Friday, June 22, 2012

stephenie collin - tapestry artist q + a

For my third student interview, I have asked the amazing artist Stephenie Collin to answer some questions. 

Stephenie's visual language is very striking - I always know her work, it's very distinctive.  I love the dream-like quality to them, some with sinister undertones.  Stephenie lives in Waiuku, Auckland in the beautiful country of New Zealand.


'Self Portrait' - Stephenie Collin, tapestry 2008
What made you want to learn tapestry weaving?
For me it was a natural metamorphosis.

I first began weaving bulky, natural wool, rya/ghiords-knotted fleece and plain tabby-weave carded wool rugs and hall runners.

From this starting point I began experimenting with colour, weaving basic geometric designs, and using finer commercial carpet yarn.

These were my first attempts at kilim tapestry weaving.  I spent three years weaving floor furnishings before I was ready to move my focus from the floor onto the wall.

By the 1990s fibre art was becoming finer, more subtle and refined.  I wanted to learn tapestry technique so that I could produce work that could communicate with an audience in some way.  I wanted to experiment with the old argument of craft versus art, and what was the defining point between the two?  What made the difference between folk art and fine art?  What was the relevance of function over form, what stories do contemporary tapestries have to say?

Geometric hall runner - Stephenie Collin
How did you learn?
In 1987 the district I lived in only offered one option for full-time study in the fibre-arts.  The Takitimu Trust was a local Maori Arts training centre, and I signed on for what ended up to be a year and a half of full-time study.

It covered various Maori and European weaving techniques, however the majority of the course content focused on on-loom tabby weave combinations and various knotting techniques.  Ultimately this meant that by the time I had completed the course and turned to experimenting with tapestry, my weaving was pretty much an automatic process.  I could focus completely on a design and how to go about implementing it as a woven image.  I went back to school as an adult student for a year to study Art and Art & Fabric Design. 

Any spare time I had was spent looking at art and exhibitions.  Most of my weaving was learnt from just doing it.  It was a case of trial and error, trying to stick to the lines on the cartoons, working out how best to go about replacing an image, determining warp set and what weft materials and weight were best for the job or gave me the most satisfying visual results.

I was completely over using wool as a weft material because I had spent so much time in the past working with it.  I think that using mixed weft yarns was an important part of the learning process as far as the design and imagery in my work is concerned.

'Madonna' - Stephenie Collin, tapestry 2002
How long did it take for you to be confident with the techniques?
With the geometric design kilim style rugs it took a couple of years.  But with smaller and finer works it was a lot longer, at least 3-4 years.  Each new piece is a new challenge even now.  The more confident I am about the design, the more confident I am with how I will go about weaving it.

What is your preferred warp sett?
I pretty much work at about 10 epi all the time now.  I always work on a cotton warp.  Practically all my work is produced on upright, 2-shaft, foot operated looms.  I still warp up through the reed, even though I hardly ever use it while weaving, so the different reeds on each loom pretty much determine the exact spacing.

It depends on the size of the finished work really.  I can get a fairly satisfactory result at 6-8 epi for a piece that is say a metre or so square or more.

What is your favourite weft material?
I have always loved using rayon in my work.  It doesn't have the intense, highly reflective quality that silk has, but it is good enough for the job.  The bulk of all my pieces are made from a combination of rayon, cotton, and wool.  I find if I use too much wool on my tapestries, the finished result ends up looking too flat and uniform.  It's not so obvious with hand spun wool, but for larger works the time involved having to first spin the weft makes it impractical as an option.  I love using fine hand-spun silks for the decorative effect of fine lines and dots.

'Beyond The Wall' - Stephenie Collin, tapestry 2008
Do you sew slits as you are weaving, do you finish off at the end, or do you avoid slits altogether?
I weave the slits together as I go.  When I am weaving a vertical line in the design, every few rows I cross the wefts, so my tapestries don't actually have long slits in the work.  If the vertical line is less than a centimetre long I will sometimes leave it as is.  I very rarely do any hand sewing in the work, either structurally or decoratively.  I think sewing sort of defeats the purpose.  I don't often have single wrapped vertical warps in my designs so I just find it's easier for me to weave the slits as I go, but each to their own.

