The Fenner Tapestry

The Fenner Tapestry Presentation – Japan


  1. The Fenner Tapestry that I am exhibiting at the Kyoto Art Center commemorates the awarding to Professor Frank Fenner of the Japan Prize in 1988, with his colleagues Isao Arita and Donald Henderson, in the category of preventative medicine. The tapestry was commissioned by the Australian National University for the Hall, University House in Canberra – regarded as the ceremonial heart of the university.
  2. This commission came about through support for Professor Fenner and his achievements after I had been asked to design and weave 3 tapestries celebrating Nobel Prize winners associated with the university. The community sentiment was that Professor Fenner’s achievements and winning the Japan prize was equal to winning a Nobel Prize and that a tapestry should be made about his work to sit in the Hall with the 3 others. A private sponsor provided funding to support the design and weaving of the Fenner Tapestry.
  3. The 3 Jubilee tapestries, which I wove before the Fenner Tapestry, highlight the university’s commitment to science, innovation and technology at the highest level. They each measure 1.2 x 2.4 metres and are woven on a number 18 warp horizontally on the loom.
  4. I designed and wove the tapestries over a 9 month period in my studio behind my house in O’Connor, Canberra.
  5. In all three designs, key black and white images based on electron micrographs or photographs represent the original research at the time it was done and these images contrast with colour renditions of the same subject matter now viewed through the lens of new technologies. In this, The Eccles Tapestry, an electron micrograph of a motoneuron was used as the basis for the foreground, on which is superimposed a drawing of a micro electrode as it would have been located for intracellular recording. An image of the spinal interneuron injected with the fluorescent “ Lucifer Yellow” dye, colour enhanced in reds using confocal microscope filters, is used as the background.
  6. The next tapestry I worked on was the Doherty and Zinkernagel Tapestry which marks the discoveries of the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence – killer T cells. The black image is from a micrograph and the colour background was drawn from an original image taken now at ANU of a natural killer cell destroying a target tumour cell.
  7. The Florey Tapestry, unveiled on 3rd of December 2005 by Professor Frank Fenner, celebrates the Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded to Lord Howard W. Florey (with Sir Alexander Fleming and Sir Ernst Boris Chain) for the discovery, isolation and therapeutic application of penicillin.
  8. The black image is from an original photograph in the university collection showing the action of penicillin in a petri dish. An electron micrograph of a mature growth specimen of Penecillium, a sample I was able to get from our hospital, forms the background.
  9. The 3 tapestries were gifted to University House to celebrate its 50 year anniversary.
  10. At the final presentation dinner, it was announced that a private sponsor would like to commission a further tapestry, because Frank Fenner’s work was equal to that of the Nobel Prize winners and his contribution to the university and science was long-standing and of the highest order. Dr Fenner, as the chairman of the World Health Organisation Smallpox eradication Surveillance Committee, supervised implementation of the global smallpox eradication program and his consistent efforts greatly contributed to the success of the program. He was awarded the Japan Prize in 1988.
  11. I was able to meet Professor Fenner and discuss his ideas for the tapestry. He showed me pictures relating to the research and selected 2 images which he thought might be appropriate – not really much to work with visually.
  12.  I researched his work through the library records and archives and worked on design prototypes avoiding the very graphic and confronting images of people with smallpox.
  13. The tapestry depicts the award winning research through the Variola virus in stages of its growth and the Myxoma virus, used in the eradication of rabbits in Australia(both pox viruses researched by Fenner). The bifurcated needle at the bottom right was added as a symbol of the importance of low technology to vaccinate people in the most remote villages of Africa. The black image was taken from the last remaining person in the community to have smallpox.
  14. This tapestry was woven part time over the length of a year and I enlisted my friend and fellow tapestry weaver, Joy Smith to work with me over a 2 week intense weaving period.
  15. Like the other tapestries, this one was woven on its side for convenience and for design and weaving considerations.
  16. Although I worked as a weaver at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop (now Australian Tapestry Workshop) as part of a team, this was the first time that I have worked with another weaver of my own work. Joy wove about half of the top section of the tapestry – on the right in this slide. She has a more graphic style of weaving than me, but because of the way the image is, this change in approach integrates well.
  17. As the weaving of each tapestry was complete, I arranged a “Cutting Off Ceremony” in my studio and was thrilled that Professor Fenner could do the honours on this occasion.  His shoulder was giving him trouble that day and the scissors kept veering towards the tapestry, but fortunately a friend and textile conservator was on hand to steer the scissors in the right direction. However when I came to plait back the ends, some warp threads were no more than 2 cms   – very fiddly to deal with.
  18. French artist Jean Lurcat described tapestry as: “Well, it’s a fabric, no more nor less than a fabric. But it is a coarse, vigorous, organic fabric; supple certainly, but of a less yielding suppleness than silk or linen. It is heavy….heavy with matter and heavy with meaning. But it is more, it is heavy with intentions. It is this which secures its magnificence.”


  1.  In these commissions I have felt the weight of responsibility in designing tapestries that do justice to the impressive work of the scientists. I hope it is a blend of their magnificent research based content and my artistic integrity that fulfils the brief to create works which hold the meaning of achievement on the global scale. I am delighted that The Fenner Tapestry, marking the Japan Prize can be exhibited and viewed here in Kyoto.

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