Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Paths to becoming tapestry artists

We've been having an interesting and lively discussion lately on Facebook and in our blog comments about whether art school is a necessary preparation for becoming a tapestry artist.  MY POST followed THIS POST by  Rebecca Mezoff for the British Tapestry Group.  After my post, Mandy Pedigo wrote THIS post about what she learned from her MFA program.  Mandy's excellent article reminded me of how much I had learned in my program 20 years ago, and I linked to it on Facebook.  

I really appreciate the comments of everyone who has written on this topic.  It has, not surprisingly, touched a nerve in many of us.  As Mandy says,

There are a lot of ways to become an artist. You can learn on your own – study books, journals, take classes and workshops, you can find a mentor who will teach you, become an apprentice or you could go to university for a degree. The truest thing that I know is there is no one choice that will make you feel validated. (my emphasis)

As weaving artists we are prone to self-doubt and insecurity.  Making work in our own voice, work that we are proud of, is hard.  Tapestry is a challenging medium and many of us find it a lifelong challenge to learn to speak its language fluently.  There is no reason for us to make it any harder by dividing ourselves up according to how we have learned, or from whom.  My sincerest apologies to anyone who felt offended or put off by anything I said or by anyone's comments in this discussion.  My intention has been only to honor everyone's path. 

What has emerged for me from our discussion is a kind of consensus that, as Rebecca said in her comment on her BTG post, "there are many paths to our individual goals."  Some of us, like Mandy and me, know that we learn best in school, and we have the opportunity and resources to pursue that.  For me it was a way for me, in my late 30s, of eliminating a lot of time in trial and error and reinventing the wheel on the path to designing my work (at the time, quilts).  Others of us find teachers among practicing artists, and this is the time-honored and very valuable way of learning tapestry.  Those who have been trained by James Koehler or Archie Brennan or Jean-Paul Larochette or any of our other legendary tapestry weavers (too many to name them all here) would not trade that experience for anything.  

What I'm interested in now is the process of life-long learning:  no matter how we started, how do we continue to grow and develop as tapestry weavers (or any other kind of artist)?  I jotted down some thoughts:

  • Pay attention--to what you are passionate about, what grabs your attention, in the world and in art.  Slow down and really look--so often we are scrolling on our devices or doing that slow museum walk past the art on the walls, taking each work of art in in under a minute.  When something grabs you, stop and study it.  Become curious about why you responded this way.  This can give you clues about your own way forward.
Right now, I'm obsessed with yucca pods and how to portray them in tapestry.  
  • Follow through.  Honor your work by finding the time, somehow, some way, to make it.  Get up early--stay up late--shift your priorities if necessary.  Step away from the screens for an hour or a day.  When I first started to work as a full-time artist, I adopted the mantra "Pay yourself first."  Investment advisors tell us to put money from every paycheck in our savings before we spend it anywhere else.  I decided early on to give my first, best hours every day to my artwork, and fit in the chores and errands later.  It made a huge difference.  
  • Stop dissing yourself.  In the middle of a project it often looks wonky and weird and it doesn't help to listen to the inner demon who tells you you're no good, have no talent, etc. etc.  Just try to have faith, keep at it, finish it and then decide what you think.  If nothing else, you will have learned something.  No one piece is a referendum on you as an artist. 
  • Set a goal for yourself.  You could decide, all on your own, to make a series or a whole "body of work."  You could decide to do a tapestry diary and weave something small every day (and you don't have to start on January 1).  Lots of weavers are adapting this approach and doing very cool things.  You could work through one of the really good technique books---Rebecca Mezoff's new The Art of Tapestry Weaving, Jean-Pierre Larochette and Yadin Larochette's Anatomy of a Tapestry, or Mette Lise Rössing's book The Thread's Course in Tapestry, just to name a few.  
Molly Elkind, Mary (the anxiety of influence), handwoven tapestry, (c) 2017
I did a whole series based on my obsession with a 6th century icon of the Virgin Mary (here, in blue)
  • Recognize that art is a long game.  For most of us it takes a lot of time and practice to get good at what we do.  Measure your progress against your own previous work rather than against others' work. (This one is hard for me.)  Know that there will be fallow periods where it seems like nothing is happening (like maybe this whole past year?).  Ride them out; read; keep looking and being attentive.  Keep your hands busy doing something, even little woven doodles.  Inspiration will come. 
Molly Elkind, Out of My Hands, embroidery, mid-1990s.  
It's been a long journey from the Amish quilts that first inspired me to tapestry. 
  • Seek out chances to learn and grow.  Be your own faculty advisor!  I don't have to say this to most of you, I suspect.  One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been an explosion of great content, much of it free or nearly so, online.  We've had a surfeit of great books on tapestry come out in the past year, and more are on the way.  
Some recent books on tapestry I've enjoyed.

