A Matter of Passion

Marilyn Rea-Menzies

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Marilyn at her loom.

What drives your need to seek out learning experiences? 

I have always had the need to be the very best that I could possibly be, and as I am self-taught I have always motivated myself to learn about other artists mainly through reading about them, visiting art galleries wherever possible to see original art works, and also  through attending exhibition openings. I became quite an exhibition opening “junkie”.

I am a bit of a “bookaholic” and love art books. Any spare money that I may have is often spent on books about artists working in many different mediums, and over the years, I have built up quite a collection in my library.  Some of the artists who have influenced my work are New Zealand artists Colin McCahon, Louise Henderson, and John Weeks, and international artists Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Hockney.

When I came to Christchurch to live in 1994, I decided that I would try to develop my reputation as an artist as well as that of a weaver. I was known as a tapestry weaver in many circles and it is often a surprise to people when they discover that I also work in a number of other mediums such as photography, painting, drawing, and digital design.  I believe that my skills as a painter and photographer, as well as my drawing abilities, inter-relate closely with my weaving; they are inseparable. To be a successful tapestry weaver I realised that I needed to keep on developing my proficiency in drawing and painting. Photography and digital designing were recent additions to my acquisition of knowledge.

I am also fairly ambitious, which drives my need to learn more and more as my work develops. I am not interested in finding a formula that is popular or sells well, instead desiring to extend my expertise and repertoire, thereby producing work that has more interest and meaning. My work has also been my lifeline, keeping me grounded and more fully myself.  If I am not working, I can become quite edgy and agitated.  I have a profound need to be immersed in my art and do not think I will ever stop as long as my health permits.

Abstract Landscape acrylic on board

Abstract Landscape
acrylic on board

What types of learning experiences do you seek out?  Do you feel they must relate directly to tapestry in some way?  If not, why?

I am not sure if this an actual learning experience, but I have always had a good eye for seeing. Learning to see is one of the basic necessities for an artist in whatever medium.  I have an instinctive feel for composition, an instinctual eye sensitive to shape, form, and the effects of light and shade, and an acute awareness of detail. I remember once many years ago, noticing reflections in a vertical louvered window; this broke up the image into small sections. In response to this, I began noticing distorted images all around me, in window, mirror, and water reflections, etc. This awareness set me off on the breaking up of spaces within my paintings and later within my tapestries.

My 1978 painting Abstract Landscape is an example of work that stemmed from these observations. Further development along these lines continued after reading the book Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis. I purchased this book sometime during the 1970s and it has always been an important resource book for me. Playing with the ideas it presented has often informed my practise, especially my use of grids, distortion, and the deconstruction and reconstruction of images. The 1985 tapestry Green Landscape, along with others in this series, was also influenced by these ideas.

Green Landscape

Green Landscape

Landscape series 2

Homage to Matisse

Another experience that had a vast affect on my practise was seeing for the first time a painting by the seminal New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon. His painting, On Building Bridges (click here to view), was on show at the Auckland City Art Gallery and I came across it during a visit in 1977 or thereabouts. I loved the way Colin had broken up the images into a triptych and how the painting was semi-abstract but still worked from a pictorial base. I remember walking out of the gallery feeling as if I was floating 2 inches above the floor.

These experiences do not relate directly to tapestry, and in fact happened before I even knew about tapestry, but they were very important in my development as a tapestry weaver as well as my development as a working artist. To create good designs for tapestry an artist must develop many of the same skills he or she needs to create good paintings. All the elements that go into painting, drawing, or any other medium are also necessary for creating good tapestries.

Throughout my career, I have mostly worked amongst other artists of many different disciplines in co-operative or public studios. These experiences provided me with encouragement and support at many levels, created stimulating environments for learning, and enabled me to develop the professionalism I needed to succeed at making fine art within the weaving discipline.

The Collaborative Tapestries

One of the major growth periods during my tapestry career occurred during the creation of the Collaborative Tapestries. Through my contacts with artists working in other disciplines, I became aware that many of them had a strong interest to work with me to create tapestries; I decided that it would be a very good learning experience for me to work in this way, alongside my own work. The collaborations challenged me to find ways to interpret their designs using new techniques that I had never tried before.  I participated with nine artists altogether over a period of nine years culminating in the 2005 exhibition Primary Connections at CoCA (Centre of Contemporary Art) in Christchurch. Unfortunately, I received no national recognition for this exhibition.

The first collaboration was with Michael Reed in 1995; the resulting tapestry, Living in the South Pacific, was a challenge in that it was the first time I had ever woven a work with multiple setts and shaped sides. The tapestry consists of three separate pieces that inter-relate to create a triptych. Supplementary warps were added, enabling me to weave the small inserted areas. In addition, I learnt about contrasting fibres, matt and shiny, using linen and wool.

Living in the South Pacific

The second collaborative work, The Millennium Tapestry,was the largest tapestry I had ever woven and the only commissioned one for which I received payment. All the other works were self-funded after applications to Creative New Zealand for grants were refused multiple times. The difficulty with this tapestry was the size—15 square metres altogether. It was woven on its side and was a community tapestry; I taught almost 3000 people over 18 months to weave a small section. Philip Trusttum, a Christchurch artist, created the design. My input into the design was to change the background colour from white to dark green. This tapestry is now hanging in the Christchurch City Council offices.

