Denver Art Museum

This could have been my vocation in a different life.

This could have been my vocation in a different life.

True confessions. Every time I spend any time in the textile conservation space at the Denver Art Museum, I want to be a textile conservator. I love what they do--such a mix of research, history, science, and art.

I was able to go to Preview Open Window, the Wednesday morning talks led by Allison McCloskey (and currently her fellow Emma), last week. I never know what they'll be working on when I get there, but it is usually something that is going to be displayed somewhere in the museum soon. So the added benefit is that I get to go and see the piece finished and on display at some point in the future.

Luminous beings are we... Yoda

Luminous beings are we... Yoda

I visited the Denver Art Museum yesterday. The Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit is only here for a few more weeks and though I am not a complete science fiction geek, I do love me some Star Wars. I had to go.

The costumes were stunning. I really enjoyed seeing the concept art which was presented as drawings, storyboards, and costume fabric files along with a few videos.

Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry at the Denver Art Museum

Last Friday I was able to return to the Denver Art Museum for another look at the current tapestry exhibit.

The show starts with large three historic tapestries.

The first is Birth of the Prince of Peace. It was woven in an unknown Flemish workshop, probably in Tournai, in 1510 - 1530. It is an allegorical tapestry and here we see the new mother receiving her son (the prince of peace) from her attendant. The baby is difficult to see now as those yarns have faded in color in the five centuries since it was woven.
Birth of the Prince of Peace (detail)
Here is the whole piece being admired by the group from the American Tapestry Alliance who went for a tour.
Birth of the Prince of Peace
The second piece was a table covering called The Five Senses, woven in England in 1610. It is the piece in the center between Birth of the Prince of Peace to the left and Village Festival to the right. In the photo below, Alison McCloskey and Stephania VanDyke are giving us a tour of the show.
They know this piece is a table cover because the images at the top of the piece are upside down. The detail below is of the sense of smell.
The Five Senses (detail)
The third of these old Flemish and English tapestries is Village Festival which was woven at the Brussels workshop of Urbanus Leyniers from 1705 - 1747. It was based on the paintings of David II Teniers (Flemish 1610 - 1690).

This piece got 300 hours of restoration work and is about 9 by 20 feet. During this time period, poor quality silk was used and the parts of the tapestry that were silk (large parts of the sky, part of a pig, other parts that they wanted to be shinier), have largely disappeared. Alison McCloskey, the conservator who talked about this work, said that metals were added to silk at that time. The metals made the silk weaker and it breaks easily.
Village Festival (I have also seen it called Peasant's Feast)
Last spring I was able to see this piece being restored. There were bits of silk all over the floor under the frame they were using to do the stabilizing, like shiney snow. Fortunately the weft that was wool and the wool warp are intact.

This is the frame they used to restore the piece. It has two large rollers on each side and they can scroll through the tapestry as they work.
Village Festival on restoration frame at the Denver Art Museum
There were two conservators working on stabilizing this piece. They do not do any reweaving of areas. Alison told us that reweaving is invasive, yarns don't age in a compatible manner, and it is difficult to remove. In the photo below you can see the twining technique they use every few inches to connect the warps. The silk bits have mostly fallen out of this part of the tapestry and the warps are exposed.
Village Festival, detail of restoration
They use two strands of DMC embroidery floss for these stabilization twinings. Alison said that the floss is the right strength for the tapestry and it comes in such a wide variety of colors, they can match what they need so it disappears into the tapestry.

