Tapestry at the 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.

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 5: Weaving Process

This post is the continuation of my series of blog posts discussing the five Denver Art Museum videos about James Koehler.

James Koehler was a fast weaver. Anyone who weaves many hours a day is a fast weaver. But James had a real ability to focus. He could tune out everything and just weave. When there were students and apprentices in his studio as there often were, he was frequently pulled away from the loom to answer questions or supervise an apprentice's activity (I could wind balls of yarn like a champ, but when I got to work on re-hemming his tapestries, that made him nervous... which frankly made me nervous). But when we all went home at 5 pm, he worked. I frequently would return the next day to find that a piece that had several inches left to weave at 5 pm was off the loom. Sometimes he had even done the finishing and the tapestry was rolled up, ready for the photographer.

I talk some about why I weave on a floor loom and what I like about weaving all the way across using the beater on the loom. James wove much of his work all the way across. All the pieces like this Chief Blanket piece we are discussing in these videos were woven one pick at a time all the way across the loom. To do the joins he used in this piece, he had to weave it that way as everything was interlocked all the way across in some sections.

I weave all the way across whenever I can in part because I learned that way, but also because I use this join and a lot of irregular hatching to move color around. When using hatching, the color areas are interpenetrating and you can't weave one section before the other. If my color blends are going throughout much of the piece, I have to weave all the way across.

The other reason I talk about in this video is the nature of the fabric created. I don't see this reason talked about much at all among tapestry weavers. My tapestries certainly feel like a fabric. They might even make a nice blanket. They are fairly soft, thin and flexible. James' work felt similarly. When using the beater on the loom, it is possible to get a very even beat and to create a fabric that is not thicker in some areas than others which also means that it hangs very flat on the wall.

However, weaving all the way across is not possible all the time if you want to utilize the full range of tapestry's potential. James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces were woven somewhat differently. He wove up each curve and often outlined the edge of it before filling in to as close as flat as he could, beating with the beater bar on the loom, and then building up the next wave. I often weave up in shapes with the intention of outlining something or completing a section faster than another one. I like the flexibility of using a floor loom as it allows me to weave both ways in the same piece depending on the imagery I'm creating.

Just a note on what Barb says about an iron. Neither I nor James uses an iron on our tapestries. I use a steamer. For the most part, I don't want to squish the tapestry at all, I just want to use the steam to get a little shrinkage in the fibers to make the tapestry lie completely flat. James used a Jiffy steamer, but any clothes steamer that can be used horizontally (with the tapestry lying flat on a table not hanging on a hanger like a shirt would be) will work.

Below is the last of the five videos. See the links below if you missed the other four.

If you receive these blog posts via email updates, you'll have to visit my blog on the internet to view the videos or look for them on YouTube. http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com

This is the fifth in a series of five posts about the James Koehler Denver Art Museum videos.
Here are links to the first four posts:
Part 1: Color
Part 2: Flat Tapestry
Part 3: Meditation
Part 4: Teacher

Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillation pieces. This one was woven sideways and each of the curves would have been woven up to the curve and then he put in an eccentric outline before continuing weaving straight across the grid. In this case you can see that the eccentric outlines were done with a lighter color which really accentuates the curves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXIII
I want to thank the Denver Art Museum for giving me this great opportunity to speak about James Koehler, my experiences as his apprentice, and his work. James died in 2011 but we do hope his work lives on especially through his students and his student's students.

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 4: Teacher

This post is a continuation of the series of blog posts about the Denver Art Museum's videos of James Koehler.

Barb starts this video talking about passing on the knowledge of tapestry. I agree with her about this. Though weaving tapestry is a rather crazy way to spend a life in some respects, the rewards are great and passing on those things to a new generation of weavers is important. It is why I do so much teaching now myself.

In the video I talk about seeing a piece of James' at a lecture and knowing that that was what I wanted to do. That is quite literally what happened. I was a student at Northern New Mexico Community College in their fiber arts program and James came to give a lecture one afternoon. At NNMCC I was studying traditional Rio Grande Hispanic tapestry weaving which is a wonderful tradition with many expectations and rules. Once I understood the possibilities of contemporary art tapestry, I knew I had to leave that program and learn the techniques necessary to create my own vision of tapestry art.

It is true that the inspiration for James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces was a sine wave. Once he started playing with this mathematical form, he was able to create tapestries with these waves that looked like they were three dimensional.

If you receive my blog via email updates, you'll need to view it in your browser to see the video. Just go to http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com.

Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillations pieces which were designed from sine waves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL
James did love teaching. There are crazy stories from students about workshops he was teaching while he was sick in his last year when he just kept teaching. I struggled for a long time with feeling angry at him for not taking care of himself. For not stopping when he knew he was sick. But he couldn't. He was teaching in southern New Mexico just a day before he died.

The Rhythms of Nature pieces were ones he did very near the end of his life. I believe this one was woven around 2010 as it was included in the Albuquerque Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus show.
James Koehler, Rhythms of Nature III

The James Koehler Videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 3: Meditation

This post is the continuation of my series of blog posts discussing the five Denver Art Museum videos about James Koehler.

