contemplating weaving again

It has been a really long time since I have done any weaving — I cut the last tapestry off in September last year, shipped them all out to Patina Gallery, and heaved a sigh of relief at the close of a cycle of work.

Most times when I do cycles of work, they are focused on something external: a historic garden, perhaps, or the contents of my kitchen.  When the sequence makes sense,when the story has been told, it is over.  The last body of work was different in that it recorded an internal state of personal transformation.  What marks the end?  It was not a deliberated logical sequence, so much as an intuitive one.  When I finished Beatrice, my muse, the work was complete.

So the remnants of specific warps — with enough left to weave more! — have hung limply from my looms’ reeds, chiding me that it is wasteful not to weave them off, while I have busied myself with projects of an entirely different nature: reading about climate change, working toward bringing local food to our tiny rural town, learning to screen print and using that to make direct statements about these issues in terms of household items.  All the while wondering, Will I ever weave again?

Bee Nice hand printed Linen towels, 2012

Weaving to me is a centering process essential to my well being.  I don’t make useful things, witty things, toys on my looms (all of which I love to make in other craft media): I reserve it for my alpha state work, when my hands and heart and head are connected in a way that still the chatter of thought and manifests deeper realities.  I now that sounds hyperbolic, but that is how I define the art-making state, and it deserves the highest respect in my own chain of work: the weaving studio is uncluttered with any of the other things that crowd my work day: no sewing, no paperwork, no computer, nothing but yarn, space, and my looms.  When I set foot in there it is like entering the yoga studio: no shoes, mind stilling.

I haven’t been there much lately so the mind is clamoring.

I have been distilling thoughts, though, about how the art end of my work can begin to confront the same ideas I have been so absorbed with in the rest of my activities.  I have the idea, but not the visual yet.  Often a body of work begins when I see something out there which might as well have a halo around it: I see it and it marks me and demands I do something with it.  The last cycle was without the exterior stimulus, but most other things are clearly about a place.  Genius loci, is that the phrase?

“Cold Frames & Fruit Trees” from the English Garden Series, 1989

Now I have been thinking about gardening as not just a metaphor for life, but as central to a new sustainability, and I am re-discovering old thought (such as my English Kitchen Garden series) and combining them with exciting new ideas being tested in the world, such as the zero-waste urban farm I saw in Chicago a few weeks ago.  I have the ideas spilling out, but have found no centering visual focus yet.  Nearly there!  Watch this space.

all images copyright Laura Foster Nicholson

Chicago Garden Tour

I was in Chicago twice over the past couple of weeks, once on a visit for a few days and then passing through O’Hare Airport with an hour to kill between flights.  Both times I saw the face of the New Garden, fascinating and not always beautiful, but intensely uplifting.

Aquaponic Arugula bed, watered from tilapia tanks, at The Plant

Two weeks ago my son & I had enough time together to spend a Saturday afternoon touring The Plant, a vertical urban farm on the south side at 47th and Ashland.  It is in the middle of the old Stockyards of fame, housed in a 93,000 square foot concrete former meat packing plant.  The interior of this building had been kept at below freezing for over 100 years — imagine that! — and on that chilly April day it seemed to have retained much of its coldness.

A completely visionary and masterful project,  The Plant is midway in its plan to become totally functional by 2015.  I will quote their “About” page here as they can explain things better than I:

What is The Plant? A Farm for the Future.
From its beginnings as a 93,500 s.f. meatpacking facility, The Plant is being repurposed into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. A complex and highly interrelated system, one-third of The Plant will hold aquaponic growing systems and the other two-thirds will incubate sustainable food businesses by offering low rent, low energy costs, and (eventually) a licensed shared kitchen. The Plant will create 125 jobs in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood – but, remarkably, these jobs will require no fossil fuel use. Instead, The Plant will install a renewable energy system that will eventually divert over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.

