There are things you notice when you are alone in the woods for any period of time, when there are no radio or tv sounds, no one else talking, no distractions.
You notice the sound of the land.
In the spring, the shoots pushing through the earth are almost audible. Rain hitting the path has a comforting tap. Barks from dogs racing through the woods after squirrels or rabbits or a fox are amplified.
In the fall, there is a “puff” as leaves separate from their branches and join the debris on the forest floor.
At first, it’s another background sound, softer than bird calls or distant highway noises. Soon, without a breath of breeze, one lands at your feet. There is a soft crackle as it settles. The leaves are falling, layer upon layer, one at a time, until the ground is no longer green with moss or grass, but brown. Textured, crunchy. Home for special insects until spring, then decaying to nourish the soil.
Morning coffee on the deck. Late afternoon tea on the deck.
The view from my cabin at the Lillian E Smith Center is simple but stunning. I quickly developed a routine of enjoying the view as I contemplated the start and end of the day. The vista is takes no time at all to be familiar. Trees, mountains in the distance. Falling leaves when it’s breezy. Quiet in the evening.
The routine is eye-opening on brisk mornings; serene in the evening as the air cools and the day settles. The sun sets very quickly behind the mountains. There is enough light to read one moment, only to struggle to see the page that is coated in an orange glow moments later.
Two evenings ago I looked up from my book as sunset neared and saw two short, straight, parallel “traffic orange” stripes among the leaves. I am completely alone here. Bill, the caretaker, drives by every day or so and asks if I need anything. Everything is great, Bill. Thanks. He is gone. No one has been here. How have I missed this?
Even if I am walking along the road or hiking the paths, (watching for one of the six venomous snakes indigenous to these parts; I hate snakes) I would have heard a car come by. Tires crunching the gravel road is a sound that carries. It’s too far from town to walk. What has happened here?
I walk over to the stripes and cast a shadow on the ground. The orange disappears. If it’s not paint, it’s light. What is reflecting the color?
Back on the porch I notice there is a very red maple tree about 5 meters down the hill. The sun, just at the top of the mountain that will obscure it shortly, has backlit that tree. The tree is acting as a reflector. The intensity of the light on the red leaves strikes the ground at a 45-degree angle to display the two orange lines.
I’m an artist, not a scientist. I understand how light plays with colors but I cannot explain the physics. I don’t need to.
One of my goals of residency is to slow down. To think more deeply. To SEE more deeply. To add quiet to my work.
Those two stripes, created by light and angle and intensity and leaves that lost their chlorophyll, have not been repeated any evening since. If I hadn’t been open to seeing something new at that moment, I wouldn’t have known it existed. Now, that reflection — or whatever physical name it has — is part of the gift of this artist residency.
When people ask me what an artist does during residency, this will be one of the stories told.
How can artists make a living during pandemic? How can we sell our art? Those are the most common topics of discussion among artists I know these days. The second most common topic? How can I create amidst all this chaos and uncertainty?
Not every artist feels a paralysis of inspiration, but most of us — artist and civilian — know the sense of unease, uncertainty, and heightened anxiety that 2020 has dumped on our heads and hearts.
Respite for some can come in a weekend away in a safe place. For artists, the answer often is a residency. Some residencies are collaborative, working with other artists and the community. Some are solitary, dedicated to work and reflection. Both are restorative and inspirational. Both are vital to my practice.
Before pandemic, I applied for 2 weeks at the the Lillian E. Smith Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia. (I will write about the remarkable Lillian Smith later this week.) I wasn’t sure I would be able to go when the time came. Would it be open? Would I be brave enough to leave the home bubble? The Center is isolated and no more than three artists are in residence at a time. The benefits of the residency were worth the risk of travel (by car from St. Louis) and time away.
For me, the key to a successful residency is to quickly decide on and establish a work/living routine. I open myself to the sense of place. Sit with it. Walk with it. Listen to it.
I arrived Sunday night in a light rain. Monday morning, yesterday, the trees were dripping with the last of moisture as the clouds cleared. There are four rocking chairs on the covered porch from which to choose. With a cup of coffee, a journal, a sketchbook and some pencils, I sat to take in the first day.
The colors in the morning after a rain are particularly vibrant. Among the hundreds of trees in my immediate view were oaks, hickories, and pines. A solitary maple, bright red, stood among the yellow and brown leaves and green needles.
