Wednesday, December 13, 2023


I've been noticing spirals a lot in my life and work lately.  This will be a post short on words and longer on images, because frankly I'm not sure yet what exactly the spirals are about.  Of course I know they are a multi-faceted symbol in cultures around the world.  But how they pertain to the current situation?   🤷Sometimes we have to feel our way, trusting that the meaning will come if we follow the . 

These narrow strips were woven on wire warps with a variety of fibers including wool, paper and plastic. 


Two details from the Shipwreck scene in the medieval Apocalypse tapestry in Angers, France.  I love the carefully stylized spirals in the waves that are overturning the boat.  Pattern and order amidst destruction.

Detail from my own tapestry entitled The Wreck, based on a collage I made five years ago (before I saw the Apocalypse) but recently decided to weave. 

Views of a small sample of a 3D woven spiral done in an online class with Vanina Bujalter.  I highly recommend the class if you are interested in weaving with supplemental warps and innovative techniques to create 3D forms in tapestry.  Find Vanina on Facebook at Vanina Bujalter Textiles and on Instagram @vaninabujalter

View of the labyrinth at Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM.  I spent a few days there on an art retreat last month and walked the labyrinth in the remains of the snow.  

Of course labyrinths and spirals are not exactly the same.  Spirals are potentially infinite coils that circle on and on, up and up or down and down (or sideways, I suppose).  Labyrinths are planned to have a definite entry point, an exit point and a center point for stillness.  When you walk a labyrinth, you find the path laid out for you so that you are frequently reversing direction.  It can call to mind the path of life--or of art--you take a few steps "forward" only to encounter a barrier that directs your steps "back."  You must trust that eventually you will reach the center, and then that you will eventually work your way back out and emerge.  It is perhaps the longest, least efficient way to go from A to B. 

Labyrinths allow for both movement or energy and stillness.  Spirals seem to me to embody only energy.  Whether it is positive energy or destructive energy, progress or regression, can be hard to know.  I often use the image of a spiral to describe the creative process for my students.  We might want to move in a direct, linear fashion from idea to finished weaving, with no missteps or stalls along the way.  But often the process is more circular--we move forward, then learn we must reconsider, return to the drawing board.  We move forward again with our new knowledge, only to find we might have to again pause to reconceive our project.  We are making progress, but it's not the shortest line possible between A and B!  

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Taking a quirky look back

If you've followed this blog for long you know I love to look back and to look forward as we approach the end of a calendar year.  I truly believe the best information about our personal and studio goals for the next year are to be found in reflecting on what we've done, not done, succeeded at--and failed at--in the recent past.  

This year I decided to take a twist on my usual approach, where I look at the extremely . . . um, optimistic goals I set back at the beginning of the year and note ruefully how many of them remain unaccomplished.  

This time I thought I'd be super-specific and quirky about this exercise in a way that is fun and maybe even inspiring for you to read as you look backward and forward for your own practice.  

So here are some questions you can ask yourself, and my own answers at the bottom, if you're interested.

1.  What did you make this year that you are proudest of?  And (here's the really important part) Why?  Why did you make it?  Why are you proud of it?  Do you want to make more like this?  

2.  What rabbit hole(s) did you go down that turned out to be fruitful?  Or that turned into dead ends, but necessary ones?  

3.  Did you travel anywhere that inspired you?  What exactly inspired you?  The scenery?  The art or craft you saw?  The people?  How can you bring that into your practice?

4.  If you read any helpful books or articles this year, what were they?  How did they inform your practice?

5.  Did you use any new materials in your work?  This can range from something as simple as silk instead of wool weft, or linen instead of cotton warp. . . or something more unusual like plastic or paper or wire in your weaving.  Will you continue to explore these or other new-to-you materials?  How can you choose your materials for their own expressive potential?

Of course the questions you ask yourself really depend on your own grounding assumptions about why you do what you do in the first place--what you hope to experience as a result--or in the process--of your weaving.  So that's a useful question too.  I find it helpful to journal about these things (I'm a wordy person) but you may prefer just mulling them over as you overunderoverunder, or talk about them with weaving or art friends. 

Here are my own answers to the questions. 

