Lilian Tyrrell, Weaver, 19442007


Lilian Tyrrell never set out to be an artist. Born Lilian Grace Oliver in Hounslow, England (to which her family had temporarily relocated during the German bombing of London), she, like many of her generation, had played as a child in the rubble left in the wake of the Blitz. As a thoughtful girl of 17, she felt passionately enough about the insanity of war and the nuclear arms race to join in the protests. It was a chance meeting with a young art student named Brinsley Tyrrell at a “Ban the Bomb” rally in Trafalgar Square that would take her, seven years later, to Kent, Ohio, where Brinsley had been offered a job in the art department of Kent State University.

The most creative thing Lilian had yet attempted was designing and sewing clothes for their two young children. When she enrolled in a course in weaving, it was to make a blanket for their bed. Those other “blankets,” the ones for which she would become known and celebrated, and now remembered, were still several years away.

She didn’t have to take more than the one class. On a loom bought at a garage sale, the city girl from London began to experiment with re-creating scenes that fascinated her—barns, the big sky, the rolling Ohio countryside—but stopped short of calling it art. Others begged to differ.

In 1977, feeling drawn to a larger “canvas,” Tyrrell bought a Cranbrook loom that could turn out a weaving five feet wide. In 1979, examples of her work were included in the Canton Museum of Art’s All Ohio Exhibition and the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual juried exhibition, the May Show. After another May Show appearance in 1981, she was awarded a 1983 Ohio Arts Council fellowship (five more would follow) and a one-person show at Cleveland’s SPACES Gallery.

Solo exhibitions of Tyrrell’s tapestries and pastel studies for potential subjects followed in Akron, Cincinnati, New York, St. Louis, Toronto, Richmond, Virginia and Anchorage, Alaska. And in 1988 her work was included in a seminal exhibition, World Tapestry Today, which traveled to Melbourne, Chicago, Memphis, New York, Heidelberg, Stuttgart and Aubussdon, France.

That Tyrrell was able to command this kind of attention was all the more remarkable, noted the Village Voice’s John Perreault in a glowing review of her 1990 solo show at New York’s Center for Tapestry Arts, in light of the fact that the craft of tapestry as it was practiced for centuries was now seen as a moribund tradition.

Fiber art had burst the boundaries of the traditional flat format back in the 1960s, becoming a new form of (often free standing) sculpture. “No more neat grids. Fiber—woven, plaited, knotted—[had] escaped the loom”; fiber had “jumped off the wall.”

Looking back, Tyrrell would say it was the sight of a burning building that opened the way for what would become her signature work, the arresting series of Disaster Blankets. The startling apparition turned out to be a controlled fire in an abandoned building, but it awakened her to the rich possibilities of using a more vivid color palette in her tapestries—and to the potential of disturbing subject matter.

Tyrrell found herself “increasingly interested in capturing the dramatic power nature displays in violent storms, forest fires and whirling tornadoes.” Her memory of that life-changing day was to become the first of her Disaster Blankets; she called it Suspicious Fire.

Though they were never intended to cover a sleeping person, Tyrrell’s “blankets” were, in a sense, meant to disturb the dreamy sense of disconnection many of us have come to feel from much of the suffering in the world. They are, if you will, “blanket-size nightmares,” said guest curator Bill Busta in the catalog accompanying The Persistence of Conscience, the 2006 retrospective of the artist’s work at SPACES. We are tempted by the beauty of her depictions, then shocked by the savagery or brutality they depict—yanked back and forth by the same contradictory impulses that make us alternately recoil from, and return like moths to, the accident at the side of road.

Tyrrell’s use of tapestry, a decorative art form with an ancient history, to depict these modern scenes of carnage is fitting. “Just as The Cloisters’ unicorn tapestry says something about its time,” wrote Perreault, “hers says something about ours: We live in fear.” Tyrrell makes it possible, indeed compels us, to linger over “images that have momentarily flickered across televisions screens, or appeared on the front pages, only to disappear and be replaced by new photos of the next day’s tragedy,” says art writer Lyz Bly, because she has lingered.

Unlike the images caught on the run by photojournalists, whose work has clearly influenced hers, Tyrrell’s scenes typically take many months of patient work to complete, one thread, one knot at a time. They evoke a sense of the thoughtful silence of medieval women sitting for long hours at a loom—for it was women who traditionally did this tedious, painstaking work.

In Disaster Blanket 13: The Last Hope/War and Famine, blogger Evelyn Kiefer noticed that the flies that pester the starving figure (“an incredibly naturalistic detail”) are “hand-sewn in metallic thread.” Bly concurs: “The diligent care Tyrrell takes with the child’s face and with rendering his place—his blameless existence—in a war-torn country is patently revolutionary. You cannot walk away from this work without a knot in your stomach.”

In addition to this sense of sustained attentiveness, and the tapestries’ huge size, there is something about the fastidiousness of Tyrrell’s patiently, deliberately woven images that arrests the viewer, and stands calmly in courageous opposition to the chaos of these chilling examples of human cruelty.

One of the most effective is Falling Man, her response to the searing horrors of 9/11. There are no explosions, no carnage. The viewer is seduced into calm contemplation by the repeated pattern of tan and brown vertical stripes. It is a long moment before you notice the tiny figure of a single man falling, head-downward, to his death. What Plain Dealer art critic Steven Litt says about Tyrrell’s 1992 textile, Collateral Damage, could just as fittingly be said of Falling Man: It is the awakening of compassion for the suffering of others that is ultimately “what Tyrrell’s art—at its best—is all about.”

—Dennis Dooley



All photos courtesy of SPACES Gallery.

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