Take a look at Kathe Todd-Hooker’s tapestry, Last Stand, and you’ll see an old pickup truck, feathers, a few words. What you won’t see is a woman, protests, history —the inspiration behind the art.
“I consider myself a narrative tapestry weaver; I tell stories,” said Todd-Hooker, 73, who lives in Albany. “That one is the story of a friend who is Lakota and was one of the people at Wounded Knee,” she said, referring to the 1973 occupation of the South Dakota town by the American Indian Movement. “She is too old to go out and demonstrate, and so that is her story. The truck is sitting in the backyard of my brother-in-law in Montana. It’s been put out to pasture, and that is the way she felt: She’d been put out to just sit in the backyard and make comments. She doesn’t dare demonstrate … her health wouldn’t allow it. She is taking care of her grandson and she couldn’t take the chance.”
Todd-Hooker’s piece is part of the Elements exhibit, presented by the American Tapestry Alliance, that runs July 2 through Aug. 27 in the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s Fiber Arts Gallery. The show features 15 artists from the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.
“As always, the exhibit is small in scale but large in personality,” according to a release from the alliance. Each piece is limited to 100 square inches – no bigger than 10 by 10 inches. The small format invites close scrutiny, rewarding viewers with a “glimpse into the weaver’s personal interpretation of the unique exhibit theme.”
Todd-Hooker, who plans to attend the July 9 opening, has worked in small format since she began weaving tapestries about 40 years ago. She said her work was not always welcome in shows.
“Small format wasn’t traditionally accepted,” said Todd-Hooker, who learned needlework from her grandmother. “When I got into grad school, my instructor wanted me to work as large as a wall. That’s the way art was. I didn’t want to do that, so I kept plugging away at finding and creating exhibits in small format. I just like to work small.
“They would tell me I wouldn’t be a great artist unless I could command a whole wall. I told them they could move everything from the wall and center the art.”
The attitude against small-format work began to change in the 1990s, she said, with a seminal show taking place in Portland in 1996. Until then, small-format pieces weren’t allowed to be shown with the larger formats; they had to be a least a square yard. One of the beauties of small format, Todd-Hooker said, is “you don’t have to have large workshops to create them. You can go on online and learn how to do it.”
The thing to remember is that regardless of the size or format, it’s still the exact same technique, Todd-Hooker said, noting that some critics may still say small format is not tapestry.
“Tapestry is at a sort of turning point,” said the artist, who teaches fiber-arts classes through Between and Etc. “With Zoom, it’s become more international and so things are changing faster. The technique has not changed; the size has changed.” Also, the amount of information available, she added, “is almost more than I can keep up with. It’s incredible. Those people who were probably a little bit marginalized are now able to create communities where we can talk about it.”
While small-format tapestry has moved well beyond the stepchild status, in Oregon, tapestry is still a tough sell, she said.
“I don’t do well in Oregon because of the cost,” she said, noting she put about 108 hours into the 96-square-inch Last Stand. “Most of the shows are in museums or large art centers.”
While cost is a factor in selling the work, the medium itself also presents a challenge, she said. Oregonians prefer paintings, she said, adding that they don’t realize that paintings were at one time the “Kmart of art” compared with tapestry.
“Most of the major artists in the Renaissance were doing tapestries before they painted,” she said. “Pope Urban hired Raphael to design tapestry. The pope got halfway through and ran out of money and made Raphael paint tapestries on the wall. When you didn’t have enough money to design tapestries, you painted the walls.”
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.