A Virgin and Violence: Lila Nelson’s Weaving at the American Reboot Exhibit

IMG_1904Lila Nelson, who died in 2015 at age 93, was the Registrar and Curator of Textiles at the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum for 27 years, and a mentor to many of the weavers whose works are in the “Traditional Norwegian Textiles: American Reboot” show. No retrospective of American weaving in the Norwegian tradition would be complete without her work.

Two of Lila’s tapestries, both owned by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, are included in the American Reboot exhibit.  One is a “virgin” with a puffy skirt.  Many people who are fans of Norwegian tapestry, or billedvev (literally, picture-weaving), weave one of the virgins from the most popular medieval weaving motif, the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Lila wove one with attitude, and with a distinctive skirt.  She wove the tapestry on a floor loom and used a clever combination of loom-controlled weave structure along with billedvev technique. When she wove the image of the woman, the threads in the “H” technique of the background floated behind, and she wove the figure in tapestry (billedvev). Perhaps it was unintentional, but that technique made the skirt pouf out.

virgin-foolishMost of the virgins in the old tapestries held stylized small squares to their faces.  (See the detail here, from a Wise and Foolish Virgins tapestry owned by MIA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art.) On Lila’s virgin, there is no doubt that the foolish virgin is crying into a substantial and functional handkerchief. This piece shows Lila’s lifetime love of experimentation in her weaving. It was also chosen because the exhibit will include many other virgin interpretations, showing the influence of that design in traditional Norwegian weaving.

lila-virgin.jpg

Lila’s other tapestry in the show illustrates another characteristic of Lila’s work–her frequent commentary on politics and world events.

9.3 Tree of death (2'5"x2'1")

Tree of Death. Lila Nelson, 2004

 

It was inspired by the photo, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker on May 10, 2004.  Here are Lila’s comments, as related in an interview with Sam Iverson.

“I saw an image of how they were treating some of the prisoners to get them to talk at Abu Ghraib and I thought this was quite horrifying. I think you can see that I turned this [image] into a cross-like thing and the AG stands for Abu Ghraib. At the bottom are impersonal guards or soldiers. The characters at the top are “vultures” that are in charge of all this. The designs on the garment are being ironic. They are from one of the Finnish runic alphabets and they are sort of the letters for love.”

Only two pieces from Lila’s loom are in the American Reboot exhibit, but her influence, whether through acquiring textiles for Vesterheim, or mentoring aspiring weavers, can be directly tied to many other weavings on view.

Explore more about Lila’s work in these online articles.

The Tapestries of Lila Nelson: Poetry, Myth, and Protest. This article was published at the time of an exhibit of her work at the Textile Center of Minnesota, November 2 – December 16, 2015. Also, this document includes images and commentary from the show. (Warning: it is a large file and will load very slowly.)

From Tradition to Protest: Lila Nelson’s Weaving Life.  An overview of a retrospective of Lila Nelson’s work at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, December 5, 2015 – November 16, 2016.

At a celebration of her life held on June 25, 2015, several friends spoke about Lila: Robbie LaFleur, Laurann Gilbertson, Carol Colburn, Lisa Torvik, Claire Selkurt, Wendy Stevens, and Mary Skoy.

The May 2012 issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter was devoted to Lila and her work.

Watch a video interview by Sam Iverson about Lila’s political weavings, here.

About Robbie LaFleur
Weaving in Minnesota, when I can!

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