I've been doing a couple different things with my small tapestries, putting some in white frames and mounting others on painted canvas.

I found some simple white frames complete with mats and glass at Target and lucked out that a couple of my small minime pieces fit into the openings perfectly.  I went back to Target (back in the day when you could make such a casual errand) and bought the remaining stock of white frames (under $20 each).  Then I got smart and started designing the pieces to fit the frames!  I love the clean modern look and the way the white mat sets off the textures and colors.  I don't like to see glass over textiles, so I don't use the glass.

Molly Elkind, Wild Grass,  linen, wool, kudzu.  Tapestry 5" x 5.25" x 3"; frame 19" x 15"  (c) 2020.
The wiry tan kudzu yarn protrudes about 3" from the surface, so glass would definitely not work here!

Molly Elkind, Utah Walls, cotton, wool. Tapestry 5.5" x 5.75" x .5"; frame 13" x 13"  (c) 2020
Here's a closer look at the process of mounting Utah Walls.  I do have to supply a piece of archival mat board cut to fit the frame as these frames are designed to hold photographs.  First I lay the piece on the mat board, carefully positioned in the center, and draw a light pencil line on the board to indicate the top and bottom of the tapestry.  Then I use an awl to punch holes along the line about 1/4" apart.  I stitch the piece through the weft to the board all across the top and bottom.

Stitching the piece to the mat board:  Needle goes up through the hole, through the back of the weft, back down through the same hole, and over to the next hole on the back
Finished lines of stitching on back of mat board.  I finish the thread ends with a big fat knot.
The last step is just to layer the mat board with tapestry and backing board in the frame.  Easy!

In addition to the minimes, I've been working on a series of small studies of our high desert plants.  To mount these, I've been painting canvases from the art supply store with acrylics and stitching the tapestry directly to the canvas in a similar process to that above.  Sometimes I use the deeper 1.5" "gallery wrap" canvases; other times I use the traditional 3/4" thick canvases.  I hope to eventually have a dozen or more of these pieces, mounted installation-style on the wall, a kind of fragmented millefleurs tapestry.  You can see step by step pictures of this process on my Facebook and Instagram feeds from March 27 and 29.

For me the hardest thing about this process is getting the paint color just right.  I'm not a painter!  I audition background colors by sliding sheets of colored scrapbook paper or pieces of fabric under the tapestry to give me a general idea of the best color and value.  And then, by trial and error, I figure out how to mix that color!  It can take multiple tries, especially as my collection of acrylic paints (I'm using Golden Fluid Acrylics) is quite limited.  You can see below my Indian Paintbrush piece on a dark green-painted canvas, and the piece of paper in the lower right with the color I was originally aiming for!  Not even close!  (Though the camera does distort that paper color, making it much grayer than it should be).

Molly Elkind, Indian Paintbrush, cotton, linen, wool Tapestry 7" x 6.5"; canvas 14" x 11" x 1.5" (c) 2020
I tried again and finally got what I wanted.

Molly Elkind, Indian Paintbrush, cotton, linen, wool Tapestry 7" x 6.5"; canvas 14" x 11" x 1.5" (c) 2020 
I hope this gives you some options for mounting your small pieces.  There are many others!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Objects not Pictures . . . or both?

I'm pretty busy lately getting ready to teach a new class here in Santa Fe:  "Collage to Cartoon. . . and Beyond!"  If that sounds familiar, it's because I have taught "Collage to Tapestry Cartoon" a number of times, but this class includes quite a bit of new information and a more in-depth approach.  After creating a bunch of collages with papers we design ourselves, we'll explore techniques including open warps, irregular edges, changeable setts, and using found objects.   The class is offered through the New Mexico Fiber Arts Center (formerly EVFAC) and will take place at Montezuma Lodge in Santa Fe, NM (not Española, NM as originally planned) March 20-22, 2020.  More information and registration can be found HERE.

And because this class is on my mind, this is on my design wall in my studio these days:

 It's a reminder that I want to move my tapestry work more toward being an object than a picture.

(Of course this motto conveniently ignores the fact that one of the series I'm working on right now is pictures of the native grasses and wildflowers in my part of the world.  There is an undeniable magic in weaving recognizable images from the natural world.  So many of us are inspired by nature and want to capture its beauty in our weaving.  Nothing wrong with that at all!)

