Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

A New Direction (Before Covid19, Part 2)

I’ve never done an artists residency (and still haven’t) but setting up shop in unfamiliar Brooklyn last winter turned out to be very productive situation for me. Due to space and time restrictions, I was forced to work small – which is not really my jam, but I made the most of it.  In my four months in NY, I wove five small pieces. These works have been useful for figuring out my new game plan.

My studio at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn. I took my 30” Hagen loom.

Yes, that’s right – a new game plan.  I’ve been feeling “done” with the themes and content of my past work for some time. My goal in 2019 was to find a new direction for my work. Last summer, I took a design workshop with Jane Kidd that put some much needed structure around my explorations. Jane employs a method of “Idea Mapping” that was extremely helpful for me.  Jane’s design process begins with a lot of research and writing exercises. If you know me, you know that this approach is right up my alley as I am way too intellectual for my own good! Through her writing prompts, I determined that I was interested in going in a direction that is more abstract, more textural, more colorful, and more meaningful to others than my previous work.

Jane’s writing exercises forced me to think about what realities and events I find compelling at this point in my life. I have always woven imagery that aligned with whatever issues were dominating my thoughts at the moment. (I could give you an autobiographical tour through my portfolio, but I will spare you.) Of late, I spend my time ruminating on contemporary issues that shape the entirety of society, not just me. In the landscape of contemporary issues, I am most drawn to ideas around technology and how it has so profoundly changed the way we live, the way we behave, and the way we think. I did not grow up in this digital world; I am not a “digital native” as my children are, and so there lies my total fascination. I barely understand how artificial intelligence works, but I do know that it impacts my daily life profoundly, and that I have precious little control over my “data,” – my being – and how it is being used to manipulate my behavior. My research led me to Yuval Noah Harari’s book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Hannah Fry’s “Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms,” among others.  I have found a topic that I know I can engage with for quite some time, and hopefully produce work that is not boring.  I imagined turning the visual language of the microchip into large, soft, macro renditions of the “architecture” of the internet. I began by taking images of circuit boards off the internet and manipulating the hell out of them in Photoshop, filling my sketchbook with some rough initial possibilities. I was struck by how “textile-like” they look.  I hope to find a way to blur that line and capitalize on the visual similarities between textiles and tech.

This was where I was at in this process when I set out for the 6 month sabbatical in New York. However, when I first arrived there, I wasn’t yet sure where to start with this new theme. I was impatient to weave, so I fell back on an older design that I had wanted to tackle some years ago, but never did.  Back in 2014, I did a small piece inspired by Peruvian feather work for the ATA Unjuried show. It featured polka dot guinea fowl feathers, and imperfectly “drawn” (soumack) circles.  At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but over the years more people have told me they love that piece than anything else in my portfolio! I decided to do a couple quick feather pieces based on linear patterns.   

“Flight Pattern” 2019. 5x6 inches. 12 epi silk, wool, paper yarn, pheasant feather

“Nesting Pair,” 2019. 12x4 inches. 12 epi. Silk, wool, paper yarn, pheasant feathers

Having that out of my system, I turned my thoughts towards the digital landscape.  One of the things I like about digital images are the unnatural color effects you get when you digitally manipulate/corrupt image files. I had a wildly colorful glitch image in my sketchbook, and decided it would be a great opportunity to work with neon, so I got some neon DMC embroidery floss.  I decided to incorporate some phone wire I picked up at Gowanus E-Waste. The casing was bright blue and I painted the warps across the middle section with neon acrylic paint for contrast.  The result, I titled “Wired.”

“Wired,” 2019. 12x6 inches including wire. 12 epi. Cotton, wool, acrylic paint, electrical wire.

