Ingrid: Dancer in Repose (2016)
40 x 26 inches
wool weft, seine twine warp
Barbara Burns is an American tapestry weaver based in Maine. Her work is varied in her use of colour and style yet is a cohesive collection as she focuses on figurative work, mainly of the female form.
What is your background in textiles?
Like many women of my age, I started early on with sewing, which I still pursue. When I was about twelve I began knitting and crocheting. I began shaft weaving in 1994. As for tapestry, aside from a bit in high school, I began weaving seriously in 2003. I have had the good fortune to have studied under the tutelage of Archie Brennan and Susan Marin-Maffei for eleven year, beginning in 2003. This was a rare opportunity to study with two people who excel at their craft, understand tapestry from both a historical and contemporary context, and have the skill to impart their knowledge.
Some others I have studied with include Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie, Marcel Marois, Joan Baxter, Susan Iverson and James Kohler to name a few. In 2005 I studied tapestry with Pat Taylor at West Dean College in England for an intensive six week program.
What is it about tapestry weaving that appeals to you?
Creating a tapestry has two distinct components: designing (art) and weaving (craft). Both are challenging in their own ways and fulfil different needs for me. The process of designing feeds my need to be creative. With weaving, I work within a specific set of limitations between the warp and the weft. Within the constraints of the medium there are a myriad of decisions, technical and artistic, to be made at every turn of the weft. This goes on for weeks or months, and once woven and built upon I must live with those decisions. The weaving can be meditative and challenging, requiring technical skills I have spent years developing. There is uncertainty in the wedding of the design with the craft of the weaving, which requires trust in my skills as an artist and a craftsman because I never really know if a piece is a success until it is complete.
How do you describe your work?
My work is generally figurative, with a focus on the female form. Most recently, I am exploring female sexuality and femininity from my perspective as a burlesque and belly dancer. Using images from burlesque, belly dancing and drag, I am creating a body of work: my ‘Burlesque Series’. This series is about women baring their bodies in dance and performance art. Using stage names to dramatise their alter ego, these performers create new personas as they expose themselves in a way not done in their everyday life.
My intention is to use tapestry to capture the performers’ risk-taking, while also challenging the objectification of women. My “Burlesque Series” is motivated by the personal choice of dancers and performer to bare our bodies not to please men, but to praise and empower ourselves. Most of the tapestries are from photos I’ve taken during dance performances I’ve been in with a few exceptions.
I also want to challenge the stereotype of tapestry being a quaint, ancient medium relegated to back rooms of a museum. My intention is to be though provoking and shake things up.
Tell us about your wonderful studio
In 2012 my husband Steve (who is a metal sculptor) and I decided to live in Maine full time after several years of summer visits. Ultimately, we decided to build a year round house with studio space for both of us.
My last studio was in a walk out basement with tiny windows and low ceilings. This new studio is the antithesis: lots of light, a vaulted ceiling and huge gable end windows. Its situated on the second floor, above an oversized one car garage. The focal point of the room is my sixteen foot long yarn cabinet made with a set of six large, old, wood framed glass doors I found. I designed the cabinet using those doors which slide on tracks so I can easily access my stash, which is prodigious.
There is a corner with my sewing machines set up and ready to use with everything I need at hand. I have a large collection of books for reference and inspiration. In another corner is a built in desk/office area where I design and write with lots of storage. There is a small room for dyeing yarns. I even have a modest gallery at the bottom of a spiral staircase where my tapestries and Steve’s sculptures are displayed.
I crave order and I finally have it in my new studio: there is a place for everything!
What type of loom do you use and why ?
I use pipe looms ala Archie Brennan as I like their simplicity and flexibility. Small ones are made of copper pipe and the larger looms are made with black pipe used for gas lines. I rebuild the black pipe loom to the size of the tapestry to be woven. I have tried weaving on a horizontal loom and I find it more comfortable working vertically. The looms aren’t pretty, but they work well. I use leashes for changing sheds.
How do you work?
My starting point can either be driven by specific images of a concept. When I begin with a concept I have to create an image to express it, such as with my tapestry ‘Homage to Anne Frank’. I sketched lots of different ideas until I found the one I felt worked the best.
Frequently, I begin with a photograph: ‘Ingrid: Dancer in Repose,’ is a good example. That tapestry is based on one of dozens of photos I too back stage, during a dance performance. Back in my studio I chose a few I liked, then reworked them in Photoshop, adjusting colour, line quality etc. I enlarged the best and taped them to a wall so I could live with them for a time, until I decided what to weave. Other times, I know exactly what I want to choose and just go for it. That happened with ‘Pas de Deux,’ I knew that was the image I wanted to work with, then I spend hours adjusting the images both with Photoshop and sketching. Sometimes I work directly from sketches and I’ve also done a few tapestries based on a collage of multiple images such as ‘Temptation’, ‘Revolution’, and ‘Sophie’.
Once I have the images I need to determine the size. I use an opaque projector to project the image on a wall moving it back and forth until I see the size I want. At this point I’m also considering the sett, or coarseness of the weave. From there, using a program called Split Print, I print the images and tape off the pieces of paper together to create my cartoon.
Choosing the yarns is the final decision and the most fun. I always weave samples. I can’t tell how the colours and values of the yarns look until they are woven. I also sample different techniques, setts and weft bundle size. This has saved me many a mistake and is well worth the time, effort and materials.
How many hours do you weave?
It depends on my schedule and the tapestry. I have been know to work 8-10 hour days for days on end. Right now the tapestry I’m working on is very fine sett for me at 12 ends per inch (epi). I get tired of it quickly so I can only work for a few hours at a time. When I’m working at 6, 8 or 10 epi I can go for hours.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud of how far I have come with tapestry in general. I began in 2003 knowing nothing about tapestry weaving. Now fourteen years later, my work has won awards nationally and internationally including in Serbia and England. It has been exhibited on three continents and been in books. I teach, and lecture about tapestry. I have published articles, I even have a blog about marketing and promoting tapestry. I’m amazed and pleased at what I’ve accomplished.
Do you feel tapestry weaving is growing in popularity or sadly fading away?
From what I can see tapestry weaving is growing in popularity, albeit slowly. The American Tapestry Alliance has over 700 members and growing. There are quite a few tapestry teachers I know of, some of whom support themselves by teaching and weaving.
What advice can you give to aspiring textile artists?
If you want to be serious, master the techniques of your medium. A skilfully executed work will not detract from your image and when you have control of your medium you can better execute your designs. I would also recommend finding a good teacher, or many. Study with lots of people and learn different techniques as well as the usual components of good design. As you develop your skills, your own style will emerge.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Aside from handwork I have a serious interest in historic costume and textiles. I volunteered at a local historical society / museum for about ten years. During that time I took a graduate level course on costume and textile conservation at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I became the head of the costume and textile department at the museum.
I have been working to express my interest and experience with historic costume and textiles in my tapestry designing. The piece I currently have on the loom is a corset that is meant to be wearable, as well as sculptural. I’m planning a series of these ‘corset’ tapestries. They speak to how, over the centuries, women have altered their bodies in the name of beauty, and we still do. Another subject I am fascinated with. But that’s a story for another time.
Burns Studio Barbara Burns