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A Passion for Tapestry Crochet

by Lana Bennett

This interview is from Chain Link, Volume 6, Number 1, March 1997,
published by the Crochet Guild of America.

    When Pam Oddi put "feature writer" on her wish list for help with CGOA's Chain Link newsletter, all humility left me and I jumped for the chance. I have wanted to help CGOA in some way since becoming a member and this was an opportunity I found feasible.
     Ironically, one of the people Pam suggested I interview was someone with whom I have personally been wishing to talk for some time: Carol Norton Ventura. I was introduced to Carol through her article, "The Striking Tapestry Crochet of Guatemala," in PIECEWORK magazine (Sept./Oct. 1995). It was at the Chain Link '96 Conference in California that I purchased Carol's book, "Tapestry Crochet." Needless to say when Carol agreed to be interviewed, I was elated and the session was every bit as fascinating as I expected it could be. One of the overriding themes that came out of our conversation is how Carol's life experience is interwoven with her art in crochet.
     Carol Ventura, Ph.D., is adept in ceramics, printmaking, photography, papermaking and, of course, crochet. She holds her Ph.D. in Native American Art. A professor at Tennessee Technological University for the past three years, she finds herself currently in the position of having to take over the fibers area of study as well as being responsible for teaching art history and photography. Due to budget cuts, the Crafts Center, which is located some 20 miles away, is being phased out of the University. Because of this, the permanent fibers teaching position has already been eliminated.
    This is a trend that frustrates Carol. It has been her observation that art is neither respected nor appreciated in the United States to the degree that it is in Europe. As an educator, she escorts groups to a different county in Europe each summer where they visit local art galleries. She says that it amazes Europeans, who think of art as being a part of life, that Americans, in general, do not value art in the same way. In the United States, according to Carol, all the benefits that come with doing art or craft such as personal expression, self esteem, a sense of accomplishment and the therapy and healing that come through artistic endeavors, are being overlooked. "We are going to be a country of couch potatoes," she says. Crochet is treated the worst. At one art show in which she entered one of her large tapestry crocheted portraits, the juror refused to believe it was crochet in spite of Carol's insistence that it was!
    "This is one of the reasons why I am so glad to do this interview," says Carol. "I want people to try tapestry crochet and to see the possibilities that are there."
    The best way to promote craft is to teach it, claims Carol. When people understand what is involved they appreciate the work and are even more willing to pay for art. "When an artist says that they do not want to give their trade secrets away by teaching them, they are saying that they do not have (a special) talent," says Carol. Spreading knowledge about a craft is what creates an interest in it, says Carol. Happily, she will be offering classes in flat tapestry crochet as well as tapestry baskets at the upcoming CGOA Conference in Chicago.

THE HISTORY
     It was through a four-year stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala (1976-80) that Carol first came upon tapestry crochet. She had been assigned to the village Jacaltenango in Huehuetenango in the highlands of Guatemala where the government and the missionaries were attempting to set up a weaving cooperative. The idea was to enable women to get more money for their weaving which also increased quality and helped women to become more independent. Carol fell in love with the colorful weaving, Guatemala, and one of its citizens - a medical student. They were married and had a daughter. In time, the volatile political situation in Guatemala had its effect on this town as well. It was after her baby was born that Carol realized that she was not able to subject her child to the violence and instabilities of war. Although Carol says that she had purchased and continues to use the colorful crocheted bags that men of the region made, she did not really value their potential until she, along with her small daughter, returned to the United States.
    Before long, Carol became curious about how the Guatemalans crocheted their bags. She received many compliments on them and realized that most Americans thought they were woven. So she unraveled one to find out the secret. She found that it lies in the fact that they are almost entirely made of single crochet which allows many colors of yarn to be carried at the same time. Each stitch is simply crocheted over the colors not currently being incorporated into the fabric. When a color is desired the single crochet is made to the point where two loops remain on the hook at which time the new color is pulled through. The resulting fabric is very firm. A unique quality of tapestry, also known as Jacquard or Mosaic crochet, is that after completing the first row you turn the project upside down and crochet over the beginning chain row. In addition, the top of the single crochet stitch remains hidden. It is this quality that makes it difficult to identify the technique as crochet.
    Another aspect of crochet that was an impetus for Carol's endeavors in tapestry was its portability. For a while Carol did not have a studio available to her in which she could pursue other art forms. Crochet required no chemicals or large equipment. She could take it wherever she went. It was while sitting in a doctor's waiting room during her mother's chemotherapy sessions that she worked on a large self-portrait wall hanging.
    By projecting a photo image onto graph paper, Carol has not only been able to crochet portraits but other photographed images as well. The Guatemalans crochet in the round and Carol learned that in order to apply their technique to a flat piece she had to change the graph paper she was using. Finally, she developed her own which she has included samples of in her book. It is the possibilities of flat tapestry crochet that have continued to interest Carol. Her latest crochet projects have been scenes or portraits that incorporate written messages across them. They are matted and framed and many people mistake these as well - for prints.
    As I listened to Dr. Carol Ventura speak, a profound sense of admiration, yet camaraderie came over me. She and her daughter, now a teenager, have recently moved into a new home and are busy redecorating. Besides being a professor, Dr. Ventura is a real person doing usual things. My special interest in her work started off because I am a Latin Americanist myself. In years past, after spending hours studying, writing, or just facing the incredible suffering caused by the complexities of the conflict in Central America, I found myself escaping to crochet. I kept my projects simple since I had little time to pursue those that were complex. Yet, in the back of my mind, scenes from Nicaragua as portrayed by my photographs or in the painted naive art that became popular during the Nicaraguan Revolution, refused to depart. Perhaps, someday, the tapestry crochet that Carol has unveiled and so generously shared will provide an opportunity for us all to express our experience through crocheted art as well. For me, the irony is that it can be a Central American art form that I use is still beyond my wildest dreams.
    In her sincere wish that others become familiar with tapestry crochet, Carol made a video entitled Tapestry Crochet through Victorian Videos. The book, Tapestry Crochet (ISBN: 0-932394-15-9) by Carol Norton, is available through Amazon.com. Be sure that an errata sheet is included.
    Finally, think about taking a class from Carol this coming August in Chicago but be sure to leave room for me!

Link to Carol Ventura's Tapestry Crochet Page

Link to Carol Ventura's Home Page