Category: Process Notes

Process Notes (Part II) Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila

Below, the second installment of Eduardo Portillo’s and Maria Dávila’s textile travels. In this post, they share their inspirations and plans for future work, in which they will continue to combine colors and textures “to conceive moments in which everything is possible, that moment capable of creating imagined worlds and impossible journeys.” At the end of Part I, the artists were creating works that reflected the hours of the day — from sunrise to dusk, night and dawn — and exploring their interest in the intensity of blue depending on the light at various times. Here, in additional remarks adapted from their European Textile Network Conference presentation in March, they speak of more experiments.

bronze sculpture
Detail: 6pd Venus, Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila, bronze, 39” x 6.75” x 5”, 2014. Photo by Tom Grotta

“We began to experiment in a bronze foundry to imagine the passage of time in our textiles — how these would look like many years in the future or as archaeological remains. We experimented with the textiles to recreate shapes, folds and wrinkles. We used textiles to prepare molds for bronze cast. We also explored the patina process in cooper ribbons to mix them with metallic threads and we have woven stainless steel using silk and moriche palm fiber as support.

Map of Portillos Mountain travels
Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila, observations for their mountain travels, 2014. Photo curtesy of Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila

At a certain moment, due to the growing political conflict in our country, we sought refuge in the mountains and began to travel to places further and further away from our home but still within our region. We visited many remote places with rugged landscapes, places where people continue to live resiliently, understanding the geographic and cultural space in which they live. We tried to see carefully and looked for moments of harmony in mountaineer communities that meet for a common purpose, beyond their differences, especially during the traditional festivals.

White Dwarf
Detail of 20pd White Dwarf, Eduardo-Portillo-&-Mariá-Eugenia-Dávila, silk, moriche fiber, alpaca , metallic yarns and completely dyed with Indigo and other natural dyes, 72″ x 48″, 2016. Permanent collection of the The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Tom Grotta

During one of those trips, looking for meanings, we found a very long line in the mountains, like a human drawing on the topography and we wondered what could be this? These are called pit fences. This fantastic and laborious idea of ​​using the void as a border surprised us. The pit fences are made up of hundreds of consecutive deep holes measuring 1m x 2m x 1m, they divide spaces and prevent cattle from falling off cliffs. We were impressed by the capacity of these people to give solutions to a problem in a place where no stones or wood was available.

Detail of Océano Cósmico
Detail: 22pd Océano Cósmico, Eduardo Portillo & Mariá Eugenia Dávila, silk, cotton, alpaca, indigo and copper leaf, 59” x 31”, 2022. Photo by Tom Grotta

We got excited about the idea and hope of going through these pits like portals and reaching the universe to find imaginary celestial bodies that exist in the interstellar space like cosmic dust and gases  which we have tried to weave and developed Nebulae, White Dwarfs, Stellar Remnants, Moon Codes and Cosmic Oceans, built by spaces of colors and textures to conceive moments in which everything is possible, that moment capable to create imagined worlds and impossible journeys.

Naked Mountains
Naked Mountains at the Southern Town of Mérida, Venezuela. Photo curtesy of Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila

On another trip to the highland communities, that are about 3000 meters above sea level, we found imagined evidences of giant’s existence in the Venezuelan Andes, a new trace for reflection and work in the future.

We continue working, traveling and interacting with the people that surround us. Our world is here, in these mountains, in small spaces, they are safe territories which help us to create, to build deep interconnections with life, family, friends and nature giving us the guidelines to follow in the midst of turbulence and changes.”

Process Notes (Part I): Eduardo Portillo and Maria Dávila

This week’s Process Notes offers an intimate view of María Dávila’s and Eduardo Portillo’s artistic approach. In this post, the artists, based in Venezuela, share the wide-ranging journeys they have taken to India, China, and throughout Venezuela to advance their artistic practice and technique. They also give us insight into the ecological and cosmic preoccupations that inspire their work. They first presented these remarks to the 20th European Textile Network Conference, Codes: stories in textiles in February 2023 Lodz, Poland.

