Susan Martin Maffei: Although I studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in NYC, textile making has always been the most natural expression for me. As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was a great textile maker. I learned many textile processes even before I learned how to read or write: crochet, knitting, sewing (I had and still have a miniature Singer machine on which I made doll clothes while my grandmother made grown people clothes) as well as lace and tatting.
TSGNY: It almost sounds like textiles were your first language.
SMM: My search for a textile language has actually been a lifelong process. My journey began with workshops, which are the standard now for students wishing to learn about tapestry. Of those workshops, Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie had perhaps had the most longstanding influence on my work. My partnership later in life with Archie Brennan, a well-known Scottish weaver, has allowed me to focus on work and travel and teaching related to this medium and my passion for it.
SMM: Along the way, I began to study the history of tapestry in ancient cultures, in particular Andean, that were built upon textiles. I never cease to be amazed by the complexity of their underlying understanding and yet the simplicity and beauty of their work, and the fact that these ideas were expressed in textile form. The pattern of the underlying structure produces a repeat in the image: repeats are the inevitable meeting of the process of the weaver and the structure of the work. One cannot happen without the other. This visual pattern releases a chemical in the brain, much as a repeat in music does, and releases a sense of pleasure or satisfaction in the viewer. So the connection is integral and is complete.
TSGNY: When you refer to the pleasure of the repeats, are you talking about the Andean textiles, or your own work?
SMM: I was referring specifically to the visual satisfaction of the repeat of Andean textiles, but I also try to capture that in my own work.
SMM: When I first began this journey, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and to have been able to apprentice at the Scheuer Tapestry Studio in NYC to have a nine-month fellowship at Les Gobelins in Paris to perfect my techniques.
TSGNY: The emphasis at the Gobelins is on the interpretation of paintings, but you have taken tapestry in a different direction.
SMM: For a long time tapestry was looked upon as a reproduction of painting, ignoring its particular language. In its long history tapestry moved from a strong medium working within the bounds of shapes, pattern, and color to one that had the great ability to duplicate painting in fabric, and hence a secondary reproductive medium. My efforts have been to bring it back to a position of originality in my work. Many years ago, in my exploration of its inherent qualities, I began not to use an image in another medium that would influence the mark but instead to take an idea and simply begin to weave. I have tried very hard over the years to work within the mark-making peculiar to the medium by working directly on the loom.
TSGNY: How is mark-making in tapestry different from other media that we might think of as freer, without the physical constraints of the loom and the grid?
SMM: Certainly the grid is the basic structural foundation that you must deal with in tapestry. Weaving tapestry is always a challenge. You are limited by the warp and weft relationship. You must also build from one side to another in a way that is dictated by how the shapes lie, so you must learn to think in a sequential manner. You cannot build out into open space. You often are building the negative background to get the positive shape that lies on that support. That’s another way you must learn to see. You must learn to see that a line on a paper is not the same as a line in tapestry. But you can fool the eye, and by establishing a pattern and particular progression make what appears to be a beautiful smooth line. This also applies to shapes. There are other techniques particular to tapestry that were developed early on to allow subtle shading and overlays. My focus on representing an image within these limitations of structure became a form of problem solving.
TSGNY: Do you still work in other media?
SMM: I love watercolor, pen and ink and printmaking, as well as the book arts and pursue each of them as an adjunct to my work, exploring the different languages of different media. Each medium has a particular characteristic mark, usually related to how the material builds. A watercolor builds and layers with transparency, and would never look like it was done in oils. With oil, you could never get the transparency of a watercolor. Although you could do something in each medium that would simulate the other, you would more likely lean on the special aspect of each, the qualities that give each medium its own voice.
TSGNY: How would you describe tapestry’s “voice”?
SMM: Tapestry’s special attributes are its tactile surface, depth of color, and the variety of available fibers that communicate the essence or affect the emotional response of the image. The visual strength of tapestry lies in the saturation of color, pattern and texture, and grace of progression of marks or shape building, as well as the fact that it is a cloth and hangs. Tapestry’s presence, when successful, has a more sensuous relationship to the viewer’s response.
SMM: My particular journey has been very slow and has taken many years but I feel confident that I now have a basic understanding of its strengths. I say “basic” because I continue to search and study: I am sure there are other connections and more to learn from other textile societies. I am looking at all the cultures of the past and their uses of textiles, and am adding different trims and embellishments, recycling old tapestries this way, as well as weaving my work in forms of scrolls, books, bags, and wrappings. Our textile history is so rich, but few people realize that. But I continue to not choose an image to weave, but instead explore and build an idea or a narrative directly on the loom within the bounds of what I have learned so far of the language of tapestry.
TSGNY: Thank you, Susan. Finally, are there any artists whose work you particularly admire you think we should know about?
SMM: Historically, many artists I admire from the cultures I’ve explored are anonymous. I’ve already mentioned the team of Yael Lurie (tapestry designer and painter) and Jean Pierre Larochette (tapestry weaver and designer) who use the language of tapestry to the best advantage of anyone in the field. I enjoy the drawings and tapestry of Norwegian artist Jan Groth. He has an elegance and expressive emotion of what at first appears to be just simple line. I enjoy the work of Kiki Smith in particular for her love, observation and depiction of everyday events of nature. I enjoy David Hockney for his inventiveness in many media and love of the narrative as well as his exploration of history of art in different cultures. There are of course many others, but I think this is the top of my list.
TSGNY: You can see more of Susan’s work in Crossing Lines, and at her two websites: the first includes the work of Maffei and Archie Brennan, as well as information on technical aspects of the medium, equipment, links to their students’ work; the second is specific to the artist’s book Susan is producing in a limited edition about her scroll tapestries.