What is your preferred method of finishing and presenting your work?
I always finish with a Maori taniko weaving finish.  It probably has another name, but I call it a taniko finish.  After resting and trimming the back threads, I place the tapestry with right side facing, and trim the warps to a length of about 8cm. 

Starting with the left hand warp go under, over, under, over, pull to the back of the work.  Repeat to the end of the row.

Divide the last six warps into 3, and plait a short length.  Knot the end and trim.

This finished edge is seen when the work is mounted.  I prefer this method because I like to think that it subtly explains the difference between a woven tapestry and a needlepoint tapestry.

I personally prefer this point of difference to be on show, as opposed to a hidden, folded and neatly pressed edge.

When I have finished tying off, I steam-press the wrong side of the work, making sure to iron the end strands towards the centre of the piece.  I then cut a piece of light-weight iron-on backing (practically all of these are now acid-free), and press well.

The backing holds the work together firmly and helps to stop the weaving from puffing out from whatever I am mounting it on.

Usually I sew my work onto painted, high-quality art canvas which is attached to a stretcher.  This can then be framed or not.

With smaller pieces, I prefer to frame behind glass, and so will sew the work onto acid-free foam board or mounting card, depending on the end presentation.

'K.Rd Kenny' - Stephenie Collin, tapestry 2000
Are there any aspects of tapestry that you have to pay attention to every time you weave?
My technique is not terribly complicated nor are my designs usually overly decorative, so my weaving state of mind tends to be more meditative than attentive.  Most of my attention goes into the art and design stage.  My intent is usually to express as much as I can within as minimal design as the image needs to work for me, or to get it to a point where I am happy with it as an artwork I suppose.

How did you create your own 'visual language'?
Having several friends who were artists, I think I always leaned towards wanting to communicate with my tapestries rather than simply produce pleasing pictures in my work.

I use my own sketches and paintings in most of my tapestries.  These are usually intermittent flurries of activity triggered by any one of life's possibilities.  It can be a political, social, or metaphorical fleeting thought or situation.  I tend to see mundane day to day things with a sense of the ridiculous.  The big things in life that really piss me off or have overwhelming apocalyptic overtones I tend to express with some sense of humour in their titles, or quirk of detail in the woven image.  I like to think that my tapestries have a visual connect with the present day, no matter how obscure that connection actually is.

'Daves Beyond The Wall' - Stephenie Collin, tapestry 2004
Is there any advice that you'd like to give to beginners?
*  Just keep doing it.  Keep experimenting.  Try to weave a little bit every day.  Keep a visual record of each weaving.

*  Get a visual diary going.  Sketch, write, doodle, or cut'n paste, as often as you can.  Write down your thoughts.  These are what you should be weaving.  They become a part of who you are.  As an artist, these mumblings are probably what you want to say with your work.

*  Study inspiring or great artists, their lives and their work.  Painters in particular.  Miro screams tapestry possibilities, Hundertwasser is great for learning about colour.  I went through an El Greco/Giacometti phase, no tapestry or textile book could have taught me as much about weaving vertical lines and the intrigue the elongated form can have on a viewer than these two masters.

*  Stretch and take frequent breaks from the loom when doing a marathon on a piece.

Where can we find out more about your work?


Thank you so much Stephenie!


  1. Her work is wonderfully edgy & unique; I truly think we are starting a slow, quiet revolution of making work that may take longer than paintings but, slowly, I believe the world will recognise the quality of the finished result. Go Stephenie.

    1. I laugh at the idea of a 'slow, quiet revolution' amongst such artists as yourself, Stephenie and Mardi who are creating such full-on images!! And I think *that* is where tapestry weaving really comes into its own - when the incredible technique is combined with incredible art - *swoon*! ;)

  2. recently I read an arrogant artist describe craft as something you calculate, while art is of the (sacred!) unconscious. Will Blake said it best: you have to perfect the craft so you can communicate your vision better (my words). The revolution is outsider art, unrecognised by the mainstream, we have no media agent, no gallery.

