"Painting is a completely different mental process. It completely clears my mind until I get to the point where I have no thoughts. I get the same charge from juxtaposition of colors as I do from juxtaposition of chords." Joni Mitchell*
It's a strange but utterly satisfying thing, finally making what you see in your head, producing the tangible from what had been just a persistent mirage in your mind. But five years after my very first Sun Moon and Stars trials, I can say with confidence that I've done just that. And that just like any journey undertaken for the sake of meaning, you never end up quite where you think you will. Discovery is, after all, inherent to being in new territory. So in an attempt to answer the question "What next?" I am finding that I first have to analyze more closely what I have already made, giving myself a proper critique if you will, in order to move confidently into that new terrain.
Here's something I recently wrote regarding the last pieces I wove off the latest warp:
By space-dyeing the two layers of warp in such a way as to periodically align top to bottom in a tone-on-tone fashion, I create areas where the pattern appears to be rubbed out, thwarting the expected mechanism of doubleweave where dark warp and weft interchange with light warp and weft to create visual pattern. Likewise, the two layers are woven with wefts differing only slightly in value from each other, blending sometimes so invisibly with the various warp colors that the piece seems to be as much about the movement of light and color as it is about pattern.
Aha! Light bulb moment - "the piece seems to be as much about the movement of light and color as it is about pattern". By self-identifying as a weaver, I get hung up on thinking I should be making patterns, the picture or motif on the surface of the woven web. With coverlets, this is even more salient because like quilts, coverlets are identified by their patterns: Sun, Moon and Stars, Chariot Wheel, Downfall of Paris, Cat Track. I want to be that super weaver designer who brilliantly spins out new patterns and structures. But I should know myself better by now - I really find pattern to get in the way of a good weaving. I don't care about imagery. What I care about is color. Or maybe I should say color is my imagery. And weaving is just my means of tying two planes or canvases of color fields together. In realizing this, I can free myself from the tyranny of creating pattern and now start to focus on what's between those two layers of color, how they communicate, what's coming to light at the surface.
"Mountains and Sea". Helen Frankenthaler
As if by fate, I was sorting through some old children's books this weekend and came across one on women artists. In it was a page on Helen Frankenthaler and I suddenly remembered my art history from grad school - color field painting! It resonated with me like never before. She had learned from Pollock but developed her own style:
"All her life she had loved the water -- to swim and to watch changing seascapes. By working as she did, she allowed the paint to settle into the weave of the fabric itself, joining them as one. This application gave her a freedom, openness and flexibility that allowed color to move and expand in liquid pools, under the control of her hand and her arm, as if the painting were a giant watercolor. This avoided the dense paint and tactile weight that could often clog the surface, a problem Pollock had faced." William Agee, "Helen Frankenthaler's New Way of Making Art" Wall Street Journal 2008.
In essence she was dyeing the canvas. Morris Louis, after visiting her studio with Kenneth Noland in 1953, and who subsequently painted in a similar technique, is described by Clement Greenberg in a noticeably fibercentric way:
"Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But 'underneath' is the wrong word. The fabric, being soaked in paint rather merely covered by it, becomes the paint in itself, colour in itself, like dyed cloth; the threadedness and wovenness are in the colour."
Well. If that isn't another description for what I'm doing then I don't know what is. Of course, I am actually making two canvases at the same time and weaving them together but that's off the subject. The point is that this is a profound discovery for me - that color can be a valid subject rather than just decorative, and that I am using yarn to weave color field paintings. Maybe my weavings are good and maybe they're not, but it's what I'm doing. And identifying that is a victory in itself.
"Tennessee Trouble" woven by slaves around 1850. Illustration from A Book of Handwoven Coverlets, Eliza Calvert Hall.
I still care about coverlets, their tradition and all their lovely forms. Here's another passage I recently wrote about my Sun Moon Stars series:
My intent with dyeing the warp to create a visual triptych across the surface of the piece was to reference the distinct center seam(s) often found in old coverlets, formed by weaving long narrow lengths, cutting them apart at the ends and stitching the panels together at the sides to make the final piece wide enough to cover a double bed. I am encouraging a vertical, linear reading of the overall whole piece by dividing up the visual surface in this way, as if I had woven out a long, narrow map of the sky, cut it up and pieced it back together like an old coverlet.
But the truth is that I have just been using one old coverlet pattern that spoke to me from the pages of a magazine years ago as a point of departure into this new territory of color. My hands have made these things that my head is still catching up to. So I think that is where I am going to stay and play for a while.
*If you want to read a fantastic article on Joni Mitchell's personal conflict between music and painting, go here. And if you are interested in checking out her prolific output of paintings spanning over seven decades, please check out her complete body of work here.