my textile career from 1975
I would like to talk about large & small tapestry, & the differences I’ve experienced being engaged in both types of projects.
Living in Australia, I’ve visited the amazing Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, which undertakes large scale commissions of woven tapestries. The workshop also runs an annual competition of miniature tapestries, called the Kate Derum Competition, which I won last year with the portrait of a carnival clown.
Each workshop tapestry is a large project. The decisions about the project are made by the person commissioning the work, the artist whose image is to be translated into fibre, and the workshop staff of artists with BA Fine Arts degrees.
I in no way want to sound judgemental about the work of other artists. We all work through unsatisfactory situations during our careers, and hopefully find situations that suit us personally. As English poet William Blake said, the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow. There are many reasons why I found large scale tapestry weaving unsatisfactory. One of the most important for me is why I begin a new work. I may find a particular design or an idea begins to be interesting. I will draw the cartoon & warp up the loom; as my mind develops the idea, it may focus on a part of the design, which, if it cannot be woven immediately, becomes a source of frustration. Obviously, the solution is to explore drawings & sketches of that part of the work currently being woven. But the subconscious mind is often not so amenable.
I no longer feel guilty if I do not complete a lot of work at any one time; I certainly do not insist on working for long stretches; just the back & forth motion of weaving has the danger of becoming mechanical, so that the imagination is not engaged. The largest tapestry I completed was a wall-sized image of a rock pool; it took a year to complete; when I submitted it to an international competition I was a little daunted by the convenor’s description of it as a tiny work, which would be dwarfed alongside the larger pieces.
I attended an exhibition by South Australian academic, painter, weaver, Kay Lawrence who described the way she wove a portrait of her daughter. It was a blurred, out of focus photographic image. A third or so into the weaving, a fault happened which began to obsess the weaver; finally, she was no longer able to go on, so she cut out the offending wefts and corrected the fault. However, she also decided to ignore any further details she perceived as faulty, until the weaving was finished.I understand this from personal experience; perhaps by the time a work is finished there is an orchestral grouping; a greater number of details are now arranged, giving a complex unity; perhaps the detail that stood out before, now looked different within the completed perspective. Often, what I saw as faulty, while I was weaving, managed to blend on completion. All of this affects small works as well as large ones.
I began weaving tapestry in 1975. My first method was to interlock shape & colour, but often, in an attempt to create movement in my design, my patterns would be reduced to zig zag shapes. I then decided to leave vertical areas unattached, the “slits” that Archie Brennan advises his students to sew up, line by line. His advice was sound; the gaps, while allowing the work to progress quickly, were gaping & unattractive, on completion. I did not feel at home with the idea of sewing gaps however, to my mind it meant alternating between textile media, somehow not concentrating completely on tapestry.
In a sense I deliberately slowed down the process of weaving about a decade ago, by developing the patience to persist with a hound’s tooth join; adjacent areas would share the same warp, along which, colours would alternate. This can have interesting blurred effects, depending how colours are worked.
The speed of weaving was no longer a consideration. Small works still took a long time. The greatest painter of our civilisation, Leonardo da Vinci, would often go to his studio but merely stare for hours at an unfinished work. Sometimes he overpainted a detail, sometimes he just contemplated. A contemporary Australian painter, Ben Quilty, works on canvases roughly 5 X 8 feet in size; he will have finished one a day; in fact he emphasises that a work left unfinished overnight & having to be addressed, possibly re-interpreted the next day, causes him extraordinary anguish & mental turmoil. None of these observations are meant to indicate that I believe one method is superior to another.
I am a solitary worker, and a secretive one. For me there would be a problem openly discussing the plan for a tapestry about to be woven; an idea, that I may have thought of, is a bundle of energy. To discuss this with others, prematurely, carries the danger of disbursing that energy. Nor would I survive in the collaborative atmosphere of a workshop. The current project that I am completing has grown from several, unforeseen insights, moments of inspiration. Last night in bed, at 3 am I suddenly worked out how a particular corner could be worked. I cannot explain how I arrived at that thought. Perhaps Jungian analysis might help.
Since my first days as a weaver I’ve experimented with different media: applique, embroidery, macrame. Slowly, over the course of my career, I’ve tried to combine these, where possible. So, increasingly, over the last decade, I’ve completed works where small panels of woven tapestry sit alongside areas of button mosaic. More & more, this combination has forced me to examine what qualities each medium can contribute. In my current work, while the button assembly is sculptural, lustrous, tactile, my small panels of woven tapestry seem to spark the motor of ideas, the conceptual focus. The fact that woven tapestry has such a long history, in all cultures, seems to make this possible. The shuttling motion of weaving tapestry, laying down separate wefts of colour, seems to parallel online technology, the scanner/printer.
