Laurie Herrick: Seventy Years as a Weaver
Author and educator Elissa Auther explores the weavings of designer-craftsman Laurie Herrick, on view at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
Kicking off the Museum’s 75th anniversary year of programming, Laurie Herrick: Weaving Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow gathers together close to forty pieces from throughout Portland. The pieces, which span decades, include wall hangings, clothing and tapestries and come from the Museum’s collection as well as pieces on loan from collectors, friends, fellow weavers and commissioned work from cultural and religious institutions. Given the breadth of the pieces, the collections represented and the exquisite quality of the work, it is hard to fathom the statement at the end of Elissa Auther’s following essay.
“Artists like Herrick rarely find their way into the history of art. Through a combination of social and culture forces, including her gender, weaving’s association with craft, and the art historical bias against regional art centers outside New York City, her work is extremely vulnerable to erasure. “
The bringing together of Herrick’s work from the scattered locations throughout the region gives the show the accumulative affect of the lighthouse prism, the focusing of light to create a bright beacon. Through her years of teaching weaving, Herrick, who died in 1995, continues to play a role in the aesthetic influences of the Pacific Northwest. While the work resonates beyond its regional base and the time frame it was created in, part of the power lies in just those attributes. Walking through the galleries one can ride the gentle waves of generational influence—a minimalist, understated midcentury room divider, fabulous Op Art wall hangings, from the 70s an abstracted landscape weaving in earth tones painstakingly rendered in linen, wool and fur and finally classic body coverings in understated architectural forms that were created between 1970–80. Perhaps that is the essence of the timeless artist, that the work steeped in the vernacular of time and place transcends both.
Laurie Herrick: Weaving Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, March 17 – July 30 2011, is curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers.
Laurie Herrick: Seventy Years as a Weaver
Laurie Herrick’s evolution as a weaver broadly corresponds to the dramatic growth that reshaped the field of fiber in the twentieth century from a domestic or leisure-time craft to an artistic practice. In the period roughly bracketed between 1940 and the late 1980s we witness the rise and decline of the designer-craftsman dedicated to fiber’s modern utility as drapery, upholstery, or apparel fabric, and the subsequent formation of the fiber art movement and its elevation of fiber from a utilitarian craft to high art. This momentous transformation also re-invigorated staple features of the field, including the design of hand-loomed apparel and commissions for large-scale weavings for private and public venues. Laurie Herrick’s career is a near perfect illustration of these transformations and practices, reflecting her role as a leader in the field of weaving and fiber art in the Pacific Northwest.
Herrick was born in 1908 in Austin, Minnesota; her family moved to Pasadena, California when Herrick was eleven. Herrick, like many women of her generation, she learned the basics of weaving from a female family member, in this case her grandmother. She also received rudimentary weaving instruction in a high school home economics course, an institutional location that reflected an understanding of weaving as women’s work produced for the home. Weaving courses in colleges in this period were also located in departments of home economics (and at times agriculture), a practice that would not completely disappear until the 1960s with the introduction of stand alone textile programs in art departments.
