Contemporary tapestries inspired spiritual themes
This spring I was privileged to show two series of handwoven tapestries at the Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance (SEFAA) in Chamblee, Georgia, near Atlanta. In tapestry, unlike cloth weaving, the weft threads are discontinuous (they do not travel from one selvedge to the other). This allows the weaver to construct images. The wefts, which for me include wool, linen, cotton and metallics, are packed down to completely hide the warp threads and form a weft-faced textile. This sounds fairly straightforward—it’s “just plain weave,” we say, but tapestry weavers know it can be incredibly complex, and slow, to weave images in yarn. It is an ancient form of weaving and one that I find endlessly challenging and exciting.
In each series in my show I was inspired by historical artworks with spiritual themes. I have long been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts, particularly Books of Hours, which were the devotionals of their day. These prayer books include calendars noting church holidays in red text—the origin of the phrase “red letter day.” I am captivated by the sheer beauty of these manuscripts—densely calligraphed text blocks are surrounded by wide clean margins or exquisitely patterned foliage and decoration. I also love that while the manuscripts contained sacred meanings to their readers, these meanings are mostly lost and mysterious to us today.
In my series called Book of Hours I tried to present contemporary versions of illuminated manuscripts, combining pattern, color, and the suggestion of text. Two large tapestries in the series are Red Letter Day and Red Letter Night. Four small pieces explore in abstract form the combination of text and pattern. WTF was my heartbroken response to the massacre in 2016 at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The other pieces were based on abstract collages in which I juxtaposed shapes, colors, and text-like patterns.
My other series was inspired by a sixth-century icon of the Virgin Mary. The unconventional beauty of the face in the icon and her mysterious gaze prompted me to explore what the image of Mary has meant, and still means, for women over the centuries. Much of contemporary art is about issues of identity, and this series is about identity for me, too. My given name is Mary. In this series about the figure of Mary I was interested in how impossibly high expectations for goodness, purity, beauty, and obedience—which Mary has symbolized—have influenced my own notions of what it means to be a woman and a mother. These ideas are encapsulated in my largest weaving so far, Mary (the anxiety of influence), which depicts Mary (blue), my mother (in black and white as depicted in her high school graduation portrait) and myself, in the lower left. In the final piece in the series, Mary (Yes), which I think of as a “millennial Mary,” I have tried to present a figure with depth, imagination, courage and power, a woman for our time.
You can keep up with my work on Instagram (@mollyelkind), Facebook (Molly Elkind Handwovens), by visiting my website (www.mollyelkind.com) and by subscribing to my newsletter via the contact form on the website. I live in Santa Fe, NM where I hike, make things and occasionally venture out to teach.