POST “TAPESTRY 2008” – Australia
Two years ago, tapestry weavers from around the world converged in Canberra, Australia for “Tapestry 2008” – a symposium, exhibitions and practical workshops. A diverse range of high profile speakers including Annika Ekdahl (Sweden), Sue Lawty (England), Jane Kidd (Canada), Yasuko Fujino (Japan) and Aino Kajaniemi ( Finland) presented papers and stimulated discussion. Galleries were overflowing with tapestries from charming beginners’ works to virtuoso pieces which astounded audiences. In the workshops, participants studied with the masters of the field learning how to develop ideas and imagery along with the finer points of technique. Through the entire event there was an upbeat enthusiasm as everyone reveled in the richness of the visual and tactile art.
However, at the end of the event, the leading question was “Where to now?” as new directions in education, generational change, public perceptions of tapestry and the rise of design/computing/media/cross-discipline arts were identified as issues that have impacted on the tapestry scene in Australia.
Several tapestry artists in Australia trained in the buoyant 1970s/1980s and have continued to exhibit, produce commissioned pieces and work as committed weavers. They have developed their own highly personal styles through intimate knowledge of the medium and ongoing consideration of ideas, interpretations and aesthetics.
Joy Smith’s solo exhibition “The Travelling Show” both travelled around regional galleries and captured images from her repeated trips between Melbourne and Warrnambool in country Victoria. The snapshots of countryside and coast cut to the chase with no extraneous detail demonstrating highly developed visual and weaving skill. Belinda Ramson, the doyenne of Australian tapestry, held a solo show, “Off the Loom” exhibiting finely observed and woven bush and seascapes. After decades of intense weaving the weft is controlled precisely to lyrically represent the subjects.
Sara Lindsay’s sophisticated tapestries and works on paper explore her heritage and recently chart her mother’s life and relationship with Sri Lanka. The tapestries sensually combine cinnamon quills and fine threads in meditative patterns describing the passing of time, while the natural tea dyed drawings are minimal and contemplative.
In New South Wales, Diana Wood Conroy exhibited highly personal tapestries in “Breathing Space” – emotive and minimal expressions of breath, its repetition and the space between things.
Generation Y tapestry weavers, typically work across mediums, using tapestry for its specific qualities alongside other areas of practice – printmaking, ceramics, painting or digital arts. They are the product of our multitasking, digital world where general art education is the norm and contemporary artists move seamlessly between disciplines. Being social networking creatures they engage with u-tube, facebook and blogs, dividing their time between the loom and the wireless laptop. Mardi Nowak writes on her blog: “I’m a part time artist, full time curator, girl about town, vodka appreciator and general culture consumer. I make tapestries and other stuff and I also make a great martini! I live with my partner and my cute Devon Rex Miss Nina. I spend my spare time making stuff; whether it be sewing, knitting, weaving, collaging or baking – it all happens in my house!” 
In the rural village of Collector, NSW, Dimity Kidston runs “Wagtail Designs”, a tiny shop/gallery/studio with folkloric charm. Practical, hand carved porcelain beakers are her signature product displayed alongside her vibrant tapestries and works by other craftspeople.
Although there are fewer opportunities for people to learn tapestry in the community or study at tertiary level, the emerging generation is energized by the new-found love of craft, making by hand and freedom to participate broadly in the arts. The Distance Education course in Warrnambool continues to provide a most appropriate form of study, allowing students in remote areas of the country/or with work and family commitments access to tapestry education. It is also now possible to study at PhD level and Kirsty Darlaston is presently a candidate at the South Australian School of Art. Kirsty has set up a community tapestry project in her local library and is recording the conversations that she has with the public at the loom. The project aims to explore the social and cultural meanings of textiles, and the way that crafts and stories proliferate in society.
Melbourne continues to be the Mecca of tapestry in Australia with students, novice and professional weavers practicing there. The Victorian Tapestry Workshop is the hub where
the “Weaverama” exhibition gave us a window into the personal creativity of the weavers working in their own time, after workshop hours. The range of artwork exhibited included woven tapestry but also mixed media, print, drawings and sculptural forms.
Cheryl Thornton’s finely woven miniatures were understated and captivating in every pass of weft over red warp. The illusive tapestries are not facades of weft images only: they are about the interaction of warp and weft, demonstrating depth of understanding and a quiet appreciation of the medium.
At the opposite end of the scale Emma Sulzer’s three dimensional woven training shoes at first glance said it all in a quirky humorous way. The famous brand names are resplendent worked in wool, cotton and touches of Lurex.
Milly Formby’s “Monster Brooches”, were lots of fun; I expect woven as some light relief from interpretive weaving, taking pleasure in the experimentation with materials within the small shaped pieces.
In some previous instances workshop weavers had their own designs produced as commissioned tapestries in the workshop so perhaps this exhibition will again spark some weaver initiated designs and commissions for the VTW.
“PHASE” was Melbourne artist Tim Gresham’s latest solo exhibition of tapestry and photography. Held in the up market Collins Street precinct of the city, the show exuded confidence and accomplishment through the sophisticated works combined with the precise, minimal hang. Mastery of technique was evident in the perfect edges and precisely woven squares and tightly framed photographic images. The skill was in the editing; focusing on pattern with pick and pick techniques in a light to mid tone palette of Australian Bush hues.
The images extend beyond the cropped frame, suggesting infinity: a space to contemplate, to find pleasure in the universal sequences of forms, variations of the hand made and time devoted to the pursuit of excellence.
Community tapestry, produced by a group of professionals/amateurs has been popular in Australia since the 1980s with many projects funded around the country. Recently Cresside Collette has initiated several tapestries to give students/graduates of RMIT and community volunteers instruction in large scale weaving. Working on a community tapestry gives participants valuable experience while interacting socially and creating a work of art far beyond the means of each individual. In South Australia the Lobethal Tapestry was woven to revive a sense of community pride by depicting the history of the German settled town in the Adelaide Hills. Elly Webb designed the tapestry and Katharina Urban was in charge of the interpretation and production, working with experienced weavers and volunteers from the local area.
Tapestry in Australia has moved into a new phase with experienced practitioners honing their highly individual approaches to the medium to produce inspired creative works while an emerging new generation grapples with the plethora of choices available to them through new technologies, changing social structures and scope to move freely between mediums in the arts.
Artist and Tapestry Weaver
Head of Textiles and Senior Lecturer, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.