In The Nature of Things, tapestry weaver Tommye McClure Scanlin reflects on her artistic journey and how crafting and life are interwoven. Scanlin’s tapestry explores the natural fields and woods of southern Appalachia, where her family has lived for several generations. Her memoir explores her inspiration, process, and life.
[Ariana Adams] What is tapestry weaving? How is it different than other weaving?
[Tommye McClure Scanlin] Tapestry weaving is done on threads that are called warp, which are usually wider apart than fabric weaving which is flexible, like a kitchen towel. Tapestry weaving usually has an image of some sort, and you take the weft (the thread woven into the warp on the loom) only as far as the design goes and then another color picks up. With other weaving,
With a floor looms are threaded, the warp threads are threaded and when I step on a foot treadle, it lifts up the wefts I want and then a shuttle would go from edge to edge and then get packed in place. That happens over and over again, and a lot of the patterning in regular weaving comes from how the threads are set up on the loom itself.
In tapestry weaving, the design comes from how the weft threads are used back and forth. The threads are only going in specific areas, not edge to edge. Tapestry and fabric are both kinds of weaving, but one creates images more readily, the other creates repeated pattern more readily.
[AA] How is tapestry compared to other hand crafts like embroidery or crochet?
[TMS] With embroidery, you have a cloth or preexisting fabric that you begin with, and you add the threads in wherever you want them. If I wanted a red circle in the top, I could stitch it in. With tapestry, you’re building the fabric at the same time that you make the image. If I wanted a red circle, I would have to weave up and build to that. You’re making the fabric as you weave the design.
With crochet, you have two things: the thread and the hook. With weaving, you’ve got to have three things: a loom, a warp, and a weft. It’s not any more creative or flexible, but weaving is one-more-step complex because you have three factors instead of two. And crochet and knitting are much more portable than even a small tapestry loom.
[AA] You clearly have passion for tapestry and weaving. What, as a whole, inspired you to write a book about tapestry?
[TMS] In 2017, I was doing a presentation about my work for a group in Asheville, North Carolina. As a teacher, especially a visual arts teacher, you’re frequently asked to do presentations about your work. But this was the first time I had written down what I was about to say. I usually speak off the cuff when showing a PowerPoint because I know what went into making the images I’m presenting. I felt like I needed to be concise and I wrote out my script.
After I did it, I realized I had some ideas that were gelling around the theme of nature. I should have realized this, as I’d been weaving nature and natural forms for many years. In doing that talk, I started thinking about it as a visual memoir, a way to acknowledge what I’d been doing and clarify my thoughts a little bit. I’ve been doing blogs for a long time, so I have been writing about the ideas, but that was the first time I started thinking about a book.
Memoirs are my favorite thing to read. I like memoirs written about and by regular people. I like biographies about famous people, where others have analyzed their lives, but the idea of a memoir by a person who lives their life in a common way intrigued me. I told my husband “I’ve lived an unremarkable life,” and yet I feel that I’ve accomplished something with my tapestry. I wanted to write about the work itself and how I got to the work.
I’m a pretty introverted person, yet when I teach it’s like a performance art in some way. You’ve got to be up and on and attentive. I tried to bring that sort of energy together when writing the book, with the help of many people.
You have to get out of yourself and ignore your feeling of discomfort. You can’t consider what others think of your writing because then the blank stare comes on.
[AA] It’s a challenge to the comfort zone. It forces us to get out of our heads, figuring out how to distill thoughts down to bite-sized pieces that people can digest. And that’s hard when writing a book, when you have so many thoughts.
[TMS] It was an interesting process as well, to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I can’t tell you how many drafts I did, and sometimes it was only minor changes, but I felt like I needed to review the whole section over again. One of the nice things about using word processing is that you can cut and paste if something makes more sense elsewhere. The idea is the same but it comes across differently with how it’s placed.
When I used to write term papers, back in the days, I would literally cut and paste, and I know a lot of people did. Get the scissors out and the tape and shift and adjust things all around. I’m glad I didn’t have to write the book that way. I’d still be cutting and pasting.
[AA] Agreed. That’d be a very big project. You didn’t have an art teacher before college. How did you know that you were interested in art at an early age without that foundation?
[TMS] As far back as I can remember, I’ve always liked to draw pictures. Even though we didn’t have an art teacher, we’d still make drawing, usually copy drawings or filling in pre-printed outlines for holiday decorations. I was one of those schoolgirls who never had a horse but who loved horses. I collected China figurines and read all the Black Stallion books. I had a notebook filled with cut out pictures of horses from magazines. And I had a lined-paper notebook full of horse drawings.
I sometimes drew dress designs. When I got older, I began to draw portraits of my friends in rudimentary ways. So I’ve always loved to draw, and there were a couple of us in the class that were drawing a lot. My mother was quite a gifted artist who did pastel drawings in her late teens and early twenties, but she never had formal training either. She would encourage my drawing efforts.
I felt like art was something I could do, and I wanted to study it in college. I went to school with financial aid and an educational scholarship, where I worked towards an art education degree.
[AA] If you could go back, would you change your path and do a studio art degree, or would you still choose the education track?
[TMS] I would have chosen studio art, and I probably wouldn’t realize what I would have missed, being forced into teaching. I enjoy teaching. I like to share what I learn about, and sharing knowledge and ideas is the essence of teaching.
If I had gone into studio art, it would have taken me on a completely unknown path. I don’t have the innate gifts of famous artists, so I wouldn’t have been a Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe. I would’ve been a run of the mill art person, making a living in whatever way I could have. Maybe becoming a graphic designer. But I was lucky, accidentally, to have teaching as my option. I discovered it was a good path for me, combining art making and teaching.