Aeroponic  Garden in Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport
I had been told by a friend that another urban miracle — or at least, curiosity — had opened at O’Hare Airport last fall, so when I was changing planes there last week I had time to go find it in terminal 2 at the rotunda, where several wings converge.  This garden has been dubbed “Aeroponic”, no doubt in reference to its location, and it was a bright (really bright) and uplifting place to spend an hour — comfortable armchairs around a glowing, cordoned off growing area of 26 tubular columns with plants inserted regularly along their length and water flowing throughout a piped in, closed system.  Not sure about the nutrient source, but the plants grown were to be used at some of the more elite restaurants at the airport (sadly, none of which were close to my gate) such as Rick Bayless’ Frontera outpost there.

Having just visited the grubby, hardworking, and not for profit vision of The Plant 10 days before, this seemed definitely upscale and glam.  Without the tilapia nutrient feed loop, I couldn’t figure out what is feeding those plants: one of the criticisms of hydroponic farming is the expensive nutrients which must be pumped into the water, hence making it less sustainable than the newly coined “aquaponic” culture used at The Plant.

But I can say that the visit was uplifting for me, and provided the sweet frisson of seeing airplanes out the big windows while sitting and watching lettuce grow.

HIbberd/McGrath Gallery

Following on the heels of the loss of the gallerist, Martha Hibberd, early this spring, I received a sad phone call from Terry McGrath, partner in the gallery Hibberd/McGrath in Breckinridge CO, that she was closing the gallery for various reasons. 

Marty & Terry were fabulous gallerists and warm, embracing people.  Although I had never set foot in the gallery, I had visited them at SOFA Chicago year after year and we struck up a professional and friendly relationship.  I had two solo shows there and was in a few group shows, and the work was beautifully displayed and then sold to discerning collectors. I have rarely had such a comfortable and honest relationship with a gallery as I had with H/M.

So today the long parcels arrived, carrying my “inventory” home to me.  It has been rather like a birthday unwrapping them all:  over a decade’s worth of old friends up to the most recent body of work which I had shown there last April.  As I have not woven anything significant since shipping the balance of that work to Patina Gallery last fall, it was a redemption to see it all: some of my best work, all beautifully packaged interleaved with acid free tissue, carefully and lovingly preserved and sent off.

After 6 months of questioning my art and my purpose, it is reassuring to have them here for the moment, so I am going to show them all to you right here.

And then, please comment:  I need another gallery now! Any ideas?

Bemused, 29” x 28”,  wool with metallic 

Haven 17” x 29”, wool with metallic

Butterflies & Caterpillars, 2005, 43″ x 17″

Small Orange Barn, 2007,  wool, cotton & metallic, 26.5” x 17.5

Bee Swarm, 2009, 32” x 30”wool with metallic, silk and cotton

Pink Cakes, 2004, 23.5” x 27”

Bee Hives & Lavender, 2006, wool, cotton, metallic  

Green Jug at the Lake, 2005, 63.5” x 35”

Jelly Beans, 2004, 26” x 28.5”, wool with cotton

Study for Burning Barn 20” x 18”, wool with nylon, cotton

Cakes  2000  95” x 22”, wool with cotton

Bread Bins,  2001, 27” x 38”, wool with cotton

Spinning Oranges 74” x 17”, wool with cotton

Purple Loosestrife, 2006, 24” x 34”, wool with cotton

Horror Vacui: Brush & Spoon  1998, 50.5” x 8.5”, wool & cotton

Tomatoes  (detail), wool & cotton  2000    108” x 20”

the relevance of the Victorian Kitchen Garden

Over the last six months I have been doing a lot of reading on fairly hair-raising topics concerning the end of oil and climate change.  I take these things seriously though I admit to a kind of hyper-excitement about the direness of all of the predictions.  I have spent the last several months pondering how my art could make any difference at all in these critical times.  How will we survive at all?  I wonder.  What good can art even serve?  Will making more stuff even begin to address the stuff problem that has gotten us here?

The home making part of me has fared better: ah! resourcefulness! self-sufficiency! local food! frugality! victory gardens!  I am inspired by the issues to hand.

