Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Hitting Refresh at Willowtail Springs and Ghost Ranch

The universe conspired to give me two extraordinary opportunities in the space of three weeks recently. 

In March I took a weeklong class for beginners in painting landscapes with watercolors.  This class was taught at Ghost Ranch, possibly my favorite place in the entire world, by accomplished watercolorist Patsy Welch.  Since December, tendinitis in my shoulder had slowed my weaving and indeed all repetitive fiber work to a crawl, so I was desperate to experiment with other media.

As always, Ghost Ranch did not disappoint.  Even in March, New Mexico's windiest and most unpredictable month, it was beautiful.  We had snow and mud and cold; we also had sun and breathtaking displays of changing light across the buff and ochre mesas.  And great clouds!

Patsy insisted that we use only the three primary colors and learn to mix all other colors from there.  We practiced mixing, painting washes and textures and clouds, and we attempted landscapes.  Several students were far from beginners and their work was inspiring and refined.  As for me, well, you can take the weaver out of the studio but you can't take the weaver out of the artist.  I could not get my mind around painting an actual landscape except for tiny studies--where does one start in all that vastness?  Instead I made a collage, an artist's book of the small samples, and most intriguing to me, a tiny woven landscape.  

A week after I returned from Ghost Ranch, I drove to Willowtail Springs, a nature preserve and education center near Mancos, Colorado.  Months ago I'd applied for a one-week artist residency there and been accepted.  It is a beautiful, quiet, wooded spot with the added bonus of a small lake and wonderful waterbirds I don't see or hear at home.  I was the only artist in residence and had the use of the large, well-equipped studio all to myself.  

The lake at Willowtail Springs

The Garden Cottage where I stayed, a short walk from the studio below

The studio at Willowtail.  Look at all those work surfaces!  The windows look out on the lake and I cracked them open so I could hear the birds and the burbling fountain outside as I worked. 

It was heaven.   Hosts Peggy Cloy and Lee Cloy welcomed me warmly, showed me around, and then left me alone to work.   The best part was simply the solitude, time and focus to really concentrate and follow the threads of a number of ideas that had been nudging me for awhile.  It felt like an incredible luxury to be able to move from project to project at different worktables, to sit and read and work in my sketchbook, without having to dash off after an hour to an appointment or some other obligation.  

One path I explored was paper weaving.  Inspired by the work of @liesel.scribbles (Libby Raab) on Instagram, I experimented with weaving twill patterns with printed photos and watercolor paintings.  This was really fun!  I also discovered on IG the amazing paper weaving work of @galengibsoncornell (Galen Gibson-Cornell) and @miguel.arzabe (Miguel Arzabe).  Check them out!

I worked my way through this fantastic new book:  Art from Your Core by Kate Kretz.  She is a professor of art, a painter and fiber artist as well.  She has taught thousands of students, has an active practice as an exhibiting artist, and knows a thing or two (a LOT) about how to find one's way through the dark byways of one's own artistic psyche and in the world of art generally.*  I can't recommend this book highly enough.  It confirmed many things I had discovered on my own over the past three decades, but also provided long lists of questions and exercises to help me think through how my experience informs my voice at this point.   

Another book that was helpful was Steven Aimone's Expressive Drawing.  I had started working through his wonderful, approachable exercises in abstract drawing a couple times before, but this time I got farther along.  I am intrigued by the possibilities of charcoal, of "asserting and obliterating" marks, lines and shapes, and of using charcoal and watercolor together.  I'm looking forward to using these media to develop some of the motifs and themes that surfaced in my working through the Kretz book.  

These are a couple of the quick expressive drawing/paintings I did based on the exercises in the Aimone book.  These are not finished works but merely practice explorations in line, shape, texture and loosening up.  So much fun!

Finally, the icing on the cake was that Rebecca Mezoff and Mary Fuller of Turquoise Raven gallery in Cortez, CO were among those who attending my closing talk.  What fun to renew old connections and make new ones!

The residency at Willowtail couldn't have come at a better time for me.   As regular readers know, for a few years now I've been testing the boundaries of tapestry with mixed media, relief, and small forays into three dimensions.  My muse has been leading me in new directions.  The week at Willowtail has given me confidence that I have many possible ways forward, that whether I am a weaver or not I am forever an artist (though one with a definite bias toward weaving and fibers!).

*One of my favorite bits was Kretz's distinction between the "art world" of museums, auction prices, and high-end commercial galleries, of trendy artists and art-as-investment, a world very few artists inhabit. . . and the "art life," which is what I, and I suspect most of us, lead.  I had gotten these two things confused in my mind and caused myself way too much unnecessary angst.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

FINALLY finished: Mayday Mayday Mayday!

I am pleased that I can finally share with you photos of a piece that feels like it took forever to do! 

