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Hannah Ryggen …

April 13, 2019

People sometimes ask me why I ‘became’ interested in Textile Art,  The truth is I was a textile artist before I became a printmaker.  I was always drawing as a child and loved dressing cardboard dolls in the latest fashion then as teenager I made clothes, amended hand me downs and could knit well; but this was from necessity and not considered art!

So, already an artist, within print in most forms from letter press to collagraph and monoprint and ceramics,  I attended a presentation of the work of Hannah Ryggen the Swedish/Norwegian artist early this year.  An occasion that was going to allow me to take a turn in my artistic journey, to read a book about a little-known textile artist called John Craske, discover more about Grayson Perry and begin to practice tapestry weaving.

I am glad I opted for a guided tour of the exhibition to learn about her life, chronologically. Woven with the occupation of her homeland during the 2nd world war, the imprisonment of her husband, the upbringing of her only child, the running of her home and farm with her tapestry weaving.

In an isolated environment Hannah’s husband built her a loom at a time when weaving was seen as decorative.  She on the other hand was to use her loom as painter; graphic, thought provoking and informative.  The fleece was shorn from her specially bred sheep, carded by her husband she was taught to hand spin by local women and dyed using plants and lichens on an industry scale. She also spun her own linen

In a country occupied by cruel fascist enemy supplies for the farm and home were scarce and harshly rationed.

The resulting tapestries woven using art-history devises to characterised pictures reflecting the social struggles against war and fascism were vast and dramatic almost cinematic.

How could I replicate this in to my work practices? While Europe is not stable and there are lots of social inequalities I can hardly make serious comparisons.  When I was able to look at the exhibition alone I enjoyed the vignettes at eye level, such as that in her kitchen (we and our animals 1934), while she was not a vegetarian she cared deeply for creatures and you could see her pain when having to slaughter a goose to cook.  While I live in a peaceful country and unable to draw on her subject matter her perseverance and resourcefulness is enviable. The smells and fragrances that must have filled her kitchen while dyeing, a little less pleasant the ‘piss bucket’ that stood by the door seemed to lure me to giving tapestry a try, not great wall hangings or huge heartfelt social comments; but see what happens when I challenge long standing ideals that are being thwarted, socially or in my personal life as an artist and/or craftswoman?

So how does the art of tapestry weaving compare with relief printing?  First there are lots of rules lots, tools, some robust some fine and delicate, there are fragrances (ink has a distinct smell) texture, fabric, paper is fabric, lots of colour; we make marks that tell a story.  There is a right and wrong way to learn and then unlearn with some wild confidence.

One story that warmed me, while I don’t play a musical instrument I listen to music throughout the day and forms part of my creative practice.  She, I understand played the harp with her hardship and oppressive occupation she enjoyed music. A harp made from a first loom that became too small for use.  She is truly a woman I would love to have met.


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