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Sunday, December 16 Living

Ridgefield weaver Helena Hernmarck and her loom preside over Aldrich exhibit

“Creak, creak, BANG! Creak, creak, BANG!”

That is the sound the Swedish-born tapestry artist Helena Hernmarck makes pulling down the wooden “beater” on the largest loom in the Ridgefield studio she has occupied since 1982.

The beater is the cross piece that compacts the horizontal weft threads into place. The one on this big loom (she has a half-dozen sizes) is 8 feet long and several inches thick. It’s like a giant oar, and when Hernmarck heaves, she really puts her back into it as if rowing for maximum power.

“Creak, BANG! Creak, BANG!”

“That’s the fun part,” she says. “That’s why weavers are happy. They get to use their bodies.”

Hernmarck won’t be using her big loom, but visitors to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in her adopted home town will be able to see her in action during a 13-week residency that begins this month. She will be weaving a new tapestry surrounded by 20 examples of her work dating back to 1970, just before the commission that led to her sudden embrace by corporate clients and art museums.

In a period of 50 days, Hernmarck and an assistant wove an almost 10-foot high, 14-foot wide depiction of a rain forest for the Weyerhaeuser headquarters in Washington state, so stunning it made the cover of Interiors magazine.

“From there, everyone sat up and took notice. From then on, people said to me, ‘Oh, you’re the one who wove the Rainforest,’” she says.

The recognition led to a 1973 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and a steady stream of high-profile commissions. In 1999, for a major retrospective at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, a critic invoked both Middle Age masterpieces and Pop Art in an attempt to capture Hernmarck’s unique and often monumental art.

One of her largest projects in sheer area was the pair of 40-foot vertically hung abstract tapestries titled “Blue Wash I” and “Blue Wash II” she did in 1984 for the Pitney Bowes headquarters in Stamford. The company recently gifted them to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which displayed them into four 20-foot sections. Between 2003 and 2006, she created a series of 1,500-square-foot tapestries depicting the four seasons for the residential lobby of the Time Warner Center in New York.

Over the years, Hernmarck has collaborated mainly with architects on her biggest commissions. If they are expensive (costing hundreds of dollar per square foot), they are nevertheless intended for public viewing at the same time they may be ignored by art critics. She believes tapestry is less appreciated in the U.S., where quilters and Navajo weavers hold sway, than in Europe. “The popes and the emperors didn’t live here, and they were the ones buying it,” she says.

Hernmarck was trained in the ancient loom craft in Sweden. Her father became head curator of decorative arts at the National Museum in Stockholm, and an uncle was an important architect. She knew early on she wanted to work on a large scale and adopted a technique to help her do it. Instead of weaving with single strands of yarn, she bundled half-dozen stands together.

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“I ended up doing multiple strands because I was trying to figure out how I was going to earn a living and I decided that if I could weave one square meter a week, I could live on it. And it’s almost true. I made it coarser so I could go faster,” she says.

She was assuming of course that she got big commissions. She did and the bundling helped set her apart. Depending on how she twists the strands and what colors and thicknesses she chooses, she is said to be able to give her tapestries unprecedented depth and complexity. One critical essay described them as almost pointillist.

In the Aldrich gallery, one wall be given over to documenting how she works and another to a photographic replica of the wall of yarns Hernmarck has in her studio. It is a 30-foot-long and 14-foot-high palette of yarns, divided into 99 cubicles.

The studio itself is the work of her late husband, Niels Diffrient, the industrial designer best known for his Freedom and Liberty desk chairs. The studio’s high ceiling fan looks like a diaphanous airplane propeller. The wall of yarn is dramatic, but it is not for show.

Hernmarck cannot afford to run short of yarn mid-project, and she depends on a single supplier, Walstedts, a family owned company in Sweden that uses the longer staple wool grown by a breed of sheep it revived from near extinction. The wool is dyed to her specifications.

“I need a big stock. What you see there has been built up since 1975,” she says, pointing to the wall. “No one else in the world has this much yarn in one place.”

The exhibition, “Helena Hernmarck: Weaving in Progress,” runs from Oct. 14 to Jan. 13. Her personal appearance schedule can be seen on the Aldrich website.

Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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