Mayday Mayday Mayday, (c) Molly Elkind 2024.  27" x 16.6" x .5".  Cotton, wool, silk, paper, synthetic, plastic 

Mayday Mayday Mayday, details.  (c) Molly Elkind 2024.  27" x 16.6" x .5".  Cotton, wool, silk, paper, synthetic, plastic
This piece has a long and winding origin story.  In hopes that you, like me, enjoying hearing about other artists' process stories for their work, I'm going to share with you how this one evolved.

In 2016 (8 years ago!) I made this collage:  

"The Wreck," paper collage by Molly Elkind, 12" x 9"

The background is a page from a news magazine.  The image with the green sun in the upper right was a linoprint I made years ago in a workshop.  I added a couple other bits of paper and stamped black spirals over the entire collage.  This collage was my response to a prompt in Randel Plowman's book, The Collage Workbook*, to make a monochromatic piece about every color on the color wheel.  While I liked it, and I experimented for awhile with tracing, cropping and enlarging it to make a tapestry cartoon, I decided it was way too difficult for me to weave at the time.  I called it "Blue" and filed it away.

Last year I came across the collage again while teaching Collage to Cartoon, and thought, hmm, I'd like to try weaving this.  I saw it now through the lens of climate change and it seemed to fit with the current direction of my work.   I was hopeful that my skills had improved.   I was excited about playing with transparency for the spirals and wanted to try weaving the printed sun section with plastic bag strips.  The idea of weaving it as a tapestry collage, in separately woven pieces and layers, also intrigued me.   I enlarged the collage greatly, from 12" x 9" to 23.25" x 16.75", to make the spirals and other details weave-able at a sett of 10 epi.   I wove three samples, trying out those spirals and various yarns.  I even wove a grayscale sample to make sure I liked the value contrast.  

Sample #1

Sample #2--would it work to stamp the spirals rather than weave them?  I decided No. 

The paper collage, the grayscale photocopy, the woven grayscale sample, and the enlarged cartoon for the printed sun section.       
Weaving underway but cartoon was heavily revised at one point. 

Bottom layer complete.  Upper right corner is woven in random diagonals as a base to be covered by second woven layer based on the linocut print.  The partial headline from the original magazine article is stenciled, clumsily, across the top.

The clumsy printing of the headline posed a couple of serious problems.  I had cut a stencil and sampled the printing--but I had one chance to get it right on the tapestry and I flubbed it.  I thought it fatally detracted from the piece.  I also noticed that people who viewed the piece in progress immediately thought of "the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"--not what I was going for.  So I began to think of turning to the back, as a hem, that entire white strip at the top.  This would necessitate changing the title of the piece as well, from The Wreck to something else.

As I pondered these changes, I wove the third layer in navy wool, the wedge shape that would go at the bottom if I followed the original collage.  I tried out several variations on the layers and the degree to which they would be skewed as in the original collage. As it happened, the navy strip at the bottom was about 1.5" too wide.  I figured out a way to  remove the warps from one selvedge edge and tuck under and stitch down the wefts. . . but I began to think it was all too fiddly and that the navy wedge didn't really add much to the piece in the end.  I decided to delete the navy piece and add a fringe of plastic strips.

Experimenting with placement of three woven layers.  Once I finalized the placement of the green sun piece, I tacked it to the bottom layer across the top and down the sides. 

Removing warps from weft to narrow the width of this narrow strip of weaving. 

Trying out different plastic strips for an added fringe.

The final hurdle has been to figure out how to mount it.  I referred to Barbara Burns' article here* on mounting tapestries so that, when using Velcro on the tapestry and on a wall-mounted wooden slat, the top edge doesn't fall forward and cast a shadow.  I painted the wood slat white and used small triangular D-rings on the same side as the counterpart (rough) strip of Velcro.  Putting the D-rings on the side next to the tapestry was the tip that made all difference in keeping the whole tapestry flat against the wall.  Thank you, Barbara!  The two nails through the D-rings protrude from the wall a bit, but they are hidden by a margin at the top of the tapestry.  


Painted wood slat with Velcro and D-rings, hanging on nails on wall

For the tapestry side, I did something new for me.  I made a backing piece of matboard, cut it to fit within the width of the tapestry, and encased it in a close-fitting cotton muslin sleeve.  Before sewing the sleeve around the matboard I machine stitched a strip of Velcro (soft side) to it.  Then I hand stitched the whole assembly to the top of the tapestry, just catching one weft at a time along the top edge and the two sides.  


Matboard in cotton sleeve with Velcro, basted to back of tapestry to check placement vis-a-vis the wood slat.  Note that the top of the matboard piece is 1/2" below the top of the tapestry, to hide the D-rings and nails.

