Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

A Visit with Kari Guddal

Copenhagen based artist Kari Guddal is one of my all-time favorite tapestry weavers. I was first introduced to her work at the American Tapestry Biennial 4 in 2002. I was a newbie weaver at the time, just a dreamer really, and Kari’s tapestry diptych To Toner (Two Notes) absolutely blew my mind. Photographs do not begin to do justice to her work. The subtle details within the dense color fields are akin to a woven Rothko painting. The memory of that tapestry has stayed with me for over twenty years. I could not go to Copenhagen without attempting to meet her.  (Fair warning: you are about to read a gushy fangirl post.)

Kari Guddal, “To Toner,” 2000, 195 cm x 110 cm

A little background: Kari was born in Oslo, Norway in 1952. However, most of her life she has lived in Denmark.  From 1979 to 1982 she studied tapestry with Margrethe Agger, Trine Ellitsgaard, and Torill Ruud Galsøe.  She subsequently spent two years weaving in Peru. Margrethe Agger has participated in several American Tapestry Biennials, so you may be familiar with her colorful pictorial style.  Ellitsgaard and Ruud Galsøe both work in a geometric style.  Thus, Kari Guddal’s mature work is very different from her original tutors.

Kari’s atelier is in a building with other artists’ studios. She shares her space with two other artists.  Kari’s quadrant housed a large Leclerc tapestry loom, a huge desk, boxes and boxes of stored materials on high shelves, and two cupboards full of dyed yarn. On the wall was a tapestry she had very recently finished – the waste warp was still hanging on the loom.  

A view of Kari Guddal’s studio in Copenhagen

Kari’s weaving style is very painterly. Her process begins with a small abstract painting done in acrylic. She does most of her painting during residencies that she regularly applies for. The maquette for this tapestry was painted at a residency in Italy.  It is just a sketch and not a finished work on its own.

Sketch for “My Heart’s Blood.”

Kari dyes all her fibers. The depth and subtle variation of color she achieves is the hallmark of her work. Her tidy dye notebooks indicate that she has developed recipes for well over 350 different hues. She works primarily with Norwegian spelsau wool.  She does her dying at an institution called the Danish Art Workshops, a fantastic resource where artists can work on projects that require extra space or specialized equipment. 

The amazing tapestry on the wall is titled Mit hjertes blod, which Google translates to My Heart’s Blood.  Kari generally adheres to the European standard that tapestries be at least three-square meters in size.  My Heart’s Blood is 230 cm x 200 cm, which is 7.5 x 6.5 feet. (Kari herself could not be much over 5 feet tall, so she is truly dwarfed by her work!)  Her sett is roughly 6-8 epi. Her weft bundles have 3 threads of the spelsau, always a blend of different colors, never the same. Occasionally she space dyes her wool to add additional color variation.

Kari Guddal, “My Heart’s Blood,” 2023, 230 cm x 200 cm

Kari Guddal, “My Heart’s Blood” detail

Kari Guddal, “My Heart’s Blood” detail

Kari kindly gave me a small, pamphlet size catalog about her work that was published quite recently. In that little catalog, Kari shared her “Thoughts About Weaving,” which I would really like to share here:

You submit to the peculiar regularities of the loom.

An image is being built from the bottom up.

You can never go back, change, or correct.

Every step is fatal.

You never see the entire perspective plane.

The part that has been woven disappears around the beam of the loom.

You cannot move freely across the perspective plane.

The lengthy working process causes changes in light and seasons all the while.

You develop an ability of your own to maintain the overall impression of the tapestry.

The first 20 cm on the loom sets the tone for the entire creation; all the colour schemes, which you do not yet know, must already be represented.

There is no introductory statement, you begin the actual creation.”

                                                                                                             –Kari Guddal

My favorite is “Every step is fatal.” By that she refers to the risks involved in working on a beamed loom where the whole is never entirely visible and the fact that you can’t go back once the piece is rolled under. I feel this sense of fatality in my own process although I’ve never described it as such. Will the finished tapestry look like what I imagined in the end? Am I flirting with failure? The only choice is to have confidence and keep going.

I was a little disappointed that I did not have an opportunity to see a piece in progress and watch Kari weaving one of her moody masterpieces, but then I remembered that there is a YouTube video of her weaving at the Danish Art Workshops.  Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xF1euIbGZc.  You can see in this video how minimal her cartoon is, how intuitively she works, and how she fusses over every weft bundle as if mixing paint. 

I have to say, meeting Kari was something I never imagined I would ever get to experience, and I am beyond grateful that she invited me into her studio. To meet her and see My Heart’s Blood filled my own heart with awe and admiration all over again. I will cherish this memory for at least another twenty years.

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