Studio Visit: Fiber Arts With Nancy McRay
Nancy McRay’s home and studio are just east of Traverse City on a quiet inland lake. It’s the perfect environment for the fiber artist, offering inspiration for the dreamy scenes featured in her work.
“When I initially moved here, it was hard for me to leave the house,” McRay said. “I would look out the window and there'd be a duck, for crying out loud! And then there'd be another duck. Oh, and a swan. And look at those birds!”
A tapestry called “Blood/Breath” hangs on the wall of her studio. The piece features a cyan river system winding its way from the top down. A bold, mahogany line spirals upward through the center of the scene.
McRay’s tapestries reflect the landscape of her life as much as they reflect the beauty of her physical surroundings. When McRay isn’t mentoring other weavers, her careful hands weave depictions of motherhood, curiosity, and loss.
A medium of patience and instinct
McRay said that weaving chose her, rather than the other way around. She’s dabbled in many mediums over the years. As a grad student, McCray considered becoming a painter, but the call of the loom was stronger.
“I knew that if I put the effort into painting that I wanted to put into fiber, I'd be good,” McRay said. “I would have been a great painter. But no, [fiber arts] always called me back.”
Some of her earlier works are portraits of her daughters and their friends as teenagers. McRay was fascinated, she said, by this age at which the girls were “clearly becoming women.”
“And it was at that moment, a moment of their becoming, that I was trying to kind of capture how they're filled with confidence and anxiety all at the same time,” McRay said. “How unaware they are of what the challenges and the dangers are.”
Her more recent tapestries are more abstract and earthy. Over the course of two years, she wove a series of eight pieces that were primarily driven by intuition The practice became a vehicle for self-understanding.
She described one piece that began with dark, diagonal lines running across a plain background. Then, she found herself adding white lines that ran in another direction. The resulting image began to resemble a mountain pass. After finishing the tapestry off with a strip of bright blue, McRay recognized the scene as a trail in Colorado that she had hiked many years prior.
“And what was going on at that time is, my brother in-law died, and that brought in the darkness, I think. And my first granddaughter was born, so that brought in the lightness,” McRay recalled. “And then, when I got to the very top of that piece, I was uncertain about how to finish it, and I put in a strip of bright blue. I just knew that that was the thing.”
A legacy of mentorship
McRay once lived in and ran a fiber arts shop in East Lansing. She’s since left the storefront behind, but continues to mentor the next generation of weavers in her home studio. Most of these students are past the beginner level, and are looking for guidance in honing their skills.
“My favorite form of teaching is mentoring, in which the student maybe already has some ground underneath her, but needs a little encouragement, and a little push, and little technical information to get to her next stage,” McRay said.
These students, like McRay, often have a space of their own they’ve devoted to the craft. One woman, McRay said, has designated a room in her home as her “Chick Palace.”
“She has outfitted it with everything that she needs. And she claims that she has, like, yellow caution tape so that her husband cannot come in,” McRay said. “It's her room. I love that.”
The vast majority of McRay’s students are women. Each of them, she says, carries on a long legacy of female fiber artists.
“I'm fascinated by colonial women, the women who spinned themselves literally to death during the Revolutionary War, the people who documented history through tapestry weaving, the Egyptians who invented weaving,” McRay said. “All of that fascinates me.”
An evolving culture around fiber arts
McRay pointed out that the motivations of today’s American fiber artists are very different from that of weavers who came before. While earlier generations crafted their own clothing, towels, and beddings out of necessity, modern weavers will find that it’s much easier to buy these things at the local Target.
“So I believe that the primary reason for makers now is that sense of self-satisfaction, the sense of the space you can get into, the pride that you can have from something that you've made,” McRay said. “These are all really important reasons to make.”
While McRay has been able to connect with many fellow fiber artists over the years, she finds that the medium is a “much trickier path than the traditionally accepted forms.”
“We keep making incremental progress in having the fiber arts taken more seriously as fine arts,” McRay said.
The medium has more to offer than two-dimensional canvas arts, she said. While painting and drawing limit the artist’s expression to shapes and colors, fiber arts allow them to “lift it off the wall.”
“You can use the metaphors of interconnections, and intersections, and layering much more readily. So the fiber arts have a lot of hidden power in them that you can't access with any other media,” McRay said. ”Fiber arts still has a lot of barriers to break down, and the only way we're going to do that is by getting it out into the world.”
Hear the full interview with Nancy McRay on this episode of Stateside.