The Power of Play – Take 2

After the previous post went out, it occurred to me that I didn’t exactly get around to writing about how creative play has a subtle power to change, move, ignite and inspire us to more creativity. I became enamored with my new word SWOODLE, and well, that was that. I kept on swoodling in my sketchbook (swishing paint and doodling with pens, markers, and pencils) through last week, and lo and behold… I began to weave a little tapestry.

That last statement might not mean much to you. Might seem a bit like “duh”…of course you would Jen! But here’s the beauty (and power) of it all – I had been, prior to playing in my sketchbook, in a creative slough. Now there’s a word for you: slough. Pronounced sloo.

The word slough has two listed meanings. 1. Swamp. 2. A situation characterized by lack of progress or inactivity. Both are apt to describe how I was feeling as an artist in the “middle” of her life. I cannot say that playing in my sketchbook has completely pulled me out of this swampy bog and set me on a sparkling new path. But I can say that swoodling in the swamp sparks something within me akin to embers glowing and cool spring breezes. The very unstructured, unabashed, free of restraints, trying-new-things playfulness shifted something in my brain, enabling it to open to so many ideas for small tapestries. The even greater benefit of it is less in the plethora of ideas (which I often seem to have aplenty, bordering on too many!) but rather in a “why not” attitude heavily doused with “let’s just see what happens if…”

Here’s a little secret…shhh…I might chicken out before I type it here for you…there’s a little voice inside my head that says I’d really like to be a tapestry weaver. <gasp> When I watch videos about the Australian Tapestry Workshop or the French Tapestry tradition or Dovecot studios in Scotland…I begin to slobber. Oh wait, let me say rather…I start to swoon. There it is again…Swoodle, Swamp, and Swoon. If you find yourself in a Swamp, Swoodle for a while and soon you will Swoon into action! Ha! OK…I’m digressing again!

What I want to leave you with is the idea that creative play, the kind that makes you feel all giddy inside, or feel like you want to skip down the sidewalk or draw with chalk in the driveway…it will do something in you. It can unlock what has been stowed away for a while, namely a child-like sense of wonder. I want to maintain that wonder as I weave tapestries…to keep weaving images that my inner serious-minded-artist says are juvenile and childish. I want to weave with all kinds of fibers instead of restricting myself to only one type of yarn. I want to weave lots of luscious colors instead of forcing myself to use “grown-up” colors, whatever that means. I want to weave colorful shapes and not feel pressure to always have form and shadow. I want to just place colors in between warp threads and watch a picture grow. Like a garden. Perhaps that is actually what I want to be when I grow up…a Yarn Gardener. Spinning wool into yarn and Weaving yarn into pictures. Maybe at my age it isn’t too late! Maybe, just maybe I could do that.

I think I already am. 😃 At least I’m at the beginning of that journey. I lose my way sometimes. Life has a way of weighing in and swamping me. My sketchbook is a life raft…a place to hang onto and swoodle whatever I want with no rules, no pressure, no drama or trauma. Just play. It’s powerful.

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Hey! Did I also mention that one of the first things I did in between sketching sessions, was to pick up a spindle and start spinning bright colorful wool? Yep. Toys are so fun…twiddling a whirly-gig that makes wool become yarn is just way too fun! One thing leads to another and to another. Keeping it fun and free!

Growth

A tapestry grows much like a plant does, or a tree…from the bottom up. There may be rare times when a weaver might work a few passes of wool up higher on the warp. But most of the time we work from a foundation of warp-spacing weft and the building of over-under color, tamped down tightly, to create a strong fabric for the image to evolve. Sometimes the image a weaver creates is sideways, but they nevertheless weave from the bottom of their loom to the top. Different from painting, tapestry is the creation of the canvas and the painting at the same time. Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.

The first time I heard the word Ekphrastic, it was in relation to poetry written based on visual artwork. For this piece I was asked to create a visual work based on a poem. I relished the opportunity to imagine how words someone else had written might translate to a pictoral language. Familiar with the biblical story of the Root of Jesse and the new life growing from a cut-down family tree, I wanted to see if I could weave this image in wools, both my own handspun and mill spun.

What grabbed my heart in reading Randy Edwards’ poem, which is based on the Antiphon titled “O Radix”, was the idea that this new branch from Jesse’s tree grew into a cross. Of course this is far more subtly related in his poem, but I wanted to depict the idea of a new dawn, new growth, foreshadowing what is to come…a promise fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection. Advent holds all of these things in beautiful tension even as we await celebrating a babe born in a manger.

I used to love working with soft pastels to create images on paper. Unlike all other “paint” mediums, I could manipulate color and create images directly touching the medium, spreading color around, smooshing pigment into the slightly toothed surface. No need for a paintbrush or pen. Just me and the stick of pigment.

