Saturday, December 19, 2020

Remounting small tapestries

Some of you may have caught the Zoom webinar I did a few months back for the Damascus Fiber Arts School, about different ways of mounting small tapestries. One method I demonstrated was mounting them on stretched artist's canvases. I did this with several small open-warp tapestries I wove this year. At the time I was entranced by the way all those open warps dominated the work, but after a few months of gazing at them on our living room wall, I've realized I can do better. Sometimes Less is not More, it's just Less!  So this week I've been ungluing the warps that I wrapped around the canvas edges (matte medium is a pretty powerful glue) and I'm stitching the warps through the canvas.

Here are some images of the revised versions of a couple of the pieces, along with the original versions. You can see the whole series on my website. I'm not remounting all the pieces, just the ones I think will be improved. 

Second version:  Summer, (c) 2020 Molly Elkind. 
Second version:  Glow, (c) 2020 Molly Elkind.

First version:  Glow, (c) 2020 Molly Elkind.  11" x 14" overall

Second version:  Roots, Rain (c) 2020 Molly Elkind 

First version:  Roots, Rain (c) 2020 Molly Elkind

Here are a few process shots:

 I cut a tracing paper template for the line, which I drew on the canvas with  a blue washout marker (tested it first on the back!  It really does come out with plain water.)  Then I poked holes in the canvas with an awl, threaded a needle and drew each warp through a hole to the back. 

Warps are tied together with a square knot in groups of four.
I will cover the canvas backs with paper to hide the damage done by ungluing the warps, 
and move the picture wire.   

So often mounting can be an afterthought.  We are excited by our design and want to start weaving, and we'll figure out the mounting later.  I can't tell you how many times I've learned the hard way to spend more time at the beginning thinking about how I want to present the piece.  In fact, as you can see from the above, this was one of those times! 

This talk about beginnings and endings seems fitting for the last blog post of this year.  Wherever you are and whatever you're doing these days, I wish you the joy of the season and the gift of abundant hope for a better new year.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Rebecca Mezoff's The Art of Tapestry Weaving

It's been a banner year for books about tapestry, and one of the most anticipated books of the year came out last week. I've read every word of Rebecca Mezoff's book The Art of Tapestry Weaving and I can report that it not only meets our expectations, it exceeds them.  It is a vital introduction to the art of tapestry for beginners, and a valuable resource for intermediate and advanced weavers as well.  We haven't had a good instructional manual for decades, and this book is the updated guide we need.  It is essential.  

I was eager to get this blog post out and so I was tempted to skim or skip sections that covered aspects of tapestry weaving that I thought I knew.  But as I read I continually found that I was picking up new tips, some of which solved nagging little problems I had struggled with for years.  (Some these are rather embarrassing to share, but I do so in the knowledge that we are all lifelong students of tapestry; there is always more to learn.)  I have learned for example, how to construct a butterfly better so it doesn't fall apart.  I have finally learned to sew slits in a way that doesn't create the appearance of little zipper teeth, and why it can be better to sew slits as you weave.  I have learned why beating too hard, with a weighted beater (one of my favorite tools up to now) is not a good idea.  And so on.  I imagine many readers will pick up similar tips.  

In her forward, Sarah Swett recommends that readers work through the book with a warped loom nearby, to try things out.  Good advice!  I'm planning to experiment with weaving a curve both line-by-line (something I've never loved to do) and by building separate shapes.  It will be interesting to see if the results look different.

It is immediately obvious that the book is the fruit of years of teaching tapestry.  Rebecca has taught thousands of students in person and online, and she is intimately familiar with the questions and stumbling blocks new weavers face.  Daunting choices about looms, yarns, and techniques (weave from the front or the back?  butterflies or bobbins?) all need to be made before you make your first pass of weft through warp.  Rebecca walks new weavers step-by-step through these choices, clearly explaining the reasons behind each recommendation she makes.  And yet she is not dogmatic, allowing that there are several possible choices at each juncture, and outlining the pros and cons of each.  The book logically moves through the steps from warping the loom carefully (whatever kind of loom it is), bubbling and weaving straight lines, to color blending techniques, managing slits and joins, and weaving shapes and curves. She concludes with useful advice on ways to mount and hang finished work.

