Barbara Heller in front of “Regeneration,” the work she created in collaboration with botanist Elena Klein. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Through the art of weaving, internationally acclaimed local artist Barbara Heller explores the world – and she doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. Themes of politics and destruction, renewal and society attract her exactly because of their complexity.
Heller’s road to the tapestry arts wasn’t straightforward. Her first bachelor degree was in psychology. “I started a master in psychology and, as part of the program, I had to keep an art journal,” she recalled. “It made me happy, much more so than psychology, so I decided I wanted to go to an art school. But, at that time, an art program would be mostly about ideas, concepts. If I wanted to learn techniques, I needed a program in art education.”
After earning a certificate in art education, Heller taught printmaking for awhile, but an allergy to the chemicals used pushed her to seek another form of artistic expression. She took some evening classes in tapestry-making, and loved it. She started showing her work at craft markets and art fairs.
“Tapestry-making is a slow, time-consuming process,” she told the Independent. “Sometimes, a large tapestry takes a year to complete. But the meditative aspect of weaving fits my personality. I need slow. I need time to think, to contemplate what I am doing. When I make a tapestry, I can stop at any moment, which was convenient when I was younger. I rented my studio on Granville Island the same year I got pregnant, 36 years ago.”
She continued her art while raising her son.
“With a tapestry, I’m creating the canvas along with the image, and I like that,” she said. “Dealing with mistakes is much harder than in a painting, so I go slowly to get it right the first time. It is almost a dialogue between me and the tapestry on my loom.”
In the beginning, Heller taught tapestry, but she doesn’t do so any longer. “I learn by doing,” she said. “It’s the best way to learn. I often find it hard to explain in words all the concepts and ideas that go into my weaving. I still make presentations and lectures at the professional conventions and shows, for the experienced artists, but I don’t want to explain the alphabet to the beginners anymore. I want to have more time for my tapestries.”
Her latest creation, “Regeneration,” took a year to complete. This large tapestry, made in collaboration with botanist Elena Klein, is part of the group show Connections that opened on May 11 at Craft Council Gallery on Granville Island. The concept of the show was collaboration, an exchange of ideas between three textile artists and their non-artist friends.
“For a long time, I had this image in my head of bombed-out buildings in Syria,” Heller said. “I wanted to use it for a tapestry, but I didn’t know where to go with it. Then, I met with Elena, and we talked. That’s how I found out that certain species of pine trees drop cones that don’t release their seeds unless a forest fire occurs. The seeds then germinate in the earth newly cleared of large trees by the fire. Suddenly, the image of my tapestry took shape.”
The tapestry has three distinct sections. The bottom layer is flames, blazing with red, yellow and orange, gorgeous and deadly. The middle part is what comes after, and these grey ruins could almost be anywhere in the world. The aftermath of a fire, whether man-made or natural, is the same: ash, devastation, fear. But hope won’t be denied, and the top part of the tapestry represents rebirth: a green field with the pinecones scattered around. The artist’s message is clear: new growth will come out of the wreckage. Life will reassert itself.
The same message of life arising from destruction or death manifests in another of Heller’s large tapestries, “Tzimtzum” or “Transcendence.” In 2016, she was invited to submit a piece to the 15th International Triennial of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland. “I wanted to work on an image with birds and wings, starting with tragedy, but ending with hope,” she said.
The tapestry depicts a stylized ladder. The darker blue rungs at the bottom incorporate a dead bird, a recurring image for the artist. From that low point, the ladder climbs, punctuated by several pairs of wings, with the shades of blue gradually lightening towards a white radiance. “The ladder has many interpretations,” Heller says in her artist’s statement. “It can be seen as a metaphor for our life, as a link, a liminal space between birth and death, heaven and earth … matter and spirit…. For me, they [the rungs] are stepping stones on the path of spiritual attainment, of transcendence.”
After six months in Poland, the tapestry came home, and it is currently on display at Christ Church Cathedral on Burrard Street, as part of the show (in)finite. The exhibition, featuring 30 Canadian textile artists, opened on May 25 and runs until June 4, with an opening reception on May 27. The show Connection on Granville Island continues until June 22.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].