Warp and Weft
In researching this post, I discovered that Tina Kane has passed away. When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class called "Texts and Tapestries" taught by Nancy Willard, a children's book author (that's the texts part) and Tina Kane, who was a conservator at the Met (that's the tapestries part). It was the most unique class I ever took - in addition to the usual reading and essay-writing, we wrote play and poetry (this class was where I learned the terms warp and weft, which have done the world great service as happily versatile metaphors), we grew plants in pots that (I think) Nancy decorated for us, we ate something medievally that I can't remember, we tried rosewater (some of us regret this), we went to the Cloisters and to the Met, we wove actual tapestries on looms with yarn, we made our own books, and we cobbled together . . . these:
The walnut-headed one is by my classmate Denise, the one with the crab leg on his head and the bottlecap shield on his butt is mine and is named Henkell for some reason, and the gorgeous work of true art on the bottom is by Ricki. I don't remember why we made these but it's hard to deny they're kind of wonderful. In retrospect, Nancy and Tina seem to have been interested in our creativity more than anything else. I took a lot of classes on the Middle Ages, but this one was the most immersive: we were reading medieval texts and studying medieval art, but we were also creating texts and art within medieval confines, which for me at least was the best way to engage with it.
The highlight of the class was our trip to New York. We went to the Cloisters to see the Unicorn Tapestries and to the Met, where Tina took us to the secret underground labyrinth where she did her conservation work. This post was going to be about color - how the physical artifacts of material culture fade with time, and how that gives us a visual image of the past that's unrealistically desaturated. And one example I thought of was what Tina showed us in her lab: the front of one of those sun-faded tapestries, and then the back, still vibrant. The difference was astonishing, and gave us all a much more accurate sense of how colorful and current the world was five hundred years ago. I think the hardest thing about studying history is remembering that every moment of it was on the edge of the future for the people living it; that what's past for us is present for them. It's hard to really feel that, but we certainly did while looking at the hidden undersides of those tapestries.
My second example was this video I saw recently, made by the Getty and posted on their blog, The Iris. It's about the colors in medieval manuscripts; how they're made and how they behave over time. Luckily, books are usually stored closed, and the colors of many, many illuminated manuscripts have survived pretty well.
And the third example was a post by Isabella on one of my favorite blogs, Two Nerdy History Girls. It's about a piece of embroidery from 1673 that, like faded medieval tapestries, is more colorful on the back than the front. But what stuck with me the most was Isabella's last line: "For Sarah [the embroiderer in question], Puritan Massachusetts wasn't necessarily gloomy, but a place that included flowers, colors, and gleaming silk on fine linen - and beautiful embroidery." It made me think again about what my characters should be seeing and reacting to; what kind of beauty there is in a world that's muddy for three-quarters of the year and starkly icy for the rest. There was a lot more beauty, surely, than I've been including in my books. Oops! Adding that to my list of revisions.
That was the going to be whole point of this post, that I've been doing history wrong again, damn it. But the news about Tina Kane derailed me. I took "Texts and Tapestries" in the fall of 2002, which was the fall that my great-aunt died. The morning after I got the news, I had a meeting with Tina during her office hours, and I was in very real danger of crying through it. I don't remember what she said, but I wrote in my journal that she talked to me for an hour, and that I left feeling comforted, peaceful, and less alone. That is a great feat to accomplish with a grieving, stressed-out college student on the verge of emotional meltdown. I loved the class, and what I learned has stayed with me, but I think I most appreciate what a kind person Tina was, especially in that hour when I most needed kindness. I'm adding that to my list of revisions to make to myself as I go about my life: be as kind as Tina Kane.
Yarn photo: Taken by me, with permission, at the Genesee Country Village & Museum.
"Beast" photos: Taken, I think, by Nancy Willard. I do not remember Denise or Ricki's last names, and I hope they don't mind my posting their creations on the internet.
Plant photo: Taken by me on a warm October afternoon in 2002.
Addendum: In 2004, when I found myself in Paris, I made a point of going to see the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries because of what I had learned in Tina and Nancy's class. The tapestries are at the Cluny, which has produced a rather nice video about them:
And while we're focusing on unicorns, please enjoy one of my most favorite choral pieces ever, Ola Gjeilo's Unicornis captivatur: