Friday, February 11, 2022

Your Fiber Ancestry

Who are your fiber ancestors?  By that I mean, for starters, who has taught you?  Like our immediate families, our first teachers in a given medium have a huge and lasting impact on our practice.  I have been fortunate to take classes with Tommye Scanlin and Pat Williams (my first teachers--how lucky was I?), James Koehler, Kathe Todd-Hooker, Mary Zicafoose, Joan Baxter, Rebecca Mezoff, and Rowen Schussheim-Anderson (This is already a link-heavy post so I am not linking to these outstanding weavers; I trust that you can google them if you don't already know their work).  I have learned so many important things from each of them.  And I've written recently about the huge impact my fiber arts professor Lida Gordon had on me.  There are so many more teachers out there I'd still like to study with too.  And though I've never studied with them in person, books by Carol Russell, Mette Lise Rössing, and Joanne Soroka have also informed and influenced me greatly.  

In life and in art there are also our adopted families--those friends who become like family to us.  In tapestry these might be the artists whom you've never met, who may be dead, but whose work has impacted your own.  This wider family of tapestry ancestors has been on my mind lately.  I've been working on a talk I'll give at Convergence in July called The Contemporary Tapestry Scene:  Trends & Traditions, so I've been researching fiber art of the past 50-75 years.   I've also been delving into catalogs, books and videos by and about artists I admire, and I'm thinking about what I can learn from them and how their approaches to fiber and weaving compare to my own.  As with my real-life teachers, I learn from each of them--if sometimes it's how my own orientation or approach are different.  

Among my own most important adopted ancestors are Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney and a recent addition for me, Olga de Amaral.  Sue Lawty, Silvia Heyden, and Agnes Martin have also expanded my understanding of what is possible (look for a future blog post about them).  Massive museum shows and important books can be--and have--been devoted to each of these artists.  My purpose here is just to share them with you, partly to clarify for myself why I love their work, and partly in hopes that you will find them inspiring too if you haven't already.  

Molly Elkind, detail, Deep Dive minime (c) 2020

Sheila Hicks' influence for me is primarily through her minimes, those small, improvisational studies she has done for decades on a simple wooden stretcher-bar loom.  The  book Sheila Hicks:  Weaving as Metaphor* contains color reproductions of dozens of her minimes (she has made over a thousand).  This book freed me to weave improvisationally, to follow with warp and weft the "what ifs" that often occur to one while weaving, even to embrace technical awkwardness on the way to new ideas.  Hicks's work shows me that the yarn and the weaving process itself is enough to carry a piece; one doesn't have to weave an image or picture.  Her work is the inspiration for my Convergence class Weave a Minime (This class is full and has a waiting list but I will offer it after Convergence to guilds).  

Molly Elkind, detail Open Warp Vista:  Big Sky (c) 2020

Lenore Tawney is one of the American weavers who first took weaving off the loom (and off the wall) and into three airy dimensions.  Her eccentric weaving on very fine, open warps may be fragile and unstable, but it is gorgeous and for me, inspiring. Her "Cloud" installations of thousands of hanging threads strip weaving back to its barest poetic essence, the empty warp.  Like Hicks, she was inspired by the qualities of her materials and by the process of weaving.  She also loved to do collage and I appreciate her work there too. Books about her work that I've enjoyed include Lenore Tawney:  Mirror of the Universe and Lenore Tawney:  A Retrospective.  You can find her collages in Lenore Tawney:  Signs on the Wind

Molly Elkind, samples of woven paper yarn;
top sample printed with ashes in matte medium

While I had seen works by Olga de Amaral in person and in books, I did not fall in love until I recently came across these two videos about her:  Olga de Amaral:  The House of my Imagination and Olga de Amaral:  To Weave a Rock.  (Apparently "weave a rock" was an assignment she gave once to her students at Haystack.  Her approach is metaphorical and poetic.  Hmmmm. . . how would I weave a rock?)  It is Olga's wholehearted love for her materials, her metaphorical, poetic approach, and her love of obsessive, repetitive process and pattern that pull me in.  Olga de Amaral does not hesitate to color her woven surfaces with pigment, gold leaf, clay and other materials.  As the photo above shows, in my own way I have been experimenting with unusual yarns and with printing on woven surfaces.  There is also a book entitled Olga de Amaral:  To Weave a Rock which is wonderfully inspiring.  

Ultimately, it's impossible to trace all the artists who have influenced us.  We are in fact influenced by everything we've seen, whether in a museum or on Instagram or in popular visual culture in ways we may be barely aware of.  We're invisibly influenced by the teachers and artists who influenced our teachers.  The weight of the tradition we were born into--European, Native, South American, or any culture that values weaving--this is the very air we breathe that we may take for granted.  

Who are your fiber ancestors--both your direct lineage and your adopted family?  Tell us in the comments below.  

* I am not recommending or benefiting from any of these booksellers' links; they are just informational.