1.  Piece I made in 2023 that I'm proudest of, and why.  

Molly Elkind, canoe study.  Wire, various fibers, blue grama grass, plastic survey marking whiskers

This piece was tedious as all get-out to make.  I set up a small pin loom on foamcore with some nails, in the shape of a flattened canoe pattern.  I wove the piece in lots of little patches of different yarns, all of whose ends had to be tucked or sewn in.  I inserted the grass as I wove and tried really hard not to break it as I worked.  And then I removed it and stitched the seams that formed it into a canoe.  Every single thing about it was fiddly . . .and I hate fiddly!  And yet . . .  I really like it and am planning to make more such vessels, and to make them larger. There you go. 

2.  Deepest rabbit hole that ultimately led to a dead end for me:  basket-making.   As I became interested in making 3D forms I realized basket makers solved this mystery millenia ago, and that their weaving techniques might prove fruitful for me.  I experimented with making a few small baskets and soon realized this was a much more challenging and deeper medium than I had thought. (I seem to re-discover on an almost daily basis how humbling weaving of all sorts can be!)  I decided to stick with what I know, cloth-like weaving, and continue to explore its 3D potential.  

Molly Elkind, twined and coiled baskets from kits by Traditional Craft Kits

 I'm not showing you the really sad little twined experiment that convinced me to stick to weaving.

 3.   Most inspiring travel:  It was a crazy-busy year for travel for me, never to be repeated!  I was fortunate to see gorgeous landscapes in Iceland, in Nova Scotia, and in France.  But for my work, the tapestry tour to France has been the most influential on my current thinking.  I also keep thinking about the art I saw in Houston on a teaching jaunt to the Contemporary Handweavers of Texas conference.  (I wrote in previous blog posts here and here about the tapestry tour and here about the amazing art to be found in Houston.)  Mark Rothko's Chapel paintings continue to haunt me, with their dark but not wholly black palette.  Most of all, I'm haunted by this image from the Apocalypse tapestry in Angers.

Apocalypse, detail: The Second Trumpet:  The Shipwreck,  commissioned by Louis I of Anjou, designed by Jean Bondol, made by once-known weavers in the workshop of Robert Poisson, 1373-1382.

For me this image, with its fire from the sky and on land, its perfect storm tossing people into the sea, is an apt metaphor for the climate disaster we face in our own time.  My current work is about this. 

4.  Best book purchase: Baskets as Textile Art by Ed Rossbach.  Despite what I said about basketry not working out for me, this quotation from it now resides on my studio wall:

"The perishable thing which survives speaks most potently of time, of all time rather than the moment of its existence."  --Ed Rossbach, p. 49. 

The book was published decades ago but it provided useful context for the moment in which approaches to basketry moved toward sculpture.  Beyond that, though, I love to ponder the paradox, expressed so well here, that fiber work is both supremely perishable. . . and can, against all odds, last hundreds of years. 

As it happens, it's impossible to choose just one "best book" for me, for 2023.  Here's a few more:

The Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers, Liliane Delwasse.  Also:  Front and Back:  The Tapestry of the Apocalypse by Francis Muel.  I am currently obsessed with this tapestry.  These books are instrumental in my understanding of this amazing work.  

Martin Puryear:  Multiple Dimensions.  I saw one of Puryear's pieces in Houston and really loved it.  Then I saw him featured on PBS' Art 21 and now I appreciate even more his craft-based approach to sculpture.  His forms are abstract but so evocative. 

I've splurged on a couple of catalogs from the well-known craft gallery browngrotta and they have given me new food for thought in terms of 3D form and technique:  An Abundance of Objects and Influence and Evolution:  Fiber Sculpture . . . then and now.  More catalogs are on my wish list for Santa.   These catalogs allow me to broaden my perspective by looking at some of the most elegant and beautiful craft-based work being done in the world today. 

5.  Weirdest new-to-me material used in weaving I've been using a number of non-fiber materials in my weaving the last couple years--dried grasses, wire, plasticI am far from the first weaver to use these but for me they feel weird and challenging--and tremendously exciting for their expressive potential.  I explored a number of books about weaving with wire and natural materials:  Weaving with Wire by Christine K. Miller and Wild Textiles by Alice Fox.  The classic in the field is Textile Techniques in Metal by Arline M. Fisch

Molly Elkind, Bivium study.  Wire, wool, linen, survey marking whiskers.  2023.