I made several quick sketches, simply to get a sense of place and to slow down my normal frantic pace. I didn’t have obligations to meet, no meals to cook, no work to deliver, no Zoom calls to log into.
The red tree went from sketch to quick tapestry on a small loom. For me, the first day of a residency sets a tone, a pace, an expectation. A finished work is not required, but this little tapestry was done by evening. I wove it “free style” rather than using a cartoon — what tapestry weavers call a drawing that is placed behind the loom to guide the weft yarn placement. I used scraps of yarn I brought, blending them in small bundles to get the effect I wanted.
My tapestry practice is graphic, rather than representational. I don’t reproduce a scene or a picture, but explore concepts in color, shapes, symbols. A combination of the two approaches came together in the tapestry of the maple: a play of color and form suggesting — rather than depicting — the scene.
Exploring concepts, rather than reproducing life as it is seen, seems to be an appropriate analogy for an artist’s residency during pandemic. It’s not “normal” but it is possible to use the tools at our disposal to see new possibilities and improve upon our work and lives. It’s time to think more deeply.
Remember late December 2019? Finishing holiday celebrations of our given traditions, settling the year’s accounts, looking forward to 2020. The Damocles’ Sword that hung over us was Climate Change — not Pandemic.
It was climate change that was on my mind as some tapestry friends came the end of their annual tapestry diaries and started planning new ones. Tommye Scanlin* is the master of this durational art form. The idea is to weave something of a diary entry every day. Some people use it as a daily art discipline or as a visual journal entry. I chose a third path: the year documented as art.
Actually, the idea of the daily tapestry journal didn’t appeal to me but I was starting to feel a little peer pressure to get started as New Year’s Eve neared. Artists are a pushy bunch.
Here in St. Louis, our winters are warming. Our summers are hotter and more humid. Our rivers flood more often. Our storms are stronger. A freak, unexpected derecho storm wiped out — and I mean FLATTENED — an art fair where I was exhibiting in early September 2018. The cost of the climate crisis was on my mind.
Science is the flip side of art.** Many of us artists approach our work from the left side of the brain also. The idea was observe the natural world, chart the daily high and low temperature, and weave those facts into art.
Weave it how? Some use squares, which can leave dramatic slits between the days. Some use trapezoids to hold the piece together. As with all art, the technique and craft will determine the success of the piece.
Then the answer arrived: wedge weave!
Wedge weave is a tapestry technique developed by Diné weavers (Navajo) and practiced from roughly 1870-90. Most woven fabrics follow a grid that connects warp (vertical threads) and weft (horizontal threads) at right angles. The Diné chose 45 degree angles, weaving on the diagonal. Kevin Aspaas’s work is a great example. It fell out of favor because white rug purchasers, upon whom the weavers depended for sales, didn’t like the scalloped edges. Gratefully, the style is making a resurgence.
Wedge weave is an art form that is connected to the earth, and honors a nation and culture without taking their designs. It fits the concept.
The work started simply enough. One week recorded per section of wedges. The January temperatures were unseasonably warm, then dipped a bit. Science recorded in art. That appealed to me.
Then we came to March. Pandemic. Lockdown. Illness. Friends in New York dying. I attended three virtual funerals in as many weeks.
Most of my work focuses on interpretation of symbols. Everything means something. That something adds to the depth and understanding to the art. Art is communication, after all. I only consider my art successful if it stirs an emotion, triggers a memory, evokes a response. The immensity of COVID-19 demanded a voice in this work that documented a year. Two passes of black wool, woven horizontally, separated the weeks and marked the pandemic. COVID-19 had a place in the work.
What about those braided edges? Do they have a meaning? Of course. The braids represent the binding of the people to each other just as the days bind together into weeks and months.
The discipline of the daily practice that will take a year can be wearing. Facing exhibit deadlines on other projects, the temperature diary fell behind. April-June was finished on September 2. I thought I was done. I don’t need to finish the year. Then I took it off the loom.
Work on the loom or the canvas on in the camera is work. It’s the task at hand. The work is the craft, the doing, the intention. As I am often heard to say, “artwork is WORK! It’s a WORK of art, not a play of art. Work!”
