Valley Grove Tapestries: The Great Oak

I’m feeling a bit pressured and crazed about the one-year deadline for the Valley Grove tapestries. All four are conceptually planned. Three are close to finished line drawings; the fourth is more in my head than on paper. I thought I would have four full color cartoons complete before starting to weave, but I long to have a tapestry underway–to be able to step up to the loom and weave a section, to see an image unfold, to feel the magic of filling empty warps with color. It’s time to start the tapestry celebrating the oak savanna.

Why is the oak tree an important symbol?

A storm swept the grounds of the Valley Grove churches on September 20, 2018, taking with it a magnificent bur oak that had shaded congregation members since 1862. The great oak might have been there for a hundred years when the first church was built–perhaps the stonemasons relaxed under its branches during their breaks.

Since the Valley Grove Church congregation disbanded in 1972, the Valley Grove Preservation Society diligently protected and renovated the two churches on the hill. In 2000, when the farmer who owned the land adjacent to the churches put it up for sale, the Society launched an ambitious fund-raising campaign to purchase it. To keep the land surrounding the church undeveloped, local residents and people with ties to the churches raised $400,000. The land between the churches is being restored to oak savanna prairie.

A photo of the rolling land behind the churches, adjoining Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, beautiful for walking in all seasons. And it won’t become a subdivision!

Miles Bakke provides great background about oak savannas and the individual tree that shaded Valley Grove congregation members since 1862 in The Great Oak of Valley Grove Church: Bur Oaks and the Oak Savanna

Part of what made that tree so special, of course, was what it had endured during its long life: drought, storms, prairie fires, and European settlement…It is rare to see a bur oak, of that age, that still retains the broad and spreading, open grown shape of a savanna tree. European settlement has drastically changed the landscape: prairie was plowed up, fire suppressed, savannas cut down or grazed by fenced livestock. Without fire other trees encroached on the bur oaks, and their shade intolerant lower branches were lost turning them into canopy trees with an up-swept vase like shape. Their original, iconic open grown, shape was essential in their ability to live in the high wind environment of prairie. Long branches, of high tensile strength, extended horizontally for many feet, from low on the trunk nearly touching the ground at their tips.

At first I considered adapting the central image of one tapestry from a beautiful photo by Doug Ohman (it would have been abstracted, but of course I would have asked permission!). I liked it because it includes a gravestone, so it is definitely THE tree , the Great Tree, that stood by the churches. Then I was reading the magnificent new book about the environment in Minnesota, John Tester’s Minnesota’s Natural Heritage (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). A photo of an oak savanna changed my mind.

I abstracted a single tree from that photo with Photoshop; traced blocks of color with tracing paper over an image taped to a window; colored it with markers; and sized it to fit my planned tapestry. I’m quite happy with the spreading bur oak tree, whose abstracted leaves will be in three shades of green.

I wove a small sample of the tree–such a valuable exercise, so instructional. I learned that the blue I chose did not provide enough contrast to the greens in the tree. It would have been fine for the background, but the bits of sky visible through the branches were too close in value to the shades of green.

Surrounding the oak tree will be a frieze of animals; I described this historical Norwegian tapestry tradition in the post “Valley Grove Tapestries: Working With Animals.” I have the animals chosen and sketched, and will now work on how they should be arranged and what colors they might take. Some may be the usual colors. For example, the Holstein might remain black and white, but I’m leaning towards an orange rabbit…

I decided I have to have all four tapestry cartoons out at the same time, so I found a folding table in the garage and a card table in the closet. This is great impetus to finish the cartoons, because I don’t like the clutter!

However, it provides a sleeping spot my cat is enjoying.

More on the animals soon.


  1. What stories your tapestry will tell. Another winner. I am truly enjoying your new episodes!!! You should
    be very proud of yourself!!!

  2. I’m coming a bit late to this story, Robbie. Congratulations on this wonderful commission! It looks to me like you’re off to a great start! I perfectly understand the tension between wanting to start weaving but feeling like you have to have All the designs locked down first. You’re so close! Love the tree and sample. You got this.

    1. Thank you, Kristine. I am using my posts as a record of the process for me, and I figure that there are always a few weavers among my readership who find details of my process (and my problems!) of interest.

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