Beneath the Surface :
I love seeing the process behind a piece, especially when there is a good story that goes with it. Next in this series about the Beneath the Surface residency, Deborah Payne shares the process behind her tapestry “Standing, Still”. I had the privilege of seeing snapshots of the developing piece over the last few months when I visited Deborah’s studio. She is a consummate artist with a multitude of skills who dives headfirst into projects with an enthusiasm that is contagious. It is fascinating to see how the finished product came about, from photo to concept to sketches to experiments to tapestry! Beautifully done Deborah.
(Side note: Deb was featured in Issue #5 of CH magazine!)
(Photos courtesy of the artist)
What were you most looking forward to with Beneath the Surface?
Five days of retreat with fellow artists and creators, as well as the park interpreters. A chance to absorb ideas, information, feelings, intuitions. A space to exchange ideas with others. I was also looking forward to the element of surprise. While the organizers did give us a skeleton schedule, there were enough missing details to create lots of surprise, curiosity, and anticipation. I loved that.
What were some of the highlights of the residency itself?
The wealth of knowledge of the park interpreters and their ability to share it with us blew me away. I’d come back from the guided walk of the day, my head filled with new information, facts, lore, history, and ideas. Lots of ideas. About forests, trees, bogs, plant life, rocks, insect life, salmon, the community of Point Wolfe at its heyday. Things I knew about in a general and vague kind of way, but had never really stopped to think about in any detail. The residency brought all those thing to life for me.
I also loved the daily presentations and group activities. One in particular was by Michael Maynard who told us the story of Craft in New Brunswick, based on his research. Fundy National Park was the initial home of Craft education in this province, so it imbued even more significance to us craftspeople being there. And as I said before, the chance to be around so many creative people at once. Informal chats, fireside musings, idea sharing while walking. So very stimulating.
What project did you decide to do as a result of the residency?
This residency allowed me to see what had become invisible to me: stands of trees that together make up a forest. So I focused on trees, specifically stands of trees. Using embroidery thread, I wove a small tapestry of a stand of trees. Why trees? I had never really noticed them in their entirety, all those trunks standing tall under the canopy so high up. Instead, on my many walks in woods, I had focused on details: bark, roots, lichens. Truly a case of “not seeing the forest for the trees”.
My focus on stands of trees was sparked on the second day, though I didn’t realize it at that time. Our guided outing took us through a hardwood and softwood stand. The term “stand” intrigued me and riffed through my mind: “we stand on guard for thee”, “standing one’s ground”, “taking a stand”. Found myself musing about how easy it was, in the midst of all those trees, to forget all the clear-cutting that goes on just outside the park. I mused about how clear-cutting was a form of literally “taking a stand”! An initial image came to mind, of creating multiple renditions of tree stands, small and uniform in size, varied in technique: stitched, woven, felted.
What did your process look like in arriving to your final piece?
My process looked like a meandering in the woods itself: going down one trail, then another, exploring, discovering, getting lost, finding the trail again, and finally, getting focused. Back in my studio, I looked over my many photos of stands of trees and started by painting a few renditions. These served as drawings — cartoons in the tapestry world — for both a small woven and a stitched sample piece. I didn’t like the square boxy shape of many frame loom weavings, so played with more irregular shapes. I also wanted to try weaving with very fine thread. In part it was my own personal challenge as an artist because I had never woven an entire piece with a delicate thread. In part I wanted to create a preciousness in something – a stand of trees — that in real life is so very big and vast that we no longer see it, much less appreciate its value. I chose embroidery thread: not only does it have a slight sheen to it, but it comes in a vast range of colours. More samples and playing ensued. I tried rolling up unfinished stitched pieces that I had made over the past few years into 3D sculptural forms to represent tree trunks. I tried a different palette using very bright jewel tones and painted from the viewpoint of tree trunks joining the canopy and the roots, creating an almost cathedral like grandeur and calm. It was at this point that the feeling of quiet grandeur emerged. I returned to the initial idea of weaving a small tapestry of a stand of trees, small in size but big in presence and preciousness. Back to the drawing board, to simplify and stylize the image to accommodate the sections of open warp in the tapestry. And then back to weaving with fine embroidery thread, slowly, quietly, meditatively. Somewhere at this point, I started referring to the piece with just the word Stand, or And so they stand. The woven stand of trees spoke to me of strength and resilience, of continued perseverance and might, in a quiet muted way. My original title Taking a Stand felt too strong for this one particular piece.
By the end, the title Standing, Still emerged, evoking the quiet grandeur that a stand of trees has come to mean for me.
What challenges did you come across in the process of creating it?
One challenge was creating an image that simplified the incredible detail presented in the photos I had taken. I just couldn’t include all the trees. For a detail person like me, that act of simplifying represented a challenge. Then there was the technical challenge of including sections of open warp in a small weaving. Open warp means leaving some of the warp threads unwoven, so they show through and become part of the image. But in tapestry weaving, as in rughooking, what holds the threads in place are the other woven threads. The edge threads that abut an open warp just naturally want to spread out, take up that open space, resulting in ballooning edges. I ended up sewing in “retaining” threads to hold the shapes in place, which added a whole other layer of work and time to the process. The biggest challenge was how to display and frame a small piece of textile to create the feeling I wanted. I liked the look and feel of a shadow box frame but didn’t want to put the tapestry under glass. For me, the very nature of textile is that of touch and texture, and while not suggesting that people touch this piece, I did want the piece to be as close to the viewer as possible. To that effect, I also raised the tapestry from the “floor” of the frame, giving it even more depth. I used a piece of painted wood screwed into the floor of the frame. Textiles are flexible and loose; they move, fold, bend over time. While some movement is fine, I didn’t want the tapestry to lose its structural integrity so needed to somehow give it some body. I cut out and stitched heavy cardstock to the back of the weaving. I then glued the cardstock to the painted wood piece within the frame. As for size of frame, my initial idea was to place this very small and precious stand of trees in a very big and austere frame so that viewers might ask themselves “Why such a big space around such a small piece?” and come to their own conclusions. In the end, such starkness felt too strong for the quiet grandeur this piece evokes, so I opted for a slightly smaller frame painted a simple white so that the eye is drawn to the lone stand of trees. In doing so, what has become invisible to so many of us could become visible again.
See Deborah’s work in person as well as pieces by the other participants from Beneath the Surface this Friday at UNB Arts Centre, 5-7 pm!