María Dávila's and Eduardo Portillo family
María Dávila’s and Eduardo Portillo’s family in the mountains, 2014.

“We live and work as a duo in Mérida, Venezuelan Andes.

We believe that our work purpose is to find and develop ideas from the perspective of textiles. When we find an idea and intend to relate it with textiles our main task is to understand the essence and the implications that gravitate around it, we start from the acknowledgment and admiration of peoples and places where the materials and processes that we use are born.

Our first textile idea was to produce silk in Venezuela, to understand the world of silk we went to study for a long time in China and then in India, upon our return we established a mulberry plantation and created the facilities to produce silk on a vertical integrated model in Mérida. After many years we found the textile fibers from Venezuela and this experience led us to travel our own country, to question our vision of life and to find a new purpose in weaving. At the same time, the fascination for natural dyes and especially for the blue of indigo led us to fantastic places of production of this color in Thailand, India and China, afterwards working with metals and textiles opened up a new three-dimensional world for us.

indigo experimentation
María Dávila experimenting with indigo

We are immersed in the search and discovery of an imagined Cosmos in the Southern towns of Mérida. The transversal axis of all these projects is the journey, the traveler’s surprise at what has never seen before and the acknowledgment of ourselves in the other. The result of all these searches is an accumulation of experiences and thoughts that we intend to materialize in textiles.

A brief of our textile journey
Venezuela is a country located in the north of South America that is overlooking the Caribbean Sea and it is also part of the Andes mountain range.

After many years of work and moved by the results observed with silk, we participated in various experiences in Europe, Asia and North Africa, we worked with social development projects with the Italian cooperation for the Andean countries and we dedicated ourselves to weave a world around silk. However, something was missing, probably the connection with our own country, so we started to travel around Venezuela.

On a trip to the Orinoco river we were inspired by Yekuana’s basketry, great weavers from this region, we developed a body of works that pay homage to the Yekuana cosmology, we talked about the turtle back, the monkey, the bat, the jaguar´s face, the rain and the stars. This work was shown at the exhibition From Silk to Venezuelan Fibers but again, something was missing, without knowing it, we were in search of our own identity.

indigo detail
María Dávila’s and Eduardo Portillo Atardecer (sunset) detail. Photo by Tom Grotta

In a second journey to the Orinoco´s Delta, a new world was opened for us when we understood that after traveling so far through many countries in search of silk, we had not seen what was nearby, what was evident, what is sometimes there which we don’t see, and so we found the Venezuela textile fibers.

Venezuela’s vegetable fibers come from vines, palms, agaves, bromeliads, shrubs and tree barks. They are little known to most Venezuelans but have a great importance to the communities that process them due to the immediacy of their use and their cultural and economic value. They use them for basketries, ropes, hammocks, roofs, ritual objects and many other purposes. Most of these fibers are collected, few are cultivated, each one contains specific information about its origin and the culture of the people who transform them.

indigo tapestries
María Dávila’s and Eduardo Portillo’s Amanecer (sunrise) and Atardecer (sunset) tapestries. Photo by Tom Grotta

We found not only materials that would allow us to broaden the spectrum of our textile ideas, we also found a diversity of people, customs and ways of life that we didn’t think would exist. We were amazed by so much cultural richness. It made us reflect on such an abundance of natural resources. Once we came back in the studio we experimented with them, we tried to understand their textile qualities and to find a way to fuse them with other fibers as silk, wool, linen and cotton, trying to preserve the characteristics of each one and allow their differences — this has helped us to merge the most traditional processes with contemporary textiles.

At the same time, we worked with natural dyes and devoted a special time to the indigo culture. We were looking for blue in our landscape and realized that we can only find it in the sky since we live in the mountains. We decided to merge all our previous projects, the silk, the vegetable fibers, the natural dyes and we created a mosaic of different layers of experiences for a body of works called Azul Indigo that was exhibited in 2012.

