"The Cat's Pyjamas" is the title of one of the tapestries Lynne Curran is weaving.
Other tapestries this British (Newcastle-born) tapestry artist has made have such engagingly odd titles as "The Hen Party," "La Dame aux Belles Plumes," "Tangos and Mangos," "La La La," and "Rumbas and Cucumbers."
Another, called "Ciao, Signor Gallo" (made in 1993), depicts a moonlight confrontation above the rooftops between a cockerel weather vane and an angel. Ms. Curran describes it in words as well as woven yarn: "It means 'Hi, Mr. Cock!' And the weathercock, startled by a visitor (it mustn't get many up there), replies, 'If I'd known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' "
You know directly from her tapestries what sort of ideas fascinate Curran - what it is that feeds her evident compulsion to form enigmatic stories in intricately compounded threads tucked with a bobbin over and under the close parallel ribs of a strong cotton warp, and beaten down. Chickens (behind chicken wire), straw (woven into gold?), ballroom dancers (kitschy, romantic), dresses, strawberries, flying hair, water (with a figure half-submerged in it, or sprinkled out of a watering can), bonfire smoke, angels, energetic and ecstatic figures (particularly female), music, singing, and cats are some of her elusive, memorable images.
But these are not mere interests. And they are not just challenges to the sensitive ingenuity of her skill as a weaver - though they are certainly that, too. They all appear as part of a richly expressive thought-life in which happenings and events, symbols, signs, and meanings mix and mingle - you might say, interweave.
She speaks of her work unpretentiously: "I feel I need to have a story - a title or a theme, whether it is serious or just something to cheer people up."
But silversmith Michael Lloyd, a keen admirer of Curran's work, has written: "In a brutal world, her highly personal visual statements go far beyond the whimsical, transporting you to a vision of joy."
Her works have all the hallmarks of an unusual, even an idiosyncratic, view of life. Her surprising sense of humor is at times whacky, black, witty, nonsensical, or just plain funny. Her heartfelt feelings come from musings and experiences, the poetry of her imagination.
Small in scale, her tapestries are not in any sense wall-hangings, but as both images and artifacts are clearly intended, like some of the smaller medieval tapestries she greatly admires, for domestic places and private delight. They seem to belong to no particular period, though as Curran effectively showed at a recent exhibition at Glasgow's Burrell Collection, she finds the character of Coptic tapestries - as well as medieval European ones - an inspiration.
Above all, hers are not copycat tapestries, slavishly imitating in wool somebody else's painting. They are entirely hers from initial intuitions jotted down in sketchbooks, via a full, detailed watercolor, to a linear, outline cartoon, and finally to the woven piece itself.
Sax Shaw, the tapestry and stained-glass artist who has taken Curran under his wing since she was a student, believes that after the Middle Ages tapestry became mere "copied stuff - copied from paintings" and that today "it's gradually getting back to this kind of nonsense." He weighs into "painters who do paintings and then say (to tapestry weavers) 'put it into wool.' You can't do that."
What Mr. Shaw did as a prolific weaver-designer, and what Curran is doing today, is not this imitative business at all. Although she does a painting before she starts work on a tapestry, it is, in Shaw's words, "a tapestry painting. She does it for weaving. Essentially it is woven thought. That's what it's all about."
AND Curran herself, while emphasizing that her work is "not just technique," says that her ideas have "to work in textile.... I am getting more and more concerned that you don't just weave a picture because you are a weaver. You design for the process. And that's what doing it for years has taught me."
At every stage in a tapestry's making, she allows herself room to develop her concept. The subtle end result, in which the image is so integrally part of the tapestry, is full of movement and life.
Curran loves drawing from life. She even draws the model at high speed. This is in contrast (almost an antidote, perhaps) to the weaving process, which is extraordinarily long-winded. She is aware that a subject has to have enough point, both overt and clandestine, to justify the amount of time even a small tapestry takes to weave. And it has to have sufficient vitality to survive the slow making.
Her tapestries could never be described as static. Not only do her figures move with expressive energy, but the weft itself seems to freely waft and float and flame over the warp, never constrained by a dominant vertical-horizontal orientation. Nor are these tapestries remotely of that "modern" heraldic-symbolic persuasion that stems rather stiffly and impersonally from Jean Lurat.
Although a Curran tapestry is delineated by means of expressive "drawing," it is not segmented and sectioned by it. Her soft, rich tones and colors merge into an overall yet varied consistency, very finely woven. And they do so because of her use of a vast range of colors and tones and subtly different yarns (cotton, wool, linen, and silk) - shiny against matt, thicker against thinner - but without the whole thing turning into what she scathingly calls "porridge."
Shaw has not kept secret his approval of the work of his favorite protg. "Everything she does," he says, "is very much of meaning."