And life is so lovely: there is always some serendipity that reminds me of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious, what others think of as karma or our simple interconnectedness.  So it happened that a couple of weeks ago my partner in ribbon, Edith Minne of Renaissance Ribbons, mentioned to me that she had been watching an old BBC TV series about the Victorian Kitchen Garden, did I know it?  I wrote back that I had used a book, based on an 80’s TV show, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, by Jennifer Davies, as the extensive resource for my series, the English Kitchen Garden, which I wove in the late 80’s.  Yes, that was the series.

The English Walled Garden, 1989, hand woven tapestry

She sent me the link, and I have been able to patch it together on youTube.  What a wonder it has been for me!

It is such a slow and gentle kind of program, dated even by the time of its making, let alone its subject.  A leisurely conversation between two gardeners, lingering shots of beautiful and unusual produce.  But the reality here: the goal of the kitchen garden was, of course, to provide food for the house.  If it was a big house, it needed a big garden.  Little question of anyone of relying upon imported food: one ate what was grown at home.  If one were very rich, and had at hand 14 gardeners, glass houses, and acres of land to till, one could have pineapples brought to table, melons, bananas even.  So what? a trip to the supermarket will get us all that — brought in from Costa Rica or Mexico, whenever we want (at the cost of oil and our climate) — but this was all grown in chilly, grey, rainy old England.  The hunger to impress, to have a variety of stimulating and exotic foods was theirs, as it is ours, but the ingenuity required to perform all of this magic without today’s comforts of ready electricity and plumbing is simply breathtaking.

The Vinery, 1989, hand woven tapestry

This takes me back to my work, then & now, as it were.  In 1988 or so, I witnessed what remained of an English walled vegetable garden at Holkham Park, in Norfolk, England, in the dead of winter.  It was glorious:  patterns of trained fruit trees etched on pink brick walls in the low and golden December sunlight; bluish glassed houses and cold frames with sheltered vines and fruit trees, rectalinear patterns of quiescent gardens awaiting spring.  I took photos and flew home inspired.  I took up the Victorian Kitchen Garden book for reference.

Cold Frames & Fruit Trees, 1989, hand woven tapestry

I look back at that work now, after watching these sweet programs, and wonder at the relevance. Here it is.  I have been reading — and ranting — about year round gardening (per Elliot Coleman’s Four Season Farm, for example).  I have been chivvying up our reluctant gardeners here in the mildest southern Indiana climate to try growing vegetables all winter.  I have been working hard to convince people that our farmer’s market is worth building and worth shopping at.  So I look back at my old tapestries and think,”yes, there is an answer, and I have known it for many years”.

The Root Cellar, 1989, hand woven tapestry

All photos and artwork copyright Laura Foster Nicholson, 1989-2012.

The Frugal Housewife

I have been reading a modest little volume called “The American Frugal Housewife, by Mrs. Child, dated 1832, and dedicated to “those who are not ashamed of Economy”.  Can you imagine!  not so long ago frugality was looked down upon most witheringly, even by those of us who probably would have benefited by sticking with it.

I have always been interested in frugality.  Raised by exceedlingly thrifty parents who had themselves grown up during the Great Depression, thrift — we called it being economical — was a survival mode, without which one certainly could not get ahead, and the idea of educating 4 girls without saving every available penny was my mother’s great gift to myself and my sisters.  My friends at my upscale school — and plenty of girls who were decidedly not friends — mocked my home made clothes.  I longed for store-bought, but even so I desired a sewing machine as my high school graduation gift rather than the usual typewriter.  Am I dating myself here?  I finished high school during the revolutionary period of the early 70s when so very many borders were crossed and customs thrown aside our heads were spinning.  Most girls hardly knew what to think about just about everything but it didn’t stop us from charging ahead and having a fantastic time experimenting with many things that had been out of reach for girls just 5 years older than ourselves.

