To Practice in the Middle: A Craft / Art Dialogue
‘The fine art of weaving – the relationships between visual art, tapestry and the craft of weaving.’ When I first read the title for the Tapestry 2008 conference I was intrigued, as this phrasing seemed to reference and parallel a growing awareness in my own practice as an artist and career as an educator with the relationship of tapestry weaving to both craft and art.
In my talk today I would like to focus on my own practices as a tapestry weaver. Although I will reference images of my work and discuss some of the themes that are explored through image and narrative, much of my talk will focus on my identity as a tapestry weaver and my personal commitment to finding meaning and relevance in the process of tapestry making. I will consider my practice as ‘a practice in the middle’ a bridge between two dynamic paradigms Craft and Art, and share my attempts to navigate the circuitous path that links the fine arts, tapestry and the craft of weaving. In many ways this talk is about balancing the scale that in the past I have consciously tipped towards fine art, setting aside aspects of craft practice that I at the time saw as irrelevant. The need to rebalance this fictitious scale has come about through a kind of crisis of identity, particularly in regard to my identity as a tapestry weaver in the hybrid field of contemporary fibre practice.
Contemporary fibre practice has been one of the more successful areas to emerge from traditional craft and engage the conceptually driven arena of Fine Arts. Artists working in the fibre field have long recognized and employed the socially salient qualities of textile history and the textile object as well as the metaphoric potential of fibre materials to address issues - feminism, the corporal, the haptic, post colonialism to name a few. Artists in a wide range of practices have also mined the conceptual potential of textiles and hence fibre has taken up a prominent position in the interdisciplinary interface that is core to post modern art. Much of the work in this developing milieu is also moving away from the discreet object to embrace installation, intervention and digital technology as artistic strategies. Approaches that often show little empathy for the more traditional processes of making.
So where does this leave the maker of wall based tapestry? Have I become the poor, distant relative too dowdy and reticent to engage in such a dynamic and innovation conversation? Definitely not, but to reassert my identity with confidence I have had to reexamine the family tree and revive and reconsider my lineage in relationship to the legacy of craft.
Let me put your minds at rest this is not about a resurrection of the Art/Craft debate. Setting craft up in conflict with art was a construct of modernism that has lingered into postmodern thinking. I think it is important to note that this debate/conflict has been an extremely health process for both sides. Craft has awaked from a period of conceptual lethargy and Art has been exposed to a more human face through social engagement. The debate may not be resolved but I do see a shift in context I believe we can now talk about a Craft /Art dialogue.
My relation to craft as a framework to define my practice or interests in Textiles has often been ambivalent. I was educated with in a frame work of a modernist aesthetic and have taught for the last 25 years within a fibre program that is very much part of a larger Fine Art school. When I first started teaching I worked with other faculty in the Craft Areas, at The Alberta College of Art and Design, to abolish the Craft division. We successfully moved the craft disciplines - Ceramics, Glass, Fibre, Jewelry into the broader category of Fine Art and have been a dynamic presence in this amalgamation of disciplines ever since. Not a bad thing in that all disciplines benefited from the ensuing dialogue that has helped to break down hierarchies as well as define differences. It is interesting that some 20 years later the Craft disciplines Ceramics,
Glass, Fibre and Jeweler are reforming an alliance under the concept of craft, as the four program areas move forward with The Alberta College of Art and Design’s first graduate degree, a MFA in Craft. The concept for our developing MFA is not one of exclusion defining craft as a discreet practice, but a hybrid, a practice in the middle, a bridge that can connect and navigate the conceptual history of Art and the meaningful making of Craft.
It might be useful to define my understanding of the word craft. The word craft as a noun emerged in the late 19th century a construct born of the Arts and Craft movement reaction to industrialization and committed to decorative art, the vernacular and the ethics of labor. [i] My sense of the meaning of craft is possible best framed by Canadian Craft historian Amy Gogarty who has defined the craft object as “useful artifacts made largely by hand, amenable to pleasure and interpretation by those who use and own them, having greater capacities than art objects to integrate with everyday life” [ii]
I would like to look at aspects of my practice in the context of contemporary craft as it is expressed through pleasure, evoked through the material and sensual nature of materials and process;
The hand made as a manifestation of skillful labor and time; and usefulness and everyday life reflected in Tapestry making as a reparative gesture and practice of optimism. I see these concepts as ideas that persist in my work alongside narrative implication and subjective imagery.