One of my favorite sections was about choosing yarn.  I remember as a new tapestry weaver being completely flummoxed for awhile about how and where to get yarn appropriate for tapestry. Experienced weavers would say, "you can weave with almost anything," and while that is true once your mind and fingers have built up a muscle memory for the process, weaving with a wide variety of yarns at once can introduce one more source of technical frustration that beginners don't need.   Rebecca wisely offers four "anchor yarns" as possibilities, and recommends that new weavers choose just one to work with exclusively as they learn.  This simplifies learning so much. 

Perhaps most importantly for new weavers, Rebecca makes it seem possible: 

"Once we know a little about tapestry weaving, it feels unreachable from our living rooms and home studios,  I'd like to challenge that notion,  Start at the beginning, allow yourself to play with simple design, and embrace sampling.  Step by step, you can definitely do this."  

I love that Rebecca urges weavers to experiment, to make samples, to follow those "what if" ideas.  Yes, they might not all succeed, but you will definitely learn something and your weaving will improve.  Tapestry can seduce us with the promise of perfection (square!  flat!  straight edges!), but Rebecca urges us to remember that it's a textile.  The weft "bosses the warp around" and the yarn has memory!  Perfection is elusive.  Rebecca's chapter on designing for tapestry, using a cartoon, and the special challenges posed by small-format weaving is totally solid.   

As a book, this is a beautiful volume.  Photographs and even diagrams are in full color, and clearly illustrate each point.  More than simply a how-to manual, the book offers inspiration by showing examples of tapestries woven by contemporary artists.  I am honored to be one of the artists whose work is pictured.  

There is also an index which I expect to use frequently, as a forest of post-it notes can only go so far!  Additionally, an appendix at the end covers all the knots used in tapestry-making (thank you!!), how to make leashes, and how to build pipe looms.  Just having all this nuts-and-bolts info in one place is incredibly helpful. 

Many of you have already ordered your book and are impatiently awaiting its arrival.  I understand an electronic version is available on Kindle if you just can't wait, but do buy the physical book too.  It's worth it for those photos and diagrams.  

Rebecca mentioned during one of her book launch events that Storey Publishing held her to a strict 300-page word limit.  I asked whether there were things she had had to leave out, and whether someday perhaps, after she recovers from the years-long effort of making this book, she might write another.  She said that yes, there were a few techniques that she simply didn't have room to cover in detail (hachures, for example) and that she would like to cover designing for tapestry in more depth.  I am hopeful that we will have more of Rebecca's experience and clear insight on that subject in book form someday.   

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Talks too much"

 It's a bit of embarrassing family lore that a teacher wrote "Molly talks too much" on my report card once.  Even worse, it was my kindergarten teacher!  I've definitely been feeling that way lately, as I've given a spate of Zoom talks and lectures.  It has been a lot of fun, actually, despite a few terrifying technical glitches here and there, and I'm so grateful to have the chance to connect with my tapestry tribe this way.  I miss you guys!

But I've neglected my studio work and this blog. So this will be short and sweet. . . just a few pics of the latest experiment cut off the loom, and a list of the links where you can catch a couple recordings of the public talks I've done. 

Untitled watercolor sketch and warp painted with blue splotches

In progress. . . weaving from the side and playing around with open weave

Finished piece, mounted on painted canvas, 11" x 14" 

Here are the links to the talks with a broad audience.  Others were to local guilds and are not being shared.

Damascus Fiber Arts School “Little Weavings, Big Impact”.
HGA Thread Talk “Designing the Big One” 
HGA is still uploading recordings to this YouTube channel so keep checking back.  Meanwhile, you can catch this 15-minute thread talk on Facebook.  I am the second of three speakers in this segment.