Here is a detail of Birth of the Prince of Peace which I saw being restored a few months prior to Village Festival. You can see the DMC floss. This tapestry, though a couple hundred years older, is in better shape. There are some old repairs and multiple slit sewings that had to be removed. The old repairs were either done in an orange color or the colors have changed in the intervening centuries. The conservation team did remove some of those old repairs especially in the faces of the figures where they were extremely distracting.
Birth of the Prince of Peace, restoration in process
The photo below shows a few of the old repairs in an orangish, thicker tapestry weave. They are the blotches that don't seem to fit. You can also see where the slits have been resewn repeatedly. Alison thought there were perhaps 20 different resewings over the 500 years this tapestry has been around. You can see more images of the restoration of these tapestries in THIS POST.
Birth of the Prince of Peace (detail of repairs)
And what with all the drinking and merry-making, someone has to pee...
Village Festival (detail)
Though I find these old tapestries fascinating, I fear we are in danger of thinking that tapestry is ONLY a historical practice and is irrelevant today. The tapestries in the rest of the show make us think about what tapestry has been over the last five centuries, how it has changed, and perhaps a little about what it means today. It would take an exhibit ten times this size to really explore these ideas, but Alice Zrebiec, curator, has made a good start in Creative Crossroads just with objects from the DAM collection.

Here are some overview photos from the exhibit followed by some more details.

left to right: Josep Grau Garriga, Mark Adams, Irvin Trujillo, James Koehler, Ramona Sakiestewa
Irvin Trujillo, Saltillo Shroud (right), Don Leon Sandoval, Las Cinco Estrellas (left)
Irvin Trujillo was at the opening dinner and he talked about this piece a little bit. You can see more photos from that night HERE. Below is a detail of the work which is done in wool, silk, and metal thread. Irvin says that this piece is a tribute to the Mexican saltillo serapes and their influence on Rio Grande weaving in New Mexico. His father never wove in this form because he didn't want to acknowledge his Mexican heritage. Irvin says that this piece and the prominent center figure is a sort of "coming out" from the shame of his father. Also, there was that thing about pop biscuits.
Saltillo Shroud (detail)
There is a very large Navajo rug by Ason Yellowhair (1930 - 2012), woven in 1983. There is an interesting photo of Ason weaving another rug with her chair on top of her dining table so she could reach the weaving line on her traditional Navajo loom.

Ason Yellowhair, Bird and Flower Pictorial Rug (detail)

This massive piece that you see from all over the gallery was woven by Josep Grau-Garriga (Catalan, 1929 - 2011). He studied with Jean Lurcat in France and then returned to Spain where he became the director of the Catalan School of Tapestry. He took traditional tapestry into a sculptural form which, in this piece, was meant to be viewed in the round.
Josep Grau Garriga, Tapis Pobre
The very large, Flight of Angels, designed by Mark Adams (1925 - 2006), was woven in 1962 by Paul Avignon in Aubusson, France.
Mark Adams, Flight of Angels
Flight of Angels (detail)
Flight of Angels (detail); Mark Adams' signature with the atelier's mark
Ramona Sakiestewa is an artist/weaver of Hopi heritage.
Ramona Sakiestewa, Katsina 5
Rebecca Bluestone, Four Corners/8, 1997
James Koehler had a piece in the show and you can see more photos as well as watch five videos the museum made about his work and practice HERE.

There are many delightful surprises in this show. I hope you'll visit to see these in person as well as the ones I haven't shown you.
Denver Art Museum to the left and the Denver Public Library straight ahead.
Imagine 300 hours of this on just one piece?!!!

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 2: Flat Tapestry

I have to admit that I am a proponent of the very flat tapestry that James taught me. I am almost as picky about it as he was, and that is saying something because James could be picky. He would probably not like that word. Perhaps exacting or particular would be better words. Being particular leads to a mastery of craftsmanship and James definitely was a master craftsman.

This is the second of five blog posts about the Denver Art Museum videos of Barb Brophy and I talking about our teacher, James Koehler. I am talking in this video about the interlock that James used in most of his work. I have posthumously named it the "James Koehler interlock", but it is really just a specific variation of a weft interlock. If you're interested in learning this join, I have a video on my YouTube channel about it HERE.

If you receive this blog via email updates, you will need to go to the internet to watch the movie. You can see it on my blog in your browser at

The search for a very flat join can be traced back to a desire for a very flat textile. A lot of tapestry weaving is not very flat and in fact can be quite thick with yarn tails hanging on the back. Everyone has their favorite style, but I love the way James taught me to weave. His work was exceptionally flat, thin, and flexible. There were no tails hanging anywhere and most of his pieces were virtually reversible. This James Koehler weft interlock join contributes to that sort of textile because it is very flat when done correctly.