When I was an art student in the early 1970s I presented two woven works to my painting instructor as a resolution to a landscape based project. I was young and inflexible and unwilling to see my work as anything different from a painting. My instructor, who was horrified by the work, was equally inflexible and was unable to see the works as anything but scrunched up weavings. Seemingly not a very productive experience, but in fact through situations like this I was forced to question what I was doing and reevaluate the differences and inherent values evident in media and process.
This disinterest by my instructor and many like him was tempered somewhat by the emerging fibre works that were part of the fibre revolution of the late 60’s and 70’s dynamic and aggressive works that moved ‘beyond Craft’ to “ Art Fabric” to quote the title of the two seminal Constantine/Larsen books that charted this new work, work that clearly embraced a modernist ideal of newness and aesthetic power. Influenced by the works of artists like Abakanowicz, Hicks, the Jacobis I began to understand the dynamics of materials and the physical presence of the woven form.
Although I was greatly influenced by this work I was also aware that my own interests were taking on a slightly different focus. I was increasingly drawn too objects of material culture, particularly textiles that were beautiful, decorative, skillfully made by hand and reflected the individual or cultural context in which they were made
To pursue this interest I embarked on a kind of parallel education. In order to study historical and contemporary examples of textile production I began to travel extensively. I was interested in balancing the very euro centric influence of my education by traveling in parts of world where art-making traditions embraced skill and the handmade and the significant of cloth varies from my own experience. Through this experience I also hoped to begin to understand my motivations and identity as an artist.
Although my recent works are linked more closely to the narrative role of tapestry, in these early abstract works I began to establish the primary physical identity of my work as textile: thread, pattern, colour, skill and the weaving process itself needed to be as evident as image or allusion. The intent of my work from this point on is aligned with the wider context of cloth. I see the precedents of my work in the art traditions where myth, symbol and pattern join to create a rich visual language tied to ceremony, ritual and where the personal and the communal are intertwined.
I am continually drawn to the pre-linguistic or female nature of cloth, referenced through images of the body and ritualized and domestic cloth.[iii] Although my works are distinctly formed through the tapestry technique I consider them to be a fabric and weave with a weight, drape and surface that creates a parallel identity to cloth. My desire to create cloth and represent images of cloth in my work is tied to the inherent nature of the textile as a material construct with which we are all intimately involved, a tactile object that evokes the senses and invites touch.
I have come to understand that I am drawn to tapestry partly because it is an inherently sensuous medium; the slow labor-intensive process of making a tapestry exudes a kind of physicality and sensuousness. As the maker of a tapestry I am intimately involved with every aspect of production. The yarns are handled, pushed, beaten, stroked into place and images grow out of intense colour and ever present surface texture. In the cross cultural traditions of skilled making and ‘making special’ and the aspirations’ of craft as a contemporary practice the tactile presence of the object mediates a connection between the body and senses of the maker and the sensorial consciousness of the viewer/user. [iv]
The traditional disciplinary skill and engagement with material that is so much a part of tapestry practice often seems to function in a critical vacuum and contemporary understanding of technology privileges the mechanical, electronic or digital forms overlooking definitions of technology as process. A powerful aspect of craft lies in intimate hands on experience and knowledge of process and materials. The Eminent Craft Historian Peter Dormer stated “It is not craft as “handicraft” that defines contemporary craftsmanship: it is craft as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology”. [v]
In the book To Weave for the Sun Ancient Andean Textiles Rebecca Stone-Millar’s analysis and insights into of Andean weaving remains relevant to a contemporary understanding of the importance and power of process. She writes. “Technology, as it is commonly understood constitutes the material, such as camelid fibres and cotton: the tools such as spindles and looms; and the techniques such as tapestry weave, routinely used to make fibre objects. However equally important it also includes the attitude towards material, tools and techniques that govern the choices that are made at every step of the creative process. Thus we can speak of technological style just as we do artistic style, because individuals, societies and cultures consistently show recognizable patterns of choices in this dimension as well.” [vi]
I believe Andean weavers possessed extraordinary powers of visualization employing eidetic thinking, to allow them to envision the three-dimensional potential of clothe and create profound and inseparable links between technology, design and meaning. Here skill and technology is not just the manual vehicle for artistic expression but an equal component in the creative act, not the antithesis of self-expression but an extension of self or cultural realization and conceptualization.
Much of my appreciation for importance of the physical identity of my work and the sensual pleasure that is expressed through material and process in alignment with idea and image has evolved from the influence of historic and cultural textiles and practices. In many of the extraordinary textiles that I was looking at I sensed a clear relationship between the physical and the cerebral. Much of the dilemma between the physical realm of process and material and the intellectual realm of concept that had plagued my formal art education seemed to be seamlessly resolved in these textile objects.
