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!