All the days of my life (2010)
60 x 180 cms
Wool, silk and linen tapestry on cotton warp
Australian Diana Wood Conroy has had a long and varied career combining her love of history with tapestry weaving. Her art embraces a sense of history, either from classicism or the repetition and pattern of Aboriginal Art leaving you to question what is behind each image. Her subtle use of tone and colour adds to the gravitas of her beautiful weaving that has been exhibited in numerous galleries.
What is your background in textiles?
I was born and grew up in Sydney at a time when women sewed, embroidered and knitted as a vital part of everyday life. Rather than domestic textiles it was the allure of the art of tapestry with its range of narratives and rich imagery that entranced me as a young woman.
While working in the British Museum, where I was an Illustrator, I discovered Coptic tapestries and learnt the art of tapestry in 1969 from Ruth Hurle in the Stanhope Institute in London. Instantly I loved the architectural process of building wefts into the warp sequentially. Returning to Australia in the 1970s I made tapestries for new Sydney buildings and became part of the resurgence of crafts. In 1972 the Crafts Council of NSW was formed and brought out weavers from all over the world to hold workshops and teach. At that stage there was no institute that taught tapestry or weaving in Australia, except for the Spinners and Weavers Guilds. By the mid 1980s art schools began to be part of universities. In 1989 I was invited to be artist-in-residence at the University of Wollongong’s department of Textiles, run by Liz Jeneid. I was invited to apply to do the innovative degree of Doctor of Creative Arts where art practice was understood as research, with its own rigorous paradigms. I am still exhibiting with Liz Jeneid, and still associated with the University of Wollongong. The Creative Arts and Textiles there, with Sue Rowley, became a platform for national and international forums, conferences and curatorship.
History seems to play a big part in your weaving. What are your themes?
My first degree was in Arts at the University of Sydney with Honours in Classical Archaeology, and studies in anthropology, ancient history and ancient Greek. From a very early time I’ve tried to juxtapose and imagine how classicism, Aboriginality and the Australian landscape might fit together. After graduating I worked in Greece on sites in Lefkandi, Euboea, in Zagora in Andros and in Knossos in Crete and the knowledge of those inhabited ancient landscapes, their topography, strata and embedded objects informed my approach when I returned to Australia. My doctorate was called An archaeology of tapestry: Contexts, signs and histories of contemporary practice (1996). Another pervasive theme is the approach of Aboriginal people to art making, always in relation to country. In 1974 at Tiwi Design in Bathurst Island, Northern Territory I was co-ordinator for a silk-screen workshop. I am still friendly with the main artist of that workshop Bede Tungutalum. (In fact Bede Tungutalum, his friend Maren Rusia and I travelled to the UK in October 2015 to celebrate his work in The Power of Paper at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University.) The Aboriginal concern with repetition and pattern from the natural world relates to many aspects of ancient Mediterranean art in mosaic and fresco. Since 1995 I have worked for a season most years with the University of Sydney Paphos Theatre Excavation in Cyprus (see my book The Fabric of the Ancient Theatre: Excavation diaries from Cyprus, Moufflon Publishing, Nicosia, Cyprus 2007).
How do you describe your work?
Drawing informs my work, as the tool of thinking, and I draw everyday in ink, pencil, watercolour or pastel. I started to combine drawing and tapestry in the mid 1990s. The tapestry is made on a frame loom or a two-shaft vertical loom, with a linen or cotton warp and a weft mostly composed of wool, silk or cotton. I spin silk, wool and alpaca because the construction of thread is endlessly absorbing, and informs the final outcome of the piece.
Do you have a preferred colour palette and if so why?
Over my long trajectory of making tapestries I have woven in every palette from brilliant contrasting hues to tonal compositions. A constant theme is moving in a tonal graduation from dark to light. At present I seem to be working in a muted palette of light pinks, blues, greys and browns with natural whites and linens. The turns of life are reflected in colour choices.
How long did ‘What must I do now’ take to weave?
It took about 450 hours, as well as planning preparation and finishing.
How do you design a piece?
I keep sketchbooks, journals and a studio journal to track ideas. Many preliminary drawings and woven samples are part of this, and I usually do a gouache study to scale of the tapestry idea. It inevitably changes as the idea is translated into weaving.
What or who inspires you?
I’m inspired by a range of artists and approaches and often by anonymous artefacts such as Coptic tapestries or objects in a museum. As a girl I went to Southampton Art School in the UK and loved the modern English artists such as Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Ben and Winifred Nicholson and David Jones. Then I lived in Italy, working at the Museo Archeologico in Florence for two years and became absorbed in trecento and quattrocento pattern, textiles, architecture and painting. Moving back to Australia I looked particularly at the women modernists such as Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston, and discovered the abstract force of Aboriginal art at a time when it was very hidden. I’m inspired too by the community of Australian artists in textile and tapestry that I’ve exhibited with over many years: Liz Jeneid, Kay Lawrence, Sara Lindsay and Valerie Kirk and internationally, Narelle Jubelin and Sue Lawty.
You’ve had a long career, how has textile art and tapestry weaving in particular evolved over that time?
Textile art and tapestry have both evolved in Australia since the 1970s through many social changes, not least the growth of equal opportunity for women and the inclusion of Indigenous textile arts in contemporary movements. (I have said before that as a university student in the 1960s I might be expected to marry a professor but not to be one myself!). Another big impetus has been, first the formation of the Australia Council for the Arts around 1972 and then secondly, the emergence of art disciplines in the universities in the mid 1980s (including textiles, sculpture, printmaking, painting). For example, the Creative Arts School at the University of Wollongong began in 1984.
Now textile art and tapestry is part of a diverse visual arts field rather than entirely separate. The intricate development of computer technologies, underpinned by the mathematical processes of loom weaving, is launching new possibilities in artificial fibres and nano-technology. Although tapestry is no longer the main focus for architects commissioning pieces for interior spaces as it was in twentieth century the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne remains a vital force, even if individual tapestry weavers find it difficult to survive solely by weaving. For example, in the Workshop’s Kate Derum Award very tiny tapestries explore the spectrum of possibilities in weaving. New ideas permeate textiles quickly: moving from the “medium is the message” in the 1970s through to ideas of the postcolonial and the body in 1990s, to fantasy, recycling and environmental concerns in the 2000s.
Are you still teaching? If so how do you fit weaving around your other commitments?
I am still supervising a few doctoral students and occasionally being an examiner for others. Although tapestry has formed me as a teacher and a scholar I don’t weave all the time. Both teaching and writing have been enormously important and I’m still working on publications about Aboriginal art, archaeological textiles and frescoes. But I need to have weaving ongoing: without a tapestry happening I feel ungrounded in the pattern of everyday life.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to be professional textile artists?
It’s hard to live by tapestry but may be possible if you diversify your skills to include design, teaching and photography. There are many other combinations of skills in today’s start-up world. I survived by being versatile and being able to teach across design, textiles and art history. It’s difficult to compete with industrial processes so it’s necessary to find a niche. At one stage I enjoyed making designs for longstitch embroidery that helped support us when my children were small. I also started a rug weaving workshop with simple designs using beautiful colours and handspun wool. In the end the rugs could not compete in price with cheaper Indian imports. One off commissions and high-level gallery exhibitions are marvellous, but even if you sell everything the funds can be erratic. So I have found teaching to be an engaging and stimulating way of being able to continue to make tapestries.
Would you like to add anything?
What has been consistent for me is the wonder and joy in making, and transmitting those processes to others. The vast richness of the textile world is absorbing. Do what you love, intelligently, and foster the friendships associated with the collaborative field of textiles.