And yes, I am in the process of making more of my classes and workshops available via Zoom to guilds and conference.  Contact me for more info.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Tommye Scanlin's The Nature of Things: Essays of a Tapestry Weaver

In this awful year, one bright spot for tapestry weavers has been the appearance of a number of wonderful books* about tapestry, by prominent weaver-artists in our field.  And there are more books to come this fall** and in 2021!  It has been a feast of images and information so far, and I am happy to report that the latest, Tommye Scanlin's The Nature of Things:  Essays of a Tapestry Weaver, definitely deserves space on your shelf.  

Full disclosure:  Tommye Scanlin was, along with Pat Williams, my first tapestry teacher, way back in October 2010.  (I still refer sometimes to the handouts from that class for beginners.)  Since then Tommye has been a trusted tapestry mentor, friend, and for a time, a colleague on the board of the American Tapestry Alliance.  I was privileged to read an early draft of the book and have just finished reading an advance copy.  So I am not exactly an unbiased reviewer.  But our community is small--tightly-woven, you might say--and so in sharing my impressions of Tommye's book I feel I am sharing important information with my tapestry friends.  In fact I think artists of all media will enjoy and be encouraged and inspired by this book!  

Tommye with her tapestry "Flight," and her book The Nature of Things.

Enjoy:  Visually, you will love the profusion of full-color images.  Tommye shares photos of the landscapes that have inspired her work, photos of her sketchbooks and working process, and photos of several of her tapestries.  She walks us through important themes in her work, all based on her close observation and deep feeling for elements of the natural world.  Flowers, leaves, feathers, stones, and trees have all inspired her.  A favorite strategy is to focus on a small thing, a leaf or feather, paying it close attention, enlarging it to monumental size, giving it "a presence in the world beyond its seasons of growth and decline. . .taking the opportunity and time to notice and honor that tiny bit of life in the world"   (email interview with me, Sept. 6, 2020).   Because Tommye has taken that time and care, we too slow down in front of one of her tapestries, mesmerized by the image and the sensitive interpretation in line and color of the subject.  

Tommye with Hope is the Thing with Feathers

While Tommye is interested in "making pictures," she is even more interested in sharing her deep feeling for the natural world.  Immersion in that world is balm for the soul right now. 

Be encouraged:  Many of us have taken a winding path to weaving tapestry, working in other artistic media and forms of fiber arts before settling on tapestry, and Tommye is no different.  She grew up in an educational environment not particularly hospitable to art-making, and in order to become an artist Tommye trained as an art teacher.  Lucky for us!  Tommye learned early on to assess and adapt to the wide range of learning styles in a given classroom.  (I recall how patient she was with my newbie difficulty in grasping that when beginning and ending a weft with a half-hitch, it looks exactly the same on a full or empty warp.)

For years Tommye's art-making took place around a full schedule of earning her own degrees and teaching.  Like many weavers, she has had to juggle responsibilities and make a concerted effort to carve out time for learning about and making tapestry.  

 Tommye is generous in acknowledging the importance of several key teachers and mentors in her development, from Bob Owens at North Georgia College to Edwina Bringle at Penland School of Craft, and much later, Archie Brennan and Susan Martin-Maffei in various tapestry workshops.  These teachers influenced not only her artistic development, but clearly fed Tommye's own passion for teaching and a strong desire to mentor other artists.   Most recently Tommye and her husband have sponsored a two-week residency for visual artists at the Lillian E. Smith Center in Georgia.  In sharing her own dedicated and ongoing pursuit of artistic education, Tommye gives us permission to take our own work and our development as artists seriously.   This is no small thing. 

Photographs taken while Tommye was in residence at Lillian E. Smith Center  
Stays at LES have inspired several of Tommye's tapestries.

Be inspired:  

Tommye shared with me that The Nature of Things is more of a "why to book--not a how to book."  For each of us this "why to" weave will be different--but it's important to get clear on why we are called to weave (or make other kinds of art).  When we are able to figure out what we are most passionate about, and how to translate that into visual terms, we are on our way.  

But we don't have to be literally on our way!  It is good to be reminded right now that we do not need to travel to exotic locales to find inspiration.  Tommye has found all she needs in the landscape of southern Appalachia.  "There is a beauty in the limits of place and time," (p. xiii) she says. 

