Always Greener

Always Greener600

 

 

Always Greener came out of my developing awareness of how the two sides of tapestry weaving, pictorial and geometric, relate to each other.  It always seems like there’s just a shade of jealousy about “the other side” having it easier, either making or selling their work, or just getting respect for it.  And I really am uncomfortable with any kind of “us versus them” mentality.

This piece was about taking naturalistic shapes and making them geometric.  It’s about how they relate to each other.  So I revisited this body shape that I’d done in a handful of pieces before.  And I let the bodies do things.  They float, they play with the lines that encompass them, and they turn into geometric shapes.  I was told that the upper right body is doing something akin to “downward dog.” I even divided bodies up for their geometric components.

It was woven in 2000.  It uses all natural dyes,  and it’s here in the shop at the moment on consignment from the owner.

Clearly we are solidly in the camp of geometric tapestry weavers.  Pictorials have been around in our tradition, but, other than things like thunderbirds and roadrunners, haven’t really been a big part of it.  It isn’t that our techniques aren’t amenable to imagery, but they really are very much designed around things like symmetry and pattern, and our techniques train our brains around logical thinking that just doesn’t much apply to naturalistic forms.  These thought process are certainly a big part of what I like so much about weaving.

Weaving imagery requires having something to say in imagery.  That “picture painting a thousand words” thing is something I have always found mildly intimidating.  And I’m sure I’d always have the nagging sense that maybe just painting it would be faster and more appropriate for whatever I would want to say with an image.

And once, a few years after I completed this weaving, I was told that what we do wasn’t actually tapestry weaving.  She had learned a different kind of methodology and apparently couldn’t mentally encompass what we do as being tapestry, despite the fact that it very much fits the definition of tapestry.

So, in my mind, getting respect for tapestry as an art form is challenging for all of us.  I’ve watched people talk about it as an issue, a challenge, for tapestry artists, but I don’t have any answers as to how such a thing is ever going to come about.  I know that there are tapestry weavers that promote their work really well, so I guess it could happen that someday a tapestry weaver, or a few really great ones, will push the envelope of artistic respect beyond where it sits today.  I don’t know that there’s any reason to think that geometric forms or traditional design should be any more or less likely to garner respect for tapestry than imagery or boundary pushing new tapestry forms.

I’ve heard from pictorial weavers that those of us weaving in a tradition have it made, that we have an already developed market.  Which is, sort of, true.  But I’d argue that, as individual artists, we have to build a market for our work in precisely the same way that any other artist does.  Our work has some credibility as an authentic outcome of an old tradition.  I wouldn’t say that that was really a simple thing to achieve, but it is something that adds value to our work based on work done by those that have gone before.  So maybe they have a good point there.

 

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DAM Opening of Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry

Irvin Trujillo in front of the Denver Art Museum on the night of the opening.
Irvin Trujillo in front of the Denver Art Museum on the night of the opening.

Once upon a time I taught about our weaving tradition to a group of weavers who were all tapestry weavers from a guild in a distant part of the country.  I totally enjoyed the experience, but one thing about it stands out in my memory more than all the joys of that teaching experience.  We all were at the old Victorian-era home of one of the students for dinner.  The hostess was very gracious, but made the statement that what I was teaching, and what the group was learning at that workshop, was not tapestry.  I was pretty taken aback.  By all definitions of tapestry weaving, it is what we do.  That is, we weave a discontinuous weft.  To my knowledge, most of the other students agreed that we were weaving tapestry, but I have wondered why she felt that way ever since.  Most of what we do is geometric tapestry, and we simply don’t use a lot of joins that other tapestry weavers do because we have to have both sides be equally useful, but it is definitely the same weaving technique that people have used for many centuries and within a wide variety of cultures all over the world.

Sadly, most of the tapestry shows that I have been aware of have been put together by tapestry weavers.  I don’t want to think that nobody else ever thinks to put together these shows, or that shows organized by other tapestry artists somehow have less to offer.  But a show curated out of a love of the art form by someone whose expertise is in a full range of textile traditions across the centuries, and who can present it in the context of a world-class art museum is a very special thing  I haven’t ever experienced such a thing before

Here is the text from the opening invitation.

Creative Crossroads:  The Art of Tapestry displays more than twenty tapestry-woven wall hangings, rugs, furniture covers, garments and sculptural forms that illustrate the creative possibilities of this technique.  The selection includes historic European tapestries made by large ateliers, twentieth century collaborations between artist and weaver, and works by solo artist-weavers who use tapestry as their creative medium.  While some designs are culturally specific, others borrow from, transform, or transcend tradition.  Contemporary tapestries join historic weavings from Europe, Turkey, China, Peru, Mexico and the American southwest in the main gallery, complemented by a selection of smaller tapestries in the Nany Lake Benson Thread Studio.