We recreated the hours of the day, the sunrise, the noon, the sunset and the night, the night’s shadows, at dawn and others times in which we explored our interest in the blue color depending on the intensity of light according with the hour of the day.”

In two weeks, we’ll share Part II, including the artists’ experiments in bronze and their continuing search for ways to illustrate the imagined Cosmos.

Process Notes: Christine Joy on Gathering Willow

Rosette early Christine Joy basket
“My early attempts in weaving sticks together. This one is called Rosette. It was the first time I could see some rhythm and pattern occurring. Rosette, brown willow, Christine Joy, 1988.

In July, I was invited to speak at the NBO Virtually Woven conference on the subject of how I collect the natural material I use to weave my sculptural baskets. I was initially reluctant, as I have had little experience with Zoom, and I questioned how much I would have to say about my collecting process. I am glad that I accepted the invitation as I discovered that virtual conferences are great. They provide an opportunity to see and hear many different people in their studios talking about the work they do. There is something casual and friendly about it. I am also glad because it gave me the opportunity to recall how my basketmaking all began.

My annual practice of collecting willow, which I have been doing for the last 40 years, is a process that actually began 10 years before I ever considered making a basket.

Christine Joy Cottonwood basket
Creek Bed, Cottonwood, red dogwood, sticks and bark, Christine Joy, 1988. “Trying to use everything I had collected and it did end up looking like something you might find in a dried creek bed.”

In the summer of 1973, I was staying at my parents’ home in rural, upstate New York. My mother and I took a class in rug braiding from a local woman. She had a large barn that stood empty until fall when the apple harvest would fill it up. While the barn was empty, she made rugs and taught others how it was done. What ensued after the first class was a summer of enthusiastic hunting, processing, and braiding. My mother and I became a focused team and there was a rhythm to our days.

We would go out early to hunt in second-hand clothing stores for wool garments. We would return home delighted with our discoveries. We would deconstruct the clothes, then wash and dry them, and cut them into strips. We sewed the short strips into long strips, then braided them. I was in charge of the braiding, usually staying up late into the night to braid all the material we had prepared.

Christine Joy Portrait
2021, collecting at my favorite willow patch. Photo courtesy of the artist.

By the end of the summer our rug was finished. It had been a fine obsession, made better by sharing it with my mom. The hunting, gathering, preparing, and creating process had become a part of me that I would put to use 10 years later when I decided to make a basket.

By the spring of 1982, my interest in making rugs was waning. I felt I needed a change and making a basket didn’t seem so much different from making a rug. So I went hunting in my back yard. I started cutting branches, stalks, whatever looked promising. I wasn’t looking for willow at the time, or any particular kind of plant, just branches that might work to create a basket shape. I used string to tie some of the branches together when I couldn’t get them to hold in place. What I remember most of that first time collecting material is the feeling of adventure and fun and wonder. Similar to the excitement I felt when I began braiding rugs.

1988 Christine Joy cottonwood basket
Less cottonwood, more willow and an attempt at a rim, Christine Joy, 1988. “Can’t remember its name.”

I hadn’t planned on continuing to make baskets. Luckily, I met someone who was also new to weaving baskets. She had taken classes from a willow basketmaker and was starting to collect her own material, so I joined her and learned a lot just by watching how she collected. I had a tendency to make big messy piles of sticks. She neatly laid her sticks out straight and then tied them in bundles. I followed her example when I saw how easily she could pack those bundles into her car. Collecting with my new friend increased my interest in making baskets. Having a friend, or a community, can do that.

Once I knew what willow looked like, I started seeing it everywhere. I would discover a patch growing in the summer and take note to return to it in the fall. I learned early on that fall, when the sap was down and the leaves had fallen, was the best season to collect. In my early forages for material, I cast a wide net. I could identify willow and I knew it was a traditional basket material, but I also collected rocks, pieces of bark, interesting sticks, cottonwood, cattail, and snake grass.