It is interesting to see examples of Tommye's early fiber work and to get many glimpses into her working process.  Tommye even shares some private moments of doubt and uncertainty that come with making art. She describes painful life experiences and the artwork that resulted from them.  For me is always helpful to know that an artist whose work is fully mature and accomplished has had those moments . . . but not been stalled by them.  Tommye's response to hard times is always to work through them.  She writes that she must "look, draw, paint, take photographs, read, ponder, write, and weave every day" (p. 38).  

When I asked Tommye what advice she has for weavers, both new and experienced, she shared "weave every darn day!"  She went on to advise, "be kind to yourself when you find yourself in a down cycle in energy, creativity, focus.  All things go in cycles and the flow of your ideas will shift if you give yourself permission to be OK with what's happening now.. . . The muse will catch up with you, or you with her, eventually."  Wise words for all of us.  

Readers who are inspired to take up tapestry will be glad to see that the book contains a set of appendices that cover the basics of tapestry weaving, a glossary of terms, and  instructions for building a copper pipe loom, all very helpful for new weavers.  And the nerd in me appreciated that many incidents and ideas are fully documented in footnotes that allow the reader to delve further.  This is a thoughtfully-put-together book.  

And another is on the way!  Tommye has a how to book coming out next spring, Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond:  Planning and Weaving with Confidence, due in May 2021 from Schiffer Publishing.  This book gathers together Tommye's handouts, design exercises, and insights gleaned from decades of teaching art and tapestry weaving.  Tommye shared that her goal in this book is to be "accessible to anyone whether they've studied art and design or not."  I predict it will be another must-have. 

The Nature of Things:  Essays of a Tapestry Weaver by Tommye Scanlin is available from major book retailers.

*Earlier this year, these books came out:  

Anatomy of a Tapestry:  Techniques, Materials, Care by Jean Pierre Larochette and Yadin Larochette.  Reviewed HERE by Rebecca Mezoff and HERE by Elizabeth Buckley. 

Also new is The Art is the Cloth:  How to Look at and Understand Tapestries by Micala Sidore.  Reviewed HERE by Rebecca Mezoff and HERE by Elizabeth Buckley. 

**Rebecca Mezoff's book The Art of Tapestry Weaving is due out in late October 2020.  You can read her blog post about the process HERE


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Preview of Live Wire: Materials of a Revolution

I had a treat last week.  Santa Fe gallery form & concept, which focuses on work at the intersection of fine art, fine craft and design, gave me and a small (socially-distanced and masked) group of local tapestry artists a sneak preview of the new exhibit, Live Wire:  Materials of a Revolution.  The nationally juried and invitational fiber art exhibit was launched in cooperation with the Española Valley/New Mexico Fiber Arts Center.  The exhibit is on view by appointment at the gallery through October 10 and also online at the form&concept website.   

Co-Juror and Gallery Director Jordan Eddy writes that  "Fiber is the material of revolution.  . . . In recent decades, fiber artists from Judy Chicago to Faith Ringgold have provided potent kindling for social and political movements."  

A friend of mine on the tour commented that normally she is not drawn to "political art" but she found the pieces we saw surprisingly subtle, engaging and thought-provoking.  As we were a group of tapestry artists, we were naturally thrilled to see four pieces by Erika Diamond, including the much-published Three Fates.  It was a pleasure to see Diamond continuing to explore the theme of disaster and emergency.  The scenes may be specific (a heart attack, putting on an oxygen mask in an airplane) but the metaphorical import is spot-on for our times.

Erika Diamond, Airline Series:  Mother and Child Inhale, 2014.  
Handwoven alpaca tapestry, 24" x 32"

These linked pieces by Tali Weinberg drew us in with the beautiful shimmering color and intricate woven pattern.  The conceptual impact came when we realized they are a "data visualization" of 138 years of temperature records for the Earth's surface, on land and on the sea, and that the shimmer comes from the use of recycled fishing line.  