This standing panel is another direction I want to explore in 2024.  Where does your work this year point you for next year?



Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tapestry myths--or truths??

It was great fun to participate in a panel discussion last week hosted by Handweavers Guild of America  as part of Spinning and Weaving Week.  Hosted by Julia Blake, Patsy Zawistoski and Tegan Frisino and I talked online about those weaving and spinning myths that get handed down through the generations and that ain't necessarily true.  We discussed how some myths are really just rules that are helpful for beginning spinners and weavers, and that once you get some experience working within the rules, you can understand how to break them effectively.  We talked about how some myths might start as just one person, maybe a teacher's, preferred way of doing things (warping back to front or vice-versa), and that as with most things, there is usually more than one "right" way to do something.   I held forth about how you don't have to weave tapestry on a cotton seine twine warp, or even weave over already-woven warps, or avoid linen warps, or conform to the tapestry traditions that dictate a certain size, shape, or theme for a piece to be a tapestry.  You can find the recording HERE if you were a registered attendee. 

One question Julia posed stumped me:  Are there any myths you can think of that are actually true?  Rules you maybe shouldn't break?  After the program was over, I had a few thoughts.

For the best results in tapestry, in which the weft yarns are beaten down firmly between rather widely spaced warps to make a weft-faced fabric,  tightly spun, non-stretchy yarns for weaving really are better than yarns made for knitting or crochet.  You simply need a sturdy, non-fluffy yarn to fill those spaces between the warps, a yarn that won't stretch as you bubble it in or pack down so much that you feel like it takes you forever to weave a half-inch.  Rebecca Mezoff  has written knowledgeably and extensively on this topic, and I refer you to her discussions if you're not convinced.  Yes, this means you usually have to mail order your tapestry yarns rather than popping down to the local yarn store and fondling the goods in person.  Take comfort in knowing that online stores can often stock far more options than a local brick-and-mortar place.

Does this mean you have to stick with wool?  Not at all!  Silk, linen, cotton, and more exotic fibers like stainless steel, hemp, paper and kudzu are all possibilities.  They each pose particular challenges in handling that require some practice and experimentation.  And then there are the found objects and upcycled materials . . . dried grasses and strips of plastic are two materials I'm playing with right now.  Really, the sky is the limit on wefts as long as you are willing to experiment. 

Woven sample of various blue yarns in my stash:  cotton, linen, paper, Churro, soysilk and linen, on linen warp, 8 epi

Molly Elkind, WUI 4: ashen.  Linen warp, paper, plastic survey whiskers, blue grama grass wefts, rubbed with ashes

Detail, Molly Elkind, WUI 4: ashen.  Linen warp, paper, plastic survey whiskers, blue grama grass wefts, rubbed with ashes

Another thought that occurred to me is that tension is always important.  Adequate and consistent warp tension make your weaving easier and yield a more consistent woven surface.  I re-learned this lesson recently when weaving with a wire warp.  The wire was springy and bendy and just wouldn't stay lined up nicely and in place, especially as I was finger-picking on a loom without heddles or a shedding device.  I worked around it, but it wasn't fun.   Next time, I'll use a Mirrix.  

Molly Elkind, Bivium study.  Wire warp, wool and linen wefts, survey whisker bundles.

 Consistent weft tension is also important.  Finding that sweet spot where you bubble enough to cover the warps comfortably with the just the right amount of weft takes practice.  Too little weft, too little bubbling, and your whole piece starts to draw in.  Too much slack in your weft makes little blips and bulges on the woven surface.  Sloppy, loose turns on warps can not only look bad but also push the selvedges out as they add just that little bit of extra bulk across the width of the tapestry.  Ask me how I know. . .

Indeed, when you think about it, in every fiber art tension is a factor--in crochet, in using a sewing machine, in embroidery, just to name a few--how you hold the needle or hook and pull the thread makes all the difference in the look of the finished piece.  Controlling tension is key.  (And that goes for the fiber practitioner too!)

My last thought on this topic is that basic principles of good design are not myths. Contrast is always important--contrast of value, color, shape, scale, line--this is what lends a piece visual excitement and interest.  (Even monochromatic pieces contrast with their environment, making an impact that way.)  Some contemporary artists might disagree, but I'd also say that unity, or at least coherence, is a key principle of successful design.  As a viewer, I want to sense that a piece is thoughtfully put together and not a random conglomeration of materials and techniques. 

