Ellen Ramsey finds inspiration for her work in technology. She studied art history and worked in museums before becoming a contemporary tapestry artist.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I think “evolving” with a couple of lightbulb moments probably describes it best.
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Like many creatives, my mother first introduced me to art. She was an avid hobbyist maker, so no surprise that I grew up using her art supplies to create stuff, but it never occurred to me that I could be an artist.
The first lightbulb went off In high school I went on a foreign study tour in Europe. There, my eyes were truly opened to the vast field of art and all its possibilities. In addition to seeing medieval and renaissance tapestries for the first time and becoming enamored by them, that trip ignited my desire to work in the arts in some capacity. However, I didn’t consider being an artist at the time because I lacked confidence in my abilities.
I earned a master’s degree in Art History instead and set my sights on working in the museum field – which I did, for ten years. Then, when I gave birth to my second child, my museum job didn’t pay enough to cover the cost of child care and my career came to abrupt end.
The second lightbulb went off soon after. I pivoted to making art, having the flexibility to work at developing my skills and the maturity to not take myself too seriously. Why not? I had nothing to lose.
I hired babysitters in order to learn new skills at a local art center whenever I could. This was when I began studying the craft of tapestry weaving as well.
I’ve heard people say that motherhood is somehow incompatible with artistic practice, but for me motherhood was a catalyst. It forced me to jump off the treadmill and gave me a whole different perspective on life. Motherhood has a way of forcing you to redefine yourself, and I chose to redefine myself as an artisan as well as a mother.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’m not sure that I have a signature yet, but my style has always been bold and full of contrast.
I like layers and intersecting diagonal lines. In the past I used a lot of black and white.
Currently my work is transitioning to using more color, more varied textural treatments, and combining tapestry with non-woven techniques.
Since 2020 I have been weaving work inspired by the visual language of circuit board assemblies and digital glitches. The tiny gold traces and their intricate connections suit my fancy for linear elements, and the digital imagery has led me to explore color as I’ve never really done before.
My microelectronic references get blown up to human scale in my weavings, and hopefully the soft textures and handwork call attention to the humanity that is hard-wired into our technological obsessions.
Why weaving? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I’ve always loved making pictures with yarn.
I started hooking pictorial rugs at age ten, and I made needlepoint wall hangings as a teen. I think that is why I became immediately attracted to tapestries when I first saw them in the castles of Europe.
My art history days deepened my understanding of tapestries, and cloth in general, as transmitters of culture. Historically, tapestries have reflected the dominant narratives of their time – who has power and wealth, and what those in power value or don’t value.
Tapestries are a marriage of process and meaning that perfectly suits me, both haptically and intellectually.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I do work in series. Right now I am working on two series concurrently. They both explore technology as a subject, but through very different approaches.
One series features large tapestries that are traditional in terms of techniques and materials. The process is the means to an end, but not the source of inspiration.
The other series focuses on small mixed media pieces that incorporate recycled materials and venture into the 3D. These pieces evolve from materials and process and are produced quickly in the spirit of play and experimentation.
This balance between two ways of working is really helping me stay motivated right now. On any given day, there is more than one direction I can go depending on my mood and how much time I have.
What motivates you artistically?
Looking at art in galleries, museums, and online is definitely inspiring and the most motivating to me. I can’t get enough of it!
While I am working I listen to podcasts and audio books about politics, business, and technology. The things I hear seep in during the long hours at the loom.
For example, in 2021 the podcasters were obsessed with Facebook changing its name to Meta, and for many months all I heard about was metaverse this, and metaverse that. No surprise that my ruminations on the metaverse ended up producing my tapestry Portal to the Metaverse. This year what’s in the air is AI, all day, every day. It’s truly fascinating. Stay tuned. AI figures prominently in what I’m making right now.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
Unfortunately, the sequential nature of weaving a tapestry requires lots of planning take place beforehand. You have to commit to most of your aesthetic choices before you start because as work gets rolled under the beam, you can no longer make changes. I weave a lot of samples beforehand to figure out how the colors and values will interact. It doesn’t mean I can’t deviate from the plan at all, but it is mostly worked out in advance. I find it comforting to execute a plan, knowing I should like the end result months down the road. Not feeling secure about the end result would be hard for me given the amount of time this takes. I reserve “playing with materials” for the miniature pieces. I make those without so much pre-planning.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
I just try to work during the week days whenever I can. I don’t “schedule” it per se but on average I’m in the studio 4-6 hours a day. I am rarely feeling inspired going in, but I find that working sparks inspiration without fail.
Describe your creative space.
My studio is a bedroom in the daylight basement of our home. There are two looms in it and a lot of yarn in a wire mesh bin system, on shelves, and in baskets. One loom is a six foot wide upright tapestry loom and the other is a 33 inch wide Norwegian-made metal frame loom with a stand.
I have a big corkboard on wheels that I can use to pin up inspirations, weaving samples, or designs in progress. There is a small table for drawing, working on the computer, sampling, or hand sewing. The closet is full of art supplies, weaving equipment, and more yarn.
The “studio” has gradually spilled over into the entirety of our daylight basement. For example, the old pool table in the rec room makes a great work table for finishing the large tapestries, and a ball winder accessorizes the counter next to the beer fridge. (Beer or yarn? How about both?)
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
My favorite tool is my brass beater. It looks like a giant fork and weighs a couple pounds. A good whack really packs the weaving down tight. This is important for keeping lines straight and shapes looking the way they are intended. It is very precious because you can’t find them for sale anymore.
As for repurposed items, I swear by my carpenters’ level.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on many projects at the same time. I can only do one large tapestry per year on my big loom. I need to take breaks now and then, so I have miniature sized projects going on my small loom at the same time. I’ve woven as many as 5 small tapestries on a single warping of my 33” wide frame loom. And to complicate matters, I usually have a project going on a loom I keep at our vacation house, as well.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I blog about my inspiration and thought processes occasionally. I recently wrote a blog post about the a making of Portal to the Metaverse. https://www.ellenramseytapestry.art/blog/no-longer-lost-in-the-metaverse.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I enjoy designing my work on the computer. I let one idea lead to others and just “mess around” in Photoshop. What if I layered this scan over that photo? What if I applied this filter, then applied a different filter over the resulting image? What if I changed the colors or added new colors to the original? What if I ran this image through a glitch generator program? What if? The possibilities are endless and I can really go down a rabbit hole. I print the good ones and put them in my sketchbook for consideration.
The most challenging part is taking a digital inspiration and developing it into a design that is weavable. It is not simply a matter of enlarging the image to size. The drawing, collage, or digital file provides the bones of it, but it has to be simplified. The mark-making of the original has to be interpreted through the use of weaving techniques. Which techniques produce the desired effect takes sampling. It takes a long time and is the hardest part of the process, but definitely the most important part as well. There is nothing worse than starting a project and then realizing after weeks of weaving that it’s not working and it’s not going to work. So the long design development work pays off in the end.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I took a workshop from the tapestry weaver Lynne Curran some years ago and I learned something from her that was absolutely transformational for me. Her advice was to dedicate a separate sketchbook to each project. I do that now and it really helps me to fully develop an idea, from the inspiration all the way to the warp calculations. I record everything pertinent to that piece in one place. I still keep small sketchbooks that I use to record random notes and jots, but when an idea rises to the top and I decide to develop it into a tapestry design, I give that project its own sketchbook. I rarely fill more than half of a large sketchbook though, so for the next big project I just flip the book over and start anew from the back.
Where can people see your work?
Interview posted November 2023