Sometimes I would climb the yellow willow trees to cut the suckers only to discover the tree willow is rather snappish. What ever I collected I would haul back home and play around with to see if I could construct baskets with the material. I remember being totally engaged with this task. I sometimes wonder if I am related to a magpie, those large beautiful birds that build huge nests in trees and line the nests with objects that they collect.

Christine Joy Pink Basket
Pink basket [by Christine Joy] is my first basket that occurred after I cut down stuff in my backyard. Had to plaster it with paper pulp clay to hold it together. You might look at it and think, I wonder what made her continue with basketry. I wonder that when I look at it, But then I remember it was a lot of fun.” 1984. Photo by Christine Joy.

I discovered a book by Char Ter Beest called Wisconsin Willow where she described how she collected her material along roadsides and in patches in Wisconsin. I still remember her advice to always take food and water because once you start collecting you don’t want to stop. I took it to heart, and never venture out without something to eat and drink.

I liked using the willow right after I collected it, when it was fresh and flexible. This meant I would have to weave with it before it dried so much it couldn’t be bent. This is different from a traditional willow basket maker who would dry the willow completely and then soak it. Soaking it makes it flexible again, and it shrinks less than fresh willow does. I had tried soaking willow, but I never really got the hang of it.

I have had to adjust my weaving style to compensate for the major shrinkage that happens with the green willow. I also started storing my willow in a freezer at the suggestion of Joanne Schantz, a willow basket-maker and teacher of the Amana Colonies. She said it would keep until I was ready to weave and also keep the willow bug-free. This information was very useful because I could prolong the fresh state of the willow for years.

Until 1999 I collected in many different places. Some close enough to home I would walk with a pack-basket to carry the sticks. Sometimes I would go as far away as Wyoming, a five-hour drive.

In all this collecting I learned a lot about willow, and it became my primary focus. How the feel of the withe could tell me a bit about how it would weave. How the look of the bark was an indication of health. Some years the willow would be pocked and breakable, and I would cut it down and put it directly in the compost.

I would cut it even though I couldn’t use it because I had discovered the best willow to weave with was the year-old growth. Cutting a year-old branch down to the ground and leaving enough length for more branches to grow from the nodes is called coppicing. It is a way to stimulate growth and does not hurt the willow. The next year the willow would come back and be healthy again and more abundant.

Christine Joy collecting willow
2021, collecting at my favorite willow patch. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I learned not to collect on a windy day. Wearing glasses is good protection for the eyes. It can really hurt to have a stick whip back and smack you in the face. Collecting alone can be a wonderful meditative time. Collecting with a friend is a wonderful shared experience. A little of both is a great combination.

In 1999 I was invited to collect a friend’s willow. She had planted it, but discovered it was much bigger than she wanted. I went out to look and discovered the most beautiful tall willow. My husband and I cut it all down, and it was enough to fill my freezer. For the past 22 years that has been my main source of material. I am thankful I have a patch I can count on. The area I live in has changed a lot since my early days, and I am reluctant to collect in public areas and during hunting season. All the places I go now are privately owned. People who live close to a potential forest fire area keep the land around their house cut and free of brush. I frequently benefit from this practice and my gathering in these areas is welcome.

I look back at how I started with great enthusiasm, but little knowledge. I knew I had the tenacity to figure it out because I had first-hand knowledge of hunt, gather, process, and create. I didn’t have my mom with me this time or an instructor, but I met friends, read books, and joined guilds.

I also had willow, a material that continues to amaze me with its abundance and beauty. It delights all my senses. When I see a bundle of willow, I think it is the most wonderful sight. When I am out in a patch, I feel like I am collecting something as valuable as gold. 