Molly Elkind, Peachtree Boogie Woogie, collaged tapestry in three layered pieces.  Cotton warp, wool, linen, metallic wefts.
This piece started as a collage of papers chosen for their interesting patterns, textures and colors.  Even though it is woven in three purposely contrasting parts, befitting its origin as a collage, its use of some  repeated materials, techniques, and  colors help to unify it. 

If you're interested in knowing more about the essentials of good design for tapestry, check out the online class I'm offering next month through MAFA Virtual.  Open to all who have a minimal background in tapestry weaving, it's all about the nine key principles and strategies for designing tapestry that I've discovered over the years. 


Wednesday, September 13, 2023

New class: Essentials of Tapestry Design

Next to weaving, making up new classes has been one of my favorite things to do.  I love having an excuse to dive deep into a topic and share what I've learned with fellow weavers.  Right now I'm in the middle of creating a new workshop:  Essentials of Tapestry Design.  I'm distilling the crucial strategies, tips and design principles that have been scattered across a whole range of my classes into one place.  Plus I’m adding new content, since tapestry is bottomless and I keep finding out new things! This new workshop will make its debut online with Mid-Atlantic Fiber Association (MAFA) November 11, 16 and 18, 2023.  Get all the details and sign up HERE.  You can also just keep reading while I tell you a little about it. 

Over the years I've assembled quite a collection of lectures and workshops.  Each class has a bin of materials, samples and notes devoted to it, and those bins were starting to crowd out valuable yarn storage space in my studio!  Just kidding; you can always find room for more yarn, right?  There's a more important reason I've streamlined my class offerings.  I've found in each session I lead that the same questions and dilemmas keep coming up, and it seemed like it would be useful to gather all the crucial information together in one place, a kind of one-stop shopping for newer and intermediate weavers. You can see the new, tightly curated list of my workshops HERE

I've boiled down the key principles and strategies for designing tapestry to nine key concepts for Essentials.   Of course I can’t tell you all nine here—you’ll have to take the class!— but here’s a teaser:

Molly Elkind, WUI 1: platted. Linen, rayon, grama grass.  15" x 12" x 1.5" framed.

#1.  Observe your obsessions.  What in the world are you passionately interested in?  What kind of art do you love to look at?  You will be most inspired if you start with what already inspires you.   We'll drill down deep to see how you can mine your own obsessions for material.  If you've followed my work recently you know my own recent obsession has been the native plants in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where I live. 

Molly Elkind, photo of yucca pod in desert environment, one inspiration for the tapestry below.

Molly Elkind, Faraway Nearby.  Cotton, wool, linen, metallic, kudzu.  32" x 17" overall

#3.  Transform your source material.  It's not enough to have a gorgeous photo and say to yourself, "I'll weave this."  Learn how to go beneath the surface to discover what your real subject is and how you can interpret your source image to convey the important emotional charge the image has for you.  Tapestry is a unique artistic medium.  Images created in other mediums--whether photography, collage or paint--need to be significantly transformed to be weave-able.  This is where the rubber meets the road—where the yarn meets the loom.  Learn several strategies for making your image powerful—and weaveable. 

Molly Elkind, Virga.  Cotton.  Weaving is 6.5" x 9.5", mounted to 12" x 14".  How much more effective would this be if it were four times larger?  Six times? 

#4.  Size matters.  One of the most critical decisions you'll make is deciding what size your tapestry will be.  For many of us, constraints of space, time, and our available loom dictate this choice for us, often leading us to choose to weave small pieces.  Small can feel quicker, easier and just less risky.  Here's the thing, though:  not every image we'd love to weave is suitable for weaving in small format.   Learn how to figure out details of sett, warp size, weft size and direction of weaving to see if you can do justice to your image on the loom you have in mind.

Intrigued?  Want to learn more?  Sign up for the MAFA class HERE.   

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Impact of the Tapestry Tour of France part 2

Today I'm picking up where I left off last month, talking about my takeaways from the two-week tour of tapestry in France that I was fortunate to take in June.  I ended that post with this thought:

For me, the most moving work retains an essential mystery at its core, a stillness.  I experienced this when looking at the Lady and the Unicorn, the Apocalypse, and the Song of the World.  


