Tapestry Topics Feature Article
A Quarterly Review of Tapestry Art Today

page 12
Summer 2004, Vol 30 No 2


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Designing for Tapestry

By Archie Brennan

      In the 1940s and 1950s I knew a weaver of quite simple but very beautiful rugs woven in tapestry techniques.  Because he struggled with the belief that he was known as “just a weaver,” he produced a “proper” tapestry about once a year.  Simply stated, these artworks were very average.  Today however, you will find his once humble rugs displayed as works of art in a number of museums.

      I think he epitomized a frequent problem for many who delight in the act of making tapestry. The (re)emergence of the artist weaver with the designer and weaver as one and the same is now commonplace. We face enormous pressure, from both outside and within our field, to be making tapestry as major works of art. Yet the presumed need to be highly original or cutting edge can generate uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy, even guilt. 

      My argument is that designing can be a simpler and more successful event by not setting out to amaze our friends and colleagues with our earth-shattering concepts. Looking back to earlier times, Coptic and Pre-Columbian tapestry can offer a clue as to how we can proceed. Many fulfilling returns can be experienced from accepting a role of further exploring and developing existing imagery on and off loom.  I get huge delight in savoring the inventiveness of images from these early times when, over many generations, weavers have refined, adjusted, re-tuned and reconsidered ways to represent simple elements.  The evolving imagery of animals, faces, figures, flowers, or shapes and patterns reach a level of sophistication and refinement far beyond the capabilities of the most talented original and unique artists of our time.  Expecting the majority of us to perform as original cutting edge artists can be an enormous waste when there is such a contribution to be made by adapting examples from the history of our chosen medium and quietly exploring a simple form or image through line, grid-form or in separate units, repeating and developing it again and again.
Weaving Bodies by Lany Eila cont'd..

      Color has been a larger challenge. The number of colors that can be found in human skin is staggering, and it is in fact this breadth of color that draws me to it. Not just the tans, pinks and browns, but the blues, yellows, greens, reds, etc. Each highlight and shadow might be a slightly warmer or cooler color than the next. In other words, it’s more than the fact that each person is different from the next. Different parts of the same body vary in color as well as tone. One of my other jobs is as a massage therapist; I see a fair amount of skin. The same person can show up differently in various lights or even change colors with the seasons. Certainly, living in New Mexico people tend to be ruddier, and not necessarily from genetics. The high desert, with only thin air, a cloudless sky, and a thin film of sunscreen between the sun, and ourselves, causes even those that would normally be pasty white, to gain noticeable color on parts of their bodies.

      What is the palette of colors with which one could “realistically” weave nudes in tapestry? In the historical and modern tapestries I’ve had a chance to see, the weavers have tended to pick a handful of tans and/or pinks and model the body that is seen from those. This can offer a satisfying and important sculptural effect, but does not reflect my own experience of the nature of skin. At the same time, individual threads cannot be blended as infinitely as paint or pastels, and the amount of yarn and time I have limits the number of colors I can dye. Thus I am still trying to figure out exactly what colors and tones are truly necessary and how to most effectively play with the colors that I have.

      Related to color, and adding another entire layer of complexity, is the contradiction between the translucence of skin and the opacity of thread. A number of painters have dealt with translucence by using layers of paint or glazes; not a viable option with tapestry. Impressionist painters would at times apply a base color onto an area of canvas then add small dots or dashes of other colors on top. From a distance, the colors visually blend, which can give the effect of translucence. Inspired by this, I have recently been weaving fields of dots over background colors (2 shots base, one shot dot, etc., or any other combination, depending on the desired density and shape of dots).

      Although inordinately tedious, this technique appears to have some potential, in terms of both visual depth or translucence and flexibility of color blending in either background or dots. Hatching becomes more complex.

      Another consideration is texture; most wool is typically rougher than skin. Silk has a lovely sheen, but is expensive. Nevertheless, I expect that is where I am headed in the long run, at least for the portions of tapestry that depict skin.

      So, with all of these challenges, why bother to try to weave tapestries of nudes in the first place? I believe that for those who are drawn to the depiction of the human body, tapestry is a worthy medium. With the tactile intimacy of tapestry, its pliability, and the way in which the canvas itself has been constructed thread by thread by the weaver’s hands, tapestry by its very nature speaks of skin more than any other medium. There is something instinctively tender and immediate about handwoven fabric, perhaps grown of its long, close association with actual human skin, as if one could press into the fabric and feel some invisible pulse. It is to bring that pulse to the surface that I’ll keep trying to weave bodies into tapestry.

Archie Brennan, Deconstruct/Reconstruct, 43" x 31"
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