Next, I wove a twelve inch black square I call simply “Black Box.”  The idea for this originally grew out of a TAPS (Tapestry Artists of Puget Sound) group project. We were all going to weave black on black squares and hang them together as patchwork to make a very large collaborative work. The point was to demonstrate the “mark making” potential of the weaving process with no color or imagery. The exhibition never ended up happening and the project was abandoned, but I really wanted to weave one anyway because of the frequent use of the term “black box” in relation to artificial intelligence and machine learning  (def: “anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions or mechanisms”). I designed my black on black tapestry with circuitry-like lines, but I also wanted it to be as tactile and soft as possible.  I wove slippery shiny viscose lines (at 12 epi) to contrast with thick rayon chenille (woven at 6 epi).  The box within the box uses a plastic film-like polyester fiber wrapped using Flossa technique.  It really catches the light, and though truly black, it really creates an interesting contrast.

The last piece I ended up weaving in Brooklyn has an interesting story behind it. The original idea was to weave multiple shaped pieces that would be interconnected by open warps and pieced together into a larger shaped piece. I worked hard to finish the first piece of the puzzle before leaving town for the Gerhardt Knodel workshop I mentioned in my last post. The imagery is roughly based on an abstraction of circuitry, and again I used neon (this time green), unnatural color combinations, and thickly textured blacks. The warp is black and white plyed linen. It was abandoned on the loom, and it was not until late June that the kind staff at the Textile Arts Center was able to pack my studio up for shipment. They had to cut the warps in order to break down the loom.

“Nothing Is But What Is Not,” 2020. 22x4 inches including fringe. 12 epi. Cotton, wool, rayon, and linen

Seeing this fragment cut off from the loom really changed how I looked at it. Suspended by its warps it looks like a kite. It also looks like a coffin. Neither was my original intention, but there you have it. Whatever way you view it, this kite/coffin dangles untethered from its moorings. The title Nothing Is But What Is Not comes from Shakespeare, meaning essentially that the world is upside down – nothing is real but that which is unreal. It is the piece that 2020 made for me.

Since arriving home I have begun work on my first large work in a new series of tech based narratives. My ideas are developing slowly and are far from ready for prime time, but there was one design in the sketchbook that I was relatively satisfied with. I wove a study to see if a silver and black palette would look good. I also wanted to see if black on black textural differences would be noticeable without changing the sett to exaggerate them as I had in Black Box.

Circuit study, 2020. 8x8 inches. 8 epi. silk, rayon, wool.

I gathered a lot of information by doing this study, but it did leave me wanting more of “something.”  I think in the larger piece, having more warps to work with, I can do better to make the overall effect more interesting. My lingering dissatisfaction with this study has led me to explore some ideas I had not occurred to me before. Such is the value of small exploratory work.

The new piece I am just starting to weave uses the same general digital imagery as the study. I am still unsure about so many things with this project, but here I go anyway. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It will be 48” by either 52” or 56.”  Here is the general idea:

The tapestry design features lines of pixelated text running in the background. The words are a warning message from a Russian ransomware program. The subject of this tapestry is the weaponization of technology towards destructive ends.  Hacking is the ultimate power play in the digital age, circumventing and undermining traditional sources of power. This tapestry is an attempt to document just one of the many human struggles that have come to the fore in the digital age.

I’m not used to tackling such topical work, so I feel a strong sense of discomfort as I start this piece. Is this too strident? Is it bad to reference Russian malware even though according to data security blogs, they are a well known locus of malicious activity, including 70% of all ransomeware?  When you think about the prevalence of hacking, what is really being held ransom?  I’m just trying to capture the sense of anxiety and distrust attributed to global hacking culture, including the conspiracies that constantly vie for our attention.  I am sure I will find better ways to express my ideas as I travel this path, but this is where I am at right now. I can hear my inner critic shouting “don’t do it, don’t do it!” But damn. We only grow from our mistakes, right? Go big or go home, as I always say.

I do plan to make more small format work moving forward. I have been exploring “glitch art” and will probably be sampling and researching the potential of these ideas alongside working this big tapestry. The following are just a few examples that I find “weaverly” and exciting.  I feel I have just scratched the surface.

Wish me luck! This is going to be a technically challenging piece. Follow me on Instagram to see WIP photos.

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