To pursue a practice in Tapestry weaving is for me a commitment to the value of skillful making. In Fine Art discourse ideas of making and labour have often been translated into a theoretical framework that references domestic or engendered activities, consumerism and postcolonial theory. These works and installations often explore the ideas of labor and time through repetitive and laborious activities but rarely through traditional processes that demand skillful handwork.
Like many in the field I have come to believe that a relationship exists between highly skilled hand labor and the ability to conceptualize and integrate personal and cultural experience and feel committed to pursuing this relationship as an aspect of my practice. Frank Wilson’s book “The Hand, How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture” has confirmed my thinking in this regard. Wilson relates the evolutionary development of the human hand to neurobiology, language development and the expression of forms of intelligence. [vii]
Study of textile history and the traditions of craft practice have fostered my appreciation for the development of skill and the consumption of time in the making process. Investment of time and skill in my works provided a subtext that heightened the ritual and ceremonial associations and provides a counterpoint to the immediacy and temporal nature of contemporary culture.
In 2001 I started the “Handwork Series: to the bone, in the blood, from the heart.” In this series it is my intent to embody the concept of handwork and to initiate a more overt inquiry into the social and cultural perceptions of time, labour and the skill of the human hand. In Handwork Series, I use images derived from anatomical and gestural drawings of the human hand and forearm juxtaposed with images that reference traditional or historic textiles. The tapestries are presented as fragments enclosed in architectural frames that suggest the presentation of samples or specimens. My intent is to evoke a reference to a relic or memento. The tapestries in this series are small in scale each 35 x 51 cm they require intimate viewing that breaks down spatial illusion and figuration to focus on detail and surface real and illusionary as evidence of process and the labor of the human hand.
This series has less to do with imagery that might arouse memory, imagination and collective experience as in my earlier works, and more to do with a kind of narrative that is revealed through the physical presence of materials and structure as evidence of the maker’s mark – the result of my hands shaping a sequence of thoughts thorough actions. It was my intention to make a sense of time and human labour implicit in the object itself and to evoke reference to the relationship between material culture and the human body and our contradictory and multifaceted understanding of labour and the work of the hand.
The making of an object by hand is a laborious and time intensive act particularly the weaving of a tapestry. The concept of Time has long been part of Art and Design theory, but time investment in concert with tacit knowledge and workmanship are defining values of craft practice and are more generously recognized and valued within this arena.
In my practice I have explored the concept of time through a number of references, chronological and cyclical time and the timelessness of dream, myth and memory. These references to time have become important metaphors in the visual language that I work with, but I am also concerned that time consumption in skillful making be part of this visual language, valued and recognized as content and conscious intent. British artist Mole Leigh discusses this idea in her article Chronomanuel Craft. Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Craft, in the Journal of Design Vol 15 No 1 2002
She writes, As a broadly definable scientific and philosophic value, ‘time’ already provides a potent metaphor in the acknowledged visual language of the creative arts. However, if ‘time’ were to be recognized as a defined value in criticism and theory, its relevance to the field of craft would be particularly significant.
….in contemporary fine art, ‘time’ provides unparalleled latitude as a concept that can be communicated and evaluated visually and intellectually. As a recurring theme throughout art history, it has been expressed in innumerable forms, both directly and indirectly: from life cycles, memory, and decay, through chronology and temporal authenticity, to the ‘fourth dimension’ explored in time-based media. As time consumption is an inevitable aspect of contemporary craft, it may perhaps be undervalued partly because it is so easily overlooked. On close examination, however, it can be seen that time consumption is an aspect of craft that is consistently invested, and with unique significance to this creative field.”
Leigh goes on to suggest a qualifying term for the distinct relationship between human labour and relative time consumption in Contemporary craft - Chronomanual and states that chronomanuality exists as a inherent value present in every craft object. [viii]
As the textile/fiber field consistently moves to embrace greater conceptual content and personal expression it is possible to see that the ‘chronomanual’ as Leigh defines time and labour is diluted and overlooked. I think skilled labour is often dismissed as an assumption embedded in the process or an anachronism from another era, not a valuable linked to conceptual content. When a tapestry is presented in a public situation it is most likely that a cognitive interpretation of image and content will be the focus and this is undeniable important, it is also likely that if the chronomanual aspect of process is acknowledged it will be misunderstood as a feat of endurance and patience.