Tapestry has that same incredible feel of direct tactile enjoyment, but without the messiness and dust of soft pastels. I get to enjoy spinning the yarn, choosing the colors, and then building the image, one pick at a time, over and under the vertical warp. I may use a plastic hair pick to tamp down the weft, but most of the time I just use my fingers to do this. Tactile work at its finest!

I am only in the beginning years of learning to weave tapestry. I am learning so very much and relishing the process. There has certainly been growth thus far, but there is more ahead as I weave one yarn at a time. What once was created in paint or pastels, I now love attempting to create in yarn. It is a medium which, in and of itself, is one of the most enchanting and delightful substances around.

”O Radix”. Jennifer Edwards. 2020.

To end this slightly rambling post, I have taken heart in the image of a grand tree which has been cut down bringing forth new life and growth. I’m holding to this idea as 2020 has dealt us some pretty hefty axe blows and 2021 is slated to bring us a glimmer of hope . I must remember that growth , just like tapestry weaving, is very slow. The promised new branch, meant to save us from this devastating virus, will take a long time to bring about its desired effect. We must hold onto hope as we exercise patience in our waiting. That’s how growth happens…one pick of over-under color at a time.

Close-up detail.

Here is Randy Edwards’ poem on which I based the tapestry. This is taken from a post in 2016, when he first wrote the poem. You might enjoy following his blog as he is creating short videos of the art exhibit which includes artwork from several artists and voice readings of the poetry by Ed Pilkington. You can find the first of these posts here.

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O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.”

Isaiah 11:1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a
Branch will bear fruit.

There is nothing so hopeless as a tree’s
Stump whose root has been lopped of green
Cut down, left lifeless, without its leaves
To lie in lament, to sorrow only cling.

O Root of Jesse, the stump from which
Buds our righteousness, joy, and peace
Who makes the scorned, the cut off rich,
Who were despised, hated, counted least.

O how may hope from this lifeless wood,
This cursed, crossed tree raised above,
Hanging with death, certainly no good,
Could spring in new life, sing wondrous love.
Come quickly Root of Jesse, deliver and bring
The peace which the nations long and sing.

© Randy Edwards 2016This sonnet is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thanks.

Woven Grace

Every community of faith contains a wide variety of human beings. If we were to speak of them as clothing, we would see that some are a little frayed around the edges, some are trimmed neat and tidy. Some are colorful, perhaps even loud. Others are soft-toned and muted. Some exhibit dark broody vibes, while others seem light and airy. Indeed each person exudes all of these things in the course of a day. But for our purposes here, each one has a particular fabric…sparkly or dull, multi-hued or monotone, all are a significant part of a faith family.

I had no idea back in March, when I first asked folks in our congregation to donate clothing for an art project, what kinds of things I would receive. There was no way to predict colors or textures. I did ask for items other than clothing such as belts, ribbons, shoelaces…anything weavable. There was no way to plan for a particular image or result in the woven tapestry. Even as I embarked on making the clothing into fabric yarn, I couldn’t envision the final result. This actually is my favorite way to create—-allowing the piece to evolve in the process, listening to the materials as I go.

The Saori philosophy of weaving fits this approach beautifully. To weave with joy, without prior design or plan, letting the materials work together on their own was my original intention. And even though now the resulting triptych of woven panels has an overall design, it still retains this approach of freely woven fabrics and “treasures”.

The concept was to create a piece of artwork that exemplifies the weaving together of our lives as a community of individuals united by a common faith. It requires loads of grace to be a loving community. This grace can’t be generated on our own…we need God’s grace to continue to walk with one another, serving and worshiping in and through our daily lives. Grace is what brought us together. And it is Grace that leads us home.

Almost immediately, as I began to deconstruct the clothing into strips of fabric yarn, I was startled by the message inherent in this work. It began to take on a life of its own, a meaning far beyond what I originally envisioned (more on this in upcoming blog posts.) But this is the beauty of art and art-making. The artist is only a vehicle for what needs to be said or shared or displayed. The process of making these panels was not easy. Yet I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have been enriched by the creation of this work. It is as much a gift to me as it is hoped to be for our Grace family.

The panels now reside in the foyer of Grace Presbyterian Church. Though this photo does not show the color well, the colors of the tapestries really shine on the interior green wall. I wanted this work to be woven during Ordinary Time (reference to the church calendar), exhibiting how our ordinary lives are woven together in the ordinary days we spend as a church family. The fact that it was woven during the most UN-ordinary time of our recent history, makes this all the more poignant. Who of us can predict the outcome of this pandemic? I certainly could not have predicted at the outset how these weavings would turn out. It gives me great hope to realize that as we continue to weave our days together in the grace and mercy of Christ, something beautiful is being wrought.

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This is the first of three posts on the making of this woven project. I appreciate your gentle reading of its unfolding, and I pray you are enheartened by it.