James Koehler was a Benedictine monk. He lived for about a decade at Christ in the Desert monastery in Northern New Mexico and this is where he learned to weave.

James talked about needing to weave as a meditation while at the monastery. When talking about why he left the monastery, he often sited the fact that the new prior would no longer allow him to spend his private meditation time at the loom.

In his own words:
When I entered the monastery in 1977, there were only six monks. In many respects, it was like a family. We met every morning to discuss some aspect of the Rule of Saint Benedict and to take care of community business. The prior acted as a moderator who helped us come to a consensus on any decision that had to be made. In many respects, we were a young and idealistic community.
As time went on, many aspects of our life there changed. Several men arrived to experience monastic life. Sometimes, they stayed for a few months, and sometimes, they stayed for a few years. The community became progressively more stable. The increased size in our membership affected [sic] several changes in the structure of our lives together.
In 1983, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert was received as an independent priory into the English Province of The Subiaco Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. Consensus was no longer our modus operandi. Clear lines of authority were established along with a system of anonymous voting on important issues. Our Customary, a document that described our daily life in great detail, was rewritten by the prior. Many of the ideals that drew me to monastic life at Christ in the Desert had been written out, and I now found life there to be increasingly difficult.
For many years, I was able to arrange my schedule so that I would be able to weave whenever possible. Brother Philip had encouraged me to explore the creative process through my weaving as a way of experiencing the Creator. But now, I was allowed to be in the weaving shop only when I was scheduled to be there during work periods. I was to spend all of my personal time alone in my cell.
That was really difficult. It was at the root of my discontent, and it started a struggle for me that lasted a whole year and a half. I kept asking myself -- Should I really be here? 
One of the things that James modeled for me so well was his ability to focus. He could focus on his work to the exclusion of everything else, whether that was a good or bad thing for life overall. When he was working, he was working.

In this video, Barb talks about his use of the golden mean in his work. He taught this frequently in his classes and he used the proportions of the golden mean in all of his tapestries, from the outer dimensions of the work to where to place certain elements. I am not quite sure that my statement, "Every single design he ever did was based on that" is true, but he did emphasize sacred geometry heavily.

Here is the video where Barb and I discuss James' ability to focus and his feeling that weaving was meditation for him.
If you get these blog posts via email updates, you'll need to go to the internet to view the video. You can see it in your browser on my blog here: http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com/

Near the end of this video Barb talks about how he applied the golden mean ratios that he loved to color dyeing. I am not sure the actual dye ratios were based on the golden mean, but they were definitely based on a mathematical progression. And then of course because he was using a singles yarn and mixing at least three colors in each bobbin, the color choices became so vast that he labeled every bobbin.

James used Aubusson bobbins to hold his yarn. He would write in pencil the numerical tag that he had created for each combination of yarn on every bobbin so that he could keep them straight. He wove on a 100 inch Cranbrook loom which had a tool tray hanging at eye-height the entire length of the loom. Frequently that tray was completely filled end to end with Aubusson bobbins with little penciled numbers on them.

Below is one of James' artist statements, written for the Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus project and show we did together with Cornelia Theimer Gardella. You can read more about his life and work in his autobiography, Woven Color, available now on Amazon.

James Koehler -- Artist Statement

Tapestry focuses on the creative, constructive process.  My woven images reflect the relationship of this process with the rhythmic, repetitive and unpredictable processes inherent in the natural world.

I am influenced by the extraordinary landscape and the unique cultures of New Mexico and by an aesthetic of simplicity, purity and portraying only what is essential. The source of my design inspiration often is found in meditation.

James Koehler is an internationally recognized tapestry artist whose work can be found in several museum, corporate and private collections.  He began weaving in 1977 and has worked with numerous students since the mid-1980’s.
This image was one that I took at Convergence 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the first day his book was for sale and he was taking his turn at the author's table, signing autographs.

The little black dress

I had the opportunity on Thursday evening to be at the opening dinner at the Denver Art Museum for the new tapestry exhibition, Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry which opens today.

The invitation came with the ominous words, cocktail attire. If you know me, you know that if I can't wear "yoga pants," I am most comfortable in blue jeans. I am definitely not someone who pulls off fancy dress easily.

Though I was very excited to be invited to the event, I did put off thinking about what I might wear until Thursday morning. I rummaged in the depths of my closet and found three skirts and four dresses.

I know. I was surprised by the numbers too.

After much debate and a long back and forth between the long printed skirt with boots I really wanted to wear and the little black dress with shoulder straps and a lowish back from my sister's wedding, the black dress won. It seemed to best fit the definition of "cocktail attire" I had in my mind (largely gleaned from movies and not necessarily accurately either considering The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorites).

My sister has been married long enough to build a house, two businesses, and two children since the wedding, so you know that dress has been around awhile. And it still fit.