Sunbelly, Molly Elkind, 2019. 8" x 8" Mixed fibers mounted on painted canvas

Little blue flowers, Molly Elkind, 2019.  24" x 12"  Linen, wool, matted.

Nevertheless.  Perhaps it's the influence of the Objects: Redux exhibit I've seen a few times now here in Santa Fe, a look at contemporary fine craft alongside some of the pieces and makers from the seminal Objects:  USA show of studio craft in 1969.  (I wrote about Objects: Redux HERE).  In this exhibit contemporary craft artists push and stretch the traditional materials and confines of their mediums in challenging and exciting ways.

Perhaps "objects not pictures" is just the natural evolution of my interest in translating the methods and effects of collage into tapestry.  I am increasingly interested in effects like texture and layers and open warps and irregular edges and non-woven elements such as stitch and found objects.

Fold, Molly Elkind, 2020.  7" x 7" Linen, wool. 

Mixed Message, Molly Elkind 2019.  16" x 14"
tapestry with handmade paper, mounted on linen on stretcher bars
Exploring and exploiting these possibilities has been really exciting.  It feels like the resulting pieces, the best of them, are things-in-themselves, objects with their own unique mystery and quiddity (what a great word!).  They are not pictures of something; they are something.  Sheila Hicks' astounding series of 1000 minimes has undoubtedly been a huge inspiration for me, showing the power of the weaver's mind and hands at work, asking questions and experimenting.

Cross Over, Sheila Hicks, 1968.  Wool.  8.25" x 5.5"
from Sheila Hicks Weaving as Metaphor,
ed. Nina Stritzler-Levine (New York:  Bard Graduate Center), 2006

I don't really know where this all will lead.  I'm thinking my next major exploration in this direction will be a woven version of this collage I did a couple years ago.*

Collage, Molly Elkind, 2018. 

I can't wait to see if I can reproduce those irregular edges and make some sort of exciting interpretation of the printed patterns on the paper!  If this sounds like fun to you too, join me in Santa Fe in a couple weeks and we'll see what we discover, using collage to stretch our understanding of tapestry.

*Back story:  I made the collage soon after we moved to New Mexico.  As I looked at it, it felt at odds with the environment I now found myself in.  In fact, my private title for it has been "Peachtree Boogie Woogie",  in a nod to the Mondrian painting evoking the traffic on Broadway in New York City.  My collage seemed to evoke the busy-ness and clamor of the Atlanta we had just left.  So I turned my attention to interpreting our new environment.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Objects Redux at Santa Fe's Form & Concept gallery

Fifty years ago, a hugely impactful exhibit of studio craft, Objects:  USA, opened at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.  The work of three hundred craft artists was featured, and the exhibit traveled around the US and Europe.  This show is credited with sparking a wave of craft collecting by both museums and private collectors and a new openness to showing fine craft alongside fine art.  The artists in that show were and are legends in their field, and many of them taught future generations of craft artists.

Now to mark the anniversary of that show, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft has organized the exhibit Objects: Redux: Fifty Years of Craft Evolution and traveled it to Santa Fe, bringing together work by artists from the first show alongside work by contemporary artists working in craft and mixed media.  I attended the opening of the show in Santa Fe, a gallery talk the next day by Houston curator Kathryn Hall and William Dunn of Form & Concept gallery. . . and I will return for a third visit to study these works some more.  Hall and Dunn emphasized that the Redux exhibit is not intended to present "the best" artists or work from then and now.  Rather, the intent is to present work from both periods that shows artists experimenting with materials and responding to the issues and events of their time.

For me the show is intriguing for several reasons.  First, there are stunning works by renowned weavers such as Hal Painter, Trude Guermonprez, Kay Sekimachi and Chinami and Rowland Ricketts.  There is a gorgeous chest by George Nakashima, three glowing knitted wire collars by Arline Fisch, and a luminous mahogany charger by Bob Stocksdale.  This work responds above all to the limits and possibilities of materials.  All of these works show the fine finishes, expert skill, and elegant unity of, well, form and concept in pure craft media.  These are qualities that I was taught to venerate in fine craft.  (I am the daughter of a woodworker who taught me to appreciate the precise, perfect dovetails and the silky finish of fine cabinetry.)  These works are perfectly executed and visually gorgeous.

Hal Painter, Wedded Rocks, 1980. Handwoven tapestry. 

detail, Hal Painter, Wedded Rocks, 1980. Handwoven tapestry.