Off the loom the work takes on a completely different dimension, an importance that didn’t appear until the warp ends are braided and the ends finished. The work becomes art — or not. More than an exercise, the temperature diary marks an extraordinary year. It is a documentation of what we are living through. It deserves a conclusion.
I’m two months behind but I will catch up. I had another plan for that loom, but it will be warped up again for a testament to a summer in pandemic. July-September will be followed by October-December.
I long to remove those black lines.
To be continued…
*Please visit Tommye McClure Scanlin’s daily tapestry journals here, and spend time with all her extraordinary work.
As an artist, I work in a variety of disciplines. I’m mainly known as a photographer because I’ve done that the longest and sold thousands of works through 20 years of art fairs and gallery work. Ceramics, fiber, mixed media painting, and most recently tapestry are included in my art practice. Every discipline requires study. More importantly, every discipline demands practice. Lots of it. Over and over and over.
Learning a new media starts with the basics. Learn a technique. Put it to work. Most students learn by copying others. Moving beyond copying to finding your own voice and style is the path to artistry.
At the end of the last century, about a year into my ceramics study, I was struggling with a form. I asked for advice. The teacher told me I was at a point when I needed to reach down a little deeper and find the answer myself. “When you can take an idea and make it a “solid,” you have reached the first level of mastery. You won’t progress until then.”
What a challenge! She was (and still is!) a good teacher. That’s where I was with “Winged.”
For the last several years I have been exploring symbols from different cultures and different eras, and marveling at how humans have used the same structures to represent ideas. Peoples who are tens of thousands of years apart or tens of thousands of miles distant have used the same symbol to convey the same idea. Our DNA remembers and reaches back hundreds of thousands of years. The symbols unite us.
I chose tapestry for this series because it is a tactile medium, a forgiving, medium, a challenging medium. It uses spun fiber, which women have been doing, in much the same way for maybe 40,000 years. Weaving is a woman’s art. I stand on the shoulders of thousands of generations of grandmothers and aunts. It connects me.
“Winged” is inspired by the Maori object Kākā Paori, a ring that fits around the leg of a kākā bird and is used to tame it. Stylized it can represents the character of the bird. It is intricately carved of stone and valued as a heirloom. In many cultures birds represent the connection between the humans and the sacred, wisdom, or freedom.
I wanted to take this simple ring, sometimes represented as a “C” on it’s back, and create a representation of a winged bird. I knew three things: it would be woven side to side, it would be 3D, and it would need a supplemental warp. Supplemental warp was new to me, and I didn’t have a teacher for it.
The images below show the progression of the piece and the completion of the first wing.
Note that I was weaving from the front until the wing started taking shape. Since it would be folded over, I started weaving from the back to keep the ends on the proper side. The cartoon was used only for shaping. The weaving was free form. I added colors and shapes as I went, using a rough idea for how I wanted it to look. The idea of free form weaving gave it an organic, natural feel.
“Winged” was one of those projects that I figured out as I wove it. I knew it was possible and understood the basics in my head but had a hard time visualizing it. Of course, it seems simple now.
— Supplemental warp and 3D pieces are intriguing. I see more designs in my future.
— 22 gauge wire is too small to support the wings, which need to be tacked down. It is strong enough to give it some shape.
— The Shasta Combs on the Mirrix make this project easier. Supplemental warp can be challenging. The combination of the combs and the tensioning device on the Mirrix made it easy to release the warps, tighten the loom and rewarp it. (I don’t represent Mirrix Looms, just use them!)
–Don’t overthink the design. I spent far too much time trying to figure out how I was weave this — more than the weaving itself, I think.
There’s still lots for me to learn. My circles aren’t what I want them to be, nor are my selvedges. The trick, of course, is weaving, weaving, weaving! And don’t be afraid to try something new.
There are people who spend their holidays in cities. The nightlife, bustling streets, museums, people-watching, top-rated restaurants.
There are people who crave the land. They hike through mountain passes, through meadows of wild flowers and brambles, skinny-dip in cool lakes, light safe camp fires in the evening and pull comforters around them against the dew as they retell old stories.
Then there are sea people.
For each, something in that place, in their soul, pulls them in. The sea is mine.
Ireland is an island. Of course there is sea. On the east, the Irish Sea is rustic, waves crashing against rocky crags that emerge and submerge with the tide. The sun rises, tinting it pink.
