This year was my first year participating in Heallreaf, an international tapestry biennial in the UK organized by Margaret Jones. Yes, you heard me right – a major exhibition organized entirely by a single individual. This would be quite a feat even if Heallreaf was limited to artists living in the UK, but that is not the case. Heallreaf is open to all. Heallreaf 3 featured 40 artists from Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Denmark, Latvia, New Zealand, Norway, USA, and the UK.
Given this extraordinary achievement, I felt compelled to meet this curatorial dynamo in person and learn the whole Heallreaf story. How and why did this get started? What does it take to make it happen?
Like many endeavors, Heallreaf started out small. In 2015 Margaret was studying tapestry at West Dean College, supported by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST). (QEST works to sustain excellence in British Craftsmanship by funding craft education at the highest levels.) At her thesis defense, her QEST committee members remarked that tapestry deserved to get more exposure in fine art venues, and encouraged her organize an exhibition. Full of ideas and enthusiasm, Margaret realized that the Edward James Studio Gallery at West Dean that was not being used over the summer, between terms. Anne Jackson was enlisted as juror, and hence, Heallreaf was born. “Heallreaf” is the Old English word for “tapestry hung in a public place.”
Because the space at West Dean was small, the first edition of Heallreaf in 2015 was limited to small tapestries (maximum 2500 square cm) Approximately 50 tapestries by 34 artists were selected. The scope was very international from the start as artists from Australia, Canada, Romania, and the US were included along with the UK majority. Margaret was able to get support from the Hartlebury Fund in order to offer a Best in Show Award, selected by Yvonna Demczynska, the owner of Flow Gallery, London. Pat Taylor won the first Heallreaf Prize for her work “6701-3.” The whole endeavor was enthusiastically received by the tapestry community, and so the work of organizing Heallreaf 2 began.
Heallreaf 2 (2017) grew to included two venues. One was the Edward James Studio at West Dean again, but this time it also traveled to The Brick Lane Gallery in London. The addition of a second venue enabled the size of work to expand slightly to a maximum of 1 metre square including frame. There was an open call that drew a large international contingent. After two previous unsuccessful attempts, Margaret was able to secure Arts Council backing for Heallreaf 2, covering gallery rental, transport costs, juror honorariums, and a substantial Heallreaf Prize. (500 GBP) Kirsten Glasbrook and Professor Leslie Millar served as jurors, selecting work by 32 artists, representing Australia, Brazil, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, USA, and the UK. American artist Barbara Burns won the 2017 Heallreaf Prize for her tapestry “Pas de Deux.”
Having secured Arts Council funding for Heallreaf 2, with a clear increase in public engagement numbers as a result of the London venue, it was much easier to secure funding for Heallreaf 3, and with an increased budget. The way it often works in the UK, gallery space is rented to exhibitors by gallery owners. With even greater outside support, Heallreaf was now able to move out of the small West Dean gallery entirely. Margaret secured the Surface Gallery in Nottingham and the Espacio Gallery in hip East London. These larger gallery spaces allowed for large format work for the first time. The maximum size was increased from 1 metre square to 2 metres square.
To my astonishment, jurors Barbara Burns, Cos Ahmet, and Susan Sherritt selected my tapestry “Satori” as the winner of the 2019 Heallreaf Prize! I am so profoundly honored by this award, I can’t express this enough. Still, I felt I had to apologize for being American at the Preview – two American winners in a row! I felt the UK artists must be justifiably pissed about that. Fortunately the People’s Choice award was a tie and went to both Joan Baxter and Margaret Jones. There is justice after all!
If anyone deserves an award, it is Margaret. It is important to note, that as Heallreaf grew in size and stature, all the work of this massive project was still falling entirely to Margaret! Her husband, PJ, was her only helper and enthusiastic (?) supporter. Other than some help invigilating at the galleries, Margaret did everything from securing funding, managing entries, securing venues, receiving and transporting the work, installation and deinstallation at two venues, catalog production, organizing the previews, promoting the show, etc. What an amazing job to pull this off and remain smiling at the end!
Not surprisingly, Margaret seeks more backup and support from within the community for Heallreaf 4. She’s brought it to the point where venues are expressing interest in hosting future shows. With Margaret’s keen tutelage and a few additional volunteers, there is still a great deal of unrealized potential for Heallreaf.
Congratulations, Margaret, on a superb job - and THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.
You can see images of all the Heallreaf tapestries, past and present, at www.heallreaf.com.