Susan Iverson is inspired by architecture and landscape, creating intricate tapestries that capture a moment of time. She works on one piece at a time and in a series. She believes being an artist includes creativity, passion, opportunity, and an intense dedication to bringing those moments of creativity to life.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
I developed a strong love of drawing as a child and that was the beginning of my life in the arts.
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Being an artist was always my goal but I didn’t even think about weaving as an art form until I was in college. I assumed I would be a painter until I met my first loom at Colorado State University – that was love at first sight. Before college my only serious skills with fabric involved sewing garments.
I do feel that artists are born to be artists. Sometimes life gets in the way and sometimes life supports art making.
I feel fortunate that my parents supported my art making and that I have managed to have a productive art practice for my entire adult life. I was a Professor in the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University for 40 year and that position provided for a career that allowed me to pursue my studio work. I was able to balance my teaching load with a productive studio practice.
Why tapestry? How does the medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I spent most of my time in undergraduate school exploring a variety of weave structures from basic plain weave to 24 harness patterns. I also learned to dye yarn and to screen print on fabric.
Each technique intrigued me but when I discovered tapestry in my senior year I knew that I had met the technique that would provide me with a fabric that would satisfy my needs for image making while also providing a structure rich in physicality. I was interested in both the image and object quality of tapestry.
As a professor in the fiber program at VCU I broadened my technical skills to also include embroidery, sewing, basketry, felt-making and basic paper-making. I flirted with both embroidery and felt-making in my own work.
I found that while I loved the surface of hand-made felt and the obvious ease of color blending during the process – I could not tolerate the actual process when trying to produce large works. I do use embroidery on the surface of some tapestries on a regular basis.
Every artist has to find the material and techniques that best suit their ideas. Tapestry does that for me. I am fully engaged with the potential that this technique holds for individual expression.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Tapestry With Pulled Warp: Inspiration, Technique, and the Creative Process?
I want the readers to see that this technique can be easily learned while they are thinking about interesting and meaningful ways to use it in their own work. I hope this book will act like a short workshop – full of technical information and laced with encouragement and inspiration.
What influences your work and does your work have stories to tell?
Although abstract, most of my work is autobiographical.
Strongly influenced by the environment I live in, the work investigates my current obsession. The primary influences over many years are: architecture, landscapes, ancient Peruvian textiles, and environmental issues.
Rather than telling stories most of my work captures a moment in time.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you work on a schedule or work only when inspired?
I am in the studio or thinking about it most of the time. Early in my career I decided that having my studio in my home was vital so that I could work whenever I chose to. I saw the studio as the center of my life – not someplace I went to when I had time.
I have worked out a good non-scheduled weaving/creative schedule! I work ahead in my sketch book so I almost always have multiple tapestries I want to weave. I don’t push the ideas – I let them come to me and then I flesh them out.
The tapestry on the loom can be worked on at any time of the day or night. That is the beauty of tapestry – once you have it on the loom you can start and stop at will. I can weave for 15 minutes or several hours. Even when I was teaching I could get some time in the studio everyday.
The last year and a half created an exception to my normal studio schedule. After much deliberation I decided that it was a good time for me to write a book about the Pulled Warp technique. This is a technique that allows tapestry to bend or become three dimensional without cutting or stitching.
I spent years making samples and finished work using this technique and I wanted to make sure that future generations of weavers could easily access the technical information. Tapestry With Pulled Warp: Inspiration, Technique, and the Creative Process will be published by Schiffer Publishing and be available for sale in late March 2024. It also includes a chapter about my own personal journey using the this technique, off and on since 1978.
During this time I was primarily devoted to writing and weaving new technical samples. I did however manage to weave four new, smaller tapestries. The writing process was interesting but it did not engage me in that same way that weaving does.
What does your studio look like? What plays in the background while you work?
We moved into our current home 16 years ago and the third floor became my studio.
One of the previous owners had been an artist so the space was set up for a studio. It is one large open space with lots of natural light. It also has a large wall that I use when I work on full scale cartoons of the tapestries and where I can pin up the work when it comes off the loom.
My work varies in size so I have 12’ of wall that I can pin into. There is room for my loom, a 4’ x 8’ work table for finishing, a desk and shelves for storing yarn and books – lots of books. I eventually had storage built in that was 4’ deep so that I could easily store rolled up tapestries.
In 2019 we built my dream studio addition off of the first floor. I now have this bonus studio just for weaving and exhibiting finished work.