This join can be seen throughout James' work. The piece below is Ceremonial Masks which is in the State Library Archive in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The date on the plaque is 1998.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks
And here is a detail of that join. Note that he did the join every other sequence. I also use it in this way. It is faster and even flatter than if you interlock every sequence.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks, detail
And here is the same join in the Denver Art Museum piece, Chief Blanket with Blocks. Note the warp is running right to left so the joins are happening between the green and red at the top and bottom of the photograph.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail
And one last example of this join which shows what an expert he was at it. This is from Harmonic Oscillation XL from 2006.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL, detail
And this is an edging technique that James no longer used when I knew him. The Chief Blanket piece at DAM has this fringe folded over the top in hanging. In his later work, all his work was hemmed.

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, installation Denver Art Museum Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry show

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 1: Color

A few months ago I did a long interview with the curatorial staff at the Denver Art Museum about my tapestry teacher, James Koehler. The interview, broken into five parts, is part of a display of one of James' pieces in the current tapestry show at DAM, Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry.

I'd like to talk a little bit about each of the videos here on the blog. Of course I have background stories about all of them and I thought you might like to hear some of them. If not, I'm sure I'll be back to my regularly scheduled salad of tapestry information soon.

In this first video, Barb Brophy, another Koehler student, and I talk about James' use of color. We talk about his ability to create intense colors in his hand-dyed yarn. Many of his very intense colors were created for student use however. James' work was more subtle than that and the colors he used were toned or created with some complimentary colors mixed in.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXI
As many of his apprentices did over the years, I spent a lot of time watching the dye pots. He would not let us measure the dyes. His one secret in relation to his work in tapestry was his dye formulas. He even (and I'm not kidding here) had cans of dye in which the labels were covered with duct tape. I have a few suspicions of what was in those cans, but we'll leave his secret where it is for now.

In the dye process, he measured out the dyes himself, dumped them into water baths which he heated, strained, and stirred on his dye kitchen stove, and then let me take it from there.

He had three huge dye pots just outside the studio heated by propane burners. He could dye three pounds of a color at once with acid wool dyes. He only did one run a day. So for most of the summer, the pots were running. Nine pounds a day. Much of it for the workshops he taught constantly.

In the video I make it sound like making the colors James did was a mystery. There were a few colors I have been unable to create in my own dye studio (see prior comment about mystery ingredients), but for the most part, a good dyer with a solid knowledge of color theory can create amazing things with acid wool dyes. Yes, James had a special ability to produce lovely evenly dyed yarns. But many of you could do it too if you wanted to. I bet James would tell you that himself if he could.

The piece that the Denver Art Museum owns is one of the Chief Blankets series. This is what James has to say in his book, Woven Color, about those pieces:
But the images I really liked--that had an aesthetic of simplicity and were efficient in terms of my being able to weave them--were from the Navajo Chief Blankets. . . . I looked at the Chief Blanket as though it were a triptych. There were three areas of color that were separated by very broad repetitive bands of black and white. The stripes could be woven with relative ease, and the color areas could be done with tapestry techniques. So it was like weaving three smaller tapestries as part of that large format. I approached the creating of design elements for the colored panels as if I were designing a triptych.
Here is the video:
As always, you can view it on YouTube by pushing the icon in the bottom right corner of the player. If you are receiving this blog post as an email, you have to visit the post on the internet to see the video. Just go to my blog here:

Here are the yarn balls Barb talks about in the video.

And here are some more photographs of that Chief Blanket piece. You can visit the show to see it in person. It runs from now through March 6, 2016. It is a great excuse to visit Denver.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
One of James' trademarks was subtle use of color. Get a close look at the diamond shape in the center of the red squares. The violet and blue are so close in value they are difficult to tell apart, but there is a blue square in the center of the violet diamond. I suspect it is the same blue as you see in the three intermediate squares though the violet shifts the color somewhat (simultaneous contrast!).

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail

If you are interested in more of the story, here are some blog posts about the time in my life I was apprenticing with James.


I'll have more about the other four videos in the next week.