I learned a lot making this piece:

1.  Don't be so literal about translating the collage to tapestry.  I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I'd deleted the white strip with the text "the wreck of the" and the navy bottom wedge earlier in the process.  Of course I probably couldn't know this until I got as far along as I did.

2.  Plastic weft strips behave differently from fiber yarns.  They are very difficult to stitch through (for sewing slits, for finishing steps).  Different weights and types of plastic stretch differently and are stiffer  and harder to weave with.  Sampling is key.  As always.

3.  It's one thing to have an idea you're excited about.  It's another to ponder realistically the time involved in executing it.  Life Intervened more than a couple times since last September, when I started this piece, and really slowed down the weaving and the finishing of it to an incredibly frustrating extent.  Do I really have the time to work like this anymore, I'm wondering? 

On the other hand, I am pleased with how the basic concept of a layered, collaged tapestry worked out.  I'm pretty proud of my transparent woven spirals and of the use of plastic strips.  And I think deleting the words actually opens the piece up more for interpretation by viewers, which is always a good thing. 




* highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"Weaving is a modality"

Sometimes someone will make a statement that at the time is embedded in the seamless flow of conversation, and only later do you find yourself recalling it, mulling it over, trying to figure out what it means and what it means for you.  

Molly Elkind, "The Wreck" (working title), nearly complete.  One piece of three to be collaged together.

This happened for me at the American Tapestry Alliance (ATA) board retreat a few years (!) ago, when I was serving as Director of Volunteers.  In an intense weekend of hybrid in-person and Zoom meetings, we had wide-ranging discussions about the nature of contemporary tapestry and the direction of ATA that we were charged with planning.*  During the discussion, John Paul Morabito, then as now Director at Large, stated something to the effect that tapestry is not a technique, but a "modality."  John Paul elaborates a bit on his website:  "I am defiantly a weaver. Through this position, I reconsider tapestry as a modality in which image, matter, technology, and embodiment provide productive conflicts for constructing form." 

I've been pondering the meaning of that word modality and its impact on my understanding of tapestry ever since.  Like many of us when confronted with a new idea, my first strategy was to try to understand it in terms of my previous vocabulary and ideas, to make it fit.  So I thought, modality = language. I'm hardly the first weaver to think of tapestry as a language;  I've written about it before.   My favorite understanding of this is to think of tapestry weaving voices and modes as literary genres--myth, epic, lyric poem, short story, biography, op-ed, etc.  Tapestry, like language, can be used to express images and ideas in all these forms.

But modality carries additional nuances I think. defines it as "how something is done or how it happens" and offers as synonyms fashion, manner, mode, style and way.  It's an approach--one among many.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "Those aspects of a thing which relate to its mode, or manner or state of being, as distinct from its substance or identity; the non-essential aspect or attributes of a concept or entity. Also: a particular quality or attribute denoting the mode or manner of being of something."  There's a sense here of modality not being essential to core concept.  

Hmmm.  It's a truism among tapestry weavers that we should strive to weave tapestries that "can only be woven"--that cannot exist equally effectively as paintings, photographs, collages, what have you.  In this understanding tapestry weaving would be essential to the core concept of a piece.  John Paul's quotation above gets at this:  tapestry is the unique melding of "image, matter, technology and embodiment" to create form and meaning.  Many contemporary tapestry weavers are trying to get away from merely reproducing a pre-existing image to make artworks in which woven-ness is essential to their meaning and impact, is inherent from the very beginning.   Easier said than done. 

So. . . what is woven-ness?  Over-under-over-under.  Interlacement.  Warp and weft crossing in specific patterns.  All of these, and also: the making of a web, the combining of two or more elements into one integrated whole, the weaving together.  Not for nothing do we speak of the fabric of society and the worldwide web.  If we probe deeper into the modality of weaving we find an approach, attitude and orientation, that is crucially different from that offered by knitting and crochet, different from surface embroidery, different from felt- and paper-making.   All of these connect elements in different ways and moods and for different purposes.  All can make images, but those images will be very different from each other because of their modality.

Molly Elkind, studies:  burlap canoe; hardware cloth and fabric strip canoe in progress

Molly Elkind, study:  linen, yucca pods, crocheted


So I continue to read and to make small experiments, seeking to find the magic center place in the Venn diagram where technique, material, form and concept all converge.  I am a weaver, and weaving is a beautiful, ancient, and nuanced language. But all languages grow and change by incorporating "foreign" words and phrases too.  Is it tapestry when the weft is plastic?  Grass?  When the warp includes wire?  Is it weaving when strips of fabric are interlaced into metal hardware cloth? I'm about to find out.  If you're still with me, thanks for following along.  