The Millennium Tapestry

Another demanding tapestry was A Matter of Degree, a sculptural work woven in three sections. It is 3 metres high at its highest point and supported by a stainless steel framework, which was built by the designer of the tapestry, Graham Bennett, who works with many different mediums to create wonderful sculptures. Many mathematical calculations had to go into the making of this tapestry, as its three pieces had to fit together as well as fit the framework neatly. The long narrow tapestry on the left side had to weave between the other sections of the tapestry, and slits were left open to thread the wooden slats through the piece on the right. Each edge of the weaving also had wrap around sections to fit the framework. This tapestry is unique in its own way and a very innovative work. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the artist/designers and learnt much throughout the making of these tapestries.

Marilyn and Graham Bennett with A Matter of Degrees in progress

How do you feel these experiences have enhanced your tapestry weaving? Have any not and why?

All of my past undertakings have impacted my work in various ways and have given me the confidence to be able to accept commissions, which are necessary for my livelihood.  I continue to use some techniques I learnt in the creation of my own work, but there is still much for me to assimilate into my future endeavours.  I have woven with multiple warp setts in a number of my tapestries since the collaborative works, and am now interested in developing sculptural and shaped tapestries.  I wove monofilament pieces displayed in Perspex boxes for an exhibition a couple of years ago and would like to develop this idea in tapestry.  At the moment, I am at the design stage of a project that will most likely have sculptural tapestries enclosed in Perspex boxes.  Layering of tapestry is another potential for the future.

Can you identify any non-tapestry learning experience that you feel has been most beneficial or has had the greatest impact for your tapestry weaving?  What made it so? 

I actively seek out the work of other artists through attending many exhibition openings and studying how they work and what influences them. I visit galleries wherever possible and keep track of what is happening in the art world through reading art magazines that I often get from the library. I find that much of the artwork done today reflects the violence and angst in many societies around the world, focusing on sex, anger, destruction and the ugly side of civilisation. I feel this is a direct response to the inequalities and unfairness now prevalent in the world and the growing imbalance between the very poor and the very wealthy. Greed and fear is foremost amongst many today and our art reflects this. Our “art” is what we leave behind us—books, music, paintings, art in all mediums—and future generations will know us through this.  We are creating a very negative impression of our time on this planet but I guess this is one of the true functions of art.

Lace 2

I do have a need to record what is happening around me, but so far, it has been focused on my own small part of the world, on my friends and family and my own surroundings and environment. I am lucky to be part of a large close family and they have often appeared in my work as a means to address issues in the wider world. I have not yet developed a huge political aspect to my work but this may well  come in the future as I become more and more cross and upset at the way our leaders do not seem to care for the people they are meant to be working for.

acrylic on canvas


Today the art world does not seem to value skill; much of the work is conceptual and often has little craft attached to it. I am a “maker” and feel that this type of approach does not enhance my tapestry at all. Many of the ideas in conceptual work are good, but the processes used to bring them into being are often minimal and do not always do the ideas justice. In saying that, I do often enjoy some conceptual creations; they occasionally spark some new thoughts for me to bring into my own work.

Have any of these experiences ever tempted you to leave tapestry weaving? Why?

No. I have never been tempted to leave tapestry weaving. I am never bored with it and love the process—the way the colours interact, the slow development of the work, in fact every aspect of tapestry.  However, I have over the last two or three years started painting again and I have never stopped drawing. I have also taken up photography, using that as one of the main sources for my design process, and occasionally exhibit the photographs themselves. I am developing an interest in digital work and hope to exhibit in that medium in the future.   Nevertheless, all my other work interacts with and feeds my tapestry and I do not envisage ever ceasing to weave.

Shop Window at Night 1


Do you feel that tapestry artists can truly maintain fresh perspectives and growth in their work if they do not regularly seek out these types of experiences? Why? 

It is very important for tapestry weavers to seek as much exposure to other mediums and influences as they possibly can. True artists never stop learning and absorb every experience in life. These feed their need to express themselves and certainly can affect their work.  Artists throughout time have always been influenced by the work of other artists; the wider the encounters we have, the more we grow as artists.

Workshops offered at fiber/textile art and ATA retreats and symposiums for tapestry weavers are often mainly tapestry focused and are taught by tapestry weavers… do you think we would benefit if alternative experiences lead by non-tapestry artists were offered?

Tapestry weavers would definitely benefit from attending workshops presented by non-tapestry artists. I have seldom attended any workshops myself, as I am a bit too independent, but widening the experiences outside of tapestry must awaken new thoughts and information, which can be of benefit.  I do not think that there is any danger of influencing tapestry weavers away from tapestry by extending their knowledge of other disciplines. In fact, it can only stimulate them into new and wonderful things that will benefit tapestry in the long term.

Flowing Water
conte & charcoal on paper

Underfoot 1


Visit Marilyn’s blog to learn more about her artistic adventures


Visit Marilyn’s website to view a gallery of her works