To summarise: large scale and miniature tapestries have different qualities. In every age critics of culture have compared different art forms. I had to study John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. My tutor described writing a large poem like squeezing toothpaste from its tube, consistency was the important quality. Similarly on a huge loom, uniform weaving is to be desired. By comparison, the small lyric or sonnet can be an intense spark; the miniature tapestry is a detail. The problem with comparing large and small works, in words or fibre, is that in today’s art world the spectacle is important. Definitions of artistry & the rise of new media have changed the artistic landscape. The colossal spectacle is needed to make a strong statement on museum walls. So size and monumentality are valued. The implied domesticity of small work might have been prized in Victorian times, perhaps we need new conditions to re-value small work. Only time will tell.
The Australian Tapestry Workshop produces large scale commissions while encouraging the production of miniature textile works from its visitor base. Perhaps slight differences in skills are involved in their production. But the textile community remains mutually supportive, especially online.
Me, in my early 20’s doing a Sally Bowles number.In my house in Chelmsford St, Newtown, with a long, thin tapestry of the tao of water in the background. These are my precedents. Recently, I demolished a crappy aluminium shed in my backyard & had built in its place a studio, a garden folly, all blackbutt decking outside, plywood walls & ceiling & bamboo flooring. But, given the constraints of space on my suburban block, the studio also has to contain my gardening tools & bits & bobs.
Oh the sots & thralls of lust do in spare hours more thrive, than I, that spend, sir, life upon thy cause. Probably not an accurate quote from the gr8 but tortured poet Gerard Manley, but nonetheless, despite his theology, a steadfast depicter of gay life.
What strikes me today, perched in precarious sunlight, knowing that any moment, our moonsoonal weather will return as cold rain, and slowly recovering from my necessary bureaucratic encounter this morning, is that my studio will contain a number of industrial objects. Sue Rowley’s collection of essays Craft & contemporary Theory talks about the development of craft design from its utilitarian origin. I spent from 1984 till 1999 in State Rail & marvelled at the exquisite sense the Victorian (era not geography) railway designers brought to their work: it served a rugged function, first & foremost, but occasionally a sneaky aesthetic made its presence felt. I am left wondering what longterm effect the industrial will have on my craft practise. Admittedly, that will reverse the process: dispossess an object of its function, then accentuate the residual aesthetics.
Any original function has steadily leached away from my sort of woven objects; nevertheless, functionality even minimally, tends to affect the design. I work with buttons, assembling images in mosaic-like formats; I thought last night, how appropriate, given the cardiac & other tablets I ingest daily. As for weaving, I think woven tapestry has such a forbidding presence; it requires at least a decade’s apprenticeship to achieve a passable competency. Its origins lie differently in every culture. Its potential for carrying the conceptual varies even nationally. Compare Abakanowicz working out of eastern European Soviet brutalism with Landis weaving austerely calm checks in the desert of central USA.
Very appropriate for the self esteem of today’s tapestry practitioners it is to be daunted by Susan Maffei’s impressive scholarship about Peruvian woven tapestry. They were masters indeed, using double warps so that the final piece contained no visual distraction of warp ends to be hidden behind, the wefts were of the finest camelid fibres. The wry, ironic history of Peruvian archaeology is of a coastal desert plain filled with tombs, which were robbed mercilessly, unsubtly. The tapestry shrouds were shredded in the search for golden objects; the local people came along & collected the fragments, sewing them into dolls which they onsold to train travelling tourists.
Soundtrack to the above should be Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel. It’s like the joke: “what do you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand UP!”
A Palestinian fisherman dredged up in his net an ancient bronze statue of Apollo. It was photographed stretched out on a humble smurf bed quilt.
In 1979 I had travelled through Athens; in the Archaeological Museum was another bronze statue of Apollo, which had been found in Piraeus harbour. Clearly it had been the centrepiece of a temple, perhaps even Delos, which I also visited. Although the sculpture was displayed too low; it had been intended as a devotional piece, upon a pedestal. In a western museum its gaze did not meet that of the viewer.
However, it had great presence & eventually I created a small tapestry as the essence of my experience.
