Weav­ing in progress


Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Arts - By Joel Lang

“Creak, creak, BANG! Creak, creak, BANG!”

That is the sound the Swedish- born tapestry artist He­lena Hernmarck makes pulling down the wooden “beater” on the largest loom in the Ridge­field stu­dio she has oc­cu­pied since 1982.

The beater is the cross piece that com­pacts the hor­i­zon­tal weft threads into place. The one on this big loom ( she has a half- dozen sizes) is 8 feet long and sev­eral inches thick. It’s like a gi­ant oar, and when Hernmarck heaves, she re­ally puts her back into it as if row­ing for max­i­mum power.

“Creak, BANG! Creak, BANG!”

“That’s the fun part,” she says. “That’s why weavers are happy. They get to use their bod­ies.”

Hernmarck won’t be us­ing her big loom, but vis­i­tors to the Aldrich Con­tem­po­rary Art Mu­seum in her adopted home town will be able to see her in ac­tion dur­ing a 13- week res­i­dency that be­gins this month. She will be weav­ing a new tapestry sur­rounded by 20 ex­am­ples of her work dat­ing back to 1970, just be­fore the com­mis­sion that led to her sud­den em­brace by cor­po­rate clients and art mu­se­ums.

In a pe­riod of 50 days, Hernmarck and an as­sis­tant wove an al­most 10- foot high, 14- foot wide de­pic­tion of a rain for­est for the Wey­er­haeuser head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton state, so stun­ning it made the cover of In­te­ri­ors mag­a­zine.

“From there, ev­ery­one sat up and took no­tice. From then on, peo­ple said to me, ‘ Oh, you’re the one who wove the Rain­for­est,’ ” she says.

The recog­ni­tion led to a 1973 solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and a steady stream of high- pro­file com­mis­sions. In 1999, for a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive at the Mu­seum of the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, a critic in­voked both Mid­dle Age mas­ter­pieces and Pop Art in an at­tempt to cap­ture Hernmarck’s unique and of­ten mon­u­men­tal art.

One of her largest projects in sheer area was the pair of 40- foot ver­ti­cally hung ab­stract ta­pes­tries ti­tled “Blue Wash I” and “Blue Wash II” she did in 1984 for the Pit­ney Bowes head­quar­ters in Stam­ford. The com­pany re­cently gifted them to the Min­neapo­lis In­sti­tute of Art, which dis­played them into four 20- foot sec­tions. Be­tween 2003 and 2006, she cre­ated a se­ries of 1,500- square- foot ta­pes­tries de­pict­ing the four sea­sons for the res­i­den­tial lobby of the Time Warner Cen­ter in New York.

Over the years, Hernmarck has col­lab­o­rated mainly with ar­chi­tects on her big­gest com­mis­sions. If they are ex­pen­sive ( cost­ing hun­dreds of dol­lar per square foot), they are nev­er­the­less in­tended for pub­lic view­ing at the same time they may be ig­nored by art crit­ics. She be­lieves tapestry is less ap­pre­ci­ated in the U. S., where quil­ters and Navajo weavers hold sway, than in Europe. “The popes and the em­per­ors didn’t live here, and they were the ones buy­ing it,” she says.

Hernmarck was trained in the an­cient loom craft in Swe­den. Her father be­came head cu­ra­tor of dec­o­ra­tive arts at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Stock­holm, and an un­cle was an im­por­tant ar­chi­tect. She knew early on she wanted to work on a large scale and adopted a tech­nique to help her do it. In­stead of weav­ing with sin­gle strands of yarn, she bun­dled half- dozen stands to­gether.

“I ended up do­ing mul­ti­ple strands be­cause I was try­ing to fig­ure out how I was go­ing to earn a liv­ing and I de­cided that if I could weave one square me­ter a week, I could live on it. And it’s al­most true. I made it coarser so I could go faster,” she says.

She was as­sum­ing of course that she got big com­mis­sions. She did and the bundling helped set her apart. Depend­ing on how she twists the strands and what col­ors and thick­nesses she chooses, she is said to be able to give her ta­pes­tries un­prece­dented depth and com­plex­ity. One crit­i­cal es­say de­scribed them as al­most pointil­list.

In the Aldrich gallery, one wall be given over to doc­u­ment­ing how she works and an­other to a pho­to­graphic replica of the wall of yarns Hernmarck has in her stu­dio. It is a 30- foot- long and 14- foot- high pal­ette of yarns, di­vided into 99 cu­bi­cles.

The stu­dio it­self is the work of her late hus­band, Niels Diffri­ent, the in­dus­trial de­signer best known for his Free­dom and Lib­erty desk chairs. The stu­dio’s high ceil­ing fan looks like a di­aphanous air­plane pro­pel­ler. The wall of yarn is dra­matic, but it is not for show.

Hernmarck can­not af­ford to run short of yarn mid- project, and she de­pends on a sin­gle sup­plier, Wal­st­edts, a fam­ily owned com­pany in Swe­den that uses the longer sta­ple wool grown by a breed of sheep it re­vived from near ex­tinc­tion. The wool is dyed to her spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

“I need a big stock. What you see there has been built up since 1975,” she says, point­ing to the wall. “No one else in the world has this much yarn in one place.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion, “He­lena Hernmarck: Weav­ing in Progress,” runs from Oct. 14 to Jan. 13. Her per­sonal ap­pear­ance sched­ule can be seen on the Aldrich web­site.

Joel Lang is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Sun­day Arts & Style.

Con­trib­uted photo / Ross Man­tle

He­lena Hernmarck works in her stu­dio.

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