 

And Irvin has not one, but two, tapestries in the show.  2015-05-29 11.10.16

 

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Here are some other magnificent tapestries from the show.

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This is an English tapestry about the five senses.
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And a detail of the center panel.
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This very large tapestry was from Belgium, if my memory serves me correctly.
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And an entertaining detail.
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Detail of a Peruvian tapestry.
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A Rio Grande Saltillo that has been identified as a “slave blanket”, because it has “lazy lines”.
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These three pieces are from contemporary, Santa Fe area weavers. On the left is an early piece by James Koehler, in the middle is one by Ramona Sakiestewa, and the one on the right is by Rebecca Bluestone.
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A Navajo weaver created this from the artist-provided image seen to the right of the weaving.

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The Art is the Cloth

ArtistheCloth

 

We are honored to be participants in an exhibit called “The Art is the Cloth”.  The opening at the New Hampshire Institute of Art was attended by 20 of the artists in the exhibit, whose smiling faces you can see in the above picture. It is a tapestry show meant to explore that central reality of tapestry, that we aren’t manipulating a piece of cloth to create our art, we are creating the cloth as we create our art form.    There are a few other components of the art form that are pretty much a given, i.e. warp and discontinuous weft threads.  But beyond that, we are clearly thinking differently about how we approach this art form.  We saw tapestries made from all kinds of different fibers, variations on thicknesses of yarn, and every color imaginable.  The exhibit was divided in an appealingly logical way.  But I’ve been thinking about it differently, about how these tapestries diverged from my comfort zone, or didn’t.  Which is to say, why would or wouldn’t I have woven a piece like that?  So I thought I’d share my thoughts and see if I can learn anything about my own thinking/philosopy on tapestry weaving.

Rectangles and the Perpendicularity of warp and weft-.  The two groups of weavings that have “eccentric” weft are the wedge-weave pieces and the 3d onesAnd when you do these things you leave behind the familiar rectangle that most of us weave.  The rectangle is the natural way things come off of a loom.  But some of these pieces had edges that followed angles and curves, and a couple were particularly three-dimensional.  Although Irvin has a piece here in the shop that has a stepped bottom side, neither of us has purposely done anything much that isn’t a flat rectangle.  There is a logical reason for that, because the equipment we use constrains the side-to-side movement of warp yarns.  We’d have to abandon the use of the reed/beater to do most of the not-flat, non-rectangular possibilities.  There’s infinite possibilities in the non-rectangular world, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly curious about what lies out there.

Weft-faced-Almost all tapestries are weft-faced.  There weren’t many exceptions to that in the show, but Irvin and I have both tried out tapestry in the context of twills, but haven’t pursued that idea much.  A balance weave could also easily accommodate tapestry, and there was a gorgeous example of that in the show.  Still, having warp visible means all weft yarns have to blend with the warp color/s and that will actually limit color use pretty significantly.

Story-telling-Story telling is definitely a long-standing part of tapestry tradition.  Maybe it’s even an inevitable part of tapestry weaving.  After all, tapestry weavers are artists and have lots to say about things, and they have plenty of time to think about what to say while they are executing this slow process.  All of the 20 weavers present at the opening spoke briefly about their piece.  Some of them actually weren’t so brief in their presentations.  Some of the pieces had a lot of images and clearly were meant to show a passing of time, others depended on symbols and other elements to communicate more than just a pretty image or simple idea.  I suspect that none of the pieces there were devoid of meaning to the weaver, although a passing observer might not recognize the content.  A tapestry’s ability to communicate what the weaver intended is dependent a lot of things the weaver can control, and a lot that they cannot.  In this way, tapestry is like other art media.  Observers need to put some effort to see a story, or they may just see something visually appealing.  Or not.

Design medium-This is, I think, where I have some strong feelings.  People ask us all the time about how we come up with designs for our pieces.  Actually, what they ask is “where is your pattern”.  I’m not entirely sure what the underlying assumptions are for the people that ask that question, but they tend to be surprised when we tell them that we don’t have a “pattern” to work from.  And most tapestry weavers certainly don’t work from a “pattern”.  What they might use is a “cartoon”.  A cartoon is a plan for the tapestry weaver to execute to create a specific image.  Conceptually they are like a “paint by number” thing, with outlines of color areas being specified in a drawing.  That reference, the “cartoon” is kept at hand in a variety of different ways, depending on looms and personal preferences.  Executing the cartoon’s design takes a great deal of  skill, and designing the cartoon can be separated from the weaving process.  In fact, historically, these things were entirely separated.  Modern tapestry weavers tend to do both design and execution of the piece.  The design medium can be paper and pencil, paints, charcoals, collage, Photoshop…whatever.  And sometimes it’s kind of obvious that the design came from a different medium.