There are many quandaries involved in translating ancient Greek images into a modern language: the marble sculptures were all brightly coloured; even the two bronze works had inlaid pieces for the eyes. I was concerned with the dilemma: reproduce the flawed sculptural image or evoke the mysterious presence of the god. Then, the actual find intrinsically involved the smurf image. Previously, I had created an image of a street art comic figure; the smurfs seemed to be kindred spirits. Between Apollo & the smurfs seemed to exist a dynamic: like Santa and his helper elves, or Shakespeare’s Prospero & Ariel (water & air) or Caliban (earth) from his play the Tempest.
My family was complicated in its religious culture: mum was Catholic, dad being Dutch was Calvinist. In central Qld, Mackay, where I grew up, the dominant local culture was Anglican, whose adherents thought that Catholics prayed to statues. Could our fervent prayers open an idol’s eyes? Nobody asked indigenous people what they believed; anyway, they lived out of town.
My work practice with button assemblage is firstly to create the most powerful central presence. This done, the stage has to be constructed, a frame of reference. In many earlier works I attached a chrome belt buckle, upon it fastening a bottle- top, punctured with 4 holes and sewing white shell buttons, then a central luminous pupil in imitation of Polynesian & Asian art where cowrie shells for eyes were fixed to carvings to evoke the ancestors. The bottle tops imitated arte povera, & transmitted In Vino Veritas, or wisdom discarded with drunkenness. Clearly, the situation indicated is chaotic & could well be tempered with ancestral wisdom. At the bottom of the work I want to refer to Bob Dylan’s Vietnam War protest song: “where have all the young men gone?” by placing grey & green plastic soldier figures under floral wreaths and a reluctant skyline. The combination of 3 small woven tapestries in a setting of button & object assemblage is intended to contrast the sculptural & the conceptual; while the image of Apollo is intended as a post Gustave Moreau symbolist extravaganza, the 3 smurfs are closer to being identified with human ineffectuality. As such, an ambiguous reading probably serves best. Woven tapestry is certainly capable of such a layered reading. With its extensive history, woven tapestry is capable of carrying a conceptual load; meanwhile, buttons where possible exude light, but are sculptural, visceral, tactile in their impact.
The prayer I have borrowed from the Latin mass, the Agnus Dei, I have always found poignant; after two repeated prayers, the cry of “dona nobis pacem” which seems like an exhausted exhalation. These last few months we have been involuntary nightly witnesses of carnage in Gaza. We have moved beyond rational behaviour; perhaps both protagonists are by now incapable of intelligibility. My Facebook page has a group “Jews & Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”, which is also my belief. The situation cries out for resolution, if only for the fact that the area continues to displace people & confirms others in their vehement, anti-Western sentiments.
My family came to Australia as refugees after World War 2; I was born behind wire fencing; my mother was not allowed to move beyond the camp for the first two years of my life. While she carried me in her womb she was protesting alongside other women in the camp, for better food & better conditions. Ordinary Australians were mostly reluctant to understand my family situation; my early school years were difficult.
None of the above is an excuse to harbour bitterness; however, others in similar circumstances desperately need their situation improved. PACEM.
Woven tapestry was particular prized in earlier Greek culture. Homer mentioned “figured cloths”, tapestry shrouds in which to wrap & bury fallen heroes, like the sumba cloth of Indonesian culture. An especially wonderful Homeric moment was the ten or so line passage about the Cave of the Nymphs; it was illustrated by William Blake & influenced such neo-Platonists as W. B. Yeats, for its description of the loom, marble beams & purple cloths, as a metaphor of the creation of humans.
“High at the head a branching olive grows
And crowns the pointed cliffs with shady boughs.
A cavern pleasant, though involved in night,
Beneath it lies, the Naiades delight:
Where bowls and urns of workmanship divine
And massy beams in native marble shine;
On which the Nymphs amazing webs display,
Of purple hue and exquisite array,
The busy bees within the urns secure
Honey delicious, and like nectar pure.
Perpetual waters through the grotto glide,
A lofty gate unfolds on either side;
That to the north is pervious to mankind:
The sacred south t’immortals is consign’d.”
Thomas Taylor’s translation of Porphyry.
Diana Wood Conroy of Wollongong University wrote about tesserae or the tiles work of Roman culture.Tesserae or tiled mosaic work imitated the tapestry woven floor rugs of buildings, similarly covering the floors & walls of public & domestic buildings. In more recent times Renaissance culture prized woven tapestry & painting as sister arts; its studio system trained apprentices to work from “il disegno” or a drawing or original design to create objects in different materials.