On the west, the sea is majestic, strong, relentless. Angry waves, pulled from the New World, crash against the cliffs. Gentle water laps on the beaches. Ireland is not a land of sunbathers. The water is cold, the air is damp, the skin is very, very pale.
Beaches are for walking. Cliffs are for contemplation.
For this artist, nothing is more difficult to capture than the sea. A photograph does not whip the wind, forcing the jacket closed and the scarf wrapped tighter. A painting cannot scent the air. A drawing lacks the colors.
Sukanya left on a flight to Toronto this morning, ending the first part of our residency and project in Ireland. I’m continuing on for more shooting and artist meetings.
Loughcrew Cairn was the planned stop for today. There was a possibility that it would be closed or that no one was available to give me the key to the cairn. Unlike Newgrange or the other developed sites in the Boyne Valley, Loughcrew Cairn has been untouched. The roads are too narrow for motor coaches. There are no tourists. The experience is solitary.
The road leading to the cairns is wide enough for a car. It’s a two-way road. When another car comes from the other direction, we figure out a way for one to pass. One pulls over to a slightly wider section, hugging the hedges and hoping not to scrap the rental car’s paint on the stone wall. The other inches past.
There is a small parking lot, not much more than a wider section of the road. A woman coming down from the cairns lets me know there was someone above with the key. I could climb up.
Wide, awkward steps lead to a worn mud path. The air is not cold, 13C or 53F. The wind is stiff and there is a mist that changes to drizzle and fine rain, then back to mist again. Stupidly, I left my hiking stick in the car. I miss it within minutes, but look down the 50 or so steps I’ve just climbed and decide it’s not worth the bother.
I will regret that decision.
The locals says it’s an easy 10 minute walk to the cairns. Maybe if you’re 20. I am not. Still I climb the path. A sharp incline then a flat. Incline, flat. I stop often to take in the scene. This hill is the tallest around. Even with the fog in the distance, the view is far into the countryside.
A couple of U-shaped gates keep animals out. Stouter people also, I imagine. The swinging gate is positioned at the top of the U. Swing the gate completely through the inside of the U and enter. Then swing the gate around to the other side of the U to exit. Clever design.
I reach what I think is the top only to see the steepest and longest hill yet ahead of me. Sheep wander on the hill to my right. The clumped droppings on the path are sidestepped.
The cairns peak over the top of the hill, urging on the tired muscles, and aching knee and back that might have been comforted by the walking stick.
The main cairn is smaller than the one at Newgrange, but surrounded by stone circles and dozens of mounds that have not been disturbed. A couple that passed me on the way up and are waiting to enter. Together we go into the chamber, dropping low to avoid cracking our heads on the stone above. One has a torch, so we can see the obstacles in the short passage. The sides are maybe 26 inches wide, if that. The passageway roof is no more than 3.5 feet tall. We have to scramble over a rock that blocks the way to main chamber. The space is tight and the rock is about 2 feet tall and spans the opening. I’m clumsy but get over it.
There is barely room for three of us in the chamber. The roof is made of concentric stone circles that open to the light above. There are three smaller alcoves that would have held the ashes of the dead. On the walls we can see carefully etched petroglyphs, some of which I haven’t seen at other sites or read about.
Many of the sites do not allow unaccompanied visitors into the chambers. Photography is prohibited. Not here. A little bit of trust and a carefully made image is the reward for the climb.
It’s cold and wet and windy, but it’s hard to leave this place at the top of the this part of the world. There is no magic here, as some suggest, but there are voices. There is a sense of land and history and culture that is unavailable unless you make the climb.
About a year ago, Sukanya and I began the long process to reach out to artists in Ireland in hopes of collaboration. We knew we were taking a risk, and we knew that funding organizations would not understand our mission. We wanted to talk to artists and writers and storytellers. We wanted to build relationships that might lead to collaboration and exhibits around a theme of strong women, mythical women, modern women, ancient women, women whose stories are not written in books, but told from grandmother to granddaughter, aunt to niece.
Four women and one man made the commitment to organize meetings with people they knew. They didn’t know us. We didn’t know them. We trusted that it would work. If it didn’t? We’ll learn about that, too.
It did work. Each of the five brought along another 30 along. Thirty new collaborators. Thirty artists and writers and storytellers and musicians who want to connect to other artists to create and learn and share.
