It Simply Started With a Question: by joe lewis PDF  | Print |  E-mail

nancy Herbert

Nancy Herrbert: untitled: Technique Mixed (off loom) Material: Wool and synthetics,Photo provided by Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery and used with permission

Before you read this article I must tell you that Helen Marie Duffy (nee Stahel) died on September 7th, 2008. It is the exploration of her curitoral work that has provided the base of this story and has opened the door for fibreQUARTERLY's editorial plans for 2009- 2010. this story is the first and introduction to those plans. 
It started with the simple question: “Have you ever heard of Nancy Herbert?’  I was in the library at the Textile museum of Canada the day before the “Crafting New Traditions: Canadian Innovators and Influence” symposium and book launch.  The volunteer library manager  had received an e-mail from the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, who were currently mounting an exhibition called “This Is Montreal” curated by Andrew Hunter, which was to include a large brightly coloured off loom finger woven suspended mass of synthetics and wool yarn from the Gallery’s collection. It was made by an artist named Nancy Herbert of whom they knew little. They assumed / hoped that there would be some information about her at the Textile Museum of Canada, since they could find nothing.Since I was planning to attend the symposium I took it upon myself to ask around. Sandra Alfoldy from NSCAD presented a paper entitled “Struggle for Recognition” in which she spoke of Danish immigrant Karen Bulow establishing herself as a designer, weaver, teacher and business woman during the depression at the same time that Oscar. A. Bériau was promoting handicrafts and home weaving throughout Quebec and other parts of Canada.
Moving on to the postwar period and the work and influence of Mary E, Black from Nova she spoke of artist, tapestry weavers such as Krystna Sadowska, Mariette Rousseau- Vermette and Charlotte Lindgren. These names would become central to the story of Nancy Herbert. Later in the day Dorrie Millerson presented a paper on contemporary fibre artist “A Flexible Practice, the work of Kai Chan, Dorothy Caldwell, and Susan Warner Keene.As breaks occurred between sessions and at lunch I asked a few people if the name Nancy Herbert meant anything thing to them; it didn’t. Considering the content of this event I wondered how an obviously contemporary artist can just disappear or, even worse, just not be noticed. The next week back at the library, I told the library manager that I had learned nothing. She on the other hand had. In the interim through the network of unnamed enthusiast she had been directed to Helen Duffy. In turn, Mrs. Duffy had provided information on Nancy Herbert and an 1973-74 exhibition entitled “Textiles into 3D” which Mrs. Duffy had organized for the Art Gallery Of Ontario, and which then toured ten cities. Nancy Herbert was one of twentysix artists who had deviated from there standard practice and created a 3 dimensional piece of work for this exhibition.
“In this exhibition, twenty-six artists from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia define their own concept of textile into the third dimension. Their contribution expresses their individual understanding of the challenge to move away from the wall into space, away from the now familiar format of the wall hanging, into the area of sculptural possibilities” [i]
Thanks to Helen Duffy we know the following about Nancy Herbert: Born in Resolven, Glamorgan, Wales, she resided in Montreal, Quebec, and has now passed away [date uncertain]. Nancy was a graduate of Sir George Williams University, Montreal, where in 1973 at the time of the exhibition she preparing for her M.A. degree in art education. She studied plastic medics at Sheridan College, Ontario, under Harry Hollander. She had extensive teaching experience (art and applied arts). She had participated in group exhibitions at the Stable Gallery, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Merton Gallery, Toronto; and the Weissman Gallery, Sir George Williams University, Montreal, which also arranged her one-man exhibition. She received a Canada Council project grant in I972. I have also learned that because of full time employment, Nancy did not actively sell her art and was not associated in any major way with any Quebec textile or crafts organizations

The question asked of me was just the beginning of what has evolved into 10 months of exploring a possible starting point for a history of Contemporary Canadian Tapestry Weaving. After seeing the material on “Textiles into 3D” I wondered about the possibility of revisiting the exhibition online. I got in touch with the Art Gallery of Ontario and they basically said “go for it” and told me to get in touch with the artists and ask them for permission to post their images. With that in mind I started.

Many things became clear fast: if we consider the age range of artists in the exhibition, such as Guerite Féra Steinbacher who was born in 1901, it becomes clear that age is the most pressing issue, with elderly artists passing away before we have their story. This is obviously a major undertaking and currently ongoing activity in a small scale sort of way. Identifying an anchor / time line or staring point was needed and Expo 67 in Montreal seems an appropriate starting point, and Expo 86 in Vancouver as an end point, with the World Craft Council’s 1975 exhibition “In Praise of Hands; Contemporary Crafts of the World” at the Ontario Science Center June 11 – September 2, 1974 almost in the centre of that time line.

Within this timeframe, we can see three group exhibitions that Helen Duffy organized or curated  which provides a starting point with numerous artists to look into: 1973 “Textiles into 3D” 1973-74 AGO Ontario Tour, 26 artists. 1983 “Tapices Canadienses Contemporaneos / Contemporary Canadian Tapestries” Federal Government/ External Affairs sponsored Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Madrid, April, 22 artist, 1986 Here and Now, inaugural exhibition for Cambridge Public Library and Arts Centre ( Cambridge Galleries) 18 artist. Catalogues where produce for all three of these exhibitions with essays by Helen Duffy with an introduction by Mariette Rousseau-Vermette [1926-2007] for the “Contemporary Canadian Tapestries”.

While tracking down a few west coast artists I got in touch with Barbara Heller and told her about the Textile into 3D exhibition and Helen Duffy. She is a founding member of the Canadian Tapestry Network, and the British Columbia Society of Tapestry Artists which promotes tapestry through exhibitions and lectures. I was rather disturbed to learn that she hadn’t heard of Helen Duffy and just as Bettina Matzkuhn hadn’t heard of Aiko Suzuki when she took on the job of writing an article about her for Volume 3, Issue 1/ Winter 2007 of fibreQUARTERLY. I realized that geography has had a stifling effect on textile and fibre arts history by limiting contact among artists and ensuring that while they may have their own stories, there is no broader story.

This is the challenge I put forward for fibreQUARTERLY 2009 – 2010. Can you find a textile artist who was active between 1973 and 1986 to share their story? I will be going forward with the challenge of getting “Textiles into 3D” on-line with the appropriate back ground material.


[i] “Twenty-six works lent by the artists to represent their own concept of textile in three dimensional form” by Helen Duffy Textiles into #3D broadsheet / poster Art Gallery of Ontario 1973


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