Since tapestry has made a recent comeback, critics have used the term “painterly” to describe the effects achieved in woven yarns to emulate painting; since, however paintings in recent times have meant realist, one could say “photographic” in visual accuracy, to pointillist, minimalist or abstract, the word carries a variety of contradictory attributes. Where once the painter’s brush strokes were the prized signature and mark of individual genius, some styles of depiction come close to air-brushing, of art concealing art.
Meanwhile, the textile genre of woven tapestry also has developed along different lines: the atelier system works with “name” artists to complete commissions, with several weavers working together at the same loom. Otherwise individual artist/craftspersons complete works that express their individuality. The surface qualities of tapestry have become fields for discussion. A new version of the concept of beginner’s mind is at work here. The apprenticeship in tapestry weaving develops the ability to create an impeccable surface, since it is inevitable that inexperienced weaving will be ruffled & imperfect. However, people have sought to contest the impersonality of the tapestry surface; “ornament” is a quality that practitioners have wanted to express, whether by embroidering extra wefts across the surface, as Lynne Curran does, or like Jon Eric Riis who adds crystals and beads.
Ornament was an attractive concept for my work. I looked at different techniques: embroidery, patchwork, applique. My search for different yarns started with wool, which had a furry surface and light absorbent qualities; cotton, especially mercerised, worked differently with light; then linen & silk, & finally polyester yarns yielded a lustre that entranced the eye. But I also was aware how adding buttons to my work could deliver light to the viewer. A dichotomy seemed to be developing, where woven tapestry was the ground or the earth and buttons, piled onto this surface or buried, seemed like uncovered jewels. I am very aware that many gallery art works consist of an unusual material accumulated in impressive quantities. Perhaps, the representational nature of my work modified the tendency to accumulate, disciplining pointillist fields of buttons.
Within recent European art developments Arte Povera has been a movement where artists used ordinary materials to aim their message away from the rarefied elitism of the art gallery. In Australia, a phenomenon called Depression Crafts saw otherwise discarded materials like worn lingerie reworked as floor rugs. Both types of work challenged previous notions of “art” & “craft” and rejected their separation. By combining woven tapestry and button mosaic, my work attempts to re-shape concepts of “art” & “craft” , and “fine arts” as opposed to “popular crafts”. I can appreciate that viewers experience this novelty as playfulness. In making use of these materials I am aware of the history that buttons contribute; the subject of my work has been my family narrative, as refugees after WW2, and adapting to a new culture. Likewise as my work developed I was aware of my outsider status in a hetero-normative society and needeed to express this in my work, especially during the Aids epidemic, and when different gay individuals made heroic struggles to become recognised & accepted in their society, such as in my two portraits of Welsh footballer Gareth Thomas.
I just watched James Blunt’s video: You’re Beautiful; he has such a delightfully high voice.
But it put me in mind of how people consider art these days. Some foolish person decided everyone can be an artist, over the weekend. It becomes part of a Big Bro TV immediate spectacle; an interior gets a makeover, and the requisite wall pieces have to be constructed. Alternatively, the big names of the art world, they know who they are, assemble a workshop of helpers, not just personal assistants but actual art makers. The big name’s talents are glad handing, interacting over a drink, getting the work commissioned. Someone calculated that to keep a half dozen international art galleries stocked, the big name needs to complete work at the rate of one a week at the very least.
Then the intense pressure of the art media industry demands that the process gets explained. There gets to be a well articulated production line of steps towards the completion of a work.
All I can say to these features of art today, is that pressure is inimical to successful completion. As for articulating the stages of completion, in a work that is currently on my landscape, an idea came into my mind today; it eliminated some aspects of ideas previously entertained & refined other aspects. One aspect accompanying this mysterious process is that during my recovery from a knee injury, my impulse to go shopping, that previously would have been instantly obeyed, now gets second guessed. Again, another idea under pressure to be resisted & revised. You’re Beautiful, it’s true.
Further to the abstract work I completed on a train from up north, this is called “Submerged Rock Garden”, woven tapestry, 15 cms H X 16.5 cms W, 8 epi, cotton warp, wool, cotton, linen, silk, synthetic wefts. The motivation was a memory of Sydney Harbour rockpools, especially seen from below the surface, a brown overall glow, with glints of light and seaweed floating in vertical strands & threads. Depicting the latter created one of the components of the rhetoric of the work, over under over in a hound’s tooth pattern; other shapes balanced with these verticals to create space and volume.
