Lila Nelson: Guessing at her Design Process

I thoroughly enjoyed presenting a webinar this week for Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, “From Kindness to Cutting Satire: Lila Nelson’s Tapestries Embraced the World and Its Politics.” A Conversation with Robbie LaFleur.” Following the slide show portion, people asked many questions that I felt inadequate to answer! I’m looking for help. I am like so many of Lila’s friends I’ve been in contact with lately, who have written a variation of, “I sure wish I had asked Lila more questions…about everything.”

One question was about her design process. Could I talk about whether she spent a long time with her cartoons? I realized how little I know. If anyone reading this has memories of Lila’s design process, in general or for a particular piece, I would love to hear what you remember.

I don’t know whether she had ideas that percolated for a time, and then she sketched them. I don’t know whether she made several drafts and chose a final version. I only know the background story behind one piece, and that is because I happened to visit when she had just finished weaving it.

When Lila created the cartoon for this weaving, she thought it was an exercise in working with abstract symbols. She started with a black and white cartoon, intended as totally non-representational. As she steadily added the wool, she realized it was not so abstract; the dark vertical lines resembled the jagged beams of the collapsed Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis. A blue patch near the bottom was clearly water and the upright dark shapes the broken supports.  It makes sense that she was working this out, a tragedy that happened only blocks from her home.

The other thing I remember from that visit is that we discussed her palette. I deeply admire her use of deep, saturated colors. I said, “It’s just like the pillow!” and went to the living room and retrieved a rya pillow Lila wove many years previous.

One thing I know is that when she was captivated by an idea or a design, she repeated it. There are at least four versions of an interlocking ring design she called “Relationships.” They all include circles and runic letters. Three have a border and several sets of horizontal lines. The fourth does not have a border and the horizontal lines morphed into shading with hachure. I wonder what the cartoons looked like. Were they just sketches of circle placement and then she added details at the loom?

I don’t know whether she colored her cartoons or whether she carefully planned the colors in her images beforehand. My hunch is that she often made color decisions along the way. She had a wall of Norwegian spelsau yarn, predominantly Rauma prydvevgarn and Hoelfeldt Lund kunstvevgarn, from which she chose her colors.

In Lila’s post-9/11 terrorist series, she wove two versions of “Trish the Terrorist.”

In thinking about the question of how long Lila took to design her cartoons, I thought of the lettering on one of them, with the hyphen and “ist” moved to the bottom. The broken word gives the piece a marvelous random, dashed-off quality. I doubt that Lila made many versions of the lettering, to look for the perfect chopped-off look. I think she wrote it, the hyphenation just happened, and then she smiled. “Trish lil Terror”–the subversive, pigtailed girl. Terror-ist? That’s the satire she was aiming for.

Let me know your memories and thoughts, too.