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?