To understand the relevance and power of tapestry I believe that it is crucial to recognize that the process of weaving involves the maker in constant interpretation and translation, that as the weaving transpires it is a form of speech spoken eloquently through the makers hands and skill. [ix] Tapestry is also an activity invested in the present. Peter Dormer refers to this as “the workmanship of risk” stating that process in this state is open to failure at any point as well as spectacular success and in this state fosters discovery and innovation. Through the very nature of the process Tapestry is innovative, it looks to the future and is an optimistic process. [x]
Tapestry weavers are in a particularly strong position to assert a reevaluation of process and skill. The weaver’s vision of process as technological style and labour as subjective experience that is fueled by concept and a vision of the completed work have the potential to create a dynamic imperative. When this is linked to the fundamental pleasure in skillful making and sensual engagement we are provided with fertile resources for a dialogue that embraces process, materiality, concept, the values of craft and the concept driven agenda of contemporary art.
I believe that tapestry making is an optimistic act and that through the investment of time in the acquisition of skill and consumption of time through process, tapestry weavers are optimistic thinkers. In saying this I do not think I compromise the approach of many in the field who use the process to explore controversial issues and critic difficult world realities. Tapestry is a sophisticated contemporary media that often reflects provocative themes and provides cultural critique. Craft theorist and jeweler Bruce Metcalfe alludes craft as optimistic activism when he says
For both makers and users craft stands as a critique of 20th century culture in the west. If we have come to value immediate results over patience and hard work: if we value the easy over the difficult: if we value the hyper-reality of music, television and CNNnews broadcasts over the mundane existence most of us live - then, patient work has meaning. It embodies a resistance to all those values. [xi]
Within my approach and practice I have come to value the handmade as a human centered activity and site for tacit knowledge, Process as a means to reconnect skillful making with skillful thinking, time investment as a reflection of generosity and willingness to take care and pay attention. I am committed to the relevance of history expressed thorough the continuation of tradition, and I have come to value cross culture exchange of technology, design and ideas outside of the limiting view of appropriation. I see the considered relationship of technology, skill and concept as dynamic elements in the creation of meaning and beauty. Through my own practice I am interested in embracing ideas of optimism that I think I share with others in the field and that I see more widely embraced within the disciplines of craft practice.
Artist and historian Amy Gogarty has written about my work on several occasions, she employs the term ‘reparative gesture’ to discuss the optimistic impulse evident I my work and in other contemporary object based works developed in craft disciplines. I feel this term is particularly applicable to tapestry. The concept of the ‘reparative’ derives from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and has been used in contemporary art discourse art theorist Jean Randolph. [xii] Randolph writes:
The reparative impulse is altruistic, generous, and synthetic. It does not cast out what is impure or ruined. It restructures, reinterprets, and illuminates the potential of the impure subject, object, idea or form. The reparative impulse attempts an integration of grief for the lost ideal with the desire to make good for injury done. Reparative action is the endeavor to restore. Rather than hiding traces of damage, it integrates them with grief of the lost ideal and the remaining qualities of value.[xiii]
In 1995 influenced by shrines and personal acts of devotion I began to explore the idea of a reparative gesture through imagery and process in the Memento Series. The five works in this series are also influenced by my interest in display and the collection of objects from multi-cultural sources. I gather together a collection of objects that reference shifts of perception that occur as objects and people move between diverse cultural contexts. In the memento series I refer to objects that I have collected, received as gifts or have inherited. These are also objects that I feel can communicate historic, cultural, and emotional concerns.
In the tapestry Trinket/ Token the objects strewn on the plate form, may as the title suggests be read as insignificant, trivial, small trinkets, however the change in perception from insignificant trinket to token or talisman embed with power may shift depending on cultural and personal experience to imply more complicated narrative implications. I continue to use a divided compositional space, contrasting intimate flat, almost claustrophobic space cluttered with worldly objects with a more expansive and ethereal space defined by architectural details.
Like the Dutch Still Life painters of the 17th century I believe that objects signify more than their simple reality. For me the things we make and gather around us record the lives we live in meaningful ways.
In the Memento series and the more recent Possession series I strive through process and image to reach between historic and cultural contexts to create a reparative gesture and initiate a reinterpretation of context and value. The tapestries in the “Possession Series” explore the implications of accumulating, collecting and displaying objects from material culture and the natural world. In this series I am interested in the human desire to possess and assimilate the natural world into material culture and recreate nature under human control through translation into the decorative, systems of notation and collection. I have been influenced by16th Century cabinets of curiosities and later natural history collections that bring into question the relationship between knowledge and control and that reflect our continuing anthropocentric attitude to the natural world.