When I’m working I frequently have music (classical or country) or the TV turned to something not too demanding. I play a lot of DVDs of British series like Midsummer Mysteries or Dr. Who. And there are plenty of times when I just enjoy the quiet.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
This is a good question and my best answer is – not often enough!
There never seems to be enough time when it comes to tapestry. I am a fast weaver but it still seems like a long time between each new major piece.
The exception to this is when I was working on the Color of NO project. Many of those tapestries were quite small and the designing was spontaneous so I started a new tapestry every 5 to 14 days. I did weave those tapestries at the same time as my Observation – Light series and those would take up to two months or more to weave. I was weaving 4’ x 6′ to 6’ x 8’ tapestries while I was teaching and then I was starting a new tapestry every 2 or 3 months.
I weave one tapestry at a time but I frequently do the handwork on the previous tapestry when I take breaks from weaving. It is better for me physically to do some weaving and then some finishing rather than spending a whole day doing all one thing.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Verdant came to me all at once. That doesn’t happen very often.
I heard about an exhibition titled Green: the Color and the Cause, that was being curated for the Textile Museum in Washington DC. At that time I was working on my Observations series, which was based on my meandering walks through the woods around our home in rural Virginia.
A rough image of Verdant came to me immediately – the rich, greens of Virginia foliage along with glass orbs reflecting light like dew drops. I refined the image and made a full size cartoon to see how the tapestry strips would drape on the wall and to make sure that the tapestry would hold the weight of the glass.
I dyed wool for the tapestry – greens that I had never used before. I dressed the loom to weave three strips at a time – each strip was over 8’ long.
I am not a glass blower so I worked with a student in the VCU glass program and that was a very good experience. We were both a little concerned about breakage during exhibitions so she blew a couple of extra forms that I could keep as back-up. Verdant has been shown in more thnt a dozen venues with no problems.
This tapestry didn’t get selected for the Green show, instead they selected Dream Worlds – Nurture, a tapestry that was about the environment and contained very little green in the palette but plenty of green in the concept.
Which part of the design process is the most interesting? Which part is a challenge for you?
Each aspect of designing new work can be easy and interesting or it might be the biggest challenge. There is no consistency in this process for me.
Frequently the ideas flow quickly and culling out the best ones is an interesting process. Sometimes the ideas are painfully slow in arriving.
Once I determine that an idea is worth weaving I do a full scale maquette and that is the one step that I always find fulfilling. The composition often changes in small but important ways when it moves from a small sketch to a large cartoon/maquette.
The next step is determining the exact colors and color placement. This process ranges from fast and easy to excruciating.
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
This is a really interesting question and one I’ve never been asked. You can learn so much from a formal art education but you have to understand that each class, while filled with helpful information, is taught by a single professor who has their own background and biases. That is not a bad thing – but it is something to consider.
I had wonderful art teachers all through primary and secondary school so I was reasonably well prepared for college courses. Of course I feel I learned the most from the textile classes – but mainly what I learned was how to learn.
My professors became roll models. These were people who balanced teaching careers with active studio practices. I learned how to teach and how not to teach based on my experiences.
I didn’t fully appreciate some courses until I taught them myself. I became much more understanding of the education I received the longer I taught.
I realized that the formal elements of composition along with color theory were at the core of all of my work – I don’t necessarily think about them consciously, but that information is always with me. While I was certainly taught these things in college – I did additional research to deepen my understanding.
My education never got in my way – it only broadened my attitudes about art. I do admire the many adult learners who are putting together an art education through workshops and reading.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Architecture and landscape are the two constants in my life.
Much of my work consists of visual conversations between these two broad categories. Each series I work on is based on my current obsession.
For example, I was deeply affected by my study of ancient Peruvian textiles and a trip to Peru in the late 1970s. I was completely obsessed with that landscape in contrast to the ancient architecture along with the patterns in the textiles. This visual information kept me busy for years and still affects me in smaller ways.
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or its it something that must be nurtured and learned?
I do think that creativity is part of human nature but it can wither or bloom depending on a persons situation. So given the right time and opportunity everyone can have creative moments.
Of course children should be nurtured and exposed to art making experiences – adults can benefit from the same. Being an artist is different. It includes creativity, passion, opportunity, and an intense dedication to bringing those moments of creativity to life.
Where can people find your work?
I am on instagram at susaniversontapestry
My website is susaniversonart.com
My new book Tapestry With Pulled Warp: Inspiration, Technique, and the Creative Process will be published by Schiffer Publishing and available in late March 2024.
Learn more about tapestry at the American Tapestry Alliance.
Interview posted September 2023
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