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. 


Rebecca Mezoff said...

Thanks for carrying on the conversation Molly! It occurs to me that in my original prompt on the BTG blog, I failed to be more specific about the kind of education. I don't think there are perhaps any university programs that offer a concentration in tapestry specifically in the USA and other countries take more of the workshop approach to learning tapestry. Also university systems elsewhere in the world are very different than the USA. I referenced the MFA in that blog post. In the US, the MFA is a terminal degree in art--the highest degree a studio artist can get. Degrees mean different levels of study in other countries (not that it really matters!). Just another thought to add to the pile! If you go for an MFA in fibers, you're not necessarily going to have anyone there who can teach you the language of tapestry. And that brings us right back to finding our own language, doesn't it? Still, learning the language as you so perfectly say it here Molly, is important. So as many of us do, just start, build a community, and the individual path will be come clearer if you do the work. (Also, if I do decide to go get an MFA in 10 or 20 years, don't throw this back at me! *wink*)

silk said...

Hi Molly. Thanks for your informative and instructive blog, and for calming the heat in this degree/no degree issue. I do have an MFA from Syracuse University majoring in printmaking. Having that degree was/is required in order to teach within the college/university systems in the US, and that was my goal. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach undergrads while enrolled in my degree--another credential to add to teaching applications. It prepared me for my teaching career and for developing an art and design program for a community college.

An additional value of attending a graduate program was the weekly rigorous critique, when professors and other grad students questioned and challenged our creative work. The discussions addressed the reasoning behind and intent for the work. Having now retired from teaching, I look to online courses for new creative challenges, and Rebecca Mezoff's builds on the weaving courses I took in undergrad. But those graduate conversations (often not as polite as the word "conversation" suggests!) still speak loudly to me. I value those voices.

David C Johnson said...

It is interesting breaking down exactly what an education in creating art with tapestry entails. There is the technique and there is the art. Technique is a skill that can be learned while the art element requires one to be responsible for the history of art and expressing ones self in a way that is not redundant, it is an individual expression. We use design elements as a way to express ourselves through visual communication. In other words, we are learning to spell, put words together to make sentences, and putting paragraphs together to express ideas.We need to remember that Mind, Heart, and Hand working together allow us to create objects that are intellectually, emotionally, and technically balanced.