Mon Seul Desir, detail, from The Lady and the Unicorn cycle of tapestries at the Museum of the Middle Ages, (formerly the Cluny) in Paris. (Sorry--photo distorted due to unavoidable camera angle.)
The Lady and the Unicorn is famously mysterious (kind of like Mona Lisa's smile).  No one agrees on what exactly the unicorn symbolizes.  The meaning of the sixth and final tapestry in the series, Mon Seul Désir (My Sole Desire) is especially up for debate.  Is the lady placing jewels into the jewelry box or taking them out to wear them?  Why?  Each of the other five tapestries in the set focuses on one of the five senses (sight, hearing and so on)--does this sixth one refer to a sixth, more spiritual sense?  If she is putting away her jewels, is she renouncing sensory and worldly delights?  The lady, her lady-in-waiting, the lion, the unicorn, and the rest of the menagerie--they're not saying.  There are many theories about the meaning of the tapestries, and it may be that there are multiple, complementary interpretations that are all valid.

Taste, detail from The Lady and the Unicorn at the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny), in Paris

Ultimately it didn't matter to me what the story was.  The lady and her servant stand still, frozen in mid-graceful gesture, enacting a mystery known only to them. The animals seem to know their roles as supporting cast:  the lion and unicorn raise the heraldic flags, framing and focusing always on the lady and her servant in the center; the smaller animals cavort amid the flowers.  I was enchanted by the gorgeous detail of the millefleurs, the animals and their textured fur, the richly decorated fabrics on the ladies, the still-vibrant color.  Stepping into the small-ish dim room where the six large tapestries encircle you is a magical and transporting experience to another world.  And isn't that one of the reasons we look at art?

 Touch, detail from the Lady and the Unicorn at the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny), in Paris.

The narrative behind the mammoth and hugely important Apocalypse tapestry is better known.  This series of weavings, over 100 meters long now but even longer when it was woven in the 14th century (much has been lost), is based on the Revelation of John, the last book in the Christian bible, also known as the Apocalypse (the Greek word literally means "revelation" though it has come to be synonymous with the end of the world).  It is a mystical vision full of symbol, allegory and human and fantastical creatures engaged in the ultimate battle of good versus evil.  

I spent some time at the beginning dutifully consulting my guide, trying to follow the whole epic story,  but after awhile I surrendered to just enjoying the details and appreciating the phenomenal weaverly skill involved.  These weavers were not reproducing brushstrokes and paint colors from a cartoon; they were weaving the images as they saw fit, exploiting the hatching, hachure, slits and other tools in the weaver's toolbox to create bold woven imagery.  

I was particularly interested in a panel depicting a shipwreck.  Look at the faces on the poor drowning sailors, each one an individual.  Look at the waves--remember these tapestries were woven from the side, so the warp as we see it is running horizontally.  Those stripe-y and spiral-y waves were woven as steep verticals. 

Apocalypse, detail, at Angers Chateau

Apocalypse, detail, at Anger Chateau

Notice the hatching on the ground above the waves in the upper right. 

Apocalypse, detail, at Angers Chateau

In one way, the Apocalypse theme and imagery seem more timely to us than ever.  There is so much larger-than-life action here, so much death and destruction on a planetary scale.  We are horrified but we can't look away.  The theology may be arcane and mysterious but the vision draws us in nonetheless.  The making and the survival of this massive cycle of tapestries--which were completed in just ten years--is one of the wonders of the world.  It stuns you into silent amazement.  

I was similarly awed by Jean Lurçat's twentieth-century Apocalypse, called the Song of the World, which was inspired directly by the medieval one.  Lurçat conceived of a cycle that would address humanity's position on the nuclear brink after World War II, depicting both the near-end of life as we know it and the rebirth of life, hope, joy and art.  I felt the emotional arc of these tapestries even more keenly than either the Unicorn or the Apocalypse tapestries.  

In this panel near the beginning, a human figure guides an ark full of ghostly animals who have been contaminated by radioactive fallout.  They are fleeing the nuclear explosion to the left, not seen in this detail.  

