Interview with Deborah Corsini
Deborah Corsini, weaving teacher at the City College of San Francisco, curator from 2006 to 2014 of the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, is an esteemed textile artist who creates tapestries with an intuitive and spontaneous approach, transmitting sensations of dynamism, energy and movement.
Deborah Corsini’s artwork tells the story of the artist’s strong bond with the Indian weavers of America: Navajo’s suggestions and wedge weaving techniques are the basis of her work and an essential source of inspiration.
Color is a fundamental ingredient in her tapestries, the natural elements, the combination of water/fire and Sky/Earth, the symbolic and abstract forms, the graphic complexity expressed through a skillful use of the line, represent the constituent elements of her tapestries and through them the artist captures and expresses her personal point of view on the world in which we live.
Below is a link to the artist’s website:
“Nightlife”, 2003, 28”x 72”, wool, Embassy Collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
Deborah, can you tell us how and why you started your career in textile art?
I have always been an artistic person and drawing and making crafts (crochet, embroidery, and sewing) have always been a part of my life. Although I went off to college at New York University to study English literature and eventually teach, I was soon enticed by the art department and started taking classes in drawing, painting and printmaking. I transferred from NYU and went to the Rhode Island School of Design. It was there that I received a more comprehensive background in design, printmaking and art history.
And it was at RISD that I walked into the weaving department and saw and experienced a weaving studio filled with the intricacies, textures and colors of handwoven cloth. I was completely fascinated and thus began my own adventures with weaving and textile art. I took a few floor loom weaving classes and workshops in different techniques (tablet weaving, tapestry, spinning, ikat, Peruvian backstrap weaving etc.) but my focus has been primarily tapestry and I consider myself to be self-taught tapestry weaver.
My first tapestry was woven on a frame loom and had a lot of eccentric weaving in it before I even knew what that meant. The weaving led to some early commissions, teaching opportunities and later to two careers in the textile field—one as a fabric designer for a company that manufactured fabrics for the quilt market and the second as a curator for the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles.
“ColeusLeaf”, copyright Deborah Corsini
How are your tapestries inspired by Navajo weaving? In design, colors, weaving techniques…
One of the pieces that I grew up with was a Navajo Yei rug that my parents had bought during their travels in the southwest.The Yei rugs are figurative and usually represent a ceremony like a harvest or corn ceremony. Long before I even knew what weaving was this graphic piece held a fascination for me. So, when I started weaving, the first book that I bought was one about Navajo weaving traditions.Although most of the photos were in black and white, I was struck by the strong graphic design and scale of the patterns. The stripes, complex patterns and boldness of the Navajo designs appealed to me. And I liked the use of color—red, orange, some indigo with naturals of dark wools and white. I was fascinated by the Navajo weavers’ use of combining different patterns together and their sense of positive and negative space. I regard Navajo weaving as the finest craft with the most sophisticated designs.
When I started weaving my early tapestries I didn’t actually copy Navajo pieces but I tried to capture the graphic quality of Navajo rugs and the essence of the space that was in these rugs. I used positive and negative shapes, large stripes behind the foreground designs and interplay of background and foreground designs. My color palette was limited to earth tones contrasting with red and my color was flat.I am not a Navajo weaver, just inspired and awestruck, and I did want to create my own vision.
“Yei”, copyright Deborah Corsini,
Navajo weaving traditions book
“Tommy’s Rug”, 1976, 96”x60”, Wool, Private collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Sunday Strip”, 1985, 94”x 39”, Wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
Can you tell us about the Navajo technique of “wedge weave” that you use for your tapestries? Which graphic and dimensional effects can you obtain? What does it consist of?
As I continued my study and appreciation of Navajo textiles I became aware of a fascinating style of weaving: wedge weave. It was an experimental technique developed and used for a brief period of time in the 1870s – 1890s. In wedge weave bold graphic line, zigzag stripes and scalloped selvedges are striking characteristics. Instead of weaving perpendicular to the warp as is usual in traditional tapestry, wedge weave is an eccentric weaving technique where the wefts are woven at an angle to the warp. What is uniquely Navajo is the use of the technique to cover the entire surface of the textile.
The kinds of designs that you get with this technique are bold stripes in a zig zag designs. There are endless possibilities for the variations of the stripes. Little pie shaped areas in alternating bands form along the selvedge and can also be promenate design features. The selvedge has a curvy edge. Because the weave is at a bias to the parallel warps it is harder to control. So typically the textile does not lie flat and there may be undulation of the woven fabric.
Of course, there are endless variations of the technique and it can be combined with regular tapestry, slits or whatever the weaver dreams up.
“Flashback”, 2002, 40”x 30”, Wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
“IntoTumucumaque”, 2002, 42”x 29”, Wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Code Talking”, 2002, 39”x 28”, wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
Improvisation, randomness, experimentation, study, rules, design. Which of these aspects has an essential or prevailing role in the process of birth of your textile artwork?
Improvisation plays a really important role as I design. In wedge weave the technique and the design are interconnected so the development of the piece happens on the loom. There is certainly randomness and experimentation involved in most of my pieces. I start with an idea and a color palette. For example I might want to design a piece that uses wedge weave areas broken up with lines of eccentric weaving.That is the plan but sometimes the piece goes off in a different direction or I might change how it ends(or begins).
I also sometimes use a sketch or a collage as my beginning idea. But the piece changes and grows as I weave and the original sketch is just the first concept of the developed piece. So there is a lot of spontaneity that happens in the process. The design is generated both from the materials and in the weaving process, from the bottom to the top, line by line.
