Mary Lane saw an exhibit of contemporary tapestries almost fifty years ago and knew she wanted to learn to weave. She studied French tapestry weaving techniques, developed a practice as an artist, and continues to this day to create pieces influenced by tapestries from the past.
How did you get started as a tapestry weaver? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
In 1976 I spent a year traveling in Mexico. While I was there I saw an exhibition of contemporary tapestries in Mexico City. I had done some weaving, however, I knew very little about tapestry. The show featured tapestries woven in the commercial workshops of Aubusson, France. Being surrounded by so many colorful “mural nomads,” as Corbusier referred to them, left me smitten.
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I decided to seek out instruction in tapestry weaving when I returned from my trip. I built a tapestry loom and I took classes from several different tapestry weavers. I also started taking studio art classes in order to gain the drawing and design skills that were needed to produce the images I would weave.
In 1980, I signed up for a class at the Oregon School of Arts & Crafts. It was taught by Ruth Tanenbaum. Ruth was a founding member of the San Francisco Tapestry Workshop and had subsequently traveled to Paris to study at the Gobelins, France’s government supported tapestry manufactory. This class was game changing for me because the French tapestry weaving techniques are robust, versatile and exacting. I had never imagined that one could have so much control over image making in tapestry.
Ruth was, at that time, preparing to open a tapestry studio in New York City and she asked me if I would like to be part of it. So in the summer of 1982 I moved to New York. I undertook a nine month apprenticeship at the studio. The style of tapestry weaving was based on the techniques developed in Medieval Europe and now usually associated with historical French and Flemish tapestry. I have, for the most part, remained loyal to these techniques, although as my study of different tapestry weaving traditions progressed, other tapestry traditions and their associated techniques have become an important influence in my approach to tapestry and my designs.
Tell us more about “woodling”. How has it impacted your work?
I think it was Kennita Tulley who first mentioned that she had woven a woodle, a tapestry doodle. I loved the cleverness of the language but I also thought about all that I had learned from drawing textile patterns. I thought I might try to woodle myself – using patterns.
In that spirit, I wove two pieces. It was fun, and a real challenge. I did not have a cartoon. I simply sat down and started weaving patterns. I say simply, but weaving patterns is far from simple. Warps must be counted. Weft passes must be counted. By now, you probably know that I am the kind of person that likes structure and numbers. Trying to just sit down and weave these patterns, no cartoon, was very difficult. It increased my already very high respect for weavers through the ages.
I wove the woodles after I retired as a way to kick start a new direction in my weaving practice. It served its purpose and I have not used that approach since then.
If we asked a good friend of yours to describe your work, what would they say?
Meticulous. Intellectual. Color based.
What motivates you artistically?
I have always been influenced by tapestries from the past, especially those woven in Europe during the Middle Ages, the rich textile tradition from the Andes and the Coptic weavings created in Egypt and surrounding areas. That influence can be seen in my use of pattern and specific weaving techniques employed by those early weavers.
My most recent tapestries reference historical textiles more directly through the incorporation of borrowed patterns, motifs and/or details. The excerpts are combined with each other, and with other image sources, such as drawings or photographs, to produce a layered image in which the different components are merged together into one blended image. The collaged and layered image is created in Photoshop.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
Now that I am retired, I have more time to spend in my studio. I do have other interests to which I devote time, but I try to work in my studio at least 4 or 5 days out of the week. That might be drawing, painting, weaving, or all of the above.
I am disciplined so maintaining a work habit, a studio practice, is not difficult for me. I like to stay busy and I like making art, so prioritizing studio time comes naturally, and is a joy.
Describe your creative space.
I have a dedicated studio space in my home. I have a four foot Shannock loom (having scaled down from my days weaving commissions on an eight foot loom). Two eight foot tables are used for design work – drawing, painting, collage. My computer is also in my studio along with two file cabinets that keep my papers organized. I have a large book collection which is also in my studio space.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Audiobooks and podcasts.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
It depends on the size of the work. For my larger tapestries, I have been weaving about two per year. For the smaller work, each one takes a few days of weaving. I don’t usually work on more than one project at a time. When I am not weaving I try to draw or paint every day that I am actually at home.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
“Swift” was inspired by watching flocks of pelicans flying low over water and fields. I created the design for the tapestry in Photoshop.
The flock of birds was created by cropping, duplicating and rearranging just a few birds. I amassed a group that looked crowded but was also weavable. The fields, water and sky are all built by combining different details out of historical textiles. The details are small and cropped, so their source is not at all evident. The details are duplicated, rearranged, etc. to build up the areas of color that suggest the landscape. The colors were also manipulated to provide more variety. I don’t think I really knew where I was going when I started this design. I just jumped in and found a path to follow. I had many versions of the design and eventually settled on one to weave.
The tapestry is woven at two different warp setts (densities) so that some of the surface is thicker – a sort of low relief effect. I also used a textured yarn (boucle) to add dimension to the hanging.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I like all of it. I draw, paint and design in Photoshop. Each medium is different and engaging in different ways. Drawing and painting can be so quick. The Photoshop designs are often very time consuming.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I think it was Einstein who said something like – If people knew how hard I worked, they wouldn’t think I am a genius. I am not a genius, of course, but I think his message is that success takes a lot of work. I’ve heard other versions, like – show up in your studio every day and things will happen.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?
I think it is the same because I have remained loyal to flat tapestry and to the traditional French tapestry weaving techniques (not that I don’t stray a bit…). It is different in terms of the content of the work.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
Go to galleries and museums. Look at art on the internet, etc.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I try to judge my own work, but being objective about one’s own work is difficult. I find that first impressions are valuable. In the design phase I often generate many images – dozens or even scores. I let them sit and then look back through them. I keep the ones that call out to me in a separate stack or folder. I let them sit again and come back later to see if I feel the same way about them. It is a process of winnowing. I feel like I need to generate a lot of images (drawing, painting, computer) to find one I want to weave.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
Not sure. I drew as a child but didn’t see myself as an artist then. I guess it was after I committed to tapestry weaving that I began to see myself as an artist.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
I would love to meet Sheila Hicks. She has been a defining force in the field of textile art. Her work is quite varied and she is influenced by historical textiles, as mine is.
Where can people find your work?
Interview posted July 2023
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