Tali Weinberg, Water Bodies (Ocean) and Water Bodies (Land), 2019.
138 years of temperature data for 29 percent of the Earth’s surface, hemp dyed with plant- and insect-derived dyes, petrochemical-derived fishing line, 35" x 50" (Ocean) and 35" x 42" (Land).

detail, Tali Weinberg, Water Bodies (Land), 2019.
138 years of temperature data for 29 percent of the Earth’s surface, hemp dyed with plant- and insect-derived dyes, petrochemical-derived fishing line, 35" x 42"

I enjoyed discovering the work of New Mexico artist Rosemary Meza-Desplas, who embroiders images with her own human hair.  She writes:  
My drawings are created by hand-sewing my hair into various surfaces. I have been sewing with hair since 2000. The decision to utilize hair as a vehicle for making art is informed by socio-cultural symbolism, feminism, body image issues, and religious symbolism. Collecting and sorting my hair is a ritualistic act.
Rosemary Meza-Desplas, detail, What you Whispered Should be Screamed, 2018.
Handsewn human gray hair on black twill fabric (artist's hair), 35"x 33"x2.25" overall

The image of a woman screaming in rage and anguish really hits home these days (even if the piece was made pre-Covid), and the inescapable thought that the artist has literally been tearing her hair out to make the work only adds to the impact.  

I would be remiss if I did not include an image of the elephant, er, VW Beetle, in the room. 

Priscilla Dobler, El Volkswagen, 2020
Wood, thread, audio 

This facsimile of a VW Beetle dominates the atrium space of the gallery and provoked bemused wonderment in our group.  According to the press release for the show, "Priscilla Dobler's woven Volkswagen Beetle [is] a life-sized actualization of the corporate and capitalist influence in the arts."  For me the Beetle has other associations, and the bright colors of the weaving and the sheer playfulness of the concept belied any intended critique of capitalism.  Here is an excerpt from the artist's statement:
I wanted to create a life-size woven Volkswagen to highlight the harm done by industrialization. Environmental issues like land erosion and the exploitation and displacement of black, brown and indigenous people are legacies of this production. When we think of iconic objects and images in Mexican culture the Volkswagen always comes to mind. The seductive beauty, color and technological engineering hide a dark and violent past. 
The statement goes on to summarize the origins of the Beetle in Nazi Germany.  Upon reading the statement, I have a better understanding of the artist's intent, but sadly this intent is not evident to viewers of the piece who do not read the statement.  (Images and the artist's statement for this piece will be uploaded to the online gallery soon.)   
We did not get to see every piece in the exhibit at the preview, and I am planning to return to see the show in its entirety.  If you're not near Santa Fe, I urge you to settle in with your favorite beverage and explore the exhibit at leisure in the online gallery.  It is organized according to "threads" such as Urgency, Identity, Ecology and History, among others, and each artwork is presented with beautiful photography and the artist's statement.  

P.S. Our group got a bonus treat from then-Sales Director William Dunn who led our tour:  an in-depth look at four tapestries by the late Hal Painter, weaver extraordinaire and co-founder of the American Tapestry Alliance.  William shared the fruit of his research into Painter's work and career, and we enjoyed seeing his work up close.  You can see three of Painter's tapestries by scrolling down on this page in the gallery's online Shop.  

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Working in Series

Many thanks to fellow tapestry weaver Michiele Elliott for suggesting that I blog about working in series.  It's a huge topic, but then again, if not now, when?

Probably each artist who works in a series, in whatever medium, has unique reasons for doing so.  All I can do is share my own reasons and experience and urge you to poll the makers you know about their experience with series.  

