Friday, February 3, 2012
What I owe to Rachel Brown...
Rachel Brown died yesterday. Rachel Brown of the Weaving, Spinning, and Dyeing Book, which was the first weaving book I ever owned. I devoured that book. It is literally in pieces on my book shelf. Rachel Brown of Weaving Southwest, the beautiful tapestry gallery in Taos, New Mexico. Rachel Brown, who taught and influenced many weavers and encouraged generations of weavers to keep going in a hard and often discouraging art form.
I met Rachel several times. Her work was included in several exhibits I put together, and she was one of the jurors I worked with on the third American Tapestry Biennial. I cannot claim to have known her well; she and I mostly recognized each other by the work we did. But Rachel did have a huge impact on my life and my own work.
Rachel was part of a panel discussion I once attended a number of years ago. The panel consisted of all New Mexican weavers. The moderator asked the panelists how their 'cultural heritage' influenced their work. Rachel, being the only Anglo on the panel, said that she didn't really feel like, as an Anglo American woman, she had a heritage to draw from in her work, so she allowed herself to be influenced by the rich cultures around her. For some reason, that hit me smack in the chest, like a physical blow. It actually made tears run down my face. Rachel's background was much the same as my own. But I didn't want to feel that my own cultural heritage wasn't rich enough to inspire my work. That niggled in my mind and heart for some time, and when I went home, I began to delve into old family photos; into my heritage, to search for tapestry inspiration.
What I came up with became my Heritage Series of tapestries, beginning with "Watermelon Girls," an image of my grandmother and her friends. The rest of the series can be seen here.
I always say that the series, which includes five tapestries so far, is not a finished series. I have one more piece in my mind and heart, and many more potential pieces I would like to weave. All of the tapestries come from my family history; that of a middle class Anglo family of German ancestry living in America's heartland. What has amazed me about these tapestries is that every time I exhibit them, and especially when I had the opportunity to exhibit them all together, people tell me that I have woven their own lives, their own stories. That, to me, is a cultural heritage.
I always think of Rachel when I think of these tapestries. If I had not been hit so hard by her admission that she didn't feel her heritage was rich enough to weave, these tapestries would probably never have been woven. Rachel wove wonderful tapestries. Her 'borrowing' from the cultures around her was greatly enhanced by her own vision in her work. I believe who she was truly shows in her own work, and many weavers have bits of Rachel Brown in their weavings. She created a heritage that will live on in her work. I believe that is the mark of a true artist; to take what you can from where you are and to make it your own.
I will always be grateful to Rachel for sending me in the direction, even though unintentionally, that took me to my own heritage, and to the creation of the resulting Heritage Tapestries. Thank you, Rachel Brown.