Commissions: A Dream Client and an Intimate Story to Tell
by Barbara Burns on October 20, 2018
Reprinted from Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot Magazine
In the summer of 2014, I attended Convergence, the Handweaver’s Guild of America’s bi-annual conference. Over the past 20+ years I’ve been to several of these conferences and have always come home inspired. That summer, I came home with so much more.
I always bring my business cards and 4 x 6 postcards of my work wherever I go, including Convergence. During a series of four short classes on selling and marketing I kept a small pile of the postcards on the table in front of me for people to see and take. A conference participant from across the aisle came over and asked for one of my cards. She also asked if I do commissions. I replied: “I would consider it.” That’s code for: I’ve never done a commission before; I’m interested if I can weave something interesting and challenging.
Just one day after my return home from the conference an email arrived from Shelly, the woman who asked for my card in class. She was inquiring about prices and the availability of three tapestries that she saw on my website (that was a first). I was quite surprised and very excited. Although I’ve been weaving tapestries since 2003, sales have been few and far between. I gave Shelly the information she requested and asked if she was still interested in a commission. In her response email, she chose one tapestry and sent a few “photos to consider for a possible commission.” Shelly asked that the subject for the commissioned piece be her young granddaughter, Sophie. In our correspondence Shelly gave me a modest budget, enough to do a small portrait. Then she received the tapestry she purchased from my website. In her next email, Shelly wrote that she loved the tapestry and would like me to portray Sophie in similar style and colors to the piece she had purchased, a line drawing in blacks and browns. Shelly also wrote that she likes pastel colors.
In subsequent emails Shelley shared a bit of her life with me. I learned that her daughter, Sophie’s aunt, had died just a few months earlier after a protracted illness. Shelley was “looking for something to bring a smile.” Then, she quadrupled her budget! I was so excited! This was an incredible validation of my work. And now I had the space to be creative and the opportunity to use my art to “bring a smile” to the family. Shelly was a dream client. We spoke several times about her wishes for the tapestry but she gave me carte blanche with the design.
When Shelley told me of her daughter’s death it immediately became obvious to me that I needed to portray generations of women in the family, including Sophie, Sophie’s aunt, Shelley and Shelly’s mother and grandmother. I decided the only literal figure would be Sophie with everyone else portrayed symbolically. Shelly liked the idea; we talked about symbols that would represent each person. Over the next few weeks, at my request, Shelly sent me many family photos and other information for me to sift through.
Because this was my first commission I thought I needed to do some research about the process. I spoke with people I know who have done commissions. I also asked on the tapestry list. Pam Patrie was particularly helpful. We spoke on the phone and she had some great suggestions regarding contract ideas. At Pam’s suggestion, I wrote a letter/agreement with all the information I felt appropriate. It was in a letter form instead of a formal contract. My client received the letter, signed it with no questions and mailed it back quickly with a 50% deposit.
The design process included many hours of work and rework and getting feedback from friends and fellow weavers. I used a combination of working with images in Photoshop using filters and printing out images for cutting and pasting. Once I had my first working design I printed it in different colorways. At one point I thought I had “The Design” but something about it irked me and I just couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. I put the design aside and went to the Portland Museum of Art for inspiration. While in Portland I combed the local used book stores for art books. When I returned home I showed my husband the what I had found. While flipping through a book of paintings by Peruvian artist Fernando de Szyszlo, I had my “Aha!” moment. I realized that it was the design’s background that was bothering me. I now knew what to do with the background! I cut out the image of Sophie and laid it on top of one of de Szyszlo’s paintings. It made the image of Sophie pop! I took a small section of the painting and reinterpreted it as I wove.
The tapestry is 44 inches tall by 19 inches wide, set at 8 ends per inch with a seine twine warp. I used several threads of mercerized cotton floss for the image of Sophie. The rest of the tapestry is wool. The luster of the cotton is juxtaposed against the depth of the wool allowing the image of the child to stand out. I sewed the slits as I wove.
The piece was woven on a 6-foot tall loom with legs of varying lengths. I started with long legs and, as I wove up the warp and needed to lower the fell line, the legs got progressively shorter. I also changed the height of my sitting position as I needed to rise with the weaving, going from a low stool to an old adjustable draftsman’s chair. The loom is a black pipe frame with threaded rod to tension. It’s an Archie Brennan design that can be found on his website: brennanmaffei.com.
I finished “Sophie” in early spring but had a solo show at The Center for Maine Craft in Gardener, Maine in April and May, 2015. I wanted the tapestry to be part of my show. Shelly was extremely gracious and agreed to delay taking possession of the tapestry for two additional months. I was thrilled to include “Sophie” in my show.
Finally, in May, Shelley and her husband arrived at my studio to pick up Sophie. At that moment, I saw the first of many smiles that my tapestry, “Sophie,” would bring to Shelly’s family.
This was a great learning experience. I had to create a contract/letter, deal with pricing, scheduling, ordering enough materials, deal with a client, design a piece with a client in mind and part with a piece I loved. I will write more about this in a later post.