If you have not worked in a series before, it could be that your main question is, How do I know if this idea is worthy of a series?  Here is a checklist of sorts that might help:

  • Do I have lots to say about the idea?  Lots of thoughts about different directions it could go?  This is probably the best reason to do a series.  You have more ideas and possible directions than you could possibly cover in one piece.  In a recent blog post, Rebecca Mezoff included this footnote:  **I believe this is also why I like to work in series when weaving tapestries. I get an idea but it takes me quite a few tries before I have explored it or perfected it to my liking.  Along similar lines, photographer Sam Elkind (whom I happen to be married to) says "the goal for a series is to follow the common feature of the images to concentrate on and build up the strongest possible grouping.  I seek the most compelling graphical elements of the images and shape them until the images in the series rhyme with each other--creating not a repetition, but rather a reverberation in which the images build on each other." I love that idea of the different pieces in a series "rhyming" or "reverberating" with each other without repeating.  (By the way, Sam just published a book called Summer Music that is a perfect illustration of a tight series of work.  Just sayin’!) 
  • Am I really excited about it?  You will need this excitement to carry you through what could be an extended project.  Sam says, "Sometimes a series just stands up and demands attention."  If you have an idea that you just can't stop thinking about, that's a clue!  Pay attention!  Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic that ideas that are ignored or postponed for too long will eventually seek and find another artist to play with.  
  • Do I have the time and energy to start a series right now?  This question is not so much about whether the idea is series-worthy, but whether the time is right.  For some of us, corona-time is a great opportunity to tackle that big project we've been thinking of; for others, it's way too daunting in such a stressful time and the mere thought makes us want to lie down.  Or get another cookie.  Honor and respect where you are.  
If you're not sure about the answers to these questions and aren't ready to commit to a capital-S Series, it's okay to just sneak up on the idea.  Do a small piece about it, see if that scratches the itch for you. . . or if it makes you even more excited to keep going on this subject or approach.

Why should you even consider working in a series?  Some of the answers are implied above--it gives you the chance to explore an idea, or a group of related ideas, in some depth.  Some ideas are just too big to fit everything you want to say about them into one piece.  

A series is also useful practice in artistic discipline.  I know, that doesn't sound like much fun--like saying "Eat your vegetables--they're good for you."  But for me, it's been true that when I push myself to finish something, even when I feel like I've run out of steam--that's when some of the best ideas happen.  You work through all the obvious first, second and third ideas.  When you get to the seventh or tenth idea, you find yourself in genuinely new territory.  This is what happened to me when I worked in handmade paper in art school.  The best pieces were the ones I did last in the series.

In my artistic life, I have completed perhaps four series of work.  Each one has been made in a different medium, in different circumstances, and with very different inspiring ideas. In graduate school I did a series of  collages, reliefs and sculptures in handmade paper, all of which were inspired by aspects of the natural world--and by exploring the properties of handmade paper.  The primary motivating inspiration for this series was the need to have a certain amount of work for my MA thesis show. 

Aspen Grove, (c) Molly Elkind c. 2000 

For my first solo show, I did a series called Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek, mixed media fiber collages about hikes along Dodd Creek in north Georgia.  I had an epiphany of sorts while gazing at and photographing the beautiful waters of the creek and needed to explore the imagery and the emotional content in some detail, so the series happened.  It incorporated handmade paper, fabric, and bead embroidery. 

Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek #8, (c) Molly Elkind 2009 

For my second solo show, I did two series of tapestries.  One series, My Real Name is Mary, was inspired by an icon of the Virgin Mary and by my own history as a woman who carries that weighty name Mary.  The other series, Book of Hours, was inspired by the colors and patterns of illuminated manuscripts.  You might call this my medieval period!   You can see some of the pieces from these series on my website here and here.

Mater Dolorosa, (c) Molly Elkind 2017

Currently I have a few different series underway, but I suspect that they may all be bleeding into each other at this point.  My minimes, small improv pieces of weaving, are really not so different from my experimental collage-inspired pieces.  Some of the pieces about the grasses and wildflowers of the high desert are also experimental and could be called minimes.  It may be that all this work is rather too diffuse to fit into one series, and that's okay too.  

Wild Grass, (c) Molly Elkind 2020

Native Grasses, (c) Molly Elkind 2019

Sometimes a series is only apparent in the rear view mirror.  You look back at work you were doing at a particular time, or on a particular subject, or in a certain medium, and you realize, These pieces all hang together; they are all about the same thing.  Sometimes as artists we don't really know what we're about until we can look back on it with some distance.  So a series can be a post-hoc description too.  

Have you ever worked in a series?  How was the experience for you?  Let me know in the comments. 

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!