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Lenore Tawney: Spiritual Revolutionary

Lenore Tawney: Spiritual Revolutionary

Lenore Tawney: Spiritual Revolutionary

February/March 2008 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Fiber

Lenore Tawney, The King I, 1962
Photo/George Erml.

Lenore Tawney united the disciplines of weaving and sculpture in daring works that helped create the fiber art medium. Whether monumental or the size of a postcard, her art has always communicated at the deepest level with each new generation.

Lenore Tawney's life spanned a century of change: turbulence, wars, upheavals and unimaginable technological advances. She herself was a catalyst for an artistic revolution. Yet her presence was serene and spiritual as she fearlessly pursued a vision that emanated from a deep inner devotion to living and working wholly. Her vitality was grounded in an openness to new ideas and new people-the embrace of the human condition as a journey. A passage from a favorite book marked in her hand reads: "The spiritual path, the path of purification, of emancipation, of liberation, is a path where we change our inner nature." Purification, emancipation, liberation: these were the tenets not only of Tawney's life but of her artistic achievement, which continues to echo across the generations.

Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1907, Lenore Agnes Gallagher moved to Chicago in her 20s to work as a proofreader while attending evening classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her marriage to George Tawney, in 1941, left her a widow less than two years later. Between 1943 and 1945, at the Institute of Design, she was the student of such avant-garde artists as László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Archipenko, Emerson Woelffer and Marli Ehrman. Martta Taipale, a renowned Finnish weaver, also influenced her profoundly. In 1957, after travels overseas, she moved to New York, where she followed an artistic path that would challenge preconceived conventions.

Although the 1950s craft revival aided Tawney's fledgling career as a weaver, her daring constructions, the outcome of a singular vision, proved that art and craft need not be separate. Even her early works broke with tradition. In Bound Man, 1957, the tension between the downward pull of an abstracted figure on a sheer fragile background is palpable. The shimmering impressionistic surface of Jupiter, 1959, glows with saturated, yet subtle colors. From the beginning Tawney emphasized the individuality of each thread, either singly as a visible entity or grouped together thrust boldly through the confines of the selvedge. It was a first step in ignoring the restrictions of rectangularity prescribed by the loom. She manipulated her weavings into sculptural forms such as The King I and The Queen, 1962, a revolutionary concept at the time. All along her works were studies in contrasts: some as open and diaphanous as spider webs (_Lekythos,_ 1962), others as dense and solid as walls (the Shield series, begun in 1966 and completed in the late 1980s). The simple act of rotating her weavings yielded unexpected visual newness as fringes, braids, shells or beads cascaded sideways. Like other artists, she explored the motif of circle in the square and proved that abstraction, rather than being the sole domain of sculpture and painting, had an equally powerful ally in the medium of fiber, rendering it less static. In Red Sea, 1974, In Fields of Light, 1975 and Waters Above the Firmament, 1976, among others, she permitted light to penetrate between meticulously woven slits. The partial addition of manuscript paper added a quality of utter timelessness. The circle in the square remained an important aspect of her work as she continued to use it in line drawings, collages and assemblages such as Round and Square, 1966, or The Matrix, 1970.

Tawney's love of words, in particular her knowledge of poetry and mystical writings, was an integral part of her art. Her journals are reflections of her readings, her experiences, her travels, her visual encounters, and her life's quest of centering both the artist and the person. Many of her works incorporate handwritten and printed manuscripts in a variety of languages from the early Discours Historiques, 1966, and Epîtres, 1967, to That Other Sea, 1967, and Distilla, 1967. More often than not she employed strips of paper in a weaverly fashion. The collages and boxes of the 1970s and 1980s with their bones, feathers, eggs, notations and manuscript fragments are marvels of the human imagination emanating from the depths of the artist's consciousness. By transforming her deepest emotions into objects of beauty and contemplation, she touched the viewer's own core.

