Artist of the Month: February 2014, Caron Penney

Artist of the Month: February 2014, Caron Penney Caron Penney At West Dean Tapestry Studio

This month we interview weaver Caron Penney. She talks to us about making tapestries, the way weaving is changing, and fabricating work for Tracey Emin.

Ruth Wilbur: What led you to first start weaving?

Caron Penney: It was during my Foundation at Portsmouth University that I made my first tapestry. There was something about the construction that really interested me. During my BA (Hons) Degree in Constructed Textiles at Middlesex University I was quite close to specialising in cloth weaving, but finally decided on tapestry because I wanted to render a single image and not a pattern in weaving.

RW: Tell us about the process of weaving - how long does it take? What are the different steps?

CP: Tapestry weaving is one of the singularly most subtle and delicate, yet powerfully commanding, textile mediums. 

Tapestry is made with a warp and weft, the weft being the picture-maker and the warp the skeleton on which to draw. In most cases, before starting to weave, the artist has conceived an image in the form of a design, painting, drawing or digital print to make a cartoon from. The cartoon is a template for the weaver to interpret into a woven form.

The weaving itself starts with the warping up of a loom or frame and this can take hours or weeks depending on the size of the artwork being made. Constructing the tapestry can take days, weeks, months and even years. The defining factors are the weave structure, fine or coarse, the detail in our image and the number of colours and/or weft threads used.  I have known tapestry to be defined as one of the most time-consuming crafts still in existence but I think that all hand crafts take time. 

RW: People have been making tapestries for hundreds of years. Is the craft changing? 

CP: Tapestry is a hand craft and although the product can be shaped, moulded, burnt, branded, sit in the palm of your hand or have architectural proportions, how we make it will remain the same, if woven by hand. There are other methods of production, most notably Jacquard Weaving, which today tends to be a digital method of weaving. This method originates from the production of cloth where both the warp and weft are seen, and in most recent years this process has been digitalised. This is amazing technology and there are notable artists working with this method who have studied and understood the weave structures. Chief among them is notably Ismini Samanidou, who has researched, textile techniques worldwide and is interested in the way weaving exists as an autonomous language.

However, I am less convinced about the woven work of Grayson Perry and Chuck Close, who both make Jacquard weavings and describe them as ‘tapestry’, since they represent a single image, as opposed to a repeat design, which is traditional in this medium. My hesitation isn’t that they are using this method, but is more to do with the product itself. There are still huge differences between a hand-woven tapestry and a Jacquard woven one - something, I have to say, I am pleased about.

RW: You worked with Tracey Emin to create the works ‘Black Cat’ and ‘Keeping you in Mind' – what was that like? 

CP: I have been very lucky to work with some interesting people and one of those was the artist Tracey Emin. I enjoyed weaving the 'Black Cat', 2011 tapestry and 'Keeping you in Mind', 2013, the latter being one of the Vanishing Lake series of works (one of four pieces woven by a team of weavers at West Dean Tapestry Studio in 2011). Tracey Emin’s paintings have some of the most sublime brush strokes in them, which are just exquisite for the medium of tapestry. I enjoy the skill of interpretation which allows you to mix fine threads of wool, linen or cotton together in multiple colours and to change colours with the most incredible subtlety. Tracey’s tapestries have this throughout and they are a testament to outstanding skill. 

You can learn more about your craft/art by interpreting the work of artists and designers than you can if you restrict yourself to only producing your own art. This is because what interests me the most about tapestry is the skill, and to work with another artist allows me an opportunity to use it in its purest form. The trick is to not be emotionally attached in any way to the artwork you are rendering, and only concentrate on the craft itself, and the ability to translate that art into this medium.

RW: Is there still a divide between art and craft? Does it matter?

CP: I firmly sit in the camp of 'does it matter'? I really like the work of  Edmund De Waal, Aino Kajaniemi, Louise Bourgeois, Katie Bunnell, Tracey Emin and I suppose you could say that they use a mix of art and craft.

I believe that artists are using a mixture of resources to construct their ideas/concepts into art and craftspeople are conceiving ideas/concepts and moving their work into areas which obliterate the gap between art and craft. I would suggest that perhaps it's the boxes we put people in that seem to create a divide, or perhaps that language doesn’t allow for a more cohesive word that units them all. We all make art - it's the skills that we use and the dialogue between the object or the concept and the viewer that is crucial.

RW: Who influences you? 

CP: Inspirational women. Valerie Power was Director of West Dean Tapestry Studio from 1993 - 1996 and had a profound effect on my career. She developed in me a love of tapestry which is everlasting. 

Also, Louise Bourgeois, for so many things: her art, her determination, her deep understanding of who an artist needs to be and what they need to sacrifice. One of the most inspirational moments was seeing her retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York. To say that it was New York or the Guggenheim would be wrong, it was all about Louise. Her work 'Le Défi (Defiance)', 1991, is truly inspirational and it represents (for me) the fragility of life and what we have to do to get through it. 


Caron Penney STOP

Caron Penney, STOP, 2009

RW: Tell us about your own work. You mention using weaving as a kind of 'visual diary'

CP: My work is autobiographical and in some ways, due to my workload, I have always notated thoughts and feelings into diaries or small notebooks. I also like to use symbols to convey those observations. 'Stop' originates from the pedestrian crossing symbol in New York City. Because Manhattan’s road system is constructed on a grid of streets and avenues, when one red hand shows, so do all the others on that Avenue. This repetition of holding or stopping the human being and then letting us all go at the same time amuses me and throws up questions about control and who has it.

RW: Colour is also important isn't it?

Yes, I choose to limit my palette, selecting colours carefully. There is a skill in knowing which colour to use. Just because you can use every colour in the spectrum doesn’t mean that you should. Understanding the limits and the balance of an image is critical. I also like the challenge. 

RW: You also talk about the notion of the weaver producing an entirely bespoke tapestry which shows the weaver’s unique style. Can you tell us more about this idea? 

CP: In a workshop situation, when a team of weavers work on the same project, there is a lead weaver who defines the interpretation and skills required for the process. In this case the approach to representation needs to be the same and therefore the team work as one. You can’t bring your own style into a workshop situation, as there is only one hand that should be seen and that is the hand of the artist. However, you can have a Studio style.

While I was the Director at West Dean Tapestry Studio (WDTS) and now in my own workshop -  Weftfaced - my style involved the subtle interpretation of the artist's mark. My specific interest is in the careful consideration of colour mixing and delicate hatching of threads, which is apparent in the Tracey Emin work and an earlier piece I produced for John Hubbard. I also designed and made a tapestry called 'Web of Time' for WDTS and this represents this ability to dye colours and mix subtle blends of threads together.

RW: You mentioned your new weaving studio, Weftfaced, which you set up in October 2013. Where does the name come from? 

CP: The words 'tapestry' and 'warp' have been used in so many different ways, for novels, music and so on. My partner and I wanted to find something else. So we looked at the word weft. After all Weft is the face of tapestry!

RW: And what led you to set up the studio? 

CP: To concentrate on making tapestry. I also feel that if tapestry is to regain a presence in society, then we also need to teach the subject. Currently there are few universities and colleges supporting tapestry weaving and therefore it is mostly taught through further education and short courses, something that I really enjoy and want to push forward. The consultancy aspect of Weftfaced involves talking to businesses and speaking to them about the benefits of this ancient craft. There’s lots to do and I’m thrilled to be doing it.

Interview by Ruth Wilbur, February 2014

About Caron Penney

Caron Penney has been producing tapestries for almost 20 years and is a Master Tapestry Weaver. In October 2013 she established a tapestry weaving studio called Weftfaced whose objectives are to support the heritage craft of woven tapestry through making, education, exhibitions and consultancy.

The tapestry Caron Penney made for Martin Creed (Work No. 1683) is on display at the Hayward Gallery in the Martin Creed retrospective show 'What's the point of it?' until 27 April 2014. She is also showing new work at the Chichester Art Trail in May and is part of a group show at the Zimmer Stewart Gallery in Arundel this summer. More details available shortly on Caron's profile. 

View Caron Penny's profile >

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