Christine Joy
September 2022

Process Notes: Wendy Wahl

Wendy Wahl is one of 10 artists whose work will appear in Papertownwhich opens on February 4th at the Fitchburg Art Museum in Massachusetts. Wahl is intentional in her work. She takes a broad sociocultural view of the materials she uses and the meanings that can be advanced through art. Wahl has shared with us information about her process, which we, in turn, are sharing with you:

Detail of Re-Seeing by Wendy Wahl
Detail: 42ww Re-Seeing, Wendy Wahl, 1980 World Book pages, wood
40.75″ x 30″ x 2.5″, 2022. Photo by Tom Grotta

In general

“By accident or design, my work is about cycles and the rich layers of meaning that an awareness to these fluctuations provides. These pieces continue an idiosyncratic exploration into who we are and our place in time through the use of materials that belong to a collective consciousness. The purpose of paper has changed yet for over two millennia it has played a significant role in the identity of cultures and the relationship to their environments,” says Wahl. “At the turn of the 21st century I began to view printed paper, particularly encyclopedias, from an elemental standpoint and as a material for expressing the ephemeral and the everlasting. Deconstructing volumes of information to reconstruct the parts through embodied knowledge is cyclical in nature. 

Encyclopedia pages are used as a material in part because as we know the medium can be the message. If these works are considered landscapes they appear to have captured a moment in some metamorphosis the exact context of which is only suggested. Through movement, a meeting of subtle colors and textures, emotions and ideas emerge that seem to represent fundamental spiraling patterns of existence.”

Re-Seeing Encyclopædia page wall art by Wendy Wahl
42ww Re-Seeing, Wendy Wahl, 1980 World Book pages, wood, 40.75″ x 30″ x 2.5″, 2022, Photo by Tom Grotta

On Re-Seeing 

Re-seeing created in 2022 of World Book pages will be exhibited in Papertown at the Fitchburg MuseumIt also appeared in Crowdsourcing: a survey of textile and mixed media art at browngrotta arts in 2022. Wahl wrote the following about the work: 

“Crowdsourcing information is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary was one of the first projects to make use of the technique 150 years ago. Today Wikipedia is the default digital encyclopedia. The arrival of the latter is one of the reasons why I began, 17 years ago, to transform the contents of original bound encyclopedias into other forms and meanings creating alternative perspectives. This diptych is composed of 1980 World Book pages. Light, dark, color, hidden text and images emerge from the patterned surface inviting a closer look. The work appears to change as the viewer moves toward and around it encouraging the mind and the senses to notice anew.  Each time I deconstruct a discarded encyclopedia book, I revisit that which has come before, bound in stillness, yet part of the present moment, asking me to re-see in ways that engage my mind, body and spirit.”

Bhavantu Encyclopædia page wall art by Wendy Wahl
40ww Bhavantu, Wendy Wahl, 1962 Encyclopædia Britannica pages, wood, 24″ x 24″ x 3″, 2020, Photo by Tom Grotta

On Bhavantu

Bhanvantu is intriguing in shape and color. Wahl writes about its impetus: Pushing the chair away and rising from the round table I walk past the open sliding door leading to an outdoor wonderland where my hidden seat awaits behind the banana tree near the fence. Reluctantly I take seven steps away from that view to arrive in front of the built-in shelves where the 1960 something set of Encyclopedia Britannica are held. A through Z ready to be laid open. Collected information, knowledge and experiences offered in printed form. All I could think was: Isn’t everything I need to learn outside? ‘Bring volumes 9 and 17,’ calls the voice from the adjoining room. Decades later, the deconstructed paper from similar volumes feels like home in my hands, or at least my memory of those moments. Removing the pages from their codex can be as jarring as cutting the limbs of a tree. An inward focus directs the spiral parts to be assembled anew as a reminder of the importance of our collective thoughts, words and actions.”  