Trude Guermonprez, Banner, 1965.  Silk hanging. Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection

detail, Trude Guermonprez, Banner, 1965.  Silk hanging. Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection

Kay Sekimachi, Ogawa II, 1969.  Nylon monofilament, glass beads, clear plastic tubes.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection
detail, Kay Sekimachi, Ogawa II, 1969.  Nylon monofilament, glass beads, clear plastic tubes.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection.  Photo by Sam Elkind

Chinami Ricketts, Noshime Plaid, 2019.  Indigo-dyed brown cotton, plain weave.

detail, Chinami Ricketts, Noshime Plaid, 2019.  Indigo-dyed brown cotton, plain weave.

George Nakashima, Kornblut Case, c. 197o.  Black walnut, maple burl.
Courtesy of Hunt Modern
Bob Stocksdale, Charger, 1986.  Mahoghany.
Courtesy Forrest L. Merrill collection
Nut with Spoon and Dish, 1970, silver, by Robert Ebendorf (left).
Untitled Vase, 1990s, silver by John Marshall (right). 
Just look at the beautiful detail on this silver vase! 

detail, John Marshall, Untitled Vase, 1990s, silver.
photo by Sam Elkind
Arline Fisch, Knitted Round Beads, 2017.  Coated copper wire, silver magnet clasp. 
Objects: Redux includes the work of contemporary artists that is for me at least a little more challenging to love on first sight, though I may eventually come around.  These artists have in many cases moved away from precious materials, away from a focus on a single medium or process, away from perfect finishes and elegant aesthetics toward something rougher, funkier, more mixed-media, ironic and critical.  These works challenge me to move beyond my expectation that work in craft media must be visually appealing above all (which is another way of saying it must please me and conform to my expectations if it wants my approval, right?).  These works pose questions and provoke puzzlement, consternation and conversation.

And yet all of this is of course characteristic of the broader movement in modern and contemporary art on the whole, away from "the beautiful"  toward a fraught engagement with issues other than perfectly elegant form and finish.  These artists whose work is more prickly are offering stories about their own identities and communities and investigating the history and culture around their materials.

Yuri Kobayashi, Curio, 2015.  Ash. 

detail, Yuri Kobayashi, Curio, 2015.  Ash. 
Josh Fought compiled a textile as an imaginative portrait of an ex-boyfriend.  It's meant to be discontinuous, puzzling, and multi-faceted.  It might be tempting to dismiss it as "sloppy" craft,  but there's more to it than that.  Faught is opening up textiles to voices, narratives, and ways of telling a story that haven't been so overtly included before.

Josh Faught, Max, 2014.  Handwoven silver lamé and hemp, nail polish, sequin trim, spill (resin) with broken Cathy mug, giant clothes pin, denim, silk, wine glass, toilet paper on cedar support

detail, Josh Faught, Max, 2014.  Handwoven silver lamé and hemp, nail polish, sequin trim, spill (resin) with broken Cathy mug, giant clothes pin, denim, silk, wine glass, toilet paper on cedar support

The Rickettses, Rowland and Chinami, grow and harvest indigo in traditional ways.  Rowland's work references the complicated role of indigo in American history and the integral part it played in the "triangle trade" that included human trafficking.

Rowland Ricketts, Unbound-Series 1 No. 4, 2016-2018.  Indigo and madder-dyed linen, undyed wool. 

detail, Rowland Ricketts, Unbound-Series 1 No. 4, 2016-2018.  Indigo and madder-dyed linen, undyed wool. 
Jennifer Ling Datchuk, recently awarded a United States Artist Fellowship in Craft, has done a take on macrame plant hangers that repays close examination.  The fibers she uses for the macrame are synthetic brightly colored human hair sourced from China via e-Bay.  The plant containers are blue and white ceramics chosen to reference Chinese and Dutch porcelain.  Datchuk says her use of "handwork, hair and ceramics [is] emblematic of the small rituals that fix, smooth over and ground women's lives."

Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Loving Care, 2019.  Porcelain, fake hair, porcelain beads from Jingdezhen, China, rope, ferns.  Made in collaboration with Marta Francine.
Background:  Arline Fisch, Knitted Round Beads and Silver and Lavender
MJ Tyson makes metal objects and jewelry from jewelry and household goods sourced from estate sales.  The pieces are formed from an unstable blend of metals--she fully expects them to degrade and fall apart over time.  The curator mentioned how disconcerting it was to unpack the crate containing Tyson's work and find bits and pieces that had fallen off the work.  Old stories are subsumed in new ones, and very concept of what is precious is called into question.

MJ Tyson, 102 Garden Hills Drive, 2017, personal objects belonging to the deceased residents of 102 Garden Hills Drive
On wall:  Rowland Ricketts, Drawings, 2019, composted indigo leaves, wood ash, lime, wheat bran, wool felt
MJ Tyson, 16 Summit Road, 2018, personal objects belonging to the deceased residents of 16 Summit Road
Those of us who work in craft media are continually re-assessing our approach to our materials, our subjects, and our methods.  Today we can make and show work that is startlingly raw, rough and confrontational if we choose.  If we are lucky our work contributes meaningfully to the wider conversation always going on between artist and artist and artist and viewer.  Objects: Redux will run through March 17 at Santa Fe's Form & Concept gallery.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

You Weave You

Happy New Year!  May the year bring all good things to you and yours.  To the weavers out there, may your warps never break and always be evenly-tensioned.

At the end of 2019 I was looking ahead to what I hoped to weave this year, and I found myself with a good problem to have, I think--too many ideas.  Better than no ideas, right?  The hard part was that the ideas were all over the place--some abstract and edgy, some more traditionally pictorial.  Small pieces and large ones.  Improvisational pieces and ones that would definitely require cartoons.  I was not sure which way to go, so I did what I've done in the past.  I looked again at the work of weavers I admire.  I even printed out small reproductions of some of my favorite tapestries and glued them all to a large piece of newsprint.  Then I stuck it up on the wall and looked at it.  A lot.  What were the common threads (so to speak?).  What types of images, colors, and compositions am I drawn to?

I'm not going to share the images I clipped out, because tomorrow I might choose a different set by different artists.  And there are so many more artists I admire than can fit on one piece of newsprint!

I did come up with an interesting list of the things these tapestries have in common.  They:
  • exploit the grid
  • honor or expose the warps
  • translate the hand-drawn line
  • show painterliness and weft blending
  • use flat color (yes, this contradicts the previous item)
  • have a simplicity of composition
  • use pattern
  • have graphic power
  • impart mystery, open-ended meaning
I summed it all up to myself as:  The Technique IS the Image.  Or, The Image IS the Technique.   And I pondered that for a few weeks.  

But I also remembered that as much as I love other artists' work--and I'm seeing artists new to me all the time that inspire admiration and envy--their work is not mine to do.  Their work is theirs, much as I might admire and love it and wish I had done it.  Darn it.   

Then I had an Aha! moment.   Why don't I do the same exercise with my own work?  I've been making fiber work for almost 30 years, and some of it I even still like!  So I went through photos of my work, quilts, embroideries, mixed-media and beaded pieces, handmade paper work, and tapestries.  I selected only the pieces that I am still proud of, happy to look at and to show people.  (There's so much work I feel I've outgrown!)  And I analyzed them for common elements.

These are some of my own favorite pieces, on the day I did this exercise.  Again, tomorrow or next month I might make different choices.

This I what I noticed in my own work:
  • texture
  • graphic power
  • open-ended meaning
  • in some, that elusive union of concept, image and technique
This idea that the best work shows the absolute union of technique, concept and image is the crucial take-away for me.  By this I mean that you can't change the techniques used without doing irreparable damage to the image and concept.  Unpacking and exploring that will take the rest of my life, I think!

I hesitated to publish this post, because I'm sharing an inner struggle that many prefer to hide--the struggle to find one's voice in one's chosen medium.  In this time of carefully-curated Instagram feeds, we hesitate to show our failures, doubts, and herky-jerky two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress.  We want to present the perfect image to the world.

But I know from my students and my fellow weavers that we really help each other when we share it all, the successes and the near-misses.  We are encouraged and take away hints that help us each move forward.  I also know from reading artists' biographies that this kind of struggle pretty much comes with the territory.  We never stop seeking to discover and refine our voices.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, who is pictured with two faces, one looking forward and one back.  I offer my experience in case it might be a useful strategy for you at the start of this new year, as you look both forward and backward.  What have you done that you really love?  How can you do those same kinds of things anew?