Thrift. Sewing.  Mending.  DIY.  All derogatory terms in those days.  Sewing & cooking tied women to the old ways we were too smart to kowtow to.  Thrift?  as the 80’s barreled in, and Reaganomics took hold,  the idea of  money as a brand new kind of thing that raised all boats — we thought — even those of the artists.  I began a successful career making art and selling it — easy!  starving artist? moi?

I made a number of knitted sachets in the 80’s and early 90’s, with virtuous words knitted in: Patience. Caution.  Forbearance.  Thrift.  I showed them to a couple of friends who had rather more money than we did.  The husband was Belgian, not perfectly comfortable in his English:  “What does Thrift mean?”
His wife responded in her offhand way, “you know, like being cheap”.  Cheap.  That hurt!

For I had been raised to consider thrift a virtue.  Hear Mrs Child’s first sentence in her Frugal Housewife:

“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost.  I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.  Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed in earning or saving money.”

Whoa! How many bells does that ring for you?  And yet, what a lot of sense it makes.  Green.  Eco. Cradle to Cradle.  And OK, maybe child labor — or at least encouraging one’s children to contribute to the well-being of the whole family.  Old fashioned or revolutionary?

more about writing!

In early January I wrote about my resolution to write more, and draw more, this year, and here it is nearly April, and no posts since!  Shame on me. It has been a massive case of writer’s and artist’s block, I am afraid.

Do you ever have those  times when your head is aflame with ideas, but you can’t seem to get them on paper before they are gone?  The last 3 months have been that for me.  So many exciting things going on here!  I have been working toward making our local Farmer’s Market more stable and bigger.  I have been making “green” household textile items, which I am still not ready to publish but which have given me great pleasure to make.  From time to time I pluck up the courage to learn a bit more about Adobe Illustrator — I make all of my designs in Photoshop right now and am sorely feeling the need to be able to do vector-based designs.  But all of this learning and experimentation is too raw to show and hence I stammer about even talking about it.  I will post one thing now, since I am so happy about our Farmer’s Market development (I don’t mean to take total credit for it as it has been toddling along for years, it just needs to grow). 

Local Tastes Better towel, copyright Laura Foster Nicholson 2011

If you like this towel you can get one for yourself here
(You will need to order it on 54″ wide fabric) 

the value of Art

Last week I posted about the big change in my financial life due to the big change in the art market.  Whereas for much of 30 years I had been able to make the majority of my living as a studio artist, primarily by selling works of my fine art through galleries, in the last 3 years, since the crash,  I have had to readjust how I spend my time to be sure that my daytime, studio activity is still going to keep my boat afloat.  I still do not have what some folks call “a day job”, nor do I want one!

My days are now spent more at the computer, working on designs, or making small gift type items, utilizing my ribbon or not, to sell in town as well as at some museum stores around the country.  I feel as if I am constantly juggling these identities: artist, designer, craftsperson.  I do believe all three points of view are essential in a mature artist of any persuasion, but trying to do well at all 3 in 3 different kinds of applications (as opposed to combining them in the main work of art/design/craft at hand) sometimes feels less integrated and more split than I am accustomed to feeling!

So I am trying to imbue the design and craftmaking activities with the earnest, focused vision of my fine art, while still maintaining a clear, serene and separate studio practice of meditative artmaking which responds only to my own vision, not to the demands of any market.

One of the arguments “against” craft, in the old days, was that it lacked the intellectual power of fine art.  We all know that is baloney, as is the idea that “art” appeals to the greater spiritual nature etc. etc.  Craft can be an inspiring outpouring of faith, in humanity, in creativity, in spirituality.  But the craft that I speak of above, in my case, refers more to making little gift items that people like, maybe love, and hopefully will buy.  A different motivation!  Nonetheless, I have never hesitated to call myself an artist, even a “fine” artist, and claim the status that may confer.  I live an intensely creative life with vision made manifest in my best work, which I call my “fine art”. That is enough for me.