Jean Lurçat, detail, The Great Threat from Song of the World

Jean Lurçat, detail, The Mass Grave, from Song of the World

Jean Lurçat, detail from Man in Glory at Peace, from Song of the World

Jean Lurçat, detail from Man in Glory at Peace, from Song of the World

 After several panels depicting horror and despair, Man in Glory at Peace depicts life returning to the earth.  The owl, symbol of wisdom, perches on the man's head, and humans are once again integrated into nature.  The dove of peace is atop the circle of earth, bursting with new life.  Colorful stars are everywhere.  I felt a palpable sense of joy and relief when I encountered Champagne, bubbling over with flowers, butterflies and generally the joy of regenerated life.

Jean Lurçat, detail, Champagne, from Song of the World

Elsewhere in the Song of the World, Lurçat depicts the exploration of space that was happening in the 1960s, when these tapestries were being woven (by workshops in Aubusson, not by Lurçat himself).  He clearly had a post-war faith in human technology and in the potential of humans to save themselves from destruction.  Sixty-some years later, that faith is harder to hold on to. 

For me the privilege of seeing these masterworks of tapestry up close and appreciating their vision and careful craftsmanship is cheering and life-affirming. We wonder sometimes why we bother working in such a time-consuming and misunderstood (or ignored) art form as tapestry.  But we can remember that it sometimes it does survive, and it does speak across the decades and maybe even the centuries to viewers like us who long for evidence that we can do great things, one pick at a time. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

In Short: It was Mind-Blowing

 I returned from a tour of tapestry in France two weeks ago and I'm still processing what I saw and learned.  I expect to be doing that for a long time to come.  Under the expert guidance and unfailing good humor of our leader Cresside Collette, we journeyed from Paris to Angers, Albi and Soreze, and Aubusson, with a few side trips thrown in.  We saw what my Art History 101 professor would have called the "key monuments" of tapestry:  The Lady and the Unicorn, the Apocalypse, and Jean Lurçat's  The Song of the World.  We also saw lots of contemporary work and got behind-the-scenes looks at some of the auxiliary businesses that support the tapestry industry:  mills, dyers, conservators and independent weavers.  It was full-on immersion in tapestry with a wonderful group of textile fans.  I am deeply grateful that the tour did occur, after being postponed three times since 2020.

During the tour, I posted daily on Instagram and Facebook some of my photos and thoughts, so I will not recount all that information here.  The question I keep hearing from fellow weavers--and the question I asked Rebecca Mezoff when she returned from the same tour in 2019--is "how do you think this will impact your own work as a weaver?" (By the way, Rebecca's blogposts on the trip are very complete and well worth a read.)

As you might expect, my answer is complicated and still evolving.  Here are some of my thoughts so far:  

Size matters.  The historic tapestries and many others we saw that were produced by large workshops are huuuuuge.  The viewer is engulfed in them.  You have to stand far back to take them in, and then move in close to appreciate the fine technical detail.  They are spectacular, awe-inspiring, overwhelming.  I came home energized to work larger again--even if as a tiny one-person practice I can't make something wall-sized.  See below Who pays, etc. for more on this. 


Partial installation view of the Apocalypse in Angers.  The full tapestry is over 100 meters long. 

Tapestry commissioned by and hanging in the Cité:  La Famille dans la Joyeuse Verdure (The Family in the Joyous Verdure). 3 meters high by 5 meters wide. 

Technique matters. . . but for me is not enough.  I was in awe at the perfect weaving technique I saw everywhere, the attention to a uniform woven surface, perfect selvedges, gorgeous color blending, beautifully executed hatching and so on.  I returned newly determined to continue to improve my own technique and not to shy away from difficult bits of weaving if it's important to the concept of the piece.  


detail, the Family in the Joyous Verdure

That said, I saw pieces whose technique was impressive but the subject did not seem to me to justify the huge size and the expense of time and effort.  Why did Tolkein's small watercolors need to be translated into a series of large tapestries?  


Conversation with Smaug, Original watercolor by JRR Tolkein, 1937.  3.2 meters by 2.48 meters.  Cartoonists Anne Boissau and Delphine Mangeret.  Woven by Patricia Bergeron, Elisa Gastaud-Lipreau, Aiko Konomi and Natalie Mouveroux of Atelier A2, 2022 

Why do the images of Hiyao Murasaki need to find giant life in woven wool, when they already wow audiences in movie theaters? 