A while ago, I chanced upon the story of a Palestinian fisherman who had caught in his net a bronze sculpture of Apollo, clearly a temple format, the right hand forward offering blessings to worshippers. The archaeological find was photographed on a smurf coverlet in the fisherman’s house in Gaza. I proposed the subject to my Tapestry [Fb] group. My start was in fixing the smurf image as a subject of woven tapestry; it would logically follow the image of Snoop dog as street graffiti I created earlier and exhibited in the Ukraine in 2013 as part of the Fibermen exhibition.
My Apollo in Gaza is quite focussed on the eyes of the subjects; Greek sculpture had inlaid eyes; this particular Apollo has one eye missing; my decision was to replace the eye in my forthcoming portrait. In 2 of the smurf images I use, as it were, “inlaid” button eyes, that give greater emphasis to the visual. I am still fixed on the relationship between Apollo and smurf; between Lear & fool, between Prospero & Ariel or Caliban; it is a standard Shakesperean relationship, one of lord or hero and lowly helper or commentator.
Yesterday’s ABC TV gardening show delivered an amazing story about a Victorian home with an extraordinary garden. This unique feature was was so well planned that heritage architects demolished the original house, [2 storey, red brick] & built a low, 1 storey glass and metal framed house. It inspired me to see it as a precedent of a Victorian scenario, where a family built its residence, only to have a successive generation decide that the garden had greater merit that the domestic architecture it surrounded.
I feel sure it could be the template of many artistic situations; in fact the history of art has run along exactly such lines.
Today, ABC TV ran a story about an Alice Springs indigenous collective having a beanie knitting exhibition; okay, it’s second nature for indigenous people to express their response to country; they are certainly showing the way for the rest of us to do likewise. We’ve begun by filling our gardens with amazing indigenous flora. In mine is to be found:leptospermum, dianella, cycads, lilly pilly, banksia, grevillea,and several ground covers: hardenbergera,etc. A rather dogmatic friend challenged me on the presence of exotics; but roses, magnolia and japanese maples chart the course of recent interaction between the Satanic Magesties’ Empire and the rest of the universe: Iran, Japan, China.
If I may be permitted to offer the above as an example of art that is constructed in a vacuum of freedom, separated by an absence of dogmatic direction; it complements earlier chapters about forgery as a situation that allows art to be constructed, free of constraint. Another such example recently came to mind, in the Ern Malley poems, where 2 Australian poets together decided to spoof the “pretentions” as they saw the situation of contemporary poetry. Instead, their imagination was liberated in the ambiguous situation, and magnificent lines came to the surface. The black swan of trespass.
Take a successful artist today; he has negotiated with potential buyers & eager curators. He is in fact often described as a salesman. His public persona is carefully calculated; he creates events & newsworthy moments; he makes things happen, that always get reported.
Back where things are made, he has a studio of helpers; they don’t just buy necessary materials; they are impoverished art students, nameless & unknown. On the conveyor belt of the master’s objects, they contribute the painterly effects & the crafty finishes that are admired by the gallery viewer & required for a successful sale.
How then does the pre-modernist concept of forgery come into play? Is it relevant still? Perhaps the master’s studio has a symbol identifying his oeuvre? Perhaps, the workshop supervisor carefully numbers and annotates each object as it nears completion.
Invoking a brand symbol is deeply ironic, given the tendency by Pop artists to re-create objects of mass consumption; perhaps it is now appropriate to copy objects of fringe consumption? Curiously, though perhaps in keeping with the ethos of our capitalist culture, the ultimate purpose of object making is still the earning of money. Instead of being a bright young thing, “appropriating” an object of art history and ironically displacing its context, the “forger” hides his identity & copies another artist’s work with a fraudulent sale in mind.
One must remember that great artists of the past, like Rembrandt, ran workshops and teaching situations, where students were encouraged to copy the master’s work. Some greats cultivated followers who were brush perfect in the master’s style; he only had to finish the commissioned portrait by painting the face & hands. In the Netherlands for the last half century academics have striven to assess which paintings are by the master, and which by followers. De-attribution followed their assessment. It seems to me however, practically impossible to guarantee 100% work by the master, given the above conditions. Is this even the desired verdict; or, is it enough to determine that the master has merely corrected his student’s work with a masterly re-touching, to provide the ethereal atmosphere, the master’s magic?