And my feelings about that are kind of mixed.  I want tapestry to be true to its own medium.  A part of me believes that tapestry shouldn’t look like watercolor or photography or collage, because the result of it being woven isn’t necessarily a step up from the original rendering.  After all, watercolors, photography or collage are lovely art forms in their own right.  But tapestry is time consuming.  And it conveys a depth of color and texture that other art forms don’t.  And it’s cloth, which we humans have a very special relationship to.  I’m sure that the weaver feels that the tapestry is well worth the effort they put into it or they wouldn’t do it.  But I think that what we produce from our looms ought to be true to the process of weaving first and foremost.  So I’m happy with my process, which rarely uses any medium beyond occasional sketching things on paper.  My process is very much about all kinds of variations of logic and math and color and energy.  And I’m happy with that.  It feels true to me, and to my loom and to the cloth.  I want to explore more about my own process in future posts, because I really want to clarify what it is we do.  I hope very much that what every weaver sent to that show is true to them and their process.  And we all grow and change and our design and weaving processes grow and change too.  Which is an apt analogy for tapestry weaving…it grows and changes as we lay our bits of colored weft into our warps.  And beautiful things come out of it.

 

 

Dyed in the Wool – New Mexico Magazine article

Jerga

A part of the Rio Grande weaving tradition that goes back to Spanish Colonial times is called jerga.  Historically, jerga was woven as a utilitarian fabric, used as a tarp, or carrier, or for wrapping things up.  It was strictly a wool textile.  Someone with wealth might demonstrate that by putting jerga down as a floor covering.  It was woven in long strips and cut and seamed to make a piece of fabric of the desired size.  And many of the jergas that survived to the present are very large.

Old Spanish Loom

The Spanish Colonial jerga was woven on four-harness looms using a straight twill, or, less commonly, as a diamond twill.  Moving into more modern times, the jerga slowly evolved into a uniquely New Mexican variety of rag rugs.

diamond twill detail
diamond twill jerga detail
straight twilll
Straight twill jerga detail

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally, jergas were probably pretty colorless, but many of the examples that survive have quite lively colors.

Jerga with three widths
Three panel jerga with undyed yarns.

Moving into more modern times, the jerga slowly evolved into a uniquely New Mexican variety of rag rugs.

Jerga with rag weft.
Jerga with rag weft.
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More jerga with rag weft.

 

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Weft-faced rag rug with spun rags used for weft.

Weaving in the Rio Grande Tradition

Okay.  Everything here is about this topic.  But, since we are talking about other processes we engage in to create our weavings, we need to let you know something about how we actually weave.  And I will have to assume that you, my reader, doesn’t already know all about weaving.

Fortunately, the weaving that we do isn’t really all that difficult to explain.  In fact, what we do is called a plain weave.  It sounds simple because it is.  It uses only two harnesses to produce, with the weft yarn simply passing over one warp thread and under the next warp thread.

plainweaveWhat we do is also commonly described as “weft-faced”.  This simply means that the visible face of the weaving is entirely composed of weft yarn.  The warp is holding the textile together,  giving it its structure, but is not visible on the surface.

plain-weave
weft-faced plain weave

Another characteristic of our weavings is that there is no front or back.  Both sides look the same.

Our weavings combine both shuttle weaving and tapestry weaving.  So the last statement, that the front and the back of our weavings look the same, puts some important limitations on the tapestry techniques we employ.  Many of the world’s tapestry tradition’s techniques leave a clear back side to the textile where there are loops or lumps or long floats or tails.  Since we come from a blanket tradition, we avoid a messy side, so there are limited ways that our colors meet, or “join”, during the weaving process.

Tapestry technique
Rio Grande tapestry joins

Tapestry is defined as using “discontinous weft”.  Which is to say that, instead of a weft yarn traversing from selvage to selvage, there can be any number of yarns covering segments of that distance.  In our tradition, the yarns are all moving in the same direction, right to left or left to right.  We don’t traditionally use a “meet and separate”  technique.  We also don’t build up one area of a design before another area of a design, like many other tapestry traditions do.  We use the beater instead of a comb to pack the weft into place, and the logic of our geometric designs is conducive to moving all elements forward in a steady, linear way.

spools on loom
Spools have just moved from left to right

An unusual aspect of our weaving tradition is that we often use both shuttle weaving and tapestry weaving in the same textile.  We share this unusual approach of combining of weaving techniques with a lot of Mexican weavers.  But actually, combining the two techniques is challenging as it is very difficult to keep a straight edge.

edges
Most weavers find that they weave a wider piece when they are doing tapestry, and a narrower piece when they do shuttle work.

The fact that it is a plain weave and weft-faced means that we can put long warps on our looms but each and every piece that comes off of that loom can  look entirely different.  It’s a big advantage, at least from our point of view.

beamed warp
Lots of warp on a warp beam, ready to go to a loom.