Weaving has been a hallmark of human culture for thousands of years, with evidence placing it back as far as 5000 BCE. Until about 150 years ago, that work was done by hand, taught to apprentices by masters. Though human hands have largely been replaced by machines, there are still those who patiently work their looms and teach their craft to others, as evidenced in Arts Alliance Gallery’s new show, Donna Loraine Contractor: Mentor and Apprentices.
Donna Loraine Contractor has been weaving since the late ’70s and was herself a weaving apprentice at the Santa Fe Weaving Studio, in addition to working as an apprentice in pottery. "I thought that was a wonderful opportunity to gather knowledge," she says, "because I not only got the lesson, but I also learned about how the studio worked, what needed to be done."
Of the more than 20 years she’s worked in tapestry (as opposed to cloth) weaving, Contractor has mentored others for 15 of them. She says it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Not only does their assistance with studio management allow her to focus on the stunningly time-consuming process of weaving, but she learns something from it, too. Experienced artists don’t often think about what individual actions are composed of. Apprentices “want to know, How did you do that? So you have to break it down into steps ... it really refines the idea for you of what you are doing.”
Perhaps most of all, Contractor draws from their influences and goals. Each student has something unique they want to accomplish, requiring her as a mentor to dig in and learn about things outside of her experience, “maybe just because of the student’s interest.”
Each of the apprentices featured in the show—Chyraelle Braddock, Ruth Simpson and Vivian Skadron—bring a different level of ability. One former apprentice had woven cloth in Israel, another had taken a class with Contractor at Village Wools and another had no experience whatsoever. Students like that “come at it with such a different attitude, because it’s totally open.” This can be liberating, but it can also build bad habits in terms of workmanship, so it’s a balance for Contractor as a teacher to both encourage creativity and prioritize the technical aspects.
Contractor says that, in terms of tradition, New Mexico is a very interesting place. “We have Native American traditions, the Rio Grande Hispanic traditions ... and in my tapestry group there is a heavy sort of French tradition, old European, which is much more pictorial.” She characterizes her own work as graphic and contemporary, utilizing “bold geometrics.” She is especially interested in the juncture of mathematics and aesthetic beauty, most commonly seen in the theory of the golden mean, a mathematical ratio whose effects can be seen not only in nature, but in human creations from the pyramids to “The Last Supper." Her tapestry “The Involute Curve” focuses on another mathematical finding. “When you tie a string around [a ball] and the end of the string makes a curve, that’s the Involute Curve. The tips of palm fronds are formed that way, the beak of an eagle,” she says. “Very different curve than a snail shell or the seeds in a sunflower head. We intuit those things and I’ve been trying to teach that.”
The show at the Arts Alliance Gallery will focus heavily on the teaching process itself. Techniques will be isolated and highlighted so that the show will represent the technical challenges as well as the design theory modern weavers must understand. For a while in the old days, a weaver might have created a piece from an artist's sketch; today, weavers are the artists.
“We’ve straddled the fine art / craft line, where we get put into the decorative arts often." She compares weaving to painting, in which she's dabbled. They’re similar, she says, but aren’t seen that way. “Weaving has always had a craft implication, which is interesting because painters paint on canvas, so there’s some textile in there. It’s just ours already has the color in it.”