So I leave tonight with this question:
How do I begin to imbue the directed design and craft work that I do, such as my new “Eat Well” towel, with the spiritual and intellectual energy that it took to weave “Beatrice”?

quiet time

There was an editorial in Sunday’s New York Times which is high on the most-emailed list, posted frequently to Facebook as well, on The Joy of Quiet.  It clearly resonates with a lot of people: in essence the article discusses the various values of going offline, not taking calls, etc.

In a sense I have been doing that, staying quiet and unconnected, in that I have not been posting on either of my blogs for months.  I mounted a (personally) important exhibition of my work this year to show in two venues, in the spring and in the fall.  The works I made to send were redolent with meaning, dripping with lush color, totally satisfactory to myself, and to those who cared to comment to me, as a strong new body of work.  I got a great writeup in Santa Fe’s Pasatiempo (hard to get, they say!), 2 pages, 2 big color photos of tapestries.  Seems like I did everything right, and I sat back for a little while to rest on my laurels.

But here is the hard truth, friends: I sold exactly one piece, a small one, out of the two shows combined.  For those of you who have long since opted out of commercial galleries, proudly disdaining commercializing your art, bully for you.  I have been proud, delighted, and extraordinarily fortunate to have made a living for close to 30 years by the sale of my tapestries.  I am also proud of my work, itself, as a real expression of my thoughts and vision, as something that people clearly love and respond to.  So what happened?

Well, the economy, I guess.  I have survived a number of recessions over the years totally intact, hardly missing a beat. But life is different now.  It is shocking and jarring to realize, at the age of 57, that in a sense I have been laid off.  My artwork is an elite and — seemingly unnecessary — luxury few can afford.  More on that later.

Join the club, you might say.  Of course.  A lot of folks who had previously fortunate lives got their pink slips in the last few years!  And so — like many others — I have been spending a few months trying to reinvent my way of working.

I feel fortunate to be a creative person, to be an artist.  I actually don’t feel unemployed (my mother, when speaking about the difficulties her family endured during the Great Depression, proudly maintained  “my father worked every day.  He just didn’t get paid for it”).  I have been as busy as ever, as optimistic as ever (something about the bottom falling out tends to rally some of us: gets the adrenaline flowing and brings out the survival mode.) I believe that creative people are in the best position to dig themselves out of problems — as long as we can believe in the value of our ideas.

I used to wonder what in the world I might be able to do if I couldn’t make art, and would conclude, nothing.  One of my more recent schticks about “the business of being an artist” classes is that I sure wish, back in art school, they had told us what else our extraordinarily creative minds might be good for, in case we needed to make a living!  So now, I am looking at what I know, what skills I have, what beliefs I want to share (the role of the artist), to find where I fit now.  I plan to re-invent my art making, though I did think about becoming a nurse.

Art has always been essential to culture.  To cut it out of budgets as a superfluous, unnecessary expense is a grave mistake.  Art-making, and living with art, makes us more human, more articulate in non-verbal modes, more sensitive to the world.  So it shouldn’t be so hard to make my work essential.  That is – essentially — what I have been musing about for the last 3 months.

I have made 3 new year’s resolutions, and they are all absolutely vital, and absolutely terrifying for me to undertake.  They are


Frightening because now I must take responsibility for my thoughts — again.

I would really welcome your comments!

more as it happens,


Being Here at Patina Gallery in Santa Fe

I am so excited — the show and all, but next week I will be THERE, in marvelous Santa Fe, surounded by friends, family and a totally supportive gallery!  All the work I have been writing about this year will be on display, in my show, Being Here.

The work was more emotional than much of my work has been in a very long time, and I used the making of it to transition from a deep sadness to a feeling of transcendant expectation of a new future.  Beatrice, the strange lady about whom I wrote last month, a culmination of a personal journey: the inspired artist, or the muse herself, smiling through her tears toward a new day. (It is a good thing I am a visual artist rather than a poet, as I cringe at the inadequacy of my words here!)

After Beatrice came a floating cloud of bees, freedom of spirit, entitled Being Here.

Here is the handsome card Patina has prepared.