The Moving Castle at Sunset, based on still from film Howl's Moving Castle of Studio Ghibli-NDDMT.    5 meters by 5 meters. 2022-23.

The Cité states that the purpose of these monumental series of work is to reach a worldwide audience for Aubusson tapestry, to pull in with popular narratives the younger viewers who might not otherwise go to see a tapestry.  Fair enough.  Tapestry has always been about depicting epic narratives, and the Miyasaki tapestries have found wide acclaim in Japan.

Who pays for the weaving?  Who designs the tapestry?  Who weaves?  For whom?  These questions may sound crass, but they are at the heart of how tapestry has always been done in France and how much of it is done today.  Huge blockbuster works have always been underwritten by those with power, status and deep pockets.  They are designed to impress, and in some cases intimidate, viewers.  The designs are created by artists who are not weavers, though they may (one hopes) be deeply informed about both the potential and the limits of translating designs conceived in other media into tapestry.  These designs are woven by weavers who expertise is critical to make the best judgments about color and technique to interpret the design.  

This is a very different tapestry ecosystem than most of us individual designer-weavers are familiar with.  We weave on spec, usually, often mostly for our own pleasure, perhaps hoping to find an audience and  a buyer if we are lucky and work hard at it.  We determine constraints of size, timeline, purpose and audience based on our own circumstances.  For most of us, this means we are not weaving tapestries that are both huge and insanely detailed.  

The most extreme version of the workshop system is found at the Gobelins state manufactory of tapestry in Paris (which I thought of privately as the CIA of tapestry, so focused were they on secrecy).  Since the time of Louis XIV, since the time of Louis XIV, workers there--and also at the Beauvais state workshop--have made tapestries for France.  Today, they may take up to ten years to complete a single tapestry that will go into a national storehouse of works available to decorate French buildings and embassies.  Weavers at the Gobelins and at Beauvais may never know where a tapestry that they worked on for years actually ends up. That said, they are on the federal payroll. . . to weave!


Composition after Roberto Matta.  2.72 meters by 4.70 meters.  Wool and silk, 2016.  Woven and displayed at the Gobelins.

Weaving is a powerful creative language.   I am re-committed to exploring weaving as my primary medium, even as I explore other techniques.   As impressed as I am by the power of traditional pictorial tapestry, I am also confirmed in my own recent direction toward mixed media and shaped or 3D work.  I admire so much the expert weaving I saw--there is something undeniably magical in rendering a recognizable scene in tapestry--but that work no longer feels like it is mine to do.  The modern and contemporary weavers I saw who are experimenting with the potential of tapestry were tremendously exciting to me.  

For me, the most moving work retains an essential mystery at its core, a stillness.  I experienced this when looking at the Lady and the Unicorn, the Apocalypse, and the Song of the World.  I will say more about this in the next post.  Here's one 20th century example to whet your appetite:

Zohar. Thomas Gleb, designer. Woven by Atelier de Saint-Cyr/Pierre Daquin, Saint-Cyr-en Arthies.  Cotton and wool. 1970. 

detail, Zohar


Tuesday, June 6, 2023

"Nothing but Blue Skies" in Houston for CHT conference

I'm just back from a fun few days in Houston at the Contemporary Handweavers Guild of Texas (CHT) conference.  I taught two classes, "Using Photos to Design Tapestry" and Sampling:  Your Tapestry Superpower.  It was great being with so many engaged tapestry people! The keynote speech by Nathalie Miebach was interesting and thought-provoking. As usual, once students entered my classroom I got caught up in the moment and totally forgot to take photos, so sorry about that. What imaginative, curious and welcoming artists!   

I was also bowled over by the art on offer in Houston.  Sam and I went a couple days early so we could tick off a bucket list item for both of us: the Rothko Chapel.*  Photos inside the Chapel are prohibited, so I don't have any to share, but my photos wouldn't do justice to the experience of being in that space anyway.  Visitors observed strict silence and indeed several were clearly practicing prayer and meditation.  Upon entering from outside, my immediate reaction was disappointment:  "Oh, all these panels are the same dull gray.  Hmm.  I've been misled.  Not much to see here."  

And then my eyes adjusted to the diffuse light entering through the oculus in the center of the ceiling.  