It should be obvious that I'm still learning.  I'd love to hear from you all how you keep learning too. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Book learnin'--what good is it?

Did any of you see the excellent guest blog post Rebecca Mezoff wrote for the British Tapestry Group? In it she describes how she senses that because she trained as an apprentice to a master weaver rather than attending art school, somehow she is less qualified as a weaver and a teacher.  She questions,  "Is there a perception among tapestry weavers that tapestry is somehow sacred or only for people who study for many years to master it?"  Rebecca goes on to say that among expert weavers there can seem to be some disrespect for those who are "only hobbyists."  Quite rightly, she pushes back against this and against the idea that there is only one proper way to be trained as an artist or to weave tapestry.  As she says in her follow-up comment to the post, "there are many paths to our individual goals."  Amen.  

As it happens, I did go to art school and got an MA with a focus on fiber art (the university I attended did not offer the MFA at the time, "just" the MA).  I focused on paper making and surface design and to my regret now, I did not study weaving at all, much less tapestry, when I was in school.  I did learn some very useful concepts and processes there  . . . but like you, I bet, I also know many fine artists and weavers who are self-taught or informally trained who do amazing and wonderful work.  I'm here to tell you an MA or MFA is no magic bullet!  There is no secret art school knowledge that guarantees success as an artist.  I still struggle to some extent with every design I make.  

That said, it is my passion to share with students some of the terms, concepts and processes that I learned that can make it all go a bit easier.  Lately I've been preparing two slide talks that go over some really helpful design concepts, specifically in terms of tapestry.   Scroll down for the details.  

These are some of the books I've been poring over lately.  It's been a fascinating dive into recent tapestry and fiber art history.  It's a wild and woolly world out there!  I've had a lot of fun looking at and sorting through dozens of the best contemporary tapestries and fiber works, figuring out how to talk about all the diversity in an organized way.  

This Saturday, March 13 at 10:00 a.m. Central Time, I will be with the Weavers Guild of Minnesota sharing a lecture about Tapestry Design Elements and Principles.  That might sound dry and academic, and it is possible I'm a bit of a design nerd.  But I strongly believe that familiarity with some basic terms and concepts that are used to talk about how artworks are put together can be super useful for tapestry weavers.  For me, it's not about throwing around art jargon, it's about knowing how to identify and figure out how the parts of a tapestry are working together.  For me these concepts are helpful in talking about tapestry, interpreting it, evaluating it . . . and diagnosing what might not be working in my own work.  In the talk this weekend, I've narrowed down the usual long list of Elements of Art and Principles of Design to the eight that I think are especially important for tapestry weavers.  We look at each element and principle in terms of how it works in lots of actual tapestries.  

Go HERE to register for this Saturday's talk about Tapestry Design Elements and Principles.  The tickets are on a sliding scale starting at $10, and the lecture will be recorded and available for two weeks to those who register. 

Next weekend, on Saturday, March 20 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, I'll be presenting a lecture for the Florida Tropical Weavers Guild virtual conference about a particular trend in contemporary tapestry, toward work with lots of texture, relief elements, mixed media and even 3-D work. This topic is of great interest to me  lately and raises interesting questions about what tapestry is and isn't today. HERE is where you can find out more about this talk.   You can head HERE to become a member of the guild and register for the conference.  I'll be presenting this same lecture for the Weavers Guild of Minnesota on May 1, and you can register HERE for that date.  

It hasn't all been book-work lately. . . I'm about halfway through weaving the piece on my floor loom with the working title SkyGrass.  

I'm also designing a new piece but it's changing so often I'm not ready to share yet!

I hope you are immersed in something fun these days.  Stay well.