I use a compartmentalized composition to collect and juxtaposition historic and contemporary tools, reference to botanical drawings, taxonomy, diagrams and mapping. I also reference historic textiles emphasizing those that show evidence of colonialism and cross-cultural exchange, drawing parallels between the human urge to transform the natural world into material culture and the West’s preoccupation with accumulating and possessing other cultures. Each tapestry in the series is marked with an imprint of a human fingerprint in the lower right corner.
The narrative that is woven through this series of tapestries explores the impact of the human desire to possess and control our environment, our bodies, and our histories. In these works I attempt to bring forward and make sense of the complications and contradictions of our history and the issues we live with.
Throughout history, textiles have been imbued with spiritual and social significance. They are infused with personal and communal meaning that joins the spiritual to the mundane, reaches across cultural understanding. By bringing tradition forward into contemporary culture in meaningful ways the craft of weaving links old memory to new feelings and is evidence of creative skillful making.
Through both process and image tapestry weaving has the potential to enact a reparative gesture by addressing rifts in cultural understanding, reestablishing links between skillful making an skillful thinking, acknowledging and ameliorating history and tradition and refocusing our understanding of the value of tacit knowledge, patience and taking care.
Contemporary Tapestry has I believe the potential to assumed an unique location, no longer sited at the margins of visual art practice, but at a conjuncture between two dynamic dialectic fields, craft and art. If we are to recognize interdisciplinary practices as a position of equal exchange between disciplinary areas – a kind of distinct society of the arts not necessarily a melting pot, then tapestry is well placed to contribute and engage in the dialogue as a reparative agent.
I see my own work as a hybrid, a practice in the middle that willingly engages in a Craft /Art dialogue. Equal in every way to a painting but also linked to the values of Craft that speak through pleasure, optimism and the handmade.
Finally, I hope that my tapestries will be seen as objects of expressive beauty and material skill, that create metaphors for experience connecting the past with the present to explore the contradictions of contemporary life and the larger sphere of human endeavor.
[i] Paul Greenhalgh, The History of Craft, in Peter Dormer (ed) The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997, 25
[ii] Amy Gogarty, Utopic Impulses: The Place of Craft in Contemporary Life, Online Library commissioned article, 1
[iii] Diana Wood Conroy, “Archaeology of Tapestry” in Material Matters: The Art and Culture of Contemporary Textiles. Toronto YYZ 1998, 59
[iv] Ellen Dissanayake. What is Art For. Seattle University of Washington Press 1988, 92
[v] Peter Dormer. Craft and the Turning Test for practical thinking
in Peter Dormer (ed) The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997. 140
[vi] Rebecca Stone- Miller, To Weave for the Sun, Thames and Hudson 1994. 18
[vii] Frank Wilson. The Hand. How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture. Vintage Books, New York 1999
[viii] Mole Leigh, Chronomanual Craft, Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Art. Journal of Design History vol. 15 No. 1 2002
[ix] Amy Gogarty, “Jane Kidd’s Handwork Series: Disciplinarity and the Reparative Impulse,” Calgary: Stride Gallery, 5 September to 4 October, 2003. Reprinted in Textile 2 (2004). 7
[x] Peter Dormer. Craft and the Turning Test for practical thinking
in Peter Dormer (ed) The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997. 138-139
[xi] Metcalfe quoted in Mole Leigh, Chronomanual Craft, Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Art. Journal of Design History vol. 15 No. 1 2002
[xii] Amy Gogarty, “Jane Kidd’s Handwork Series: Disciplinarity and the Reparative Impulse,” Calgary: Stride Gallery, 5 September to 4 October, 2003. Reprinted in Textile 2 (2004). 8
[xiii] Jeanne Randolph, “Influencing Machines: The Relationship Between Art and Technology,” in Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming and Other Writings on Art Toronto: YYZ Books, 1991.
Other influential texts:
· Craft Perception and Practice vol 1, II and III, (ed) Paula Gustafson, Nïsse Gustafson and Amy Gogarty, Vancouver: Ronsdale Press and Artichoke Publishing, 2002, 2004, 2007
· Bruce Metcalfe. Contemporary Craft: A Brief Overview, in Exploring Contemporary Craft History, Theory and Critical Writing, Symposium Papers, Coach House Books and The Craft Studio at Harbourfront Centre. Toronto 2002
· Bruce Metcalfe, Craft and Art, Culture and Biology, in Peter Dormer (ed) The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997
· Peter Dormer, The language and practical philosophy of craft,
in Peter Dormer (ed) The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997