Archive for November 5th, 2008

Sue Lawty, artist and (tapestry) weaver

November 5, 2008

I put the word tapestry in parenthesis because this fascinating artist doesn’t. Perhaps it’s assumed, because after all it’s probably obvious that this is what her woven work is. For me the omission is a good excuse to deliberate on what I think I’m up to in the practice of learning to design and make handwoven textiles, and where the differences lie. For me, tapestry isn’t in the game at all. The word belongs to a different language all together. Tapestry – a picture woven with threads of yarn. So what if that picture doesn’t represent a girl with a melon (and do look at Lynne Curran’s woven tapestry here) but is an abstract image that contains structural and tactile clues,  something of the essence of this girl, her melon, (and her melancholia?). Such woven images are contained in a border that resemble that of the painter’s frame or the canvas edge. They are not worn, or part of a furnishing; they have no function except to articulate a (pictorial) space with a representation of a real, remembered or imagined image. This image might tell a story, evoke a landscape, bring together the impossible or fantastic. The French word for tapestry, tapisserie, perhaps significantly, has a slightly different meaning: a  ‘collection’ of images that may together tell a story, but also demonstrating aspects of one thing in a non-linear sequence of secondary images, arrange like a series of satellites orbiting around a planet.

At York Museum on 3 November Sue Lawty presented a talk on her work at what must be one of the most comfortable lecture halls in the country.  She talked us seamlessly (for nearly two hours) through a collection of slides that, with a brief excursion into a figurative piece from the beginning of her career, represented her work since 2005 when she began her association and collaboration with the V & A. She made the point at the outset that there seemed to be a kind of circular, even non-linear quality to the progression of images, because the present for her was continually calling on memories of the past. Creativity for her was certainly not a linear process. She found herself finding and taking the same paths, but with a different intent and backdrop of experience.

Since the beginning of her time at the V & A she has kept a blog. This is full of wonderful images of her work, her travels, her sketches and the many references that underpin what eventually comes to be woven. The blog has many revealing and touching moments, as when she recalls how she came to discover weaving:

At art school in Leeds in the mid 70’s, I followed a degree in Furniture Design. Unn was then a part-time tutor on the Fine Art course. She ran a textile studio which happened to be opposite our design studio.The room housed half a dozen vertical tapestry looms and a handful of students working away on various projects. One loom carried Unn’s current tapestry – a detailed semi abstract dreamlike composition in deep blues as I recall. This artist taught by example, and in so doing provided a very rich learning environment of sketchbooks, samples, personal art books and exhibition catalogues – indeed an ‘artist in residence’ before the phrase ever became commonplace. The atmosphere in the room was one of very real creative charge. I was on the outside, looking in – yearning to be involved in this world. An invitation from Unn to step inside, and my life changed (though I didn’t recognize it at the time). A visual melee of rich, enticing colour, earthy smells of strings and twines, intriguing posters and conversation – I soaked it all in. I could almost taste the excitement. And when a loom became free and I was to feel first hand the twangy, taught parallel lines of my own linen warp and hear the rhythmic thud thud of beating down of the weft – I knew I had arrived. Halfway through my final year, whilst I still had use of the college workshops, Unn suggested I made a loom. This I did, copying the Scandinavian design.

So how does her work and her passion for weaving connect with those who weave in a different mode; in that world of designing and making in which the made outcome has a function tied up with human action, human living, often replicated in series, but not confined to being exhibited on one wall, one space. Nevertheless, such an article of handwoven design has what Lawty calls ‘the individual mark of the hand, perhaps an ever precious factor in our increasingly technological and virtual world.’ And so, I came away from her talk feeling that the essence of her approach to weaving, however off (and on) the wall it was, held vital and transferable ideas about the message and expression of woven material.

Landscape predominates her work, but not its colour; her work is largely colourless. There are no bold colour statements. Texture and contour are everything. Hemp, raffia, paper, stone, lead – all contain a dull, bland colour palette that does not reflect light but absorbs it. Natural patterning on rock, patterns made through human intervention (the footprint, the broken stone, a rice harvest on a Nepalese hillside) she translates as a kind of unintelligible text, a linear sequence, so you tend to read the image from left to right. She stresses the making the piece and the image at the same time, but work is often a sewn assemblage (as in her piece for the Bankfield Museum collection titled Terra) of sample-like swatches. Sequences, series, collections, assemblages, left to right, right to left, up and down. Pebbles so tiny, but in their thousands seemingly woven across a 6 metre wall space – as in Order – only work as an image in this way. There are also maps, paths, aerial views, and panoramas (she has climbed and trekked in the Himalaya and the Alps). Recently woven work from different cultures, particularly the Coptic and Egyptian from the V & A’s collection, has an increasingly important role in her scheme of things.

All in all the range of sources is invigorating. Her work has a fantastic energy: contained in woven sequence, bound by the conventions of warp and weft, and the result of such patience and restraint. Her very generous talk was threaded through with a sense of passion for the way weaving was for her the medium that truly expressed what she saw and experienced of the natural world and as well as those mysteries of scripts and languages we ‘read’  in the textures of rocks and plants. She may have started out with pictorial, even figurative work, but she now has found a way into an abstract domain that feels to me closer to what I sense I struggle with, translating something that comes out of life into the keenest of abstractions. 

See Sue Lawty’s work at the Cloth and Culture NOW show at Manchester’s Whitworth Museum – until the end of December. Not to be missed!