* Once a volunteer, always a volunteer. . . If you've thought about volunteering for ATA, now is always a good time!  What you get in terms of new friendships and inspiration is more than worth the time and effort you'll contribute.  There's a job for everyone.  Go here for more info.


Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Reading, writing and thinking are part of our weaving practice too

Heads-up: Wordy post ahead with not much eye candy. If I know anything about tapestry weavers, it's that when we're not weaving, many of us are reading!  If you're looking for your next good book to curl up with, maybe something here will help.  

Lately I've been having to cut down on my weaving time, alas, because my shoulder is complaining. I know better than to weave for 2 hours without a break, but I get into the zone and then my body reminds me later, in a most unpleasant tone of voice.  Rebecca Mezoff reminds me that above all, I need to stop and take a break every 25 minutes. The link on Rebecca's name takes you to her  review of a book called Wellness for Makers.  Now I'm setting the alarm on my phone for 25 minutes every time I start to weave.  And forcing myself to obey!

Here are the two projects that have been mostly stalled for a few weeks as I recover.

This tapestry will be layered on top of the larger, previously woven piece.  Working title:  The Wreck.  Warp: 12/6 cotton seine twine; wefts: plastic, silk, wool, cotton, paper.   

A pulled warp canoe.  Working title: Bivium.  Warp: 12/6 cotton seine twine; wefts linen, plastic, paper, wire.

The upside of this down time is I have time to play/work/write in my sketchbook and especially time to read the art books I received over Christmas. This has been really good as it allows me time to think about where am I going in my work, and why? What am I trying to say?  And what's the best way to say it?  Does every idea I have need to be woven by hand, or are there pre-existing woven grids I can use as I continue to explore 3D options? Cheesecloth? Hardware cloth? Experiments await. . . 


Two fiber books I've really enjoyed recently.  The top one is the catalog for the current exhibit (closing 1/21) of the same name at LACMA in Los Angeles.  This book was named the "one of the best art books of the year" by the New York Times!  The second book is a fun look at loopy open mesh constructions being used in all sorts of non-traditional ways. 

These are the browngrotta gallery catalogs I've been enjoying.  There are way too many to choose from!

 I've been swooning over the elegant, finely crafted work in the catalogs from browngrotta gallery in Connecticut, a home for fine craft for the past several decades, and publishers of dozens of gorgeous catalogs.  I know that for me it's important to make work that is as visually attractive and finely crafted as possible. And like the work browngrotta features, my scale is small to medium.  It is made entirely by me (not a workshop of artisans) and it's destined for the home rather than the massive public installation. 

As I read, I'm mulling over what exactly I want to say in my work. Just calling viewers' attention to the climate crisis is no longer enough. How do we respond? Where do we go from here? How do we manage our grief and despair? I dislike work that preaches at me overtly, no matter how much I appreciate the sentiment, and that work is not mine to make. I've read or am reading a couple books on this subject recently that have enriched my thinking: Solastalgia: an Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World, edited by Paul Bogard,  and We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope by Steven Charleston.  I recommend both if this is a topic that interests you.

As I think about the enduring appeal and importance of fine craft, I realize that hard-won human craftsmanship, in weaving or any other medium, craftsmanship honed by instruction, practice, and time, is actually a hopeful thing that points toward our own abilities to find creative and beautiful solutions to problems. And the same symmetry, pattern, color and textures that I love in fine weaving are an imitation of these same qualities in the natural world, qualities that inspire many of the weavings we make. It's a beautiful feedback loop: nature-->craft-->nature. And it has been going on for as long as humans have been making art. 

I've just started reading a book adjacent to this subject by Adam Gopnik, The Real Work:  On the Mystery of Mastery.  Gopik takes on the subject of mastery, how is it achieved, what is the "real work" involved, in all sorts of fields, not just art (he discusses magic and magicians at great length).  And the chapter on how this modern art critic decided to take drawing lessons from a traditional realistic painter is fascinating.

It's clear that climate change is happening with devastating effect, everywhere. The best we can do now is try to slow it down and to ameliorate its effects. We need to cultivate every ounce of resilience in ourselves, in our communities and in our global community to meet the challenges head-on. 

I do believe, outlandish as it may sound, that our creative practices and even our tapestry weaving, allow us to hone our own resilience. We are constantly problem-solving as we weave, looking at the problem from various perspectives, crowd-sourcing solutions from the hive mind, doing our very best to do our best work. This is the creative persistence and cooperation we need everywhere. 

I'll close with my favorite line from the apocalyptic novel I read during the pandemic, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. In it a traveling troupe of players makes their way through the landscape of a ruined society, struggling to survive and offering performances for the ragtag communities they encounter. Painted on the side of their wagon of instruments and supplies is this: "Survival is insufficient." Humans need art, and always have.