Thursday, November 7, 2019

For tapestry--a great gift and a great loss. RIP Archie Brennan

October 31, 2019 marked the passing of one of the most influential voices and hands in tapestry weaving: Archie Brennan.

His tapestries and writings have affected thousands of people worldwide for decades. The insights and wisdom he shared made tapestry accessible to those who wanted to dabble in the process. He didn't downplay the weaver who wanted to "play" with the process. In fact, he said that he felt the grassroots movement of learning about tapestry in workshops and informal settings would be important to keeping tapestry alive, especially in the U.S.

Of course, he also challenged and aided in enhancing the abilities of those who were skilled with the medium. His ideas as written in catalog essays, articles, and discussed with workshop participants caused one to think carefully and critically about tapestry as an artistic medium. He was always questioning and yet always moving ahead with his own tapestry weaving.  Much more about his approach to tapestry can be found in the essays by Anna Byrd Mays who curated an online exhibit of Archie's work at the American Tapestry Alliance website. The link to that is here.

Over the years I have been fortunate to have had five learning experiences with Archie and his partner, Susan Martin Maffei, as I grew in my tapestry abilities.

My first exposure to Archie's brilliance with tapestry came in 1988 when I saw the World Tapestry Today exhibit that the American Tapestry Alliance had organized. It was in Chicago and his tapestry was called Princess Di meets a Medieval Lady. I remember standing in front of that tapestry for what seemed like hours, taking in each square inch of it in amazement at the technical virtuosity of the weaving. I was thoroughly taken with the juxtaposition of Diana and her first born, William, as if in a snapshot superimposed over a part of an ancient tapestry.

It was 1990 when I met Archie Brennan in person and for me, that was like meeting a rock star! That was in Washington, DC during the Handweavers Guild of America Convergence. I was working with Noel Thurner at her Norsk Fjord Fiber booth that summer. First Susan Maffei came by the booth and noticed the Norwegian Spelsau yarn that Noel sold. Later Archie and Susan both came through to look at the yarns again--did they buy any? I don't remember! I was so awestruck to meet him that the fact I'd seen him in person was all I recall.  Later during the week we were able to see an exhibit of his work at a gallery in the city.

In 1994 I finally had an opportunity to study with Archie. TWiNE (Tapestry Weavers in New England) hosted a retreat at Harrisville, New Hampshire with Archie and Susan. I was able to get away from my job for the short workshop. During that weekend I realized I'd found who I must study with as often as I could. Before I left I asked Archie if he and Susan would come to the South to teach. When he said, Of course, I immediately started thinking about how that might be able to happen.

It turned out that the Hambidge Center was hosting a few workshops during their off-season for residencies. I helped arrange for three tapestry workshop during the mid-1990s and in 1995 Archie and Susan traveled to north Georgia to teach a workshop at Hambidge.

Susan standing with Archie near Garden Studio at Hambidge
Over the next decades I took several more workshops with Archie and Susan. The most important experience with them came just a few months after I'd retired from full-time teaching at the university. They taught an eight-week session at Spring Concentration at Penland School of Craft  in 2001. Having that extended time with both of them was very important to me as I moved from full-time teaching employment and became what I'd wanted to be when I was eighteen--a full-time artist who used tapestry as her medium. I just had to wait thirty-two years to make that happen.

Archie working on one of the several tapestries he wove during Penland Concentration.
In 2010 I was happy to be asked to be part of the tapestry postcard project he invited 72 people to participate in. We each received a postcard he'd woven and were asked to write a message and return to him through the mail. More about that is described here.

My husband has long known how important my experiences with Archie Brennan have been. For our thirtieth wedding anniversary he said: "Do you think Archie would have any tapestries available for sale?" He wanted to give me one for the anniversary. I was thrilled, to say the least. Susan sent pages of slides of tapestries to choose from and after much deliberation, I selected the one that we both liked the best: Vacationing Wrestler.

And as an extra surprise, he also purchased a second of Archie's tapestries for that anniversary! I treasure both of the gifts so much. I continue to be amazed at Archie's command of technique. I also really love his approach to design--straight forward, direct, clear and graphic. Always acknowledging the weave structure and what tapestry can do best. Having both of the tapestries with me I can look closely, study the effects, and be inspired--and still amazed at the virtuosity--every day.

Although I haven't seen Archie in several years I was aware that his health was in decline. He was approaching his late eighties and everyone knew he wouldn't be with the world forever--none of us are. Still, getting the word on November 1 that he'd passed away the night before was sad news. I miss thinking that he's there at his loom weaving tapestries and sharing stories with friends. I am so grateful for what he gave me. And for what he shared with thousands around the world for over fifty years. My thoughts of sympathy are with his partner of many years, Susan Martin Maffei and the rest of his family. He will be long missed by many. 

Thank you for what you gave us all.

Rest in peace, Archie.