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