Dorothy Clews: All is in Flux
Lany Eila, Curator
Dorothy Clews is a tapestry artist currently living in the Australian Wet Tropics. Her work has been exhibited internationally and published in Tapestry Topics, Textile Fiber Arts, and at the Textile Society of America. In an ongoing conversation, spanning ten years so far, I have been enriched and inspired by her deep contemplations, broad interests, unbounded imagination, and insightful observations of nature both within and outside of her bountiful gardens. I am honored to share the following portion of that conversation with you.
LE: What compels you to create?
DC: I have always been interested in the natural world, the interaction of nature and humankind, and the affects of time and weather. My creative process, as with gardening, is essentially an interaction with nature, involving the introduction of natural and unnatural materials and a great deal of effort. The process is a back-and-forth, something that humans can’t control. All of my work is both about, and the result of, this intentional interaction.
My personal insight of everyday life is also lived from the perspective of a migrant. There is a beauty in the Australian landscape, including the wide often desolate sweep of the Outback, that is not always the traditional European/Western kind of beauty. I am patching together a narrative that often fits awkwardly, based on transplantation of traditional European culture into a 21st century antipodean land.
Underpinning this work is a concept similar to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: A finding of beauty in the imperfection and fragility of the textiles I make, the found objects I incorporate, and in the landscapes I inhabit, as well as a questioning of the ideas of preciousness and artistic control.
LE: How has your tapestry practice evolved?
DC: I graduated from the Tapestry Associate Diploma course at Warnambool TAFE in 1997. Warnambool teaches more or less conventional tapestry as brought to Australia by Archie Brennan. Archie instructed us to think about the structure of tapestry weave, and often asked his students, “Why are you doing that?”
This led me to considering the structure of tapestry from a different point of view: tapestries deconstructed and reconstructed in a non-traditional manner, making stitch part of the making through repair and reconstruction. I began to purposefully submit tapestries to the extremes of climate and nature as a means of exploring structure and the nature of tapestry, as well as the structure/nature of the environment in which I live. The process can include weaving, composting, stitching, cutting and piecing, and has become a meditation on materials, water, salt, sand, clay, heat, time and decay, as well as growth, beauty, repair and rehabilitation.
Regardless of the series, my practice has been the same in that I have used materials that have appealed to me with little idea as to how they will react to the process. I am not always sure what can result from composted remains or other materials until they are taken into the studio and I start working with them. In doing so, I am adding new elements to bring additional meanings to the old, and using what has gone before as the basis for what comes next.
LE: After all of that, is it still Tapestry?
DC: I realize that the intentional loss of control while working in what is usually a very conventional, controlled medium goes against tradition and culture. I am interested in the potentials that exist in edges and boundaries, the area beyond the ordered garden that is no longer cultivated, but is not yet wild. By integrating the process of making, the materials used, subject and the object, my work is as much about tapestry as about the natural landscape. They are linked by fragility, mutability, transformation and intervention. Through it all, the ‘tapestry-ness’ remains in the nature of the decomposed fabric like DNA in bones (from which one could, in theory, reconstruct life), and draws from that embodied substance.
My personal definition of tapestry is ‘a way of forming a textile in the tradition of tapestry with discontinuous wefts and using this textile as a basis for exploring tapestry, culture, landscape, the environment and ecology – it’s possible meanings, metaphors and potentials.’
LE: What materials do you use?
DC: Natural silks, linens, cottons, hand spun, and favorite clothes that have passed their use by date and been cut up into rag strips along with clothes from thrift shops and, more recently, old saris. Many of the rags are silk or linen, some are synthetic. The wear and destruction are already built into these strips of fabric, as well as the unknown and known stories, reminding the viewer that matter is subject to entropy, change and transition.
I also have an ongoing love affair with raffia. Its dryness, the subtle colouring and differing, raw texture remind me of the sparse flat outback landscape, and the minimal processing gives me the feeling that I am working with an actual leaf rather than a processed fibre. In the Cultured Landscapes series, I combined woven raffia with antique tapestry fragments in an exploration of traditional European culture transplanted to a new land and culture. In the Twisted Landscapes series I’ve used fragments of lead grid as a kind of frame loom.
In addition, handmade papers have served as backings, particularly with the Field Trials series, which had a documentary nature. I have also researched boro cloth, bark cloth, and other traditional cloth making techniques, some of which involve the recycling of material.
LE: In both the techniques and the materials that you use, the passage of time plays a significant role. What is your relationship to time?
DC: As humans we measure time in human terms, the time to weave a tapestry, the time to repair, the time to age. It is a straight line of progress. To dig up a composted tapestry is like unearthing an artifact in an archaeological dig. Something that had seemed so solid and real before becomes fragile and ephemeral after it is submitted to the forces of nature. It becomes strangely timeless, or at least not related to human time, but rather to the arbitrary time of the earth and nature – geological time.
Then the process of stitching brings the work back within the human timescale, a time of caring and conserving, trying to keep the fragile elements together, bringing a temporary stability. In doing so, the inner mindscape’s relationship to time comes together with the outer physical landscape we inhabit.
That said, the very caring for the tapestry is also part of the process of disintegration, in that every piercing of the needle can dislodge a thread that was thought to be secure. I find myself going around in circles stitching and re-stitching. Small fragments of yarn disappear into the corners of the veranda. Essential pieces of the original fabric are gone.
LE: What are you working on now?
The four (of an anticipated six) tapestries in the 6th Iteration series are internal landscapes of a mind trying to make sense of and come to terms with life as it is at this particular time. Ecologies are changing, some being obliterated, others transforming and mutating. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, planned or not, mankind is unraveling the fabric of the earth and life as we know it, and making something new.
LE: What keeps you going?
DC: The various processes of decomposition and stitching make creation a risky business with unpredictable results. Failure and loss are always possibilities. Nothing is permanent. All is in flux. The endless careful stitches will only temporarily halt the inevitable disintegration.
Yet I find myself being seduced into spending enormous amounts of time on each piece, a gift of time given over to the slow stitching and contemplation. I’m doing something that is important to me, trying to give the worn textiles a second or even a third life, respecting the cycles of creation, decay and regeneration. It’s a way of trying to come to terms with the natural, and unnatural, unfolding of life at this time.
Curator, Lany Eila, lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has been included in a number of private collections and juried exhibits, including ATA exhibitions.