The problem was the undergarments. I have no idea what I wore at the original event, but no bra in my drawer was going to work with that dress. So, two hours before we had to leave for Denver, I found myself at Macys in the bra department pawing through the never-before-experienced land under the strapless sign. I muttered something about how monumentally uncomfortable these seemed to be and the perky young clerk said, "that is the price we have to pay for being women!" I coughed to cover the "bulls***" that involuntarily escaped. I have no problem with blue jeans and cotton pullovers which never ever require a bra without straps. I was going a long way out on a limb in the name of tapestry here and I definitely don't think being a woman should require wearing uncomfortable clothing.

I grabbed the best one and ran when she suggested I try the contraption she wore for her prom, a set of cups that apparently you just stick to your breasts with adhesive. A woman who just went to her high school prom might well get away with something like this, but let me tell you, once that big Four-Oh rolls on by, the girls get a little more saggy and there is no way a stick-on "bra" is going to fly.

The evening went quite well. (Except perhaps for that moment when the tiny purple carrot was a little harder than my butter knife-technique could handle and went shooting into my lap and onto the floor.)

The tapestry show is stunning. I only had an hour to look at it and I will return soon for the full experience.
James Koehler, Ramona Sakiestewa, Rebecca Bluestone in Creative Crossroads at the Denver Art Museum
I was invited to this event because I was interviewed on video about my time working with James Koehler with fellow Koehler-student Barb Brophy. One of his pieces is in the DAM collection and this exhibition. You can watch the video on an iPad near the work.

The event was also a sendoff for the amazing Alice Zrebiec who was textile curator there for 19 years.
Alice Zrebiec and Irvin Trujillo. Irvin is talking about one of the two pieces he has in the show. (second one not pictured)
Alice's dissertation which I ordered a month ago was on the porch on Friday. Evening reading... check.

Really old tapestries... reproductive mural tapestries and making art today

In February I was able to attend a Textile Talk at the Denver Art Museum with conservator Alison McCloskey and her team. They were working on stabilizing two large tapestries for the upcoming tapestry show which opens in June 2015. The smaller of the two pieces was a Flemish tapestry called The Birth of the Prince of Peace which had a wool warp and wool and silk weft. It was from the early 16th century which makes this piece 500 years old.
The Birth of the Prince of Peace, Flemish 16th century tapestry
I really enjoyed hearing about how they stabilize these textiles. The goal for them is to keep the integrity of the textile as much as possible. There are many old repairs which are visible in the photos, most of which they aren't redoing. All of the rough stitching you see was probably repairs made hundreds of years after the initial weaving. There are spots where a repair weft was put in that is a markedly different color than the surrounding tapestry. Probably they matched at one point, but the fiber faded differently.
The conservator who was working on this piece (who's name I did not write down unfortunately!) was using DMC embroidery floss to do some of the twined stabilization.
You can see the twined stitch they are using for stabilization in this close-up of an 18th century Spanish table cover they are also restoring for the exhibit.
And of course I took a few photos for use as illustrations of hachure use in medieval textiles.
The other piece we looked at was a 9 by 20 foot tapestry called The Peasant's Feast, also Flemish. This is a photograph of what the whole tapestry looks like.
And this is what we saw of it.
And a detail from the back which was rolled around the tube.
Alison talked about how they will get this huge and very heavy tapestry up on the wall without damaging it. It involves two lifts and a platform with the tapestry accordian folded on top. It will be raised to the top, attached to the hanging system, and then the two lifts will be lowered simultaneously allowing the tapestry to unfold. I was happy to hear that they use a similar hanging system to mine--twill tape and velcro.

The information about the upcoming tapestry show is not on the Denver Art Museum's website yet, but it will be soon. The show opens in June and will run for most of a year. It will include these historic tapestries as well as many examples of contemporary tapestry from their collection.

All this discussion of medieval tapestries brought me back to the conversation I had recently with Archie Brennan as I was writing my article for the Spring 2015 issue of Fiber Art Now.** Archie talked both to me and in many talks and articles you can find if you dig a little about how tapestry became a reproductive medium in the middle ages. That means that weavers were trained to copy a painting in thread. This brought tapestry weaving away from the lovely improvisational work we see in the Coptic tapestry fragments to something that was stiffer and less creative from the weaver's perspective. Of course those weavers were and are incredibly skilled. But somewhere in that practice of copying paintings, tapestry lost its ability to be an art medium in its own right. It is my opinion that we need to regain the standing of the work of the artist/weaver as an art form before tapestry can even hope to become recognized as more than a "decorative art" or craft.

And of course I also got to see the chief blanket piece of James Koehler which will be in the tapestry show. I wrote more about that on this blog post:
A Chief Blanket-inspired Tapestry of James Koehler at the Denver Art Museum
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
** The article in Fiber Art Now is called Susan Martin Maffei & Archie Brennan: Tapestry Partners and Innovators. It is in the Spring 2015 issue which is just coming out now. With another huge thank you to Archie and Susan for their generous donation of time and resources to the article. I learned so much from both of them.