[AA] For humanities students, it’s common to be asked “Do you plant to teach?” The answer can so often positively be yes, but when it’s not, people wonder what else there is to do. But it’s important to have people so passionate about their art and skill and be willing to share that with their students.
[TMS] I think everybody has a creative inner core. It can be celebrated in lots of ways. Through crochet, needlepoint, learning to make ceramics, cooking. There is a joy you get from the creation process. It doesn’t have to be world changing so long as it fills your spirit and soul in the making and sharing of it. Some people use them as hobbies, some use it as their livelihood. It’s a special thing, that humans can create and invent and celebrate putting stuff together and enjoying the result.
[AA] What tapestry weavers do you look up to and admire?
[TMS] I wrote about Archie Brennan, who died almost a year ago, and he and his partner, Susan Martin Maffei, were my strongest tapestry teachers. I’ve had many tapestry teachers, but Archie is who I look up to the most.
There’s a contemporary artist who’s making a lot of impact in the tapestry world right now, Rebecca Mezzoff, who has just written a technique book, The Art of Tapestry Weaving. She’s reaching the grassroots of tapestry, people who want to learn about tapestry but who aren’t doing it professionally.
[AA] What drew you to Archie’s work?
[TMS] I was fortunate to take several workshops with him, so I saw his approach to teaching and techniques. Archie was a Scottish tapestry artist who had influence over the world. He was a pop artist who did images that were inspired by the contemporary life around him, like Andy Warhol and other pop artists from the 1960s and 70s. He took a grand idea of tapestry as art that decorated castles and made it down to earth and silly. He would stitch tapestries to cardboard and send them through the mail like postcards. He took this precious thing and turned it into a commodity and liked to see what happened. He pushed the envelope of what tapestry could be and how one could make work in such a time-consuming process. It was a dichotomy of feeling and approach that attracted me to his art. There’s going to be a retrospective of his work in Edinburgh, March 2021 at Dovecot Studios.
[AA] How did you find out about the artist residencies you’ve attended?
[TMS] I’ve known about them for many years because they’re within 60 miles of me. I learned about the Hambidge Center from Bob Owens, my colleague from North Georgia College. The Lillian E. Smith Center is a newer residency program. I found it through an artist friend who attended a symposium there.
Almost all of the U.S. National Parks have artist residency programs. There’s also an artist residency directory that lists residencies around the world. Sometimes there is a requirement for residencies, such as create a piece and leave it there. Other times, you’re free to do what you want.
The Hambidge Center and the Lillian E. Smith Center are both creative art residencies in wooded areas. Hambidge provides you a general studio space and you bring your materials. There’s no Wi-Fi or cell service. The only requirement is to attend the evening meal with the other residents. The Lillian E. Smith Center has three cottage studio spaces. It’s a completely private time.
[AA] How do you balance daily responsibilities with being a working artist?
[TMS] It’s easier since I retired from full-time teaching because I create my own schedule. My husband and I chose not to have children, so we didn’t have the duty to get kids to school and things like that. We’ve both been pretty independent in what we choose to do. He just retired from his small business. I go to my studio, he goes about his business, and we just do our daily routine.
When I was teaching full time, or when I teach workshops, all my energy goes to that. I also plan workshops several weeks in advance. When I taught full-time, my art making happened mostly on the weekends or holiday breaks.
People would ask what I’d do in my retirement, and I’d answer that I’d be a working artist, like I’d wanted since I was 18. It’s a pleasure to be in the studio when I want to be.
[AA] How do you set up your studio and manage the time needed for projects?
[TMS] When I was teaching full-time, I made a lot of lists. Now, I keep those lists in my head. I don’t have specific things I’m doing in the studio. Usually, there is work that needs finishing. I have to stitch the ends back or need to get a piece ready to hang. If an exhibit is coming up, I know I have so many pieces I need to finish. Then I need to make inventory lists and revise my artist’s statement.
I know when my best weaving work time is. It’s usually mid to late afternoon. Anything with the computer is done in the morning and then I start the art process in the afternoon. I usually don’t work in the studio after seven.
[AA] What is your favorite book?
[TMS] TheLord of the Rings trilogy. I reread them every three or four years. It first began when I read The Hobbit, but once I read the trilogy, they became my favorite.
Another favorite is A Confederacy of Dunces.
[AA] If stranded on a deserted island, what three items would you bring with you?
[TMS] I would bring sturdy scissors so I can cut up plants to weave with. Matches that never ran out, to start a fire. And something to keep the sun off me. Maybe an umbrella or a tent.
[AA] If you could only weave one theme for the rest of your life, what would it be?
[TMS] Nature. What I’m weaving already. Whether I’m doing it in a pictorial or abstract way, my desire is to look at the world around me. Not the natural world of human and animals, necessarily, but plants. It’s so interesting to me how the leaves of an oak tree are so similar and so different. I would probably select oak trees for the rest of my tapestry making career and be happy about the variation of ways I could express the leaves. The natural world of the southern Appalachians is what I’m working with, have worked with, and will be working with for a long time.
If I lived in an urban setting—or in the desert or by the sea—my choice of subject matter would be much different. I like to look at what I see. That’s what attracts my eye, which gets me thinking about how I could show it visually.
I think you’re best-off working with the kinds of images that inspire you. And, for me, that’s nature.
The Nature of Things can be requested at your local independent bookstore or purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million! Combine it with The Nature of Things 2021 Planner (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) for the perfect gift idea.