In the early 1940s, after a short stint weaving men’s neckties, her first foray into woven apparel, Herrick cut her professional teeth in the Pasadena-based weaving studio of Martha Pollack. Weavers such as Pollack dominated the fiber scene in the 1940s and 1950s. Like her more well-known peers at this time, including the San Francisco-based Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972) and Marianne Strengell (1909–1998) at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts outside Detroit, Pollack’s studio produced custom-designed and hand-woven fabrics for corporate and private clients and interior designers. Given the studio’s proximity to Hollywood, Pollack also fulfilled numerous contracts for the motion picture industry. Employed as a weaver within Pollack’s studio, Herrick would have participated in a range of work—from the production of yardage for Hollywood sets and apparel to experimentation on the loom with new synthetic and metallic yarns produced by companies like DuPont and supplied to handweavers contracted to develop their commercial applications. Given the scarcity of threads available to handweavers during World War II, the development of new synthetics under the names Lurex®, Dacron®, and Orlon®, and, after mid-century, the slow increase in availability of traditional fibers like wool and linen created an exciting culture of innovation in weaving studios of the time.1
For professional weavers of this period like Pollack, and eventually Herrick, who opened her own studio to weave custom upholstery fabrics for interior decorators in Beverly Hills in the early 1950s, success came in the form of contracts with corporations or designers. Within this context, textiles were understood as functional elements of architecture and other designed spaces. To Dorothy Liebes, arguably the most celebrated of professional women weavers in the period, the textile was a “dependent expression,”2 and was necessarily subordinated to a larger design concept or architectural plan. Also like Liebes and others of this period on the West Coast, Herrick worked in a distinctive, brilliant and contrasting color palette, an element of her work that would remain characteristic of much of her weaving throughout her career. To take one example, the caption of an upholstery swatch illustrated in black and white in an article published in Handweaver & Craftsman described Herrick’s electrifying combination of “turquoise with naturals and yellow greens.”3
In 1954, Herrick relocated to Portland, OR, her home for the rest of her life and career. In addition to re-establishing her studio, she began to teach weaving at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts (now Oregon College of Art and Craft), a position she would hold until 1979. This period of time, in which she enjoyed a more stable income from teaching, was immensely productive for Herrick and allowed her to expand her practice beyond custom commissions to non-functional wall hangings that reflected fiber’s changing status and growing visibility as a fine art form. To be sure, Herrick did not abandon custom work; several large-scale commissions in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrate her success in this area.
Her first commissions came through the Portland-based interior designer June Fettic, who specialized in ecclesiastical vestments, hangings, curtains, and altar cloths. In 1965 Fettic commissioned Herrick to create the ark curtains and dais cover for Synagogue Shaarie Torah. Herrick created the curtains in a menorah-like design, and its woven structure, known as “Summer and Winter,” is reversible. For the High Holy Days, one side, in white linen and gold rayon chenille, is hung; its reverse, in shades of red, orange, and yellow wool with bronze metallic is used throughout the rest of the year. “Summer and Winter” is the name of an early American coverlet weave based on geometric units that resulted in lighter and darker sides, corresponding to different seasonal palettes and natural light levels. To Herrick, the structure was “beautifully logical [and] disciplined” but also open to “countless opportunities for originality.”4
Herrick turned to a Tree of Life motif and the “orderliness” of the geometric “Summer and Winter” weave structure for another important commission completed in 1970 for the First Unitarian Church in Portland.5 This work was a three panel tapestry spanning ten by sixteen feet composed in what Herrick referred to as “Summer and Winter on Opposites,” meaning that the same color palette appears on both sides of the work with one side depicting a neutral tree on a colored ground, and on the other its reverse. About this visually compelling and technically brilliant work (the draft of which has been translated to weaving software downloadable from the Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibition website), Museum curatorial intern Kristin Pesola and Portland-based weavers Ann and Jon Sinclair noted,
In her notes summarizing the Unitarian Church project, Herrick comments that the design stage through development took a total of 10 months, while the weaving and assembly of the full scale project took only 7 days. The process of translating her extensive notes to weaving software certainly indicated why the development process was so laborious. After working through numerous iterations, she finally came up with a plan that included 65 tie-up changes in the center panel, and 27 tie-up changes for each section of the side panels. It is hard to imagine that a weaver today would even attempt such a project without weaving software and a computer-dobby loom.6
In the 1950s and early 1960s, some handweavers continued to design for industry, but the designer-craftsman model was rapidly coming to an end as commercial textile production eclipsed the creation of hand-woven yardage and textile design became less tied to initial experimentation on the loom. In the 1967 Handweaver & Craftsman article cited above, Herrick voiced the changed perspective toward fiber of many weavers adapting to this new reality. “Handweaving,” she declared, “is not worth the effort, if machines can do the same thing better. That is why I am not interested in working with very fine threads nor intricate, repeated patterns. Fifty dozen of anything is not for me.”7 Likewise, exhibitions of the period moved from showing sample upholstery and apparel yardage to unique, non-functional wall hangings in tapestry, open warp weaving, stitchery, and fabric collage. Herrick’s work in tapestry inlay and open warp weaving directly reflect this transformation.
Mostly utilizing wool and some linen, works like Green Valley (c. 1960s), The River (c. 1985), and Crater (1969) are weavings that use an inlay technique to create a free pattern or image and facilitate the creation of subtle color transitions. The method, a variation of plain weave, is similar to the Moorman Technique, named after the British weaver Theo Moorman (1907–1990). Moorman, like Herrick, entered the field at a time when weaving was understood as a utilitarian craft, but eventually began to rethink the potential of fiber as a medium of fine art as the role of the weaver-designer began to decline.8 To create unique pictorial wall hangings without the labor involved in tapestry weaving, Moorman worked out a method of varying the weight of warp threads and “inlaying” a surface design under very fine tie-down warp threads. In distinction from Moorman, Herrick used warp threads of equal thickness or weight with her own threading drafts, which allowed her to work with heavier weight natural fibers and highly tactile materials like fur and cedar bark. Moorman and Herrick were not only contemporaries, but also colleagues, and Herrick was involved in bringing Moorman to Portland for a workshop and exhibition of her work at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts in 1971. Among other leaders in the field of fiber in this period, Herrick invited Trude Guermonprez and Peter Collingwood to Portland in 1969 and 1974 respectively, and her own work and teaching was in conversation with the innovations of each of these weavers.
Some of Herrick’s inlay wall hangings were based on the photographs of the celebrated color landscape photography of Eliot Porter, whose work, first published by the Sierra Club in 1962, revolutionized photographic book publishing and energized the environmental movement in America. Herrick owned a copy of Porter’s second book published in 1963, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, from which she translated his images into woven wall hangings. Herrick’s The River (1985) and Split Cliff (1986) are part of this series and while she may have been attracted to Porter’s photography as a way to connect her weaving practice to the environmental issues of the day (an urgency felt by many artists in the period), technically these works also demonstrate her interest in and command over the creation of subtle color gradations in the inlay technique.
Nature was also a source of inspiration for Herrick’s wall hangings such as Redwood V (1969) that combined wool and actual organic material, in this case redwood bark, in an open warp structure. The appearance of open warp weaving, developed by Lenore Tawney as a way of creating shaped weaves with portions left unwoven or transparent, represented another step in fiber’s movement toward the non-functional in the late 1950s and 1960s. Unlike many weavers of this period and later who used open warp weaving as a jumping off point for three-dimensional work in fiber, Herrick always remained committed to the loom. The spectacular, large-scale, off-loom fiber sculpture of artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz, Françoise Grossen, and Sheila Hicks, to name only the most well-known embracing off-loom techniques, took the fiber world by storm in the 1960s and 1970s, nearly eclipsing the more modestly scaled, two-dimensional woven work of artists like Herrick.
In this period, Herrick continued to expand her practice, but in the direction of a genre of geometric abstraction in painting popularized by Op artists in the 1960s and 1970s such as Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Victor Vasarely (1906–1997), and Richard Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930). Hangings by Herrick, including Green Op (1977), Three Giraffes (c. 1970), and White Wings (1977) are dazzling displays of optical illusion achieved through the manipulation of figure-ground relationships and/or powerful color interactions. Unlike her woven hangings after Porter’s photographs, Herrick’s Op weavings are not copies or translations in fiber of existing paintings. Instead, they are unique contributions to the broader history of geometric abstraction in art. While in this period abstract painters such as Kenneth Noland (1924–1910) found inspiration in Navajo weaving, Herrick worked in the other direction, drawing from a style of painting well-suited to the two-dimensional, rectilinear grid of the weave.
On top of her practice as an artist-weaver of unique hangings, in the mid-1960s Herrick returned to apparel weaving with the design of her loom-controlled “Laurie Coat,” and variations like the “Cape Coat,” as well as pant suits and one-piece jumpsuits. The design of the Laurie Coat dates back to Herrick’s tenure in the studio of Martha Pollack, and its earliest example was created using handwoven yardage and a sewing pattern. In the 1960s, Herrick began weaving the full coat and other garments directly on the loom rather than piecing together a number of separately woven elements with the aid of a pattern. In this incarnation, once taken off the loom, minimal stitching was required to create sleeves or pants. The simplicity of the design of these garments, which work with the inherent rectilinear parameters of the loom, remind one of the garments designed and worn by the Russian Constructivists in the early twentieth century. For the Constructivists, to cut into fabric to create a garment’s shape was to destroy the integrity of the grid structure of the weave and the revolutionary and utopian implications they assigned to it. The contemporary context for Herrick’s apparel designs in this period was also revolutionary but issued from the American counterculture and its popularization of natural fibers and handmade clothing, including artist-designed and couture apparel that drew upon historic and ethnic styles characterized by long, flowing lines, the use of fringe, unusual patterns, and surface embellishment. The Laurie Coat, a garment that melded the design of the traditional Scandinavian “bog jacket,” the silhouette of Japanese sashiko coats, and the preference for natural textures in the 1960s and 1970s (and into the 1980s), precisely reflects this cultural moment. The same could be said for Herrick’s entire oeuvre, which sensitively responded to the transformation of fiber’s position and status in the art world, another revolutionary shift.