A collector, not a hoarder, Tawney surrounded herself with treasures she had startlingly transformed into art, including the written word. She quoted poets like Rilke or painters like Klee: "Then we have visionary experiences made visible." When she began her Collage Chest in 1974 and filled it with every imaginable object, it nevertheless seemed like a mere quotation compared to the art space she created as an integral part of her oeuvre: her loft. A Gesamtkunstwerk, it served as studio, gallery, meditation sanctuary and home. An invitation to visit was a gift, every time newly anticipated and richly rewarded. The familiar yet always revolutionary fiber works hung in free space. Carefully arranged river stones alluded to their origin as they transformed the white floor into a shimmering, watery surface that held not only her own sculptures and assemblages but those of other artists, especially the ceramic forms of her friend Toshiko Takaezu. To absorb and take in the juxtaposition and richness of so many disparate elements was as much a blissfully sensual experience as it was a mental feat. She would open cabinets and drawers filled with carefully arranged works of art, repositories of her boundless creativity, each deserving of a story. The extraordinariness of her spiritual and physical realm is as hard to describe as the serenity of the environment in which she reigned with quiet grace.

Yet she was anything but otherworldly. She drew inspiration as reverently from the ancient weavers of Peru as from the technology of the industrial jacquard loom. While the weaver in her appreciated the jacquard's ability to produce complex compound patterns, the artist was fascinated by the beauty of its intricate cord system. As a result, she began a series of India ink drawings which, in their intensity, hover above the graph paper with vibrating energy. Union of Water and Fire II, 1964, has this quality as it unites superimposed images of the ancient symbols of the feminine and the masculine. These drawings, on which she worked from the 1960s until well into the late 90s, evolved into dimensional assemblages of actual threads suspended inside Plexiglas or wooden boxes. Kathleen Nugent Mangan, Tawney's curator and longtime close friend, collected these works in Lenore Tawney: Drawings in Air (browngrotta monograph series), published in 2007, before the artist's death. Anyone who has walked beneath Tawney's Cloud series has experienced a magically transformed space. Thousands of threads, individually knotted and inserted into a linen background, cascade in bursts from the ceiling, environments that envelope the visitor as a participant in her creation. Her art, regardless of the medium, whether monumental or the size of a postcard-the latter a whole oeuvre unto itself documented by Holland Cotter in Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind-always communicates on the deepest level with each new generation.

This was apparent at an event held in Tawney's honor at Mills College in California on October 18, 2007. Ironically, its genesis was the exhibit "WACK!," at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., billed as "the first comprehensive exhibition to explore the formation, development and impact of feminism in postwar contemporary art, 1965-1980." Moira Roth, the Eugene E. Trefethen, Jr. Professor of Art History at Mills College, found the exhibit to be less than comprehensive and assigned her students to research some of the omitted artists. Since Lenore Tawney was among them, the class contacted the centenarian artist and entered into a correspondence that proved to be mutually rewarding. Planned as a celebration of her life and work, "Voices" turned out to be a memorial tribute.

Tawney would have been moved by the daylong multimedia activities. A number of distinguished guests joined Roth's History of Performance class, which elected to focus on music, poetry, feminist and spiritual readings, and the visual arts. The silent presence of a meditative knitter honored Tawney's devotion to threads. Tawney's piece Way, 1976, loaned by two California collectors, was held aloft as Act One began with the sharing of messages from the artist's friends. Act Two followed with readings exploring women's public proclamations against violence and social injustice. The Heller Rare Book Room became the setting for Act Three commemorating the female literary tradition. Pauline Oliveros's composition The Beauty of Sorrow accompanied the final Act of Remembrance, which took place at night by the pond. Messages in the form of letters, postcards and individually signed palm leaves were placed, along with candles, on a specially designed barge and set afloat on the dark water.

"Voices" at Mills College was only the latest manifestation of how Tawney's art and life, so closely related, continue to inspire. She never wavered in her conviction that art is born from a creative source within, a source that needs to be cherished and nourished. In 1989 she established the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation to support emerging artists in their own quest. Although she eschewed the overwrought art establishment with its coterie of spinmeisters and market speculators, her work resides in private collections and major museums around the world. Her art, uniquely hers, is not only beyond imitation but has stood the test of time. Her life's journey has been an inspiration to those who knew her. Lenore Tawney was truly free.