“Field Trip”, 2017, 63”x 34”, Wool, silk, rayon, cotton bandana, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Green Flash”, 2004, 43”x 32”, Wool, Embassy Collection, copyright Deborah
“Afterglow”, 2006, 46”x 24.5”, Wool, private collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
Can you tell us about the role of color in your artwork?
Color is the primary ingredient of my work. I believe that color draws one into a piece, creates a mood and is a seductive element in the design. And it is fun to use.
When starting a new piece I often just pull skeins and balls of yarn and play with the colors making sure that I have a range of values (dark/ light) and adding some odd or complementary colors for accents. For example a basket of vintage 1960s Mexican handspun yarns in dusty greyed colors was the inspiration for a piece, Borders. It is ironic that these imported yarns became a piece that looks at the contemporary issue of migration.
Some of my pieces use naturally dyed yarns, although I also combine these with commercially dyed yarns. Heaven and Earthwas inspired by a basket of naturally dyed yarns and a lovely handspun orange yarn that was a gift from a friend.
“Borders”, 2015, 48”x 16”, wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Heaven and Earth”, 2017, 62”x 34”, wool and alpaca, private collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Heaven and Earth-detail”, 2017, 62”x 34”, wool and alpaca, private collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
Besides the techniques used, how are your tapestries traditional and what makes them contemporary? What is the relationship between tradition and innovation in your work?
I think my tapestries are traditional in that they are well crafted, beautifully woven and hang well. They are meant to be long lasting textiles—timeless— that come from an historic tradition of tapestry but have a contemporary aesthetic. Although, I certainly have been influenced by Navajo textiles and other tapestry traditions, I believe that I have tried to push the possibilities of the wedge weave technique to make it my own.
They are contemporary as they come from this time. I am attempting to make work, although abstracted, that refers to the current issues of our world.
“Red Day”, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Storm Watch”, 2015, 59”x 39”, wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
How has your work evolved over the years? Are there important stylistic, aesthetic or conceptual differences between your first tapestries and the most recent ones?
My technique has evolved as I almost exclusively weave with the wedge weave technique at this time. But essentially, I am still concerned with creating strong graphic abstracted pieces that come from the linear process of weaving. My work has always been dynamic and wedge weave enhances this aspect. And lately I have been going back to using some of the lines that interjected my earlier tapestries.
Looking at my earlier work there is definitely a thread of consistency in the imagery—the use of line, the boldness of the graphic design, strong color—to the work I am creating now.
“Totem”, 1978, 65”x 39”, wool, copyright Deborah Corsini“Disconnect”
“Fire/Water”, 2016, 46”x 34”, wool, silk, copyright Deborah Corsini
Deborah, what do you think is the most important difference between a craftsman who works with threads and fabrics and a textile artist? When does a textile work become art?
I think it is the intent of the maker. I highly value excellent craftsmanship, a well made object, a beautiful utilitarian textile. But to me a textile artists’ work becomes art if there is some content, some depth within the piece that takes it a step further. Even an abstracted graphic piece can have meaning below the surface. A textile work becomes art when there issome meaning.
According to your experience as an artist and curator of the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, what is today the space that textile art has within the wider field of the Major Arts? Has textile art finally managed to win the right to no longer be considered a Minor Art?
I really think that textile art has come a long way from its Renaissance in the 1960s and is actively involving a younger generation of makers and crossing into othermediums. There is so much cross pollination of textiles with other mediums—knitting with glass and ceramics, the use of technology and digital printing and weaving, 3-D printing, sustainable dyeing, sculpture and large scale installation—it’s an endlessly exciting field. There is a lot of energy and excitement and so many threads developing and directions where it is heading. So I like to think that textile art is finally coming out of the minor league.
It is heartening to see moretextile art included in all media group exhibitions and in museum exhibitions in the US and abroad. There have been a number of great museum exhibitions featuring historical Bauhaus figures like Anni Albers and a recent show on 1960’s sculptural fiber artists at the ICA in Boston. This history is important. But I am still waiting to see a new contemporary fiber art exhibit like the one in the 1970s, The Art Fabric: Mainstream curated by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, at one of the major museums. An exhibit capturing what is going on in the field today is hopefully in some young curator’svision. Still, I am very positive by the quality and creativity of what I see being created and feel that there is a ground swell of important and major textile work being made.
My experience at the Museum has shown me that there is no end to the talent, creativity and vision by fiber artists in every aspect of the field.
“Between Lavender Sheets”, 2004, 40.5”x 34”, wool, Corporate collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Lost Tango”, 1991, 72”x 39”, wool, copyright Deborah Corsini
What is the source of your inspiration today?
I get inspired by a lot of things—nature’s beauty, the way light and shadow dance, a juxtaposition of patterns and textiles, beautiful textiles from cultures around the world—any of these visual, sensory stimulus can trigger an idea. My inner voice is also strong and I like to capture, in abstraction, some of the personal things that are wondering around in my head.
Unfortunately, current events is also a topic that is never far from the surface and in subtle ways my tapestries are exploring the unsetting times that we are living in.
Tapestry is a slow medium. But as I weave and listen to the news or music the rhythm and cadence of the process creates a flow. As I work on one piece ideas for the next one seem to generate and I look forward to what will come next.
“Balancing Act”, 2018, 13”x 10”, wool, silk, private collection, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Rising”, copyright Deborah Corsini
“On Edge”, copyright Deborah Corsini
“Disconnect”, 2013, 44.5”x 38”, wool, silk, copyright Deborah Corsini