We listened. And the end of one week of meetings, hikes, stories, art sharing, we are overwhelmed with the communion of artists and generosity of their time and spirit. We have more than an overwhelming amount of source material, we have relationships upon which we will make art.
We can never repay the generosity and kindness of our hosts. I can’t mention everyone, each who chose to meet with us or collaborate added immeasurably to our remarkable experience.
Miriam arranged for a group to meet us in Mullingar, in Jancita’s studio near her home. Seven women brought art to share, fiber to contribute to the group weaving, and stories aplenty.
On to Athlone, where Rosemarie organized a night in a yurt on the Hill of Uisneach, and a private tour with Ruth, a university lecturer and historian. Ruth led us on a three hour hike, up and down the hills of the royal land of kings that once lit the Beltane fires, signaling to all other communities that the festival could begin. She led us to Goddess Eiru’s burial site under the massive Cat Stone, and thousands of other details we could never remember, but will be familiar when we next come across them. It was windy and cold and damp. We didn’t care.
Patsy, the artistic director of the Fire Festival at the Hill of Uisneach, fed us and pampered us as she shared traditions of the land, helped us understand the role of the faeries. She shared her remarkable sculptures, and the inspiration behind them.
Rosemarie wasn’t done. She introduced us to adults with disabilities, who added their art to our projects, treated us to art exhibits, a night out at Sean’s pub (est. 900CE), and introduced us to music (thank you Aine), and wise women aplenty.
Sheila, at ArtFarm near Galway, sustained several personal losses and was forced to cancel. We hold her in our hearts and look forward to the time we can meet.
John led us to Susan’s pottery studio in Midleton near Cork, we we met with nine women and two men who had writings, poems, stories, and art to share. The state of the world interfered a bit and world politics crept into our conversations with reminders that artists and writers have the distinct privilege to address injustice and inequities on our work.
We know this is just the beginning. Individually we will make work that reflects our new relationships and new understandings. Together, we hope to create and exhibit work that brings our discoveries to new venues and new audiences, who are then inspired to join the collaboration with their work.
Jeane and Sukanya leave in for Ireland portion of the Symbols and Stories project in fewer than six days. It’s a busy week. Holidays for Jeane, family preparation for Sukanya. Packing for both.
Each woman is a seasoned traveler. We can back a family for a week’s vacation in a day. Just us? A few hours. That’s for clothes and necessities. Each is taking art supplies, and that takes more careful selections.
The dates, late September, were chosen to fit enough time before major holidays for each. This week concludes the Days of Awe, the Jewish High Holy Days for Jeane. Yom Kippur is Wednesday. No packing or planning will happen from Sunday night through Thursday as Jeane prepares the house for the holiday, shops for the Break the Fast (Yom Kippur is a 25 hour fast from food, water, and just about everything except prayer and reflection), and observes the holiday.
In early October is Navratri, the Hindu celebration of Mother Goddess Durga, and lasts nine days.
A small sampling of yarn before making choices. Jeane wants all of them!
The window was narrow.
Actually, immediately after Yom Kippur, about the time we land in Dublin, begins Jeane’s favorite holiday Sukkot, eight days of dwelling in a rickety booth and reflecting on ideas of charity, shelter, sustenance, and study, among other things. She hates to miss it but will find time to observe it somehow.
Yarn that made the cut. about 8 grams of each.
Part of this residency for Jeane is tapestry. Three looms were chosen, two of which are for Jeane’s work, one for community work. It is hoped that pieces will be added to the communal weaving from anyone who wants to participate.
A natural fiber, a blade of grass, special fabric, yarn — anything with means and a story is welcome to be added to the story and final work.
Looms aren’t enough, though. There has to be yarn to weave. Tapestry yarn is different from knitting yarn. For this project, single strand Faro was chosen. But there are 80 of so cakes from which choose?
Obviously, selections are made. It’s easier to decide whether to take that extra black pair of pants!
Tonight, at sundown, Jews around the world begin the commemoration of Rosh HaShanah, the traditional birthday of the world, the New Year. 5779.
May 5779 be a year when families are reunited, in peace. May 5779 be a year of creation. May 5779 be a year of hope. May 5779 be a year of redemption. May 5779 be a year of understanding. May 5779 be a year of love. May 5779 be a year of safety.
May 5779 be a year of health. Shanah tovah um’tukah. שנה טובה ומתוקה