This was originally published in the Visual Artists’ News Sheet | July – August 2018, and can be found here.
“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult.” 1
Oliver Sears Gallery is located in a Georgian building on Molesworth Street. It was designed as a home, but now its rooms are beautifully used to show artwork. Recently shown at the gallery was Sarah Walker’s ‘Tree Drawings on the Sky’, a series of nine tapestries based on drawings from the period immediately prior to the death of her mother, the art critic Dorothy Walker (1929–2002). While walking to the upstairs gallery, the building’s former use as a living space was tangible. The setting transported me to the story of a family told by these tapestries.
All but one of the pieces depicts a single tree. Each tree tapestry has a dominant colour and a distinct style, depicting a frozen moment. Trees can symbolise many things, from family relationships and nature, to sustainability and life. Walker’s tapestries feature trees she encountered whilst driving around Ireland, during the winter of her mother’s death. However, it was interesting to notice that eight of the nine pieces do not give a sense of travel or motion, and that the titles, which include Spring Tree and Autumn Tree, do not mention winter. It felt like these lushly woven tapestries are Walker’s poetic lament.
The ninth tapestry, Road, stood out in terms of size, format and technique. Larger than the other pieces, it depicted a full scene of trees planted on the side of a road at night. Weaved in a tighter knit of wool and silk, this tapestry-painting acts as the narrative driver of Walker’s story. Headlights are depicted on the grey road but there are no cars. Together with the other darker work, Tree Before Dark, these pieces told of the loneliness we sometimes feel when life – and sometimes the life of others – takes over. Prior to turning the work into tapestries, Walker captured the trees using thick impasto layers of paint, giving the impression that they are popping out of the canvas. The other works, which have the quality of drawings-turned-paintings-turned-tapestries, featured boldly coloured images, placed in the centre of a white background. The mix of weaved materials worked very well with this idea of impasto. The white backgrounds remained flat and allowed the longer threads in different colours and textures to give the pieces a sculptural quality. They existed like symbolic objects, silent and soft, calling to mind moments of waiting for a cycle to draw to its close.
Compared to the use of tapestries within wider contemporary art practice – where it can often form part of a socio-political commentary – Walker’s use of the medium is quite personal. Notable artists using tapestry in their work include: Isabel Nolan, who creates woven paintings in response to geographically and historically specific stories; Jim Ricks, whose Afghanistan-made hand knotted carpets display drone catalogues; and Grayson Perry, who uses tapestry as an upper-class marker of wealth, to convey intricate storytelling. Walker’s choice of style, production, and even her choice of tapestry fabricator, stayed true to her family’s story. Here, again, the external detail revealed in the exhibition statement completes this narrative: Sarah Walker produced these pieces with the same fabricator as her mother’s best friend, Irish artist Patrick Scott (1921–2014).
The interactions between the quiet sitting room-like space, the thickly painted tapestries, and the cluster of darker, tighter weaved pieces, successfully conveyed the role of trees within Walker’s story, as witnessing her mother’s last few months. The layering and mixing of colours made visible the process of production, in what I would consider to be accomplished ways. It would be interesting to see such techniques used with more complex imagery, while pushing this impasto-weaving concept even further might produce pieces that would exist as painted-sculptural tapestries. Having said that, ‘Tree Drawings on the Sky’ successfully created a sense of intimacy, through telling the story of an inevitable time in any family’s life.
1 Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte, (Trees. Reflections and Poems) (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1984)
Dr Moran Been-noon is an independent curator and artist based in Dublin.