Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

Ixchel Suarez and the Canadian Tapestry and Texture Centre

One of the reasons I went to the World of Threads opening in Canada was to meet artist/weaver Ixchel Suarez. Ixchel lives in Oakville, Ontario and runs the Canadian Tapestry and Texture Centre there. A friend of mine took a tapestry workshop there earlier this year. When I learned that Ixchel’s beautiful work was on display all over the CTTC, I knew I had to take the opportunity to visit her in Oakville.

Lisa Korsgren, Ixchel Suarez, and myself

Swedish tapestry weaver Lisa Korsgren and I were treated to a private tour of the CTTC the day after the WOT opening.  The Oakville Arts Studio, which also houses the CTTC, is a pretty amazing place – a true “hub” of artistic practice in Oakville – with classes in drawing, painting, tapestry, music and more for all ages and abilities. If you want to learn more about the activities of the Centre (there is so much!), Ixchel has a great collection of videos on You Tube that document their many projects. Her most recent video is about a weaving program she runs for high school students. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiP9PNGnw9g

At the CTTC, student works in all media are surrounded by Ixchels’ tapestries

A cute tapestry project for very young children

Ixchel has many regular tapestry students, including some adults with special needs. Among the many projects underway there, the Centre is currently working on a large community tapestry for a local historical society. (You can follow its progress on the CTTC Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/canadiantapestrycentre/) Ixchel makes a loom for every student that they can keep. She has massive quantities of fiber, all of it donated, which she shares freely with her students at no cost. In addition to her many artistic gifts and dynamic personality, Ixchel is one of the most generous people you will ever meet.

Weaving terminology explained

Ixchel makes looms from scrap lumber and nails

The current community tapestry in progress

Ixchel’s work in the community is truly impressive, but what I really came to see was her tapestries. Photos just do not do justice to Ixchel’s textural and dimensional weaving technique. Ixchel’s signature is her lively sense of color and an interesting mix of materials. She especially likes to incorporate things like scruffy luffa fiber and wispy silk sari ends. 

Ixchel’s current work in progress

This colossal, vertical tapestry, Memories of a Birch Tree,  is hung side ways at the CTTC. Looks great no matter the orientation.

detail of Memories of a Birch Tree

Maple Bark was included in the recent World Tapestry Now show

detail of Maple Bark

Scars from Nature, my personal favorite.

detail, Scars from Nature

In her work, Ixchel is not afraid to break a few rules, unlike many of us who are trained in the French or British workshop traditions. Ixchel is originally from Mexico, but her work does not betray the influence of the indigenous weaving techniques from that part of the world either. I was surprised to learn that she studied tapestry in Poland, but once you know that, her approach to tapestry makes perfect sense. Later, I asked her to explain in more detail how she came to study tapestry in Poland, and who she studied under:

I was studying in Sa Miguel de Allende, in Mexico, traditional loom weaving on 2 and 4 shafts, on colonial looms. On my return, I visited the Museum Rufino Tamayo, where there was an impressive exhibition on Polish Contemporary Textiles, where I had the opportunity to see front and centre, works by  Magdalena Abakanowicz, Maria Chojnacka, Urszula Plewka-Szmidt, Stefan Poplawski Anna Buczkowska, Janina Tworek-Pierzgalska; Tomaszkiewicz, Starczewski and Latkowska Zychska, among many others who truly changed the way I perceived textiles at that time. I was always interested in textiles, and was taking courses on natural dyes, fashion and printed textiles, painting, sculpture, jewelry, batik, plangi tie-dye or screen-printing, so when I saw this exhibition, I was just fascinated about the possibilities and versatility of the medium. Little did I know I would end up receiving a scholarship to study at The Strzemiński Academy of Fine Art in Łódź, mainly in the studio with my mentor Ewa Latkowska-Zychska and Aleksandra Manczak; and I had extra classes with A. Starczewski and Tomaszkiewicz. I had other opportunities in France and Thailand, however, my main interest was definitely Lodz. It was an interesting and challenging time (1989).”

detail of an early work

Detail of Beneath My Skin, an earlier work that features colorful Mayan symbols peeking through the bark of a Canadian birch.

Ixchel’s Polish connections continued to follow her along her life’s path from Mexico to Canada. The CTTC houses a huge loom that once belonged to Polish-Canadian tapestry artist Tamara Jaworska. I asked her about her relationship with this artist and how she came to have this impressive loom:

“Tamara’s work had shown in Mexico when I was in High school. I knew about Polish art due to many polish musician friends of my Dad**. Her work was stunning, but at that time I had not too much knowledge about tapestry. Years later during a HGA  Convergence, I saw again one of Tamaras’s works in a tapestry exhibition. I was excited to see how she managed to blend her bright colours on large scale tapestries! I was still living in Mexico at that time. When I moved to Canada 15 years ago, I attended a retrospective of her works at York University in Toronto. There I came across her, her husband and knowing she had been appointed Order of Canada, which recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation, and is awarded by the Governor-General. Over the years, Tamara had major health problems, and her looms where dispersed. She wanted the looms to serve the purpose of sharing the knowledge of this wonderful medium. I was very fortunate to have her large loom at the Canadian Tapestry and Texture Centre as, not only, a heritage tool, but also as an important reminder of her legacy for generations to come. This loom was made from the best loom makers from Poland, and in this loom, she produced over 100 large scale tapestries. It was in this loom where she wove the behemoth Unity for Bell Place.

Even though she was never directly my mentor, we had a connection. She taught in Lodz at the same school I attended and my love for Polish textile art was always a common ground. I was invited to speak at her funeral when we said farewell to this amazing Polish-Canadian artist. She lived first in Montreal, and in later years she lived in Toronto, 20 minutes away from me.”        

Tamara’s large loom, now at the CTTC

Unity, by Tamara Jaworska, was made for Gulf Canada Square in Calgary

Her connections to Poland continue to this day. A special group of young Polish girls come regularly to the Centre to learn tapestry, in Polish of course. Ixchel speaks proudly of these girls as if they are her own children. 

Initially I was planning to do a full interview of Ixchel, but turns out there are many others who have beat me to the punch. Here is a link to an interview by the World of Threads organizers: http://www.worldofthreadsfestival.com/artist_interviews/006_ixchel_suarez_11.html and here is a blurb about her from the Newsletter of the Textile Museum of Canada:    https://strandnews.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/get-to-know-us-meet-ixchel-suarez/ You can also learn more about Ixchel on her website: https://ixchelsuarez.com/home.html and by visiting the CTTC You Tube channel as mentioned.

It was well worth the trip to Oakville to meet Ixchel.  She is a fascinating and gracious person!

**Ixchel’s father, Manuel Suarez, was a well-known violinist and concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Mexico City.

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