    1. True! Every art is made up of the craft and the art ... without the technical craft component, there would be no art ;)

  3. Now that was one hell of an interview, Michelle. She is both an inspiring weaver and generous with her comments - both to you in the interview, and to me.

    I thought I would be daunted on calculating out the lengTh of time it took Stephenie to get To her present level, all the time she spent on geometric kilims - and realising I probably don't have that much time left to get to that level - but that isn't the point for me. I had an inspiring teacher once, who said that what is worth doing is worth doing badly - ie, you'll never know if you don't give it a go. Sure my aim isn't to do it badly, but to have a go as good as I can.

    Keep up the good work!

    The house looks great - and the cats are charmers...

    Thanks again


    1. She's so inspirational, isn't she? I love her work!

      Stephenie highlights the importance of having a visual language (something that the SW TAFE course concentrates on a lot on too), and that for me is more important than being absolutely perfect with technique. There's always time to practise and eventually master the technique ... but the art is the most important thing!

  4. Thanks for the opportunity to be a part of this discussion, and for the generous feedback on my work.

    Beginning with geometrics was a great way for me to learn about spacing, balance and colour. The complexity of geometrics is that you need to create the maths at the design stage. If you have so many warps, and you want 5 (or 15) diamond shapes how many warp threads to each diamond, and does that mean the border around the design will be wide enough to look balanced, and while weaving don't forget you will need to allow more rows for the flattened effect that comes from beating the work down hard...##//"==&?#??. I don't do maths so for me it was very complex, icky stuff.

    Now days I don't need to worry about the maths in a design, I just need to follow the lines on the cartoon, which is less complicated for me.
    As the comment above suggests, you just need to give it a go, and it is a matter of just weaving it as best you can. I believe within 4-5 years you should be getting fairly consistent results you can be technically pleased with on the loom Misha, after that your work will mature technically into a subtle improvement of your own personal style of weaving with each new piece you weave.

    All my energy these days goes into the image I want to create, converting the mundane or exciting elements of the present, into a hand-woven visual recording. A visual record that you cannot hear and that does not move. But that in some way you know as a viewer it is saying something and that there is a place where you could go to understand where it came from. I like the less is more approach, and that titles for the work can be a huge part of the work and give clues to the whole.

    Re the Outsider thing... I've tried to avoid it as for me it hasn't been properly defined as 'art with raw attitude', it's become a movement which suggests 'art with negative baggage', which in my opinion, it is not.
    At a local arts level the real shakers and movers in the contemporary art scene are ready to support the Outsider Art movement to a certain point, but tend to bring in the safe artists for the better paid and more important artist-opportunities as usually a galleries parallel objective to informing the public about art, is to encourage a financial return for the gallery. This means that most galleries will support the art and artists that will be best received by their patrons.

    Many of the artists I know have at sometime in their lives fit somewhere into the Outsider Artist category, and have always been extremely passionate, committed, and prolific in their chosen art practice. They are often highly articulate, well informed artists as a rule, and many have gone back to study to validate their work. It's a double edged sword really, as the very thing that makes the art "Outsider", is the thing that is often reformed if one wants to make a living from their art, be it by education, medication, behaviour modification etc.

    Maybe when the general public restrict the prolific over-use of huge advertising banners in favour of meaningful and interesting public art display we will be moving towards acceptance of Outsider Art as an important genre.
    However for most people, Outsider Art is a bit like the kid in the hoodie following them down the street, they simply don't like hoodies and nor do they trust the kid wearing it to behave itself, and it scares them.


    1. Thanks Stephenie! I take heart from your comment that it takes around 4-5 years to nail down the technique ... I'm getting there!

      The 'outsider' thing is tricky - on one hand, being a true artist usually means that your mind works differently from others, therefore you are automatically an 'outsider' (I prefer the term 'Misfit' ;P). Working with a medium like tapestry means that you are even more of a Misfit, since you're working with an unconventional medium ;)

      To be honest, I get a kick out of that ... but on the other hand it doesn't help from a commercial point of view.