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Established in 1976 by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop is located in the inner city Melbourne suburb of South Melbourne.
Supported by the Victorian Government and Arts Victoria, the Workshop is overseen by an independent board of directors with Dame Elisabeth still serving as beloved patron. There have been more than 400 tapestries commissioned over the 33 years and many of them grace public spaces throughout Australia: The Reception Hall Tapestry in Parliament House, Canberra, the second largest tapestry in the world; the Federation Tapestry, the 43-metre monumental work at the Melbourne Museum; the Kemp Suite of six pieces in the Great Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria; and Homage to Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach in the Sydney Opera House; to name but a few.
The Workshops premises comprise three large shopfronts with immense windows that afford a panoramic view of the street. Passers-by can peer into the front rooms where bobbins of coloured thread, finished tapestry works and paintings are showcased in the large white areas. They seldom, however, see the heart of the Workshop a light bright space where some 10 weavers work throughout the day re-interpreting the paintings and photographs of some of Australias foremost artists, to create exquisitely detailed hand-woven masterpieces. There is no trace of the musty workrooms of Mediaeval England, just a contemporary space going about the business of executing 21st century cutting edge design.
Along with the multitude of wools and bobbins, workbenches and dividers, the looms are placed at regular intervals in the middle of the space. Some measure several metres in width and height; others are smaller to accommodate just one worker. At any one time there can be several commissions in progress and these works take months, even years, to complete. The most remarkable feature of the workroom is the lack of computers. Certainly the administration staff who share the floor have the technological trappings, but the processes that translate the chosen artwork into tapestry are achieved solely by the eye and the skill of the weaver.
Talking to new director Antonia Syme about the Workshop is a passionate affair. Her admiration for the artisans and her determination to showcase their work on a world stage are infectious. Explaining the commissioning process, Syme comments that projects can occur in a variety of ways. Sometimes theres a predominance of federal or state government commissions. For example, during the bicentennial year, there was a very large commission for the Museum of Victoria from federation funding, but theres also a large amount of private commissions such as that for the Royal Childrens Hospital, she explains.
Regarding subject or context, Syme says, Some clients come with a selected artist and design in mind. At other times the client may want a range of artists suggested to them, and well work through that process of finding which artist might best suit their requirements, then work with the artist from an existing design or create a new design for the project.
Once the actual artwork is decided on, the weaving process commences. The leader of the commission has complete control; however, weaving is a collaborative concern and the strengths and experience of co-workers often prove to be invaluable. A cartoon is drawn to size, hung behind the loom and the warp is marked with the main outline. A storyboard is then prepared by weaving spot tests of representative areas of the image. At this stage the artist is invited back to the Workroom to discuss difficulties or interpretative changes and the intricacies of colour matching are explored. Of course colour is integral and the skill of the weaver is brought to the fore when blending the many shades of wool to achieve the depth and subtleties required.
For example in the Trevor Nickolls tapestry, Kimberley Under the Stars, black is definitely not just black. Initially the background was woven purely with black wool; however, after discussion with the artist this was thought to look too flat. The solution was to introduce blue and green threads to inject life and texture into the solid colour.
Unlike other tapestry institutions around the world Australia is unfettered by custom or tradition and the Victorian Tapestry Workshop is renowned for the contemporary nature of its commissions. It is this that distinguishes it from its peers. From the many projects that have passed through its doors one genre stands centre stage, that of Indigenous art. Interpreting the complex nature of the works is a perfect foil for the talented weavers. Many of the works are of an immense size and all involve the translation of intricate brush strokes and a particular clarity of bold and dynamic colours. The weavers love the projects, the artists are amazed at the skill of the exposition and people that view the tapestries are transported to another world by the intensity and drama of the works.
The Victorian Tapestry Workshop is young and vibrant, always reaching out to broaden its artistic horizon. A Craft Victoria project for Chicks on Speed, an avant-garde singing group, is a case in point. This is a tapestry interwoven with gingham fabric strips and interspersed with pieces of gauze ribbon. Copper wire has been threaded through the tapestry and on completion these wires will be attached to a computer and the work will be transformed into an electronic musical instrument or theremin. It takes an adventurous weaver, a supportive board and an enthusiastic director to stretch the boundaries like this.
The Victorian Tapestry Workshop just happens to be located in Melbourne, but it is truly a national institution. The works that are produced here are not only world-class, but in a class of their own. Visit them and see for yourself.
John Dicks came to weaving late in life. Formerly an actor and theatre director in England, Dicks arrived in Australia in the late 1990s. His interest in weaving was sparked when he received a book on tapestry for his 50th birthday. He decided to follow this new passion and enrolled in tapestry classes at the CAE, then moved onto RMIT to study textile production and design. He subsequently accepted a position with the Victorian Tapestry Workshop and is now a full-time member of the staff. He was lead weaver on the Trevor Nickolls tapestry Kimberley Under the Stars soon to be sent to the Australian Embassy in Washington and worked with Sue Batten on the Robert Ingpen tapestry, The Games Children Play.
This is the first full-time position that Amy Cornall has held, arriving at the Workshop by a circuitous route. Always interested in tapestry as a child, she investigated other potential careers, at one stage contemplating a career as an acrobat, before joining the Workshop in 2004. She was lead weaver on the contemporary Song Ling tapestry Kong Fu Our Dream 1, bound for Deakin University, Melbourne and is currently completing the tapestry cum electronic musical instrument, the theremin, for the international singing group Chicks on Speed.
Sue Batten is one of the senior weavers having worked at the Tapestry Workshop periodically since 1977. Initially trained as a fibre artist in her teens she learned her trade as an apprentice with the Workshop and subsequently worked on many commissions, leaving to establish her own studio and finally returning some years later. She is generous with her knowledge and sees weaving as a collaborative art and a continual learning experience. She was the lead weaver for Robert Ingpens The Games Children Play tapestry for the Royal Childrens Hospital, Melbourne and has worked on many of the major tapestries that have passed through the premises over the years.
Another member of the senior weaving staff, Pamela discovered her love of textiles as a child. She completed an arts course majoring in textiles and then commenced weaving with the Workshop in 1980. Back at the loom after taking a break to raise her family, her passion for her craft is palpable. Even the physical demands of weaving for seven hours daily do not dim her artistic spirit. Her love of Indigenous art is now satisfied as she is currently the lead weaver on the Elizabeth Marks McNamara tapestry Creek Bed, which is destined for the Australian Embassy in Paris.