Artists like Herrick rarely find their way into the history of art. Through a combination of social and culture forces, including her gender, weaving’s association with craft, and the art historical bias against regional art centers outside New York City, her work is extremely vulnerable to erasure. Equally difficult to preserve is Herrick’s incredible contribution as an educator and the impact of her teaching on the development of the hand weaving community in Portland. Jon Sinclair’s memory of her dedication and generosity toward her students at Oregon School of Arts and Crafts provides a glimpse into this facet of her career,
“When Laurie invited Martha [Pollack] to do a workshop for [Oregon School of] Arts and Crafts, Pollack sent warps to the students. They were amazed with their beauty and that such threads were available at all. But remember that Martha could order in quantity, while an individual student generally would not. For the rest of her teaching life, Laurie and her assistants scanned American and international mills and wholesale sources for threads, British wools, Irish mohairs, rayon loops and textured linens. She bought up quantities and made them available at cost to her weavers. The results of this were pieces, even for a first time weaver, that were stunning and inventive. At the same time weavers in her classes had the opportunity to accumulate impressive threads for their own stock, and one can see evidence of that today in some weavers’ work. This willingness on Laurie’s part to provide high quality materials gave an edge and encouragement and excitement to those in her classes.”9
Owing to the role Herrick played as a teacher in the development of hand weaving as an art form in the Pacific Northwest, and her work’s correspondence to trends and transformations in the larger field of fiber, her career is a significant part of the history of art. To remember, document, and exhibit her work is a welcome contribution to this historical record.
1. Thank you to Jon Sinclair for pointing out the importance of the scarcity of thread on handweaving during World War II. Sinclair also explained that Pollack and Herrick would collect a variety of these new threads (which came in whites), sample the cloth made from them, and then have the fiber dyed to their specifications.
2. As quoted by Ed Rossbach, “Fiber in the Forties,” American Craft (October/November, 1982): 18.
3. Frances Furniss, Laurie Herrick: Contemporary Weaver & Teacher,” Handweaver & Craftsman, (Fall 1967): 10–12, 31.
4. Laurie Herrick, workshop notes, April 21–23, 1989.
5. In this case, Herrick won a competition organized by the First Unitarian Church. Herrick was one of four artists solicited in 1969 to propose designs to replace the altar tapestry destroyed in a fire in the church in 1965. Additional public commissions awarded to Herrick include St. Mary’s Catholic Parish, Corvallis, OR; All Saints Catholic Church, Portland, OR; Lincoln Towers Condominiums, Portland, OR; Salishan Lodge, Gleneden Beach, OR; and Sunriver Lodge, Sunriver, OR.
6. Kirstin Pesola, and Ann and Jon Sinclair, MoCC exhibition file notes for Laurie Herrick: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, OR, March 17, 2011–July 30, 2011.
7. As quoted by Frances Furniss, Laurie Herrick: Contemporary Weaver & Teacher,” Handweaver & Craftsman, (Fall 1967): 12.
8. On the subject see Theo Moorman, Weaving as an Art Form: A Personal Statement, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975.
9. Email correspondence with Jon Sinclair, February 25, 2011.
Elissa Auther is the founder of Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics, a program at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, that explores feminist social, political and artistic issues through creative forms of pedagogy. She is an associate professor of contemporary art in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her book, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), examines the innovative use of fiber in American art and the impact of its elevation on the conceptual boundaries distinguishing “art” from “craft” in the post-war era.
Banner graphic photo credit: Laurie Coat, inspiration board. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Craft. Learn more.