Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

A Visit With Mary Zicafoose

Mary poses in her downtown Omaha studio.

Recently, my husband and I took a cross-country road trip to the Mid West. I used this occasion to drop in on one of my favorite tapestry artists: Mary Zicafoose.  I met Mary at her downtown Omaha, Nebraska studio. It was such a treat to get a glimpse of her very busy, very successful, tapestry world.

A commission in process is laid out on a work table.

Mary is a weaving powerhouse who can boast two studios (one at home, one downtown - each outfitted with a 12 foot Macomber loom), two assistants (one helps with weaving, one with dying), numerous past and upcoming solo exhibitions, and a healthy backlog of public commissions. She dyes all her fiber and is known for her “high frequency” color combinations. She is a master of ikat weaving and expertly contrasts her subtle resist dyed edges with areas of crisp slit tapestry to create engaging abstract compositions that almost vibrate off the wall.

You can find Mary’s tapestries in many public spaces in Nebraska and beyond, but she is especially proud of her 2017 commission of two large multi-panel tapestries for the Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha. I made a special trip to see them. The Buffett Cancer Center lobby looks like the lobby of a luxury hotel! 

The lobby installation at the Buffett Cancer Center, Omaha, NE

The triptych piece on the left is The Healing Tapestry. It features the word “healing” in fifteen different languages.  The diptych on the right is The Hope Tapestry, featuring translations of the word “hope.”

The Healing Tapestry, 2017

The Hope Tapestry, 2017

The lettering in the words is achieved entirely with ikat. The control and skill necessary to pull this off is a little mind blowing. Whereas the serendipity of the technique invites many happy accidents within the context of geometric abstraction, with lettering any excess blurring at the edges risks rendering a word illegible. Mary told me she was so relieved when a Chinese official present at the opening event was able to clearly read her text - and that she got the characters right. Apparently, when he saw the words he began to cry!

So what’s next for Mary?  First, she will be going to Sante Fe for a week of printmaking. Mary designs her work using collage. Her method blends perfectly with the process of making callographic monoprints. She has developed the habit of going for printing sessions every other year.  She goes into it with no preconceived ideas. She says that for the first couple of days she kind of stumbles through it, not making anything really exciting, but then the flow kicks in and by the time the week is over she has developed an entire body of work. This energizes her and informs her practice until the next opportunity for more printmaking. The resulting prints provide an affordable alternative for collectors of her work.

After Sante Fe, Mary looks forward to the release of her first book: Ikat: The Essential Handbook to Weaving Resist-Dyed Cloth, published by Interweave Press and available early 2020.  It includes detailed instructions for nine projects that teach the fundamentals of ikat practices. Mary is currently preparing a show to coincide with the release that will include small tapestries inspired by the projects in her book. Mary anticipates that the publication will spur requests for ikat workshops, so keep an eye out. As a former participant in one of Mary’s workshops, I highly recommend her, both as a teacher and as a person!  I guarantee you will be inspired.

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