Encyclopædia page sculptures by Rebound: Mixed Volumnes 3 by Wendy Wahl
20ww Rebound: Mixed Volumes 3, Wendy Wahl, discarded/deconstructed/restructured encylopedia pages, 40″ x 16″ x 17″ ; 50″ x 78″ x 17″ ; 60″ x 95″ x 17″, ; 101.5cm x 40.5cm x 43cm; 127cm x 198cm x 43cm; 152.5cm x 241cm x 43cm, 2009. Photo by Tom Grotta

She explains the title: The title comes from the last part of the Sanskrit sloka: ‘ Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu.’ It translates in English, too: may all beings be free and may my thoughts words and actions contribute to that freedom. Bhavantu translates more literally: ‘state of unified existence must be so.'”

Detail of Seeds(of knowledge) WB vol.18/19 Encyclopædia page wall art by Wendy Wahl
26ww Seeds(of knowledge) WB vol.18/19, Wendy Wahl, World Book encyclopedia pages on inked panel, 21.25” x 34.25” x 1.625”, 2011. Photo by Tom Grotta

To see more examples of Wendy Wahl’s work visit our website.

Process Notes: Aleksandra Stoyanov

Aleksandra Stoyanov small woven sculpture
Aleksandra Stoyanov, 9as Reflection wool, plexiglas, 8” x 8.125” x 3.375, 2004
photo by Tom Grotta

We recently corresponded with Aleksandra Stoyanov, known as Sasha, about her practice and influences. Here is what we learned:
On Influences Sasha began drawing in childhood. She was not very healthy as a child. She spent a lot of time in the hospital and this influenced her further understanding of people and life itself. 

Aleksandra Stoyanov, JUDGES wool, sisal
Aleksandra Stoyanov, 5as JUDGES wool, sisal, 91” x 60”, 1998. Photo by Tom Grotta

Her mother sent Sasha to a Art School in Odessa to study drawing. Afterschool she attended Odessa Theater Art College where she studied stenography, graphic arts, painting and theater. Her first great art inspiration in college was her teacher Leon Alshits. He gave her an understanding of composition and the understanding that objects can speak with the same significance as a man and that objects have their own biographies. Studying in Theatrical college altered Sasha’s vision of the world she lived in. Among other things, Sasha was inspired by both Medieval Art and especially taken with black-and-white photography. 

Aleksandra Stoyanov, Personal space wool, linen, silk
Aleksandra Stoyanov, Personal space wool, linen, silk tapestry, 63” x 208.7” 2004

After college Sasha worked in theater production but was disappointed. She left the theater and began experimenting with threads. Sasha loved playing with threads. Feeling a thread for Sasha was feeling a living material. The feeling of thread as a live material and a desire to draw with it brought Sasha to develop her own technique. She began working on a small, simple frame loom working in bright colors.

Aleksandra Stoyanov, From Chaos to Reality
Aleksandra Stoyanov, 2as From Chaos to Reality, 103″ x 101″, 2003

In the 90s, Sasha  and her husband Yan Belinky, packed up and left Odessa to get away from the anti-semitism there that was growing worse. They chose Israel as a better environment to bring up their daughter and give her a motherland. They had no idea what to expect since there was no internet. They just picked up and flew to Israel.

Aleksandra Stoyanov tapestry, From the First Person I
Detail of Aleksandra Stoyanov tapestry, From the First Person I, wool, sisal, silk, cotton threads, 49.25” x 55.6”, 1999 From the First Person II is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Tom Grotta

In Israel, Sasha learned from Zilli Landman how to work on large looms for her tapestry. Landman helped her refine her technique for weaving on these large looms.

FORWORD, Aleksandra Stoyanov
4as FORWORD, Aleksandra Stoyanov, brown paper and thread, , 106.5″ x 45.5″

Sasha began making her own handmade threads from the wool of the Avassi sheep. Sasha makes all of her threads from their wool, which she says are the only sheep whose wool has the texture she prefers. She dyes the wool in large batches to create the palette for her works.
Sasha’s color palette has completely changed since moving to Israel.  She fell in love with the colors of the burnt summer dessert. Sasha has found that grey-brown hues can suggest more colors and be more expressive than bright colors. Burnt trees, grass and rocks have been the main colors of her palette ever since.