I noticed that in fact each large painted panel was a slightly different color from the others and had subtle color and tonal variations within itself.  Violet, dark purple, maroon, dark green, and rich grays and blacks were all present.  There were subtle changes in brushstrokes and paint application.  And here's the magical thing:  the more you looked, the more you saw.  And as time passed and the clouds moved in front of the sun outside, the light inside shifted too, and the colors changed subtly.  The experience of looking at these massive, overwhelming panels was humbling, fascinating, and definitely inclined me to confront the noisiness of my own mind and to ponder for a few moments the mysteries of perception and even the divine.  This is art that throws you back on your own resources and invites slow contemplation.  

Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk, outside the Rothko Chapel

The next day we visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has a new wing, the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, devoted to contemporary and modern art.   We experienced the Pipilotti Rist video and light installation called Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish, which was a 180-degree contrast to the Rothko Chapel:  bright, almost overwhelmingly stimulating, art as spectacle for the contemporary audience already saturated with video and color and imagery.  Like the Rothko Chapel, the installation was huge and immersive, but it was full of motion and color rather than still and near-monochrome.  It was fun to walk through the forest of changing colored lights and be surrounded on two sides by giant video projections of natural forms processes both vegetal and human.  It felt magical and very of-the-moment.  To my mind, it's perhaps not as enduring as the Rothko Chapel installation--and it may be that temporality and mutability are Rist's main concerns.  On second thought, perhaps that is what the two installations have in common after all. . .


For me the art objects I saw in conversation with each other at the MFAH are what I will keep coming back to.  I was delighted to find work by two of my favorites, Martin Puryear and El Anatsui, in company with each other, commanding a large space in the new wing.  Both use weaving/stitching techniques to assemble powerful objects that invite our imaginative attention.  Puryear's work is often rooted in basketry, though his piece here was made of bronze.  I loved how the open mesh layers looked from various angles.  And behind it, spanning a loooooong curved wall, hung the largest Anatsui "tapestry" I'm aware of, composed of stitched together bottle caps and metallic foil strips in rich folds.  Weavers can't help but respond to the way the image grows one "pixel" at a time, in parts becoming what seems to be an urban map, and to be awed by the sheer labor involved.  Walking along this piece is akin to taking a journey through a varied landscape. 

foreground:  Martin Puryear, Aso Oke, 2019, edition 2/3, bronze.  background:  El Anatsui,  Untitled, 2020, found aluminum and copper wire

detail, Puryear, Aso Oke

detail, Anatsui, Untitled
detail, Anatsui, Untitled

I am sort of a museum geek, I admit it.  I loved how the curators at this museum assembled and interpreted the work on display.  No dry academic marches through chronological art history here, strictly segregated by geography and medium.  Artworks from throughout time and space were grouped so they could spark off of each other. 

Front: Gego, Esfera no. 8 (Sphere No. 8), 1977, steel wire with metal leader sleeves.  On wall, left:  Agnes Martin, Untitled # 12, 1990, acrylic and graphite on canvas.  Wall, right: Tone Vigeland, Wall Piece I, 2002, lead and steel

Sam and I spent a lot of time in the Line into Space gallery, where I was delighted to find work by Ruth Asawa and the sensational Gego, currently having a much-talked-about exhibit in New York's Guggenheim Museum.  Both have an amazing power to manipulate simple wire into fascinating forms that marry drawing with sculpture.  Having recently emerged from a long and tangled rabbit trail trying to crack the code on Asawa's looping technique,  it was great to be able to examine her piece up close. 

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S. 562, Hanging Sphere with Two Cones that Penetrate the Sphere from Top and Bottom), c. 1954, galvanized steel wire and brass wire     

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), Sin título (Untitled), c. 1987, perforated and painted metal netting

Gego, Apliqué de Reticulárea (Reticulárea
Wall Appliqué)
, 1969, iron and stainless-steel wire, nylon, and lead weights

Gego, Vibración en negro (Vibration in Black), 1957, aluminum painted black 

In a few days I leave for a long-postponed two-week tapestry tour of France led by Cresside Collette.  I imagine my brain will continue to explode as we see both monuments of medieval tapestry and the studios of contemporary weavers!  Stay tuned for more about that in July!

* Interestingly, the main photos on the Rothko Chapel website are in black and white. Even they don't try to capture the colors!   It's up to the viewer to come and discern them for herself.