The tapestry is monumental. Its 80 miles of white nylon strands hang from a square metal frame in billowy folds and braids which suggest its name, Cloudlight. This gossamer mass brings to mind an old European custom of ordering tapestries by the “room” (to upholster furniture as well as to cover walls), except that this one would fill a room of nearly 800 square feet. Cloudlight is hanging at the International Bienniale of Tapestry in Lausanne, Switzerland, the most important tapestry exhibition in the world, and gives notice that the ancient craft is richer by a young Canadian virtuoso. Susan Watson, from Toronto, is one of 43 participants at the exhibition (chosen from 1,054 applicants), and only the fourth Canadian accepted since the Biennial began 16 years ago. The first three, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, and Helen Frances Gregor are well-known, established artists, and Watson hopes to be thought of in the same terms soon.
Watson, 30, the daughter of an upholsterer and interior decorator, is a relative newcomer to tapestry, or environmental art as she calls it. She interested herself in designing fabrics on a loom while studying architecture at the University of Toronto, and it wasn’t until years later that she was commissioned to do a major work. But by 1976 her experiments had taken her to the limits of conventional tapestry. She began to work in outdoor “sculpture,” and her Windward Passage was recognized at the 10th International Sculpture Conference held at Toronto’s Harbourfront Outdoor Sculpture Show in 1978. That work consisted of 85 feet of black nylon fibre twined into different lengths of rope hanging from a pedestrian overpass. Her art had moved off the wall and into space.
Cloudlight dates from the same period, when Watson drew from her architectural training to make tapestries designed, as she explains it, to be part of a building rather than simply to hang in it. She was also able to draw on a flair for persuasion and luck in getting Du
Pont of Canada to donate all the fibre, engineers to waive consulting fees, about 30 helpers to work for minimum wages, and the landlord to donate working space. Even so, the enormous project cost $76,000 in equipment, wages and transportation, and Watson was forced to mortgage her house before it was over. Until the end of September, Cloudlight will be the central feature of the courtyard in the Palais de Rumine, which houses the Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts in Lausanne.
Her timing could not have been better, for Cloudlight comes just as interest in tapestry is rising. “There is a worldwide revival of the tapestry art form, and Canada is playing a strong part in it,” says Helen Gregor, head of textiles at the Ontario College of Art. She has spent almost 30 years in the medium and along with Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec, is the Canadian name most often heard in the international world of tapestry. Rousseau-Vermette has exhibited at the
Biennial six times, and her sensuous works are in demand throughout the world.
For Watson, the path to such celebrity is likely being blazed in Switzerland right now, but it will require more of the same sort of determination that went into Cloudlight—days spent in a cluttered studio wearing a face mask against the Fiberglas particles which hang in the air. But even in moments of success her craft has its perils, as Watson discovered when making Bell Wall, 1976. She worked alone for a year putting together the enormous waterfall of color that hangs in the main lobby of Toronto’s Bell Canada Centre and was paid, as it turned out, nothing. Although the tapestry cost Bell $22,000, a jump in the price of wool meant that after her materials had